Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Directed by George Lucas
I’ve finally gotten around to that “Star Wars” Blu-ray marathon I’ve been meaning to have for a while. In a galaxy far, far away…
Some would say it’s unfortunate that any review of the “Star Wars” franchise must start with Episode I, “The Phantom Menace.” But as a child of the ‘90s, this galactic flop still holds a special place in my heart. It’s the first film I ever remember seeing in theaters as a child. I was blown away by the out-of-this-world CGI effects…even if they haven’t quite stood the test of time 15 years later. Without nearing the pop culture appeal of the originals, “The Phantom Menace” served as a worthy homage, with the classic editing techniques, dramatic dialogue, and “in medias res” approach to storytelling.
When two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to a faraway planet to negotiate a trade agreement, stubborn leaders lead to disintegrated peace talks. Queen Amidala and her trusted handmaiden Padme (Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman) are sent to aid in negotiations, but a turn of events leads them away from the hostile planet and onto Tatooine, where Qui-Gon and Padme find Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young enslaved boy who shows great Jedi potential. Qui-Gon will take Anakin under his wing and back home, but an evil Sith villain, Darth Maul (Ray Park) will do his best to stop Qui-Gonn and Obi-Wan from any further peace talks.
Maybe that isn’t the clearest plot synopsis I’ve ever written. That’s because, like the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “The Phantom Menace” doesn’t care too much about being easily understood. Even as sci-fi movies go, this story is tough. It tosses you right into a complicated universe without explaining why you see what you see. Not that you need to have a firm grasp on the story to enjoy the action unfolding before you. Since “The Phantom Menace” has such a nostalgic hold on my movie preferences, I immediately think of its exhaustive lightsaber battles when the word “epic” is uttered. The final 20 minutes of “The Phantom Menace” compete for the most action-packed minutes of the franchise.
As two incredible Jedis, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are perfect casting choices. They both possess the gravitas of the original Jedis, with the same charismatic personalities. Ten years before her first Oscar, Natalie Portman seems stiff and restricted, though. Thankfully, the adorable Jake Lloyd, as Anakin, balances the already tense drama unfolding across the galaxy with a childish appeal. The silent, brooding Darth Maul remains one of the most intense villains I’ve seen, even without a cheesy catchphrase or terrible last line. And, surprisingly, “The Phantom Menace” relies on make-up—not CGI—to craft its terrifying villain.
But it uses CGI everywhere else. Not that it’s a bad thing all the time. CGI helped make the pod racing scene so thrilling and memorable. Unfortunately, it also makes the elfish Yoda memorable…for the wrong reasons. At least “The Phantom Menace” still had Frank Oz to give Yoda that unforgettable voice. That, along with a George Lucas script and John Williams score, gave “The Phantom Menace” the feel of the original “Star Wars” trilogy…if only a little worse than before. It’s infamous, but I can’t help but thank it for getting a new generation interested in a galaxy far, far away.
P.S. Meesa thinks you should thank me for not once mentioning Jar Jar Binks.