One of, if not THE most anticipated film of recent memory, especially in the summer of 1999, scored enormous box-office returns and breathed new life into the Star Wars phenomenon in 1999. By going back to the past, Lucas laid the ground work for the entire saga. Not an easy task, but one pulled off with relative ease and skill in my opinion....
“Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” is a visually stunning film, wearing its mythological underpinnings on its sleeve, it reminds us why we fell in love with that galaxy far, far away in the first place....
The best character from the film and the best addition to a Star Wars film since Yoda is Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. Liam Neeson plays him with quiet dignity and intensity. A great character that comes off looking not so good in the grand scheme of things considering his rebellious streak is one of the main ingredients that unknowingly triggers the Jedi orders obliteration.
His best scenes are with young Anakin on Tatooine; acting very much like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Star Wars version of the coming of the Savior. Upon meeting the intimidating Jedi, the boy says, “I saw your laser sword. Only Jedi’s carry that type of weapon.” In pure test mode, Jinn replies with a steely eye, “Maybe I killed him and took it from him?” without a beat Anakin replies, “No one can kill a Jedi.” Jinn perhaps instantly humbled by the boys naiveté says, “I wish that were true.” An instant bond between the two as Jinn realizes this boy is THE one. His important scene with Anakin’s mother, Shmi is solid too. Telling her her son is destined to do great things.
Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker has taken a beating by the critics over the years for his performance. For me, he did what all nine year-olds do, act like a KID! Children at that age are not good actors, (Henry Thomas of E.T. is an exception) they can be taught to be good mimics, but for the most have no life experience to use their emotions to create a performance. Lloyd was hired to portray Anakin as a wide-eyed, kind-hearted little kid and it worked. He has two stand out moments in the film; When he tells his mom goodbye and when he asks Obi Wan “What will happen to me now?” during the funeral of Qui Gon. Jake has nothing on Edward Furlong- THE worst kid performance of all time in "Terminator 2" and he was older! Ugh.
Ewan McGregor does a fine job as young Obi Wan Kenobi. The future liar and crazy old wizard living in the Tatooine desert makes for some groovy foreshadowing with his appearance. His scenes are limited when they are on the desert world, but he shows up in fighting form when they venture back to Coruscant to fight Darth Maul. My quibble with his performance is he should have been the “cynical one” everyone was clamoring for. A snide remark here, a cynical eye there, would have spiced the relationship up between he and Jinn, but as it is, it works fine. I understand what Lucas was doing by not bringing a cynical character; this is a different era, a different political landscape that doesn’t call for it. It would make about as much sense as putting a hip-hop rapper in a post civil war drama. Still it’s a great performance that would make the late Alec Guiness proud for sure.
Natalie Portman does fine as the beleaguered queen. She’s more of a reactor than actor so the claims of her being a stiff are misguided. And since she is a queen, she’s going to keep her emotions close to the vest trying to remain as classy and dignified as possible. She livens up when Maul shows up on Naboo, as her and her soldiers witness Maul’s entrance, she quips, “We’ll take the long way.”
And what of Jar Jar Binks? One of the most relentlessly and needlessly picked on characters since the Ewoks can’t get a break. Is he annoying? I don’t know, Robert DeNiro, and Christian Bale are two of the obnoxious hacks to me, so everything is relative I suppose...He serves his purpose and the hate aimed at him is over-stated.
Did Lucas get a little too crazy with his technology and go over-the-top, yes he did, but that’s ok, because I can’t bash a guy having fun with a new toy. At the end if the day, in no way shape or form does the character ruin the movie for me. Binks was a first for Lucas and he’s obviously having a blast, for example take a look at the scene during the battle droid melee with those big blue energy balls chasing Binks, Lucas shows more of his cinematic inspirations as Jar Jar’s reactions are straight out of the silent era with the Gungan channeling Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
I will defend the characters existence by saying Binks’ inspiration comes from Akira Kirasowa’s “The Hidden Fortress”. The peasant characters in that film act just like Binks; they are the fools, the non-believers. Their purpose and Jar Jar’s is to react, not to act. His function is to hide and make amusing comments, not to display heroism, although it happens accidentally. Also too, his naiveté is used to full advantage in “Attack of the Clones” as he willingly hands Palpatine the proverbial keys to the kingdom.
And yet another misunderstood plot point- “Midichlorians.” Many claimed it reduced Star Wars spiritually down to mere science-fiction and it removed the spirituality seen in the original films- NO it did not and that was by design. Why would it still be the same considering that is one of the main reasons why the Jedi were eradicated? Makes no sense! Only for those not paying attention would the Midichlorians not make sense, but one must look a little deeper. The MIDIS are NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT the Force, but mere messengers of it; the allow the communication happen... convoluted? No. Biology and spirituality are inseparable in our world so it’s easy to accept that it’s inseparable in the Star Wars universe as well. Even though they are linked, they have their own distinctions. Conceiving a child is biology, Immaculate Conception is spirituality/religion. One can be proven; the other is based on faith. The prequel trilogy is biology, the classic trilogy is spirituality/faith.
I believe the Midichlorians concept works for several reasons; it explains Anakin’s virgin birth scenario and sets him up as being very powerful. It further explains the Jedi Prophecy of the one who brings balance to the force. It shows how clueless the Jedi were/are in not considering the prophecy was in favor of the Dark Side. The Siths had been extinct for almost a millennia, it makes only sense that the Jedi’s days were numbered. Also too, it shows how cavalier the Jedi’s perspective of the Force and its uses. Qui Gon especially, he tells Obi Wan to live in the now. Don’t worry about the future. He tells Anakin of the living force. It seems to be regarded as merely a tool, a selfish device to get from A to B. On several occasions it’s used for attack while in battle. As opposed to the classic trilogy when an older and wiser Yoda instructs Luke in a reverential, cautionary tone, of the Dark side, its seductive qualities and the danger it holds. This is where people miss the point, it doesn’t contradict the Force origins, the midis are merely messengers/conduits of the Force. What old Ben and tell Luke is still relevant, only their tune had changed considerably.
The Prequel trilogy Jedis see the Force as something you are born with, biology. No more, no less. If you have it, use it. It became a crutch of sorts to settle disputes. They didn’t bother getting to the heart of the problem, use the Force, it will solve it. Much like Big Government thinkers and rational people. The Prequel kids relied too much on the Force for things; meetings, policy- trying to find meanings - stuff that should have been handled with a “human touch,” instead of clinging to tradition and ‘big government. ‘The original trilogy, Jedi, Yoda and Ben have learned their lessons big time and see the Force as spiritually; something bigger than the person using it; a source of comfort and especially strength. Luke was asked to look inside himself and find the courage and strength BEFORE tapping into this mysterious Force, the most important thing was to rely on yourself.
Not the other way around.
It was something you use only when necessary. If you abuse it, or don’t acknowledge its power, it will get you, i.e. turn you over to the Darkside, hence Darth Vader. Qui-Gon didn’t mention Darkside stuff because it hadn’t happened yet, Anakin was yet to be turned. Luke was a good person, Ben and Yoda knew that so they instilled fear and patience of the Force. They didn’t feed his ego like Anakin, who was constantly told he was the most powerful-ever and the Force was his tool, not the other way around.
Power corrupts indeed.
The supporting cast is fine as well. Pernilla August, a former- regular of Ingmar Bergman, shows the correct amount of kindness and warmth as Skywalker’s mother. The droids, C-3PO & R2-D2 make their way as we see their origins. Anakin being a mechanical fix-it wiz built the prissy protocol droid as a helper to his mother having no idea he was making a metallic big brother for Luke and Leia in the original films. R2-D2 once again, rises to the occasion to save human asses. This time he’s on board Padme’s royal starship and literally rolls into action. As R2 is in fix-it mode, there is a shot of him that is identical from ANH when the little droid is repairing the Falcon’s hyperdrive.
Ian McDirmid, once again gives credibility to even the most fleeting of scenes. Future Emperor and all around galactic asshole, is an idealistic, kindly old politician from the Frank Capra universe on the surface, but underneath is a cold, menacing peace of evil shit that’s equal parts Hitler, George W. Bush and Niccolò Machiavelli. He doesn’t have a lot to do in TPM other than getting elected, but that’s good enough as we see him showing off his skills as a politician and he does have the films best and eeriest line, after destroying the contrived drama with the Trade Federation, he looks at Anakin with a glib smile on his face says, “I’ll be watching your career with great interest, young Skywalker.”
Ray Parks as Darth Maul is excellent, his brief character serves merely as a bulldog, an attacker only. His fight with the Jedi’s is just one of the many highlights. His return on "Clone Wars" is pleasant surprise!
The special-effects are a marvel. Simply breathtaking as ILM shows us why they are the best at what they do. One fantastic shot after another. Some folks have claimed Lucas has crammed too much into a shot, damn right! We are along for a ride, why not enjoy it? A complaint that is constantly thrown out there, but is wrong is the lack of model use. Actually, this film and its sequels use more model work than in the original trilogy. Same goes for location shooting. Yep, wipe your tears, fanboys, it’s true!
Along with its lush visual and production design, the film’s thematic beauty is satisfying as well. Queen Amidala and Senator Palpatine are both ensconced in duality. The queen is constantly trading places with her handmaidens and Palpatine as both the kindly Senator and the evil Lord Sidious. However, the films biggest thematic statement is the loss of innocence by virtually all the main characters; Queen Amidala and her first planetary crisis and the Senate ruckus, Anakin Skywalker leaving his mother too soon, Obi Wan Kenobi and the rest of the Jedi order dealing with the death of Qui Gon Jinn. The biggest loss is for the Republic itself as the ending shows us that it sure it looks happy, but actually the bad guys win- Palpatine elected and the Jedi have Anakin.
Director George Lucas acquitted himself nicely and the small amount of complaints about his abilities are unfounded. I find it odd most people have no clue about what it takes it make a movie or the process of acting, yet they suddenly think they are Lee Strasberg and know it all when it comes to Lucas and his handling of his actors. These films are not meant to be be acting showcases, the originals weren’t, and no one goes in for a SW experience to see Meryl Streep. The acting is fine…
A review of Star Wars can not exist without the mentioning of composer John Williams. Great work all around, Duel of the Fates is easily one of his best pieces of work, the best in the film.
The Rodney Dangerfield of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace, I predict, will get its respect over time and it slowly has. I’ve always felt from the very beginning, that if you don’t like this film and the sequels that followed, you were never that big a fan to begin with. This film was never meant to be hip or cool, by the measure of today’s standards, as it is a work from the heart and not pandering to the idiot fanboy masses. Every dog has its day as the fanboys who felt spurned will grow up, grow some emotions, cram their whiny, bullcrap bromides and enjoy the touch of females.When they do, this film will be looked at with less scrutiny and admired for the artistry behind it, no matter the flaws.
For this fan, but far from perfect, the film has and always will be one of great accomplishment, wonder and fun, an old fashion adventure from a bygone era. An ambitious beginning that lays the groundwork to the eight-part saga (and beyond) we all know and love. The films continue to enchant as a new generation of fans discover it.