starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Potrtman, Jake Lloyd
written and directed by George Lucas
by Bill Chambers Forgoing my typical formula in an effort to write something that stands out from the pack. I can't promise not to spoil anything, but I will do my best to avoid giving too much away.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace takes us back three or four decades before the original Star Wars (dweebs call it A New Hope). It is the story of Qui-Gon Jinn, a rebellious Jedi master who becomes, along with his pupil Obi-Wan Kenobi, embroiled in a trade war. The plot seems vaguely modeled on The Last of The Mohicans: Qui-Gon plays reluctant guard to nobility (including Queen Amidala) as he treks a path to freedom; his band is pursued by the Magua-esque Darth Maul, a bloodthirsty member of the Sith. The similarities to James Fenimore Cooper's tale end when Qui-Gon stops on Tattooine for vessel repairs and discovers a preternatural little slaveboy possessed of rare mental and physical prowess. Qui-Gon swears the kid, Anakin Skywalker, is "the chosen one," the future Jedi who will bring balance to The Force. He even stakes his (shaky) reputation on it before the Jedi Council, which is headed by Yoda and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson in an extended cameo).
Qui-Gon, who slouches tall, walks swiftly, and speaks softly, is the most compelling new presence in the Star Wars universe. Liam Neeson's performance summons the authority of Alec Guiness in the later (er, earlier) films, which is most appropriate, given that Guiness portrayed the mature Obi-Wan--it's now as though Qui-Gon's demeanour rubbed off on Obi-Wan more than any other aspect of his training. Jake Lloyd is also cannily cast: he hasn't a sweet and innocent face; there's trace enough of mischief in his slitty eyes to leave no doubt that this cherubic munchkin will one day submit to his darkest urges.
Jar Jar Binks ("Stomp" dancer Ahmed Best), the rabbit-eared, six-foot reptile (part of a race called the Gungan) who follows Qui-Gon around like a loyal servant (and talks like a plantation worker; The Phantom Menace is startlingly retrograde at times), sporadically amuses but mostly annoys, especially with his inept soldier schtick during the climactic battle between the Gungan and hordes of Battle Droids. While I'm on the subject of droids, C-3PO and R2-D2 make curiously perfunctory appearances in The Phantom Menace, with Jar Jar's theatrics supplying the bulk of comic relief here.
Also of note are Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid. The former plays surely the most beautiful queen in any galaxy--with or without the Kabuki make-up, she glows like young Audrey Hepburn, but Princess Leia she's not. Amidala is brave but lacks the force of personality that endeared Leia to little girls (and, yes, little boys) across the world. McGregor is marginally more successful as the eager Obi-Wan, if more or less a walking action figure and glorified narrator, someone there to ask a lot of expository questions for the sake of nudging us into the next sequence. Finally, McDiarmid, as Senator Palpatine, brought a smile to my face whenever he was on screen, whether by virtue of some fine hamming or the knowledge that Palpatine eventually becomes the dreaded Emperor, I cannot determine.
Perhaps the most disappointing character in The Phantom Menace is Darth Maul. Fans have hitched their wagon to the wrong train, it seems (Maul was the most popular costume at the midnight premiere, and products bearing his likeness are the best-selling Menace merchandise so far), for Maul is no less robotic than the machines who fight for the trade cause. His entire persona is summed up by his double-bladed lightsaber: cool at first, silly upon reflection.
The Special Effects
Lucas didn't want to do another Star Wars movie until CGI caught up with his imagination. Indeed, The Phantom Menace is brimming--overstuffed--with special effects whose detail is impressive. Yet there's nothing sparklingly original about them, especially concerning the animated beings. Star Wars and Star Trek share a common flaw in their creature designs: as weird as the bodies and skins can get, the aliens of both galaxies usually have humanoid faces--two eyes, a nose, a mouth.
Lucas also continues a trend begun in his refurbished editions of episodes 4, 5, and 6: The monsters of Episode I are clownish and/or juvenile (the appearance of a small Greedo-type recalls Jim Henson's "Muppet Babies") and, dare I say it, uniquely synthetic. While the technology now allows for a group of computer-generated Gungans to flop around like so many Stepin Fetchits, I still find digital flesh, ninety percent of the time, thoroughly unconvincing. (The wisest directorial decision Lucas made was to have Yoda return in all his foam-rubber glory, complete with strategically-placed props to disguise puppeteer Frank Oz.) More successful are the CGI cityscapes of Coruscant and Naboo, as well as the many interiors and exteriors of ships. In fact, most of, if not all, the non-creature F/X work is breathtaking enough to give pause to the most jaded viewers.
The myriad explosions and close-calls and laser blasts do tend to overwhelm The Phantom Menace's narrative, but it's safe to say that Lucas is a competent enough filmmaker to pull off the pandemonium with much more grace than we're accustomed to seeing in summer pictures of this sort. Yes, we're dealing with a different George Lucas than the one behind 1977's Star Wars, the director with ingenuity born of budgetary restrictions. The trash-compactor sequence in Episode IV, so basic it could easily be duplicated by enterprising teenaged videomakers, holds more suspense than any similar moment in The Phantom Menace. ('90s Lucas is also the parent of a pre-schooler and therefore eager to please all ages.) Sometimes, less is more. Why mince words? Less is always more. That's also why a simple breathing appartus used by Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan for an underwater jaunt in The Phantom Menace fascinates more than the complicated machinery on display, because it's the kind of goofy prop one might find in schlocky B-movie serials, one of Lucas's obvious and oft-declared inspirations.
I'm tempted to write that The Phantom Menace is uninspired--it's not. I'm tempted to say it's uninvolving, but it's far from that. The movie is burdened with having to lay the groundwork not only for two hypothetical movies, but also a trilogy of beloved films, and its best scenes (the Jedi Council conferences; Obi-Wan's big number on Maul) indicate that Episodes two and three will be more stimulating affairs. At the moment I'd have to say it's a better picture than Return of the Jedi while falling into the same third-act trap of juxtaposing a terrific swordfight with meandering, slapstick scenes of mass combat.
Ultimately, I'd like to see The Phantom Menace again; there's a lot to process. If I have some advice for Lucas it is this: For the sequel (read: second prequel), write and write and write until you've defined your characters, because (as any true fan will agree) it was the rock-solid archetypes of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2--and the chemsitry between them--that endeared the Star Wars trilogy to audiences, not nifty production values. Originally published: May 19, 1999.