Rated PG for sci-fi action/violence.
Written and Directed By: George Lucas
Staring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Hugh Quarsie, Ahmed Best, and Ray Park
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict…
The evil Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray is planning to take over the peaceful world of Naboo…
With much anticipation from the Star Wars aficionado world the newest addition to the original series was released in 1999. For twenty-five years A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi were the cornerstones for what great science fiction was all about in households across the world. People young and old flocked to the theatres to see the newest addition to the Star Wars series, and understand where their character’s we’d all grown to love came from. I was no exception to this crowd of supporters and sat in the theatre three times to watch The Phantom Menace on the big screen.
The story takes us back before the mysterious clone wars when the Jedi were all powerful and the Sith were dormant. The first scene introduces us to our Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice the Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi. Already we have a strong connection to one of the most important and influential character’s in the original series and have the opportunity to see how he became Ben, alone, on Tatooine. Master and Padawan find themselves on a planet called “Naboo ” where they find themselves in the middle of an invasion that leads them away to save the Queen. Seeking refuge on a planet the viewer remembers called Tatooine, they find a slave boy by the name of Anakin Skywalker. While we know his fate, Qui-Gon does not and predicts him to be the “Chosen One”. In their attempt to escape to Coruscant, they encounter a Sith Lord with a double bladed Light Sabor and suddenly the calm of a thousand years has been shaken.
The Phantom Menace managed to create an appeal to a new audience that didn’t know or understand Star Wars, while still making a story for the die-hard fans. It succeeded by creating a plot that unknowing viewers could follow and understand, while still maintaining a script where the fans could see the foreshadowing of the character’s and events as they unraveled to their inevitable destiny’s. The common bond each different viewer shares is the mystery of how the events eventually transpire to get to the end, and the journey there makes for an exciting adventure.
While old character’s were integrated into The Phantom Menace, new were introduced as well. Queen Amidala, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, and Jar Jar Binks. Qui-Gon was another addition to the Jedi that added heart, soul, and depth to the persona of the Jedi. His father-like character added many layers to the Phantom Menace. The mystery of Amidala unfolding, and the excitement of her future in the story, along with her ravishing beauty was a key element in the story. One of the most formidable foes ever created was spawned in Darth Maul. By execution and the pure mystery of his elusive character was one of the most dangerous and exciting villains ever onscreen. Ray Park’s amazing athletic and martial arts talents, along with frightening makeup made Darth Maul possibly the most exciting aspect of The Phantom Menace. When acknowledging Jar-Jar, I admit to liking his bumbling character. It brings the important element of light hearted comedy to The Phantom Menace. There is so much action, character introductions, and obstacles to overcome that the relief of humor is necessary, and why not make it a character of below average intelligence, trying to keep up with the things around him.
The Phantom Menace would be a four star movie for me if not for the terrible acting of the young Anakin. In Star Wars we don’t always expect great acting, and in some cases awkward deliveries even give the film more character, but young Anakin’s was so dreadful it was a distraction. Natalie Portman had her awkward moments, but looked like Meryl Streep next to Jake Lloyd, who was just wrong for the part in every way imaginable. This misstep in casting creating a vacancy in the movie, that even I couldn’t overlook.
The upgrades on technology, CGI, and special effects were utilized in the loving fashion that only genius’s like Spielburg, Cameron, and Lucas really know how to naturally evolve into their films. The scale of the shots in Phantom Menace were completely insane. From the details of the droids and Jar Jar to the massive scale of Coruscant, Naboo, the Gungan city, and the Trade Federation everything was implicit. This is what big CGI and massively expensive films finished products should aspire to look like. The textured feel of each city and the intimacy of the Jedi Counsel was the details and the high quality of creation expected and delivered from Lucas.
The action wasn’t relentless and played to the same balanced beats that the original series offered. The excitement of Jedi battles vs. fighter pilot moments and the pod race made for a cornucopia of moments to keep the thrilling action and suspense building. The greatest let down for me was the pod-racing scene. It had it’s purpose in the plot in multiple ways, and the special effects and CGI was flawless, but it didn’t connect on a personal level. If the scene’s time was cut in half, it may have emoted more excitement. While getting to see Coruscant, the pod race, and great space moments was electrifying, the moment of greatness and climax throughout the film was the light sabor duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon , and Obi Wan. The battle goes down as one of the best in Science Fiction/Action moments in film history. The fluidity, the athleticism, the creative use of the force, and the connection of the character’s in the moment was ultimate movie greatness, and made everything in The Phantom Menace that much better.
The Phantom Menace was great simply because it’s Star Wars, there is no question about that, but it was better because it was such an evolution from the original series, simultaneously paying homage to it’s originator while treading into new waters and exploring it’s own universe. There is no question that George Lucas is a fan of his own creations, and why shouldn’t he be. The conclusion of Phantom Menace was the ultimate fan fiction realized. It was a film made for it’s beloved fans and probably for it’s own creator as well. He doesn’t live on Skywalker ranch because it delivers him a hefty paycheck, he lives and breathes Star Wars, just like his devoted fans. That kind of dedication is what makes everything about Star Wars so great and what made The Phantom Menace a success. It appealed to a new audience, but it was made for those that love Star Wars for all that is good and bad about the series. The Phantom Menace was great re-introduction into a beloved series.