If you’ve lived in a cave for the past twenty-five years, you may be the only one unfamiliar with the Star Wars saga. It’s been a mere sixteen years since George Lucas delivered the last chapter in this science fiction space opera. For the fourth film, he goes back in time, creating a prequel to the original trilogy. Lucas has gotten rusty, and it shows in quite a few places. But he still has the heart of a visionary, and when that shines through, The Phantom Menace is a wonder to behold.
The action starts with two Jedi knights, an apprentice, Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor), and a master, Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), who are sent to negotiate a settlement between the evil Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo. Little do they know that the Trade Federation is being manipulated by a mysterious Sith Lord named Darth Sideous, and his pupil, the sinister Darth Maul (Ray Park).
The humans of Naboo are ruled by an elected monarch, the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Amidala refuses to buckle to the Trade Federation’s demands, and is hoping for action from the Republic’s senate to end the blockade of her homeworld. Could her strong stance doom her peaceful planet to an invasion?
Meanwhile, on the remote outer-rim planet of Tatooine, a young boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) lives with his mother (Pernilla August) in the service of the alien junk dealer, Watto. Anakin is gifted: a superb pilot, an expert mechanic, and strong in the Force. A twist of fate draws all of these characters together, and the adventure begins…
When Lucas crafted the original Star Wars, he had to build it as a stand-alone film, in case it turned out to be a flop. Even the “Episode IV” moniker was not applied until the film’s first theatrical re-release. The film was required to stand on its own merits, and it did so…with flying colors.
The Phantom Menace faces some of the same challenges of Star Wars: it must introduce a pantheon of new characters, and dazzle audiences now accustomed to impressive special effects. However, Lucas is now viewing the film as merely a cog as part of a larger whole…and that outlooks harms the film. Sorely needed plot and character development has been put on hold (with the assumed intention that they will be expanded upon on Episode 2 and Episode 3.) While it may make for a more integrated larger saga, The Phantom Menace is left as a much weaker film.
No where is that more evident than in the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ewan McGregor is an extremely talented actor, but you would not be able to tell from his role in The Phantom Menace. He’s given one pivotal scene at the end, but aside from that he could nearly be an extra. Obi-Wan Kenobi shall be developed more fully in future episodes, but here he’s sorely underused.
On the opposite side of the spectrum stands a new character named Jar Jar Binks. When a creature is designed with the express purpose of being cute and lovable, it rarely is. Such is the case with Jar Jar, a clumsy amphibian filling the “Chewbacca slot” as the unusual alien sidekick. Overused throughout the movie, and annoying after a mere fifteen seconds, he also has the dubious distinction of introducing (or is that reducing) the Star Wars saga to the realm childish bathroom jokes.
The rest of the cast fall squarely in the middle, giving as good of performances as can be expected, considering they’re playing second fiddle to the special effects. Liam Neeson gives his Jedi warrior a stoic dignity beyond that allocated by the script. Pernilla August and Jake Lloyd have a few touching scenes, but Natalie Portman is mainly left to bark pompous declarations.
The film starts horribly, with a cryptically confusing opening crawl. It introduces a few token villains, perhaps the most unconvincing aliens in the entire series, and after a few minor, hastily edited action sequences brings us to the grating introduction of Jar Jar. Things look bleak, and they continue to get worse… But hold on, the movie does improve (quite a bit, actually). By the time the action reaches Tatooine, things are beginning to get in stride. The film ends with a rousing finale, during which even Jar Jar Binks doesn’t seem all that bad.
In his previous Star Wars films, George Lucas had assistance crafting the dialogue (Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck helped with Star Wars, and Lawrence Kasdan with Empire and Jedi). In the Phantom Menace, Lucas braves it alone…and it shows. The dialogue is clumsy and wooden throughout, and there are rarely any good character building moments.
But the Star Wars saga has never been about dialogue (even though the dialogue in Empire helped make it the best of the series), but entertainment. And on this level, The Phantom Menace delivers. The special effects are truly that, outstanding in a world where we’ve come to take awesome effects for granted. The action sequences (particularly the pod race) are exhilarating, and the film boasts the finest swordfighting of the series.
Still, amid the excitement, there’s something missing. The previous three films had villains who provided a tangible sense of evil. Episode One isn’t called The Phantom Menace for nothing…the menace here is entirely insubstantial. There is no good bad guy. Darth Maul comes close, but his menace is more symbolic than substantial. Though the fight sequences are wonderfully choreographed, there is no real impetus behind them…no emotional weight. Darth Maul and Darth Sideous are woefully underdeveloped, and the film suffers for it.
With the previous three films, Lucas has set a high standard for himself and the Star Wars saga…a standard that The Phantom Menace just doesn’t reach. As a film in its own right, it’s woefully sleight, but as entertaining a summer movie as you might hope for. The Phantom Menace may be the least of the four Star Wars movies, but it is still a rousing good time.