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The Phantom Menace (1999)
(a.k.a. Star Wars: Episode One)

Review by Justin Felix

Written and directed by George Lucas.
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman.
Rated PG (contains violence) 131 mins.

Synopsis: Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, protect the cute Queen Amidala and the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks from bad Federation trade aliens and the menacing Darth Maul. In the meantime, they meet a young Anakin Skywalker and have their faces plastered on T-shirts, boxer shorts, computer games, coloring books, potato chip bags, action figures, and Taco Bell cups.

Comments: It is finally here. After months of near-continual hype and fan speculation, the first Star Wars movie in 16 years has been released. The product tie-ins can only be described as an onslaught. Walking into any Wal-Mart or K-Mart right now is like entering Mel Brooks' store in Spaceballs (a parody of the original star Wars trilogy). Lines began forming nearly a month prior to The Phantom Menace's release, and its first-day box office total is a record. Amongst all the interviews, trailers, and plastic Taco Bell cups, one may ask "Is this all worth it?" Despite whatever negative thing you may have heard from movie critics privy to advance screenings, the answer is "yes it is!"

Whether or not The Phantom Menace "beats" Titanic as the biggest-grossing film of all time seems largely irrelevant to me. The Phantom Menace, whatever it ultimately grosses, may be the biggest movie event of the decade (it certainly is the most anticipated). As such, it seems to be attracting some controversy: Is it as good as the ground-breaking Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi? Is it too childish? Is it too hyped?

The answer to all three, as far as I'm concerned, is yes. But who cares? Going to the theater and watching The Phantom Menace was fun. It was very fun. From start to finish. I can't wait to see it again. This is a movie to see in the theaters again and again. How many times does one honestly feel that way about a film? (Science fiction fans, by the way, are having a good year. The Matrix, released a month or two ago, was also very entertaining, though, unlike The Phantom Menace, it isn't a movie for the kids.) Before rambling on and on about the movie, perhaps a brief overview is in order.

The Phantom Menace is a prequel to the earlier Star Wars trilogy. Yet, anyone who has seen the last Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, can most certainly tell, right away, that technology has advanced considerably. At its heart, The Phantom Menace is a visual movie. George Lucas has created a jaw-dropping whopper of a visual feast for the eyes. Using, once again, ground-breaking technology, he has constructed convincing alien vistas. One planet, Coruscant, featured giant skyscrapers and countless ships which continuously zigzagged across the horizon, while another planet, Naboo, contained vast underwater cities. Stunningly designed creatures inhabit these places. In a memorable scene early in the movie, the Jedi Knights and Jar Jar are nearly consumed by a giant fish. They are saved only when an even larger fish preys on the smaller.

One common criticism of The Phantom Menace is that it lacks well-developed characters. While this complaint does hold some validity, it did not really seem to hinder the movie's overall impact. The human characters are well-played by fine actors. Qui-Gon Jinn is played by Liam Neeson, a wonderful actor perhaps most notable for playing the lead in the powerful World War II film Schindler's List. Obi-Wan Kenobi is handled ably by Ewan McGregor (yes, amazingly, the same Ewan McGregor who played Rent Boy in the heroin flick Trainspotting). The young and appealing Natalie Portman played Queen Amidala. She's appeared in a number of other films, including one of my favorites, Heat, one of the most overlooked and underappreciated action films of the decade. Throw in Samuel Jackson as a Jedi, and you've got some serious talent at your disposal.

Yet, if anything, the acting seems subdued and takes a second stage to the visuals of the film. The most memorable characters, in fact, are memorable for their appearance. Queen Amidala, for instance, changes outfits in nearly every scene, several of which are strikingly offbeat, bizarre, and, well, alien. My favorite of the new characters, Darth Maul, has a look that is well-conceived. Bloodshot red eyes, scarlet and black tattoos(?), and bony protubrences make him seem like the devil himself. Darth Maul, unlike his counterpart in the original trilogy, Darth Vader, has very few lines. He rasps something about gaining revenge, at last, on the Jedi, but for the most part, he just looks evil and tries to kick the living crap out of the Jedi. As I watched the film, I wanted to know much more than was revealed about this character, but afterward, I changed my mind. Somehow, in retrospect, he seems more evil having not been developed. Once again, the most memorable scene involving this character was a visual not a verbal scene. In the climatic battle between the Jedi, Darth Maul is seperated from his opponents by some sort of transparent blast shield. Maul paces the length of the shield back and forth, like a wild animal in a cage, glowering at the men he is about to fight. If you haven't seen the movie, trust me, this is good stuff. Maul seems to have the habit of just appearing at certain times, immediately ready to kick ass.

Jar Jar Binks, a computer-generated character, was perhaps my biggest concern going into the film. I'm not a big fan of the goofy, cutesy stuff in the original trilogy. The Ewoks, for instance, are too teddy bear-ish for my taste. Yet, to my surprise, the comic relief coming from Jar Jar was usually quite effective. The floppy-eared character stumbles from one scene to another, and, though not always on target, its humorous exploits often elicited a laugh from me.

A couple of minor things did bother me enough to downgrade this movie from a five-star rating. These things, by no mean, subtract from my recommendation of this movie to anybody. I was disappointed, however, that Lucas chose to give some kind of biological, scientific explanation for the Force.

Qui-Gon, for instance, has Anakin's blood analyzed because it is unusually concentrated with some gobbedlygook. This seemed to take a lot of the mysticism out of the Force. Also, occasionally, Lucas gets a little too carried away with "the messages" in his screenplay. Some of Anakin's dialogue suffers because of this.

Overall, however, The Phantom Menace receives my high recommendation. It is a fun movie that can be enjoyed by all ages. Don't over-analyze it like I just did. Just sit back in the theater seats and enjoy the sights and sounds (John Williams, by the way, returns to add another magnificent score to his body of work). And, if you must, wear that Darth Maul T-shirt and eat Pez from Star Wars dispensers while you're at it.


(Out of five)

All of Justin's film reviews are archived at The Internet Movie Database

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