Break out the R2-D2 costume, the Yoda puppet, and Jabba the Hutt: Star Wars is back, with Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
If this were any other movie, it would have had the most horrible, over-long, dumb-sounding title in history. If this were any other movie, I’d have been laughing at all the wrong places. If this were any other movie… well, this isn’t any other movie, is it? Far from it. The most anticipated movie, some say, since Gone With the Wind, and when a screen of blue text reading “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” gets enormous applause, that’s hard not to believe.
Let’s cut to the chase. Episode I is a reasonably worthy entry into the Lucas oeuvre, but die-hard fans of the series are bound to be disappointed, mainly because, plot-wise, the episode is largely recycled from the original Star Wars and Return of the Jedi.
Episode I is at its most thrilling when it’s doing something completely new (and nobody’s talking). In this case, it’s the much-vaunted pod race, where a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, destined to become Darth Vader in an episode or two) shows off his uncanny agility, cunning, and precognition. The pod race lasts maybe seven minutes, and it had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
George Lucas has really outdone himself when it comes to integrating computer imagery with reality. Screw Jurassic Park: This stuff looks real. I had originally thought the skinny droids from the commercials looked a bit fake. Not so on the big screen. Finally someone has crossed the line where reality and fantasy are indistinguishable.
Sadly, there’s not as much luck with the Gungan, the race of amphibioid creatures which our heroes (Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewon McGregor, respectively)) band with to save the planet of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). The Gungan, personified in the Chewy-esque, floppy-eared Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is not the best-animated digital persona I’ve ever seen. And he speaks a pidgin English that becomes bothersome after five minutes, incomprehensible after ten.
And let’s not forget that Lucas’s last Star Wars film was Jedi, a good movie when it came out in 1983, but hardly the best of the series. Apparently, 16 years haven’t resulted in many new ideas: The climactic end of Episode I features (no surprise this one) intercutting among a space battle, an all-out land war, and a light-saber duel. Sound familiar? Well, that’s the way all these movies have ended, more or less. And frankly, it’s getting a bit predictable and tiresome. I won’t tell you whether good or evil wins this time out.
My disappointment with the ending notwithstanding, Episode I is a heart-thumper of a film. It really gets the blood going, and, for all its clichés, my soul was with the good guys here. Yes, I’m ready for Episode II, as watching young Skywalker become corrupted by the dark side has got to be one hell of a story. Again, it’s a cliché, but that Good vs. Evil thing gets me every time. [Too bad, that’ll have to wait for Episode III.]
No, it’s already been said that The Phantom Menace is not a Great Film. It’s an event movie. One made to be enjoyed on a visceral level, not something that you watch for its witty dialogue (think Mark Hamill).
In the end, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to watch the movie. A piece of advice: Use the Force.
Yoda: Shut yo mouth!
Review by Christopher Null © 1999 filmcritic.com