Wars: Episode I (1999)
The Phantom Menace
Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Samuel Jackson, Pernilla
August, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Oliver Ford Davies, Ahmed Best, Ray Park, Brian
Blessed, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Terence Stamp.
Written and directed by George Lucas.
Review by Jeff Vorndam.
(Note: Jeff Vorndam admits to being caught up in the pre-release frenzy of The Phantom Menace and has, upon reflection, changed his grade from a B to a C+. For a more critical view of The Phantom Menace, you may wish to read Carlo's commentary, which contains spoilers. Carlo has rated this movie a C-.)
Sixteen years of waiting came to an end yesterday as I finally saw the long-awaited Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace. Luckily, I had managed to avoid all the details of the plot and characters. I was ready. The lights dimmed and the excited crowd applauded and hooted and hollered. In fact, crowd noise (applause and such) continued through the 20th Century Fox logo and the Lucasfilm Logo, culminating in a collective "whoop" when the Star Wars title and John Williams score kicked in. Chills went down my spine, and I felt like a little kid again.
It took about ten minutes to adjust and re-immerse myself in the world Lucas has created. At first, Ewan McGregor's accent struck me as funny since I was used to his Scottish inflection. However, he did a dead-on Alec Guinness that became more convincing as the movie progressed. Throughout the film, the audience cheered whenever any vestige of the original Trilogy presented itself--the introduction of R2-D2 for example. At the conclusion, the audience applauded for about 45 seconds.
Cutting to the chase...did I like the film? Yes! Would I see it again? Definitely. There is so much detail in every frame that multiple viewings are required in order to appreciate the fully-realized world in which the action takes place. Cynics contend that the crowd shots of aliens are nothing more than advertisements for toys. I think that in a well-developed universe like the one Star Wars inhabits, there are naturally going to be a myriad of denizens whom we will never meet because our story lies elsewhere, but who add flavor and authenticity as background. Lucas' care in creating this universe is both the strongest asset and the downfall of The Phantom Menace. On the plus side, we are treated to the most sumptuous array of digital effects ever presented. When not appearing onscreen with live actors, the effects look realistic and marvelous. When combined with a live actor, they are less convincing, but not enough to be distracting. The sound is also otherworldly. The theater I was in had just been equipped with a sixth surround-sound channel specifically for this film. As a result, there were more sounds from above and behind than in other films. As a sensory experience, The Phantom Menace has no peer.
As a story, The Phantom Menace is lacking, however. The plot is nowhere near as compelling as those of Episodes 4 and 5. I would spoil the plot for you, but you'd probably fall asleep during my description of it. In Episode 4, our heroes raced from one cliffhanging escapade to the next. Each action sequence propelled the movie forward to a thrilling conclusion. In contrast, The Phantom Menace meanders languorously until suddenly one of the character explains "the big plan" that is the climax of the film. There are needless scenes in the middle (way too much time spent on Tattoine) that bog down the film. There's no definable story arc to the film, just a leisurely preamble to the next two episodes. If The Phantom Menace were a stand-alone film it would be a failure, but as a prequel it sets up the players and the action portentously. I can almost guarantee the next two films will be better than this one.
One reason why the sequels will be better is because they can concentrate on the darker aspects of the story. This episode is the only one that can have any innocence, and so Lucas imbues it with much silliness--from the goofy (and moderately annoying) Jar Jar Binks to the sportscasters who call the action at the pod races. The lightness in tone supports the innocence of the young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) by treating his peril like a video game. In fact, much of the action feels like a video game save for the weightier lightsaber battle at the end. Jar Jar Binks has more screen time than Mace Windu (Samuel Jackson) or the Sith Masters because this first episode is about innocence, not corruption (though the latter is heavily foreshadowed).
The acting was overall pretty decent--at least the stars pulled their own weight. Neeson, McGregor and Portman were capable but lacked the spark that Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford brought to the originals. The Phantom Menace could have used a wiseass like Han Solo. Samuel Jackson was nicely restrained as Mace Windu; I hope to see more of him in the upcoming episodes.
My overall rating: if you're already a Star Wars fan, you will need no convincing to see The Phantom Menace and will probably be satisfied with it (perhaps mildly disappointed). I'd give it an A- for you. If you are not a fan but are curious, you will probably enjoy The Matrix more, but I would still recommend The Phantom Menace and give it a B. I guess that averages out to a B+, meaning that you all need to go out and judge for yourselves--definitely do so.
Review © May 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and
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