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Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace
starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDarmid

by David
Summer, 1999


I was afraid. I admit that much. I'd read a bunch of reviews in magazines and online and, although I tried not to believe them, I still worried. As I stood in the line outside the theater, ticket in hand, I thought to myself, "What if it sucks? What do I say? Can I watch the midnight showing, then come back the next day and write a bad review of a Star Wars movie?" I'm 25 years old -- the Star Wars trilogy ruled my childhood, and I mean it when I say, "RULED." I didn't know if my fragile psyche could handle it.

Fortunately, my worries proved unfounded -- I loved it.

The film starts off strong. The planet Naboo is being squeezed in a trade blockade and two Jedi Knights (Qui-Gon Jinn/Liam Neeson and Obi-Wan Kenobi/Ewan McGregor) are sent by the leader of the Republic to investigate. After an engaging, exciting battle scene (the perfect hook right away in the film), the Jedis realize there is more going on than just a blockade. They rescue the Naboo's leader (Queen Amidala/Natalie Portman) from certain death, and the quest to save Naboo from this unknown darker fate (or, Phantom Menace, perhaps?) begins, with the help of powerful, driven Senator Palpatine (Ian McDarmid). Along the way they pick up a little boy strangely powerful with the Force and a wacky floppy-eared sidekick.

And, that is about as much of the plot as I can tell you without giving it all away.

What I can tell you is that this an extremely good movie in most respects. The acting is rock-solid in almost every case -- something you don't often find from an action/sci-fi film. Though many characters are introduced in this one and there is a grave danger of cardboard cut-out characters, most of the actors manage to give an unexpected sense of importance and urgency to even the small characters -- a key factor in keeping this film engaging through the exposition. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are especially strong. Neeson brings such a sense of gravity and direction to his Jedi master, it is easy to see why Obi-Wan follows him. McGregor's voice work is amazing -- no one could possibly sound more like a young Alec Guiness (Obi-Wan Kenobi in parts 4-6). The pair is great together as well -- complementary acting styles, body language, etc. really makes it seem like Obi-Wan has been Qui-Gon's apprentice for many, many years. Jake Lloyd does a very good job as Anakin Skywalker as well. Oddly enough, the very few times he seems a little uncomfortable are when he's asked to act like the kid he is. In other scenes, particularly in his connection with Qui-Gon or Amidala, he is so dead on and focused that it is almost eerie -- you believe he may be something more than just a little boy.

Production values are, of course, through the roof. Sound is amazing, visual effects are stunning (yes, even the animated characters), and costumes, props and sets (yes, I do really watch those things) are really hot with one exception -- Anakin's backpack. Please, someone at least remove the plastic buckles from the Target-brand backpack before you stick it in the film! Costumes especially stand out -- most notably the royal dresses Amidala wears.

The best scene in the film is, of course, the extended lightsaber duel near the end . I will not give anything about it away, but I will say that it is extra-ordinary -- like no fight scene I've ever viewed in a film. Remember -- these guys (unlike the Matrix's heroes) are not on wires!

Admittedly, there are problems with this film. Editing is a bit sloppy and, especially in the Tatooine portions, more than a little self-indulgent on director Lucas's part. Scenes linger longer than they should and too much time is spent showing off all of the special effects he wished he'd been able to use in the original trilogy. Some of the dialogue betrays that same sentimental self-indulgence as well, but to a far lesser extent -- the Star Wars fan I am, I bought all of that. Exposition was also a bit uneven -- in some cases there was too much time taken explaining things the audience already knew, and in others not enough time was taken. These cases are few, however, and far outweighed by the rest of the film.

The biggest fear I had for the film did, unfortunately, come true. I do think Lucas really misjudged the need for comic relief in the form of floppy-eared, animated Jar-Jar Binks and his Gungan people. His gratuitous slapstick and barely intelligible dialogue irritated me (and, I think, much of the audience) a good deal of the time, and far too much time was spent on the wacky battle between the Gungans and the Trade Federation's battle droids. This whole forced comic intrusion fortunately was little more than an irritaion throughout the film -- the character played very little part in the actual plot and so did not need to be taken seriously.

Okay, let's break this all down:

WEAKNESSES:
-- too much comic relief
-- a little self-indulgent in places
-- exposition uneven
-- some dialogue forced

STRENGTHS:
-- excellent acting
-- beautiful visuals
-- amazing sound
-- stunning special-effects
-- killer battle scenes
-- Yoda rules!

The Phantom Menace is definitely worth the price of admission. In fact, the lightsaber duel alone is worth the price of 3 or 4 admissions for any Star Wars fan. The good aspects of the film far outweigh the places in which Lucas's vision stumbles. It is entertaining, visually stunning, and a very satisfying beginning to the story that changed the way American movies were made and helped shape a generation of people. I am proud to be part of that generation.

May the Force be with you.


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