Should I Watch..? Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
What's the big deal?
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (often just known as The Phantom Menace) is an action sci-fi adventure movie released in 1999 and is the first of a prequel trilogy to director George Lucas' original Star Wars films. Believing that special effects in movies had finally caught up with his vision for a fourth film, Lucas began filming back in 1997 fourteen years after the release of Return Of The Jedi (1). The film stars Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Samuel L Jackson, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd and Ray Park and follows the initial discovery of Anakin Skywalker and his first meeting with his future Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Despite mixed reviews, the movie was a huge success with global anticipation at fever pitch. After a conversation into 3D and subsequent rerelease, the film's worldwide takings topped $1 billion which makes it the most financially successful entry in the Star Wars series so far. It would be followed by Attack Of The Clones (2) in 2002 and Revenge Of The Sith (3) in 2005.
What's it about?
In the days of the Old Republic, a trade disagreement between the Trade Federation and the peaceful world of Naboo threatens to escalate. The Senate dispatches two Jedi knights to negotiate a settlement - Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi - but the blockade around the planet masks the true intentions of the Trade Federation, a full-scale military invasion. Escaping to the planet's surface, Qui-Gon initially tries to warn the local amphibian Gungans to fight back but to no avail. However, they do manage to rescue ruler of the Naboo people Queen Amidala and just about manage to escape the blockade as well.
Forced into landing on the remote desert world of Tattooine, Qui-Gon encounters a young boy who is unusually gifted in the ways of the Force. Believing young Anakin to be the one spoken about in Jedi prophecies, Qui-Gon attempts to introduce Anakin to their way of life. But as the Trade Federation's droid army gathers on the planet of Naboo, is time running out on Naboo and what power, if any, does young Anakin really possess?
Queen Padmé Amidala
Jar Jar Binks (motion capture & voice)
Darth Maul *
Release Date (UK)
16th July, 1999
Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects
Worst Supporting Actor (Best)
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Picture, Worst Screen Couple (Lloyd & Portman), Worst Supporting Actor (Lloyd), Worst Supporting Actress (Sofia Coppola), Worst Director, Worst Screenplay
What's to like?
There's little point in denying that The Phantom Menace does indeed drop the ball on numerous occasions. But it also has a number of aces up its sleeve as well and those who consider it fashionable to pour scour on this much maligned entry in the Star Wars saga would do well to remember them. Darth Maul is an enthralling and intriguing addition to the film's collection of villains - despite the lack of dialogue, the moment he lights up the double-ended light-sabre is one of the most iconic images in recent years. It's also very cool indeed.
It's easy to overlook the quality of the CG with the brilliantly rendered world of Naboo or the vast droid army amassing to destroy it. Certainly, it's harder to forgive it for allowing Lucas to inflict the least liked character in cinema history on audiences but still... As for the human cast, Neeson's impassive calmness is well utilised as Obi-Wan's mentor while McGregor himself is restricted to playing Robin to Neeson's Batman. Finally, the film has arguably one of the most thrilling sequences in the series in the hyperkinetic Pod Race on Tattooine. Recalling the same audience reaction during the final approach on the Death Star in the very first Star Wars film A New Hope (4), Lucas revisits the scenario with amazing visuals and gripping action. On a bigger screen, it's mightily impressive stuff and personally, it's the best non-violent action sequence in the entire series.
- McGregor has admitted that during filming, he made light-sabre noises as he duelled. This was later pointed out to him that the noises were edited in afterwards and indeed, this was done in post production.
- The film has only one shot with no CG effects in at all - the shot of the dioxis gas pouring through the vent in the meeting room. Sets were built only as tall as the actors themselves as the rest would appear in CG later. Neeson was so tall that he cost the set builders an additional $150'000.
- The communicator device that Qui-Gon uses is actually a redecorated Sensor Excel razor for women.
What's not to like?
The story, if we're honest, isn't the strongest and feels bogged down by Lucas' typical ineptitude when it comes to writing dialogue. I mean, Obi-Wan is on screen for mere seconds before saying he has a bad feeling about this. I know what he means - the film's large cast of CG characters are actually not that convincing - the Gungans might have been more interesting were it not for You-Know-Who while the alien leaders of the Trade Federation lacked any sort of definition or identity. The human cast aren't much better - McGregor, Lloyd and Portman are massive disappointments considering their importance to the series but I'm willing to let that go in the face of such a weak script.
What I cannot forgive, and neither can millions of others, is Ahmed Best's intensely irritating performance as Jar Jar Binks. Binks, who serves no real purpose other than to inject some goofy humour for children under the age of 10, is widely acknowledged as the worst character in the Star Wars saga and possibly the worst in all of cinema history. Best's vocal talents are pretty thin on this evidence, with dialogue being lost in a heavy Caribbean accent and odd guttural noises. Remember that feeling of anger you got when you figured out that the Ewoks were only inserted into Return Of The Jedi to appeal to kids and to sell merchandise? Multiply it by a hundred.
The other thing I disliked was the endless references to the original trilogy. Yes, I understand that this has to set everything up so of course, there'll be some crossing over of material. But what should have been a trickle ends up being a flood - take the appearance of C-3PO alongside his trusty companion R2-D2. Not only it is largely unnecessary but the surprise discovery of C-3PO's creator goes against the entire grain of the saga, turning this fantastical space epic into a futuristic soap opera. Frankly, I couldn't decide whether I was more upset about that or about that damned Gungan.
Should I watch it?
For anyone new to the series, it's a serviceable entry into the saga. It's nowhere near as accomplished as the three original films and despite many claims otherwise, it also isn't the worst film in the series. The Phantom Menace has the feel of a director finding his feet again, which is exactly what Lucas was doing as he'd not directed a film since 1977. It's a work-in-progress, an unsightly mess of ideas thrown onto a screen to see what sticks. Not everything works but for anyone who missed the originals, it's perfectly acceptable entertainment.
Great For: very young children, toy shops, CG enthusiasts
Not So Great For: die-hard fans of the original trilogy, cynics, child actors
What else should I watch?
It's not just grumpy old men like me for say that the originals were the best. A New Hope kicked off the entire saga back in 1977 and simultaneously invented the concept of the blockbuster movie. The Empire Strikes Back (5) saw greater character development and one of the most infamous plot twists in film history while Return Of The Jedi is a crowd-pleasing composite of revelations, action and a truly satisfying conclusion.
The other two prequels are a bit of a mixed bag, to say the least. Attack Of The Clones is as joyless and dull as its title, swamped in excessive CG and not even improved by the appearance of Christopher Lee. Revenge Of The Sith is the best of the prequels, a dark and brooding tragedy marking the fall of the Jedi, the rise of the Sith and the fall from grace of young Anakin. But the film's still blanketed under a digital cloud and all three films lack the realism of the original three. Thank God for J.J. Abrams' brilliant return to traditional techniques and a more worn look in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (6), even if the story feels a tad familiar...