Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace


Reviewed by: Stephen Carty

Phantom Menace
"Based on a 15-page outline the great bearded one wrote in 1976, the script undoes itself with copious politics, needless complications and near endless exposition."

Despite the fact that the original Star Wars movies changed cinema forever and created their own uber-fanboy culture (indeed, Jedi is now an official religion), perhaps the most interesting aspect tied to them is that they were in fact the fourth, fifth and sixth parts of a story. Sixteen years later and everyone with their own FX Lightsaber (hand firmly raised) has got their wish as filmmaker George Lucas finally travels back to that galaxy far, far away to bring us the most eagerly-anticipated motion picture of all time.

Sadly and somewhat inevitably, it doesn't live up to the unparalleled expectation. Undoubtedly, Eighties kids everywhere will levitate with giddy excitement as the opening text scrawls up to that theme tune and you realise you're seeing a Star Wars movie in the cinema, but once this wears off its hard to shake the disappointment.

Copy picture

Okay, so it was never going to live up the nostalgia-bathed memories of the originals, but there's too much off the mark to hail The Phantom Menace (initially called The Beginning) as a triumphant return. While the decision to meet Anakin as a child (reportedly based on Lucas' stepson and divorce) gave us one of the most iconic posters ever, it also puts the narrative up against it. Based on a 15-page outline the great bearded one wrote in 1976, the script undoes itself with copious politics, needless complications and near endless exposition.

While helping the peaceful planet of Naboo, Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) stumble upon plans of an invasion. Escaping with the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), they end up on the desert-like Tatooine where they meet a young slave child called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who is unusually strong with the force. Meanwhile, the Sith mysteriously return under the shadowy Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and his trainee Darth Maul (Ray Park).

In terms of the tone, many will find it too child-friendly, as its a million hyper-space miles away from Luke finding his foster parent's smouldering skeletons. As welcome as cameos are from the Sand People and the Jawas (Hootini!), you can't help but feel some are shoehorned in for the geekboys (What do you mean C3-PO was made by Darth Vader?) As for the decision to explain the force with midichlorian-based biology, you can imagine the diehards rushing home to rewatch Alec Guinness's perfectly-vague spiritual musings.

Of course, the reason for the 16-year hiatus is that Lucas has been waiting on technology reaching the level he felt necessary. While this patience does pay off with some undeniably impressive aesthetic treats, the use of CGI is excessive to say the least, as the emphasis is firmly on rendering digitally-created worlds and cramming the background with creatively-designed beasties.

However, on the plus side, the climactic three-way lightsaber showdown is fantastic and showcases the three best things Phantom has to offer: Neeson, Park and John Williams. As an Obi-Wan type figure Neeson brings weight missing elsewhere, Ray Park’s double-ended lightsaber-wielding Darth Maul makes an impression way beyond his criminally-underused screen time and composer Williams adds another classic with the memorable Duel Of The Fates theme. Honestly, try not whistling it.

The rest of the new faces make mixed impressions. While Ian McDiarmid is superb as the string-pulling titular menace and Pernilla August brings real gravitas to mummy Skywalker, Portman isn't given much to do, Sam Jackson couldn't be more out of place as a Jedi and the totally miscast McGregor can't hold a candle to Guinness' snow-bearded mentor. As for the completely-computerised Jar Jar Binks, he might not be to blame for all the movie's faults, but he's distracting and unnecessary.

Musing on the momentous task of revisiting the Star Wars canon, Lucas wisely mused: “when you get a situation like this where you have so much hype and expectation, a movie can't possibly live up to that." Though it was always going to fall down to the originals, The Phantom Menace is still ultimately disappointing.

Reviewed on: 09 Apr 2009
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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:

Scott Macdonald ***
Angus Wolfe Murray ***

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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