Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Phantom Menace
"Lucas takes a pleasingly lengthy time to explore his worlds and well-sketched and realised characters."

Let us get this one summarised up in a few lines: I am very fond of The Phantom Menace, it is a well-fashioned blockbuster, impeccably imagined and drawn onscreen with exciting action and visual spectacle. It has flaws, and we will get to them, but this prequel had 16 years of expectation, fan-fiction and sheer imagination to live up. No film could have delivered.

As with most stories, it all begins in the mundane, before unfolding into something far more interesting: As described in the opening scroll, the saga begins with a trade dispute over the planet Naboo. To resolve this, two Jedi Knight ambassadors attempt to negotiate peace. The puppet master - or the real Phantom Menace - the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, orders the Trade Federation to invade the planet and kill the Jedi. They promptly escape and usher the Queen speedily off the planet to plead her case for help to the Galactic Senate. Damage to the ship en-route makes this impossible, and it must be repaired before making the journey. A party of people, stop on Tatooine, a small desert planet in order to surreptitiously obtain the replacement parts. One of the Jedi meets a young boy, called Anakin Skywalker, whom he feels a strong connection in the Force, and Anakin offers to help them.

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Star Wars films generally work because of the strength of their visual storytelling, and Lucas has not forgotten this for the first of the prequel saga. The visual effects seem almost effortless; the integration of digital elements with live action is highly accomplished, for each hooey matte or dodgy eyeline; there are a hundred invisible digital effects. The virtual sets are breathtakingly realised, with complex miniatures, digital work and big old-fashioned set design at work in the highest means. Look at the underwater city of Otah Gunga, and all the detail of fish swimming by, the translucent bubble structure in all its fractal like beauty. It is to Lucas and ILM's credit that we quickly forget this in a swirl of an underwater chase, a magnificently accomplished palace city, an invasion of birdlike droids and a city that spans a planet. Let us not forget, a Podrace at the speed of sound, which tests the viewer and the filmmaker's dexterity in editing, always exciting, and never quite too fatiguing or scary for its intended audience.

It is when we revisit Tatooine that we find an interesting narrative drive by Lucas, and the film takes time to savour his world. It could have been much condensed and still hit all the plot markers, but he goes to lengths in introducing us Watto, another delightful CG creation: An old cranky alien, with a Marlboro voice and a belly full of helium. Lucas takes a pleasingly lengthy time to explore his well-sketched worlds if not the characters. When Qui-Gon carefully and deliberately manipulates Watto using his greed and weakness, he teaches the slaver a lesson he will not soon forget.

The Phantom Menace works as a service of what is to come, while entertaining us with its own, admittedly simple, plot convolutions. ("I am Queen Amidala" - yawn..) There are flaws - the stilted delivery of lines from most of the cast and the leisurely pace - slowing things down when the drama hits a peak and every second counts. On the editing side, there are flaws, too, such as the final battles which are chop and change too quickly. The Return Of The King managed a marvellous rhythm, cutting the climax brilliantly, finding the optimum points to intercut and intracut so that they flow with equal stress and emotional impact on the viewer. The Phantom Menace needed some more work.

I like some of the stilted delivery though, particularly Liam Neeson, and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jinn and the young, aggressive Obi-Wan Kenobi. The delivery is that of Japanese Noh drama, never allowing overlapping dialogue; always clear and concise. The actors deliver Lucas' tone-deaf clangers with grace, skill and even a glimmer of panache. Star Wars: Episode 1 owes more to The Hidden Fortress than Star Wars circa 1977. The style of acting, the clinical means of delivery, suitably half-epic widescreen photography, and eventually exploding into a varied adventure with something for everyone, an homage to Kurosawa's experience.

The intercutting of scenes, as noted previously serves to destroy momentum, but the duel between the two Jedi and the hungry-for-battle Darth Maul is terrific stuff. Fast, vicious swordplay with slight strategy involved, Williams' score helps a great deal, with rhythmic and choral flourishes, highlighting the significance the first time a lightsaber has struck against another with anger in millennia. As the fight breaks up, the chorus whispers, and drums highlight the primal nature of the conflict.

This thread of the climax is so good; it makes the others frivolous by comparison. There are lulls in dialogue and pacing, but it's nothing like the poorly plotted Clones, with it's abyss of interplanetary exposition. The Phantom Menace is written plainly, occasionally understated, and folds together well at the end. Like A New Hope, this visually-rich fantasy stands on its own, even for those fresh to the Star Wars saga.

On a side note: pretty much every seven-year-old I've spoken to loves Jar Jar Binks. Sheesh!

Reviewed on: 04 May 2005
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Lucas's Star Wars origins story returns to the big screen in 3D.
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Read more Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***
Stephen Carty *1/2

Director: George Lucas

Writer: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Ian McDiarmid, Oliver Ford Davies, Ray Park, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Terence Stamp, Samuel L Jackson, Peter Serafinowicz

Year: 1999

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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