Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – 8/10 much-sniffed-at Star Wars science fiction fantasy action adventure movie review

Cast / crew
Writer: George Lucas
Director: George Lucas
Producer: Rick McCallum
Executive Producer: George Lucas
Liam Neeson: Qui-Gon Jinn
Ewan McGregor: Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman: Queen Amidala
Natalie Portman: Padmé
Jake Lloyd: Anakin Skywalker
Pernilla August: Shmi Skyalker
Frank Oz: Yoda
Terence Stamp: Chancellor Valorum
Chris Sanders: Voice of Daultay Dofine

Star Wars: Episode I – Phantom Menace, The (1999)

As the Trade Federation is manoeuvred by the evil Darth Sidious to blockade the planet of Naboo, the young Queen Amidala determines to break out and travel to the city-planet of Coruscant and let the Republic Senate know of their situation. She is helped by two Jedi ambassadors, master Qui-Gon Jinn and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, and by an underwater resident of her planet, the Gungan Jar-Jar Binks. On their way, however, their ship is damaged and they are forced to land on the desert planet of Tatooine. With no way of getting off the desert planet and Naboo coming under increasing pressure to opt out of the Republic and become part of the Trade Federation, time is running out fast, but a chance meeting with a boy named Anakin Skywalker heralds an unexpected change in the destinies of all concerned.

8/10

Much-criticised return to directing for George Lucas but I think it is a quality blockbuster with undeniably astounding visual impact and special effects integration. An ambitious plot and a memorable new character in Liam Neeson’s pitch-perfect Qui Gon Jinn reveal that thought was spent on the story as well as the visual design and it also contains, without doubt, one of the finest swordplay duels in cinema history. I really don’t understand what many people moaned about.

This movie contains violence, unpleasant scenes.

Classified PG by BBFC. Parental Guidance.

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George Lucas, who along with Steven Spielberg (Jaws in 1975) is credited with invented the summer blockbuster, has moved the blockbuster goal-posts with this, the most eagerly anticipated movie of all time. Though regarded by almost every contemporary critic as entertaining but most definitely not classic, I feel that time this is worthy to rank alongside the other three in the trilogy.

 

The typical result with eagerly anticipated movies is that they turn out to be rather poor. When a director builds up a reputation for being great over years of inactivity (Lucas has not directed a movie since 1977 though, of course, he has not been inactive and is responsible for special effects house ILM, computer software house LucasArts and the Indiana Jones trilogy amongst many other things) the typical result usually turns out to be something rather average. Lucas is unfairly blamed for the glut of effects-heavy, character-less, story-lite, expensive and under-achieving blockbusters.

 

It is a joy to report that The Phantom Menace is far from typical, far from average and far from under-achieves. It is a spectacular, very spectacular, fantasy movie of the highest order. The Phantom Menace ups the ante in visual thrills. It redefines the possibilities of sword-play by introducing a double-bladed light saber – a cross between a Robin Hood-esque quarter-staff and a King Arthur-esque long sword. It sets new limits in CGI integration with its record-shattering level of digital effects inclusion – about 95% of the frames of the movie incorporate a digital effect of one kind or the other. In an age where audiences are becoming rather weary of frequently obvious computer-generated effects (eg. [Lost in Space]) Lucas manages to provide not one, not two but a whole stack of jaw-on-the-floor visual effects and totally convincing and spectacular vistas. In a time when originality is at a premium Lucas manages to tickle the imagination and gently massage the brain with a seemingly never-ending procession of brilliant soon-to-be-copied entries into cinema lore. And while it doesn’t boast the cinema’s first completely computer-generated character (that honour belongs to Casper, remember that?) it does boast the first completely convincing humanoid computer-generated character in the rather likeable, though critically reviled, Jar-Jar Binks.

 

Music: Williams borrows from his other movies outside of Star Wars and makes his Phantom Menace soundtrack virtually like a greatest hit compilation. For example he borrows his Nazi marches from the Indiana Jones trilogy for The Droid Invasion sequence (CD track 14) and knocks out some choral stuff reminiscent of the Schindler’s List themes for the Funeral (CD track 16). But then, after referencing past work, he pulls out the incredible Duel of the Fates which is essentially the theme for The Phantom Menace. Rendered once with a stunning male choir singing words chosen for their musicality rather than logicality and several other times using Williams’ trademark brass sections, it is probably the best thing Williams has done since 1993’s Schindler’s List. It is yet another piece of the Williams canon that sends a tingle down your spine and deserves to be ranked alongside his other half-dozen or so masterful musical moments (Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, arguably Raiders of the Lost Ark, the P-51 attack in Empire of the Sun, arguably Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List). He would go on to produce his last great score the following year with The Patriot.

 

There are problems: childish dialogue, inconsistent acting from Jake Lloyd (sometimes perfect, sometimes wooden), over-complicated political shenanigans. But the problems are forgotten and forgiven by the concluding segment of the movie which sees a four-way battle of good against bad: Queen Amidala versus battle droids infiltrating the Naboo palace, Naboo fighters attacking the planet-orbiting battle droid control ship, the Gungan army versus battle droids on a battle field and, best of all, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Darth Maul. The Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul battle is breathtaking. In a year when The Matrix was credited with re-inventing fight sequences in American cinema (and it did), Lucas reminds us that The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi beat it to the acrobatic physics-defying fighting and The Phantom Menace demonstrates that The Matrix has not (regardless of what many critics said) rendered all ‘old-fashioned’ fight sequences pointless.

 

It is difficult to see why, despite favourable contemporary reviews, critics have become sniffy and insulting ever since it was finally released.

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