Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

1999.  Directed by George Lucas.

Divisive.  CGI.  Jar Jar Binks.   Revered by children and a fringe group of hardcore fans, The Phantom Menace is considered one of the most heartbreaking returns to a classic universe in the history of film.

The galaxy is on the brink of war.   The trade federation, in league with sinister agents, is holding the planet Naboo hostage.  Two Jedi, mystical peacekeepers, are sent to begin negotiations to deescalate the conflict.  Things quickly go awry and the Jedi are on the run with Naboo's sovereign leader.  Along the way they encounter Anakin Skywalker, a boy who holds the key to bringing balance and peace to the universe once and for all.  

The strongest aspect of this film is the world building, particularly in the Jedi, both in their behavior and how they are perceived by the world around them.  Two particular scenes that stand out: First, when the Trade Viceroy realizes that he has failed to kill the Jedi during ambush and states "We will not survive this".  It is very early in the film and clearly defines the Jedi as quasi-apathetic killing machines, constantly struggling to find the ultimate balance in their emotions.  The second is during Darth Maul's initial appearance.  Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn immediately ignites his lightsaber, gets his charge on the ship, and orders them to take off, leaving him on his own.  It's that split second, selfless decision making that brings an element of depth to this film that is often overlooked.  

Obviously the script is one of the weaker elements, but Lucas manages to arrange the pieces on the board and set the stage for the disasters to come.  Some may say that the albatross is a certain CGI lunatic, but I contend the fault in The Phantom Menace is that it doesn't have a central protagonist.  There are heroes and villains, but this film is laying the groundwork for a monument to the stars while simultaneously trying to entice new scores of younger viewers.  Even the climatic final duel (while an amazing action sequence) lacks heart and it's due to limited time with the central cast.  There's simply so much going on that it's hard to focus on any one thing over the others.  

Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman do what they can with the little that have.  One thing that does work well is Paul Engelen's make up and Trisha Biggar's costume design.  Their designs depict the characters in the height of the republic, contrasting the lived-in-grit of the original trilogy.  This was a controversial choice, but when looking at the entire story, it was a bold and important decision that paid off.  This is the world before the dark times.  

John Williams' is in top form as always, with his Duel of the Fates easily stealing the entire film.  The film was nominated for three academy awards (Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing) and lost to the Matrix, but the film's visual appeal is delightful most of the time.  The pod race sequence can be like dental work, but that is due more to the script and dubious acting than the eye popping images flooding your retina.  

I remember viewing this in college and feeling empty when I left the theater.  Not disappointment, but hungry for more because I knew the potential was there.  Lucas wet every fan's appetite for better or worse with this film and it paid off, bringing two more films in the prequel trilogy and setting up 2015's blockbuster episode 7.  

Available now digitally, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a film maligned by many, but regardless of personal feelings over the source material and the Star Wars universe, as a film, it's a special effects buffet popcorn experience that works, if you unplug and have some fun with it.  

It's Such a Beautiful Day

It's Such a Beautiful Day

Seconds

Seconds