Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Adventure,Sci-Fi Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace (1999)

The first of three “Prequels” to go back and fill in the backstory on the happenings in the Star Wars universe before the events in the original 1977 film (Episode IV), and also tell the tale of a younger Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the beginning of his fateful journey to becoming Darth Vader.

Set approximately thirty years before the events in the original Star Wars, The film opens ominously with the small planet of Naboo about to be attacked by the evil Trade Federation, who has set up a blockade around the peaceful planet under the rule of teen monarch, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). In attempts to secure a peaceful resolution to the standoff, the Galactic Republic has sent two Jedi Knights to negotiate with the Trade Federation. However, the two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are unaware that the Trade Federation is secretly alligned with the Dark Lord of the Sith, who orders an attack on both the Jedi’s and the planet below. Narrowly escaping the attack, the two Jedi’s stow aboard the landing crafts of the Trade Federation and soon meet the strange, and abnoxious Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who helps them reach the Queen and help her escape the planet before she can be captured and forced to sign a treaty with the Trade Federation. However, in the escape, the groups starship is damaged, forcing them to land and hide on the remote desert planet of Tatooine. There they meet young Anakin Skywalker, and soon the various members of the group’s destiny all become intwinged.

Now, one thing must be understood before we continue…I LOVE Star Wars! I do. I love it, and growing up it was my obsession. I had countdowns to this movie for years, and would go on to see the film 33 times in the theaters, preorder the VHS (the DVD came years later) and wear down a copy of that before I came to a horrifying conclusion.. the movie kinda sucks. Not all the way sucks, but mostly, kinda…yeah, it sucks. Don’t get me wrong, there are many cool Star Wars moments in the film, and really the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes are both very fun to watch, somewhere it between is where things go awry, and for a die-hard fan…that is very depressing, and very hard to admit…

Some nine years now after its release, the first Star Wars prequel has suffered some pretty harsh criticism over the years. Being a die-hard Star Wars fan, it was hard for me to realize the many flaws in the film during the many viewings I had in its theatrical release. But flaws there are, and many of them. Ironically, with each succesive prequel (Episodes II and III) the flaws only become more apparent. Director and Writer (and producer and creator) George Lucas definetly shows some signs of rust behind the Director’s chair in this film, and really, upon repeat viewings, it becomes apparent that the film was mostly designed to test all the new technology, and all the new film making tools at his disposal in the modern filmmaking world. From a purely visual and technical standpoint, Phantom Menace is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, and a truely amazing film to watch. There are numerous special effects based sequences, such as the thrilling Tatooine pod-race and the extremely long final battle scenes, that all come together in a very fun and exciting way. Unfortunately, thats about where the positives end and where the complaining begins.

For starters, there is the obvious problems experienced by even the most veteran actors with the (then) new blue screen process of filming fantasy films. All of the actors seem so lost and often bored in this movie, that the dialogue is collectively delievered in a very monotone, unemotional way and that very much hurts the film after the first few times you’ve seen it and the spectacle of the visual effects begins to wear off a bit. Liam Neeson does a pretty good job, and his character is really the only fleshed out part in the movie, and I suspect a lot of that credit goes to Neeson more so than Lucas (who wrote it). Neeson’s presense in a lot of the scenes injects a flair of authority and commands attention, which he should being the wise Jedi Master, but the rest of the cast is either horrible or wasted. Ewan McGregor’s teenaged Obi-Wan Kenobi is reduced to the form of whiny sidekick, and is forced to the sidelines for much of the movie until his dramatic lightsaber duel with Darth Maul (Ray Park). A young Natalie Portman seems mostly bored, confused and lost in the movie, but manages a few scenes that are quite touching with young Jake Lloyd, playing Anakin.

Speaking of Jake Lloyd…he is extremely annoying in this film. Every “whipee!” is like nails on a chalkboard and really clashes with where Hayden Christiansen eventually takes the character in the later prequels. I get what Lucas was trying to do, trying to show that a good natured kid with high morals and a big heart can still fall to temptation and to the dark side, but (at least in this film) he fails miserably, and Lloyd bears much of that blame, and also most of the blame for why the film is so off par in comparison to the other five films, especially the original trilogy. Aside from Lloyd, there is the abnoxiously annoying and dreadful Jar-Jar Binks, who despite being impressively brought to life via CGI, is still the most cartoony and most pointless character in this vast universe that has seen its share of pointless characters. From the moment he opens his mouth all I wanted to do was see Obi-Wan slice off his head with a lightsaber.

Then, lastly, we have the plot issues. Well, if you can call it that. I’m not going to get into the nitpicky stuff, but there are some glaringly awful things that occur during the course of this film. First of all it is basically the same plot structure of the original Star Wars was in 1977, and as much as Lucas wants us all to think it was deliberate and makes sense in the structure of the whole Saga, I don’t buy it. I mean this film even has the damn happy music parade and medal ceremony at the end! Then we have the dreadfully slow Tatooine sequence, where the film attempts to inject most of its exposistion and does so badly. Alot of the mythology around Anakin is very muddy, very convienient and unconvincing. Immaculate conception thru the force?! What?!? The Force is just a bunch of microscopic organisms that crawl around inside you and allow you to do things?! Are you kidding? Please say you’re kidding?! Then they say the Jedi’s were unaware of Anakin, yet say he gives off the most mojo of any of them. Contradiction much? Then theres the whole deal where they are blindly ignorant to the presence of the Sith, which is basically the same deal and is attempted to be explained in Episode II, but done so poorly.

Overall, the film is a visual marvel and a stepping stone to not only the later films in the series, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Harry Potter films, and every other science fiction and fantasy based film in the past decade.  Aside from its amazing visuals, however, the film leaves much to be desired. Looking back at it with the whole picture filled in now, and all six Star Wars movies released, its sad that only about 45 minutes of the film is watchable and only half that is actually necessary in terms of the overall plot of the complete Saga. The film can be fun in moments, completely dreadful in others, and darnright nonsense most of the rest of the time. Not the best film in the series, but the few key plot points set up are fun to see, and the final epic Lightsaber duel is still stunning to watch.

1 thought on “Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace (1999)”

  1. One of, if not THE most anticipated film of recent memory, scored enormous box-office returns and breathed new life into the Star Wars phenomenon in 1999. By going back to the past, Lucas laid the ground work for the entire saga. Not an easy task, but one pulled off with relative ease and skill in my opinion.
    “Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” is a visually stunning film that shows a newly emerged George Lucas returning to the Directors chair after a twenty year hiatus.
    Wearing its mythological underpinnings on its sleeve, The Phantom Menace reminds us why we fell in love with that galaxy far, far away in the first place.
    Set nearly forty years before “A New Hope”, TPM begins with a trade dispute over the planet of Naboo. Of course things are not as they seem. With Jedi’s sent out to settle the disagreement, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), meanwhile, Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is used a pawn in Senator Palpatines’ scheme to become Chancellor. As the Jedi’s slowly uncover a mystery they discover a 9 year-old boy on a distant desert planet of Tatooine that may be the one that will bring balance to the force.
    The best character from the film and the best addition to a Star Wars film since Yoda is Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Liam Neeson plays him with quiet dignity and intensity. A great character that comes off looking not so good in the grand scheme of things considering his rebellious streak is one of the main ingredients that unknowingly triggers the Jedi orders obliteration.
    His best scenes are with young Anakin on Tatooine; acting very much like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Star Wars version of the coming of the Savior. Upon meeting the intimidating Jedi, the boy says, “I saw your laser sword. Only Jedi’s carry that type of weapon.” In pure test mode, Jinn replies with a steely eye, “Maybe I killed him and took it from him?” without a beat Anakin replies, “No one can kill a Jedi.” Jinn perhaps instantly humbled by the boys naiveté says, “I wish that were true.” An instant bond between the two as Jinn realizes this boy is THE one. His important scene with Anakin’s mother, Shmi is solid too. Telling her her son is destined to do great things.
    Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker has taken a beating by the critics over the years for his performance. For me, he did what all nine year-olds do, act like a KID! Children at that age are not good actors, (Henry Thomas of E.T. is an exception) they can be taught to be good mimics, but for the most have no life experience to use their emotions to create a performance. Lloyd was hired to portray Anakin as a wide-eyed, kind-hearted little kid and it worked. He has two stand out moments in the film; When he tells his mom goodbye and when he asks Obi Wan “What will happen to me now?” during the funeral of Qui Gon.
    Ewan McGregor does a fine job as young Obi Wan Kenobi. The future liar and crazy old wizard living in the Tatooine desert makes for some groovy foreshadowing with his appearance. His scenes are limited when they are on the desert world, but he shows up in fighting form when they venture back to Coruscant to fight Darth Maul. My quibble with his performance is he should have been the “cynical one” everyone was clamoring for. A snide remark here, a cynical eye there, would have spiced the relationship up between he and Jinn, but as it is, it works fine. I understand what Lucas was doing by not bringing a cynical character; this is a different era, a different political landscape that doesn’t call for it. It would make about as much sense as putting a hip-hop rapper in a post civil war drama. Still it’s a great performance that would make the late Alec Guiness proud for sure.
    Natalie Portman does fine as the beleaguered queen. She’s more of a reactor than actor so the claims of her being a stiff are misguided. And since she is a queen, she’s going to keep her emotions close to the vest trying to remain as classy and dignified as possible. She livens up when Maul shows up on Naboo, as her and her soldiers witness Maul’s entrance, she quips, “We’ll take the long way.”
    And what of Jar Jar Binks? One of the most relentlessly and needlessly picked on characters since the Ewoks can’t get a break. Is he annoying? I don’t know, Robert DeNiro is an obnoxious hack to me, so everything is relative I suppose.
    Did Lucas get a little too crazy with his technology and go over-the-top, yes he did, but that’s ok, because I can’t bash a guy having fun with a new toy. At the end if the day, in no way shape or form does the character ruin the movie for me. Binks was a first for Lucas and he’s obviously having a blast, for example take a look at the scene during the battle droid melee with those big blue energy balls chasing Binks, Lucas shows more of his cinematic inspirations as Jar Jar’s reactions are straight out of the silent era with the Gungan channeling Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
    However, I will concede that the only scene in TPM that needs cut is the stupid beastie farting in Bink’s face. It’s too goofy and does not belong. That said, I will defend the characters existence by saying Binks’ inspiration comes from Akira Kirasowa’s “The Hidden Fortress”. The peasant characters in that film act just like Binks; they are the fools, the non-believers. Their purpose and Jar Jar’s is to react, not to act. His function is to hide and make amusing comments, not to display heroism, although it happens accidentally. Also too, his naiveté is used to full advantage in “Episode II Attack of the Clones” as he willingly hands Palpatine the proverbial keys to the kingdom.
    Another foolish complaint is about the “Midichlorians.” Many claimed it reduced Star Wars spiritually down to mere science-fiction. Only for those not paying attention it would seem so, but one must look a little deeper.
    People are either ignorant or just stupid, because their complaints make zero sense. Biology and spirituality are inseparable in our world so it’s easy to accept that it’s inseparable in the Star Wars universe as well. Even though they are linked, they have their own distinctions. Conceiving a child is biology, Immaculate Conception is spirituality/religion. One can be proven; the other is based on faith. The prequel trilogy is biology, the classic trilogy is spirituality.
    I believe the Midichlorians concept works for several reasons; it explains Anakin’s virgin birth scenario and sets him up as being very powerful. It further explains the Jedi Prophecy of the one who brings balance to the force. It shows how clueless the Jedi were/are in not considering the prophecy was in favor of the Dark Side. The Siths had been extinct for almost a millennia, it makes only sense that the Jedi’s days were numbered. Also too, it shows how cavalier the Jedi’s perspective of the Force and its uses. Qui Gon especially, he tells Obi Wan to live in the now. Don’t worry about the future. He tells Anakin of the living force. It seems to be regarded as merely a tool, a selfish device to get from A to B. On several occasions it’s used for attack while in battle. As opposed to the classic trilogy when an older and wiser Yoda instructs Luke in a reverential, cautionary tone, of the Darkside, its seductive qualities and the danger it holds.
    The Prequel trilogy Jedis see the Force as something you are born with, biology. No more, no less. If you have it, use it. It became a crunch of sorts to settle disputes. They didn’t bother getting to the heart of the problem, use the Force, it will solve it. Much like Big Government thinkers and rational people. The Prequel kids relied too much on the Force for things that should have been handled with a “human touch,” not some bloated buracracy.
    The original trilogy, Jedi, Yoda and Ben see the Force as spiritually; something bigger than the person using it. Luke was asked to look inside himself and find the courage and strength before tapping into this mysterious Force, the most important thing was to rely on yourself.
    It was something you use only when necessary. If you abuse it, or don’t acknowledge its power, it will get you, i.e. turn you over to the Darkside, hence Darth Vader.
    The supporting cast is fine as well. Pernilla August, a former- regular of Ingmar Bergman, shows the correct amount of kindness and warmth as Skywalker’s mother. The droids, C-3PO & R2-D2 make their way as we see their origins. Anakin being a mechanical fix-it wiz built the prissy protocol droid as a helper to his mother having no idea he was making a metallic big brother for Luke and Leia in the original films. R2-D2 once again, rises to the occasion to save human asses. This time he’s on board Padme’s royal starship and literally rolls into action. As R2 is in fix-it mode, there is a shot of him that is identical from ANH when the little droid is repairing the Falcon’s hyperdrive.
    Ian McDirmid, once again gives creditability to even the most fleeting of scenes. Future Emperor and all around galactic asshole, is an idealistic, kindly old politician from the Frank Capra universe on the surface, but underneath is a cold, menacing peace of evil shit that’s equal parts Hitler, George W. Bush and Niccolò Machiavelli. He doesn’t have a lot to do in TPM other than getting elected, but that’s good enough as we see him showing off his skills as a politician and he does have the films best and eeriest line, after destroying the contrived drama with the Trade Federation, he looks at Anakin with a glib smile on his face says, “I’ll be watching your career with great interest, young Skywalker.”
    Ray Parks as Darth Maul is excellent. One of the best entrances in all of film, his brief character serves merely as a bulldog, an attacker only. His fight with the Jedi’s is the films single best moment.
    The special-effects are a marvel. Simply breathtaking as ILM shows us why they are the best at what they do. One fantastic shot after another. Some folks have claimed Lucas has crammed too much into a shot, damn right! We are along for a ride, why not enjoy it? A complaint that is constantly thrown out there, but is wrong is the lack of model use. Actually, this film and its sequels use more model work than in the original trilogy. Same goes for location shooting.
    Along with its lush visual and production design, the film’s thematic beauty is satisfying as well. Queen Amidala and Senator Palpatine are both ensconced in duality. The queen is constantly trading places with her handmaidens and Palpatine as both the kindly Senator and the evil Lord Sidious. However, the films biggest thematic statement is the loss of innocence by virtually all the main characters; Queen Amidala and her first planetary crisis and the Senate ruckus, Anakin Skywalker leaving his mother too soon, Obi Wan Kenobi and the rest of the Jedi order dealing with the death of Qui Gon Jinn. The biggest loss is for the Republic itself as the ending shows us that it sure it looks happy, but actually the bad guys win.
    A review of Star Wars can not exist without the mentioning of composer John Williams. Great work all around, Duel of the Fates is easily one of his best pieces of work, the best in the film.
    The Rodney Dangerfield of the Star Wars universe, Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, I predict, will get its respect over time. I’ve always felt from the very beginning, that if you don’t like this film and the sequels that followed, you were never that big a fan to begin with. This film was never meant to be hip or cool, by the measure of today’s standards, as it is a work from the heart and its sincerity shows.
    Every dog has its day as the fanboys who felt spurned will grow up, grow some emotions, cram their whiny, bullshit bromides and enjoy the touch of females. For this fan, but far from perfect, the film has and always will be one of great artistry, wonder and fun, an old fashion adventure from a bygone era. An ambitious beginning that lays the groundwork to the six-part saga we all know and love. The films continue to enchant as a new generation of fans are being courted, to quote a cute little 5 year-old girl who watched the film for the first time recently, “So that was good!”

    Indeed!

    May the Force Be with You!

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