Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Director: George Lucas. Cast: Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, Ray Park, Terence Stamp, Pernilla August, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Samuel L. Jackson, voice of Frank Oz. Screenplay: George Lucas.
DISCLAIMER: A short time ago, in this very same cyber-galaxy, I tried to write a review that maintained secrecy of all plot points and stepped gingerly around the slightest hint of the specific directions and events of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But you know, the resulting write-up was the dullest, most maddeningly elliptical thing ever produced, and I scrapped it. I therefore can't promise the die-hard fans out there that some of what follows won't tread over the line of what you want to know before seeing The Phantom Menace for yourselves; I myself preferred a first viewing unencumbered by reading other reviews. If you desire the same, bookmark this page and come back later. For the rest of you, charge on!—remembering that truly major plot points and other crucial elements are, as always, left unspoken.

George Lucas' Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace rides into theaters atop the crest of an unprecedentedly huge hype machine. One has to reach all the way back to Gone With the Wind to remember a movie that was so fervently portrayed as a National Event in the months leading up to its release—and even at that, of course, today's media outstrips in size, variety, and omnipresence the newspapers and newsreels that tracked Scarlett & Co. through their own months of filming. So how does George Lucas answer all this anticipation? With the best possible strategy: he has created a movie of such scope, inventiveness, and dexterous plotting that it should sate the vast majority of saber-wielding enthusiasts who have descended upon the nation's cinemas like a Force unto themselves. The Phantom Menace takes a while to get going, and certain characters, plotlines, and visual schemes never measure up to the rest of the movie. But what a grand and, to me, shockingly good movie it is, particularly given the heavy burden of anxious attention with which the country has followed its development.

Entirely absent here is Han Solo, inarguably the most popular human character of the first trilogy—actually the second trilogy in chronological order, as you likely know unless you've been living under an entire mountain chain. Likewise, Luke and Leia are but vague glimmers in the eyes of The Phantom Menace's two young protagonists. One of these is pipsqueak Anakin Skywalker, played by Jingle All the Way and Luminous Motion's moppetish Jake Lloyd. Anakin has a cherubic, saucer-shaped face and a sweet disposition that hardly foreshadows the emphysemic warlord he will become in his second incarnation as Darth Vader. Here, he dreams of propelling his prize pod racer through one of Tatooine's regular derbies. If it didn't seem so impossible, so unreachable, he would also dream of becoming one of the famed, reputedly immortal Jedi Knights; unhappily, his current status as an indentured apprentice for a brutish spare-parts salesman yields little time for such fancies.

Anakin is the character with the most immediate grip on the audience's fascination. We know what he will become, and the major arc of Lucas' prequel trilogy must be an account of how such a jewel-eyed innocent becomes the iconic agent of evil we know from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and the first 90% of Return of the Jedi. However, Anakin is not the main focus of The Phantom Menace, and not only because his first appearance in the picture occurs a good 45 minutes after the familiar yellow prologue has slanted backwards into space. A more potent reason is that Jake Lloyd is one of those self-consciously precocious child actors who seems less like a real boy than a Hollywood producer's daydream of how the galaxy's cutest kid should look. There are a lot more interesting people hanging around Anakin, at least at this point, so Lucas makes the wise decision of sidelining the young'un from much of the major action.

These other, more crucial events begin with the efforts of Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman) to save her people from a trade embargo that has unfairly been mounted against her planet. Amidala, dressed in Ran-meets-Bram Stoker's Dracula headdresses and robes, comports herself with startling self-assurance as she insists to the galactic Trade Federation that Naboo's suffering is unjust. The grey, vaguely Greedo-ish ghouls who run the Trade Federation know full well how young and na´ve Amidala is, but they cannot deny her steely determination to serve her populace. Nor can they take exception to her prudence in choosing her allies: two Jedi knights named Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his acolyte—hey, wait a minute, it's Obi-Wan Kenobi, drawn backward in time and played by an atypically clothed Ewan McGregor. The Jedis arrive in the Trade Federation and get the movie going with some redoubtable light sabering, but they are savvy enough to know, or to feel, that all is not as it seems in the Trade Federation's plans. Just as we in the audience wonder, "Is the context for all of Star Wars actually a trade embargo??," Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan conjecture that a wiser, more controlling, more dangerous presence is using the cosmic blockade to a much darker purpose.

All of the elements for an involving story are firmly in place by the first ten minutes. The economy and swiftness with which Lucas commences the film make it all the more surprising when he spends the next half-hour diddling around with absurd, aggravating characters and a bunch of "Look at me, Ma!" technical wizardry. In the first category is Jar Jar Binks, reputedly the world cinema's first entirely computer-generated character. I thought the hero of last year's Jack Frost claimed that title; either way, Jar Jar manages to be even more colossally irritating and wholly misconceived than the dead-dad/snowman of that Christmastime flop. Jar Jar is an unwelcome meld of the dredloc'd Weequay that guard Jabba's skiffs in Jedi; of Ruby Rhod, the frenetic, jive-talkin' headache inducer played by Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element; and the improbably futzy assassin "embodied" by Jamie Lee Curtis in James Cameron's True Lies. Jar Jar, you see, keeps fortuitously killing enemy drones and soldiers through his own clumsy mishandlings of ammo and firepower. I cannot tell you how I wished this overbearing creation would accidentally off himself, and I'd be surprised if even the young children who are Jar Jar's target demographic find him in the least bit appealing.

In addition to Jar Jar, his dictatorial leader (equally hard to understand, equally annoying), and their patently computerized underwater metropolis, Lucas also bores us for the first chapter with not one but four large-jawed sea monsters, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the supersized space-worm that almost digested the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back. "Where is all this going?" I kept worrying, as The Phantom Menace kept trudging from effects shot to effects shot. Objectively, I suppose, the images were striking and full of careful detail. Not only, though, were the synthetic backgrounds clearly hand-drawn, but the whole movie takes on an impersonality that saps the joy from the opening half-hour. Part of what enlivens Star Wars and Empire so thoroughly is that the contexts for the action—a desert planet, a deep-freeze planet, a Death Star with spit-polished corridors—were easy to accept. Within these broad but mundane environments, the occasional beast or robotic entity was all the more incongruous, and therefore all the more thrilling. The opening chapters of The Phantom Menace, however, offer no sets and virtually no creatures that do not clamor for the viewer's full, wondrous attention. There is too much happening, and nothing that feels familiar, except for small occasions as when Obi-Wan utters Star Wars' favorite expression of doubt, "I have a bad feeling about this."

Again, though, Lucas gets his act together soon afterward with an adrenalized scene of pod-racing in Anakin's village on Tatooine. Sure, the sequence smacks strongly of the biker scout chase in Return of the Jedi, but the thunderously rendered sound effects and the reeling swiftness of the intriguing vehicles completely salvage the movie from the brink of cold, tech-happy ponderousness. After this crucial moment in The Phantom Menace, Lucas just keeps playing to his strengths, conjuring images so pure in their visual power and pleasure that other science fiction movies seem like wallflowers by comparison. A convention of the intergalactic Senate—governed by Terence Stamp, that versatile Priscilla adventurer—is mounted as a vertiginous, sleek arena of floating platforms and humming lights. Qui-Gon's spaceship is the very soul of glimmering silver aerodynamics. The city-planet of Coruscant, first seen from a distance as a beguiling black and copper sphere, reveals itself as a limitless, miles-high web of chrome and glass—trumping The Fifth Element and matching Dark City for sheer urban density.

Much else in The Phantom Menace commands our wonder, including a fearsome, furtive adversary named Darth Maul, whose climactic saber face-off with Neeson and McGregor is another highlight sequence. All of the actors, particularly Neeson, McGregor, Portman, and The Best Intentions' Pernilla August (as Anakin's mother, Shmi) employ the subtle, workmanlike chops that have made them all famous, so that The Phantom Menace as a whole seems as effortless and graceful in many moments as their own solid performances. Neeson, borrowing more on his Rob Roy leonine grace than on the nuanced morality of Oskar Schindler, moves more gracefully as a 6'4" goliath than do most pixie-toed figure skaters in their prime. McGregor rests on the very outside edge of the story for much of the film, which at first seems ill-advised. In the eleventh hour, however, Lucas shows he had a plan all along and hands the movie over to Obi-Wan for a series of acrobatic duels that are as invigorating emotionally as they are gymnastically. Having now played everything from drug addict to Jane Austen hero to The Pillow Book's impish bisexual ganymede, McGregor is quickly convincing the film world that he can play anything.

None of these actors, however, give what could rightfully be called a "starring performance," and as always, Star Wars, Episode I is not at all about the acting. What matters here is the story, and Lucas, it must be said, makes some unfortunately clubfooted stumbles. We hear that Anakin Skywalker was immaculately conceived by his mother; we hear talk of angels that would make Roma Downey proud; and Liam Neeson gets stuck delivering a gratuitous, gangly little speech about something called "metacondrids," or something: sub-cellular molecules that endow a body with its mystical connection to the Force. Star Wars has always been a joyful, irreverent melting pot of different myths and cultural influences, so it's a bit jarring when The Phantom Menace veers so far into problematic Christian parable or Deepak Chopra-ish mysticism. Even more jarring are the wispishly romantic exchanges between Portman's Amidala and young Anakin, who need I remind you, is approximately 8 years old to her 16. Look, George, we know some nookie eventually transpires between these two, but couldn't we postpone the seduction stuff until middle-school age at least?

What allows these incidents to stick out so sorely, however, is the general success of Star Wars' story and scenario. You have to keep in mind what a delicate position this movie holds. The Phantom Menace must hold up sufficiently as its own entity, but we must also be able to connect the events meaningfully to the fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes—while, at the same time, Lucas has to leave room for surprises and enigmas in the as-yet-unfilmed second and third installments. That's a huge task, and Lucas devises all sorts of felicitous strategies for meeting it. Some of his decisions are large-scale, as when he complicates the figure of Amidala (who may or may not be who she says she is) or when he carefully keeps some of the sound and visual effects on the same rudimentary level to which the earlier films accustomed us. The Phantom Menace is often a marvel to look at, but does not so fully embrace cutting-edge technologies that it seems out of keeping with movies made 15 or even 20 years earlier. We also know that most of the civilizations and worlds to which Lucas introduces us will have been wiped out by the time the first Star Wars begins, but it is only vaguely deducible how that will come to pass. Other humanizing, enriching gestures are as small as the baby Rancors that entertain Jabba on the rail of his ceremonial parapet, or those meddlesome Tusken Raiders who blithely snipe away at pod-racers that try to speed through their territory in that furious three-lap race.

So The Phantom Menace, for all its missteps, effectively builds the mystery of the entire franchise. I hope that the next two installments don't insist on quite so many too-elaborate set-pieces, and if Jar Jar happens to fall in a Dagobah swamp, or play with matches, or contract mad cow disease, I'll be a happy interstellar voyager. Lucas has plenty of time now to propel his story into the dark places it needs to go before Episode III is completed. (He might even come up with some wiggle room to explain what in bejesus is the "phantom menace," which is no more clearly defined here than it was when I wrapped my tongue around that phrase for the Moviefone guy.) Meanwhile, Star Wars, Episode I is a lively, worthy, and sometimes entrancing first step for the prequel triumvirate. Film franchises come and go all the time in Hollywood, particularly in science-fiction circles, but the Force is still strong in this one. B–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Sound: Gary Rydstrom, Tom Johnson, Shawn Murphy, and John Midgley
Best Sound Effects: Ben Burtt & Tom Bellfort
Best Visual Effects: John Knoll, Dennis Muren, Scott Squires, and Rob Coleman

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