Review: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are tasked with venturing to the planet Naboo to negotiate an end to a blockade by the Trade Federation. However, things break down in an attack engineered by the shadowy Darth Sidious, and they must whisk Naboo’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to safety. They eventually make a stop on Tatooine to find parts to repair their ship. There Qui-Gon makes fast friends with a young aspiring pod-racer named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). A slave along with his mother (played by Pernilla August), Qui-Gon senses great Force capabilities in the young boy. Ahmed Best does a motion-capture performance as Jar-Jar Binks, a well-meaning, but accident prone Gungan, whom Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan encounter and can’t seem to get rid of. Ian McDiarmid plays scheming Senator Palpatine, Ray Park is the formidable assassin Darth Maul, Samuel L. Jackson plays a Jedi named Mace Windu, Terence Stamp plays the Chancellor, whilst old friends C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2D2 (Kenny Baker), and Yoda (Frank Oz) all turn up.
For years I defended the prequels, even had all three of them in my Top 200 Films of All-Time, with this 1999 George Lucas flick in my Top 10. After viewing “The Force Awakens”, in a moment of revelation, I had realised that I probably didn’t need to keep on watching the prequels anymore. However, in order to be sure, I figured I’d watch the first two again (“Revenge of the Sith” was always the weakest of the three and my memory of it is still pretty fresh. Funny thing is, even now it’s still the best film of 2005. So it’s still a damn good film). Well, in the case of this film at least, it actually holds up pretty well, though I’m moving it down the pecking order to #81, where “Attack of the Clones” previously sat. That film’s fate I will leave for a separate review. Credibility be damned, I still like all three films a lot, and especially “The Phantom Menace” (A film which marked my first-ever midnight movie screening, which was exciting). However, it’s time to be more critical, take off the rose-coloured glasses and acknowledge that indeed there are a lot of flaws in these films, even this one that overall comes off still looking terrific. The reason why I’m bumping it down the list somewhat is because I don’t have the same emotional attachment to it that I do with the original trilogy, nor the emotional reaction that I had to “The Force Awakens”.
I loved a lot of this film. While not every actor in the prequels appeared to be having fun, it’s undeniable that Ewan McGregor was clearly having a ball making these films, and he’s a good choice for the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. His Alec Guinness imitation gets more pronounced in the next film, but you can definitely still hear it in this one. Meanwhile, Ian McDiarmid is quite clearly the acting standout in the trilogy. In particular, his performance in the final scenes is just lip-smackingly brilliant slippery villainy. A lot of people threw faecal matter (not literally, mind you) at poor young Jake Lloyd, whose career never recovered, and for me the criticism was way, way too harsh. I think those critical of Lloyd’s performance are really bothered by the characterisation, which is actually the work of writer-director Lucas. I think Lloyd plays the role perfectly well given his age and does so based on what he has been instructed to do. Others will disagree, but I love that Lucas has presented the future Darth Vader as a typical little boy with only very small hints of anything potentially corruptible inside of him yet. ‘Yippie!’ aside, the interpretation makes perfect sense to me and I really liked it (I also have zero issues with Midichlorians. Deal with it). Liam Neeson is fine as Qui-Gon Jinn, though he seems to have a bit of trouble keeping the correct eye-line during scenes where he’s interacting with digital characters (Peter Jackson and his team would master this technological issue for the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy). At the very least, Neeson’s well-cast in a sage mentor role. Less effective is Natalie Portman. Natalie Portman can be a terrific actress. I’ve seen evidence of this in “Heat”, “Beautiful Girls” and her Oscar-winning turn in “Black Swan”. You won’t find anything in this trilogy to support this notion, however. I don’t know whether she quickly grew unhappy with being in the blockbuster franchise, or if Lucas just didn’t do a good job of directing her, or maybe it was the dialogue that tripped her up. The dialogue certainly fouled things up in the next two films quite a bit for some of the actors. Whatever the reason might be, in a franchise that features Hayden Christensen, and a couple of newbie kids, the Oscar-winning actress is pretty amateurish (especially in the subsequent two films) and stilted (particularly in this one with her faux-regal speak). Meanwhile, Terence Stamp gets sweet bugger all to do in a useless cameo.
The special FX are strangely both a plus and a minus in the film. Gungan City still looks amazing in 2016, and in fact the various landscapes and interiors throughout are all wonderful and interesting to a certain extent. Despite obvious green-screen I still love the visual design of the senate sequence. Look for cameos by Wookiiees as well as E.T. and his family. That’s just awesome. I also have to say that the Naboo Cruiser is by far the coolest vehicle featured in the prequels. I want one. Even the majority of the CGI creatures hold up well enough that they look rubbery, if anything. I think that’s a plus, because at least they look tangible, in that sense instead of looking like flat cartoon images. So, in many respects the film looks excellent and still holds up better than many films from the late 90s on an FX level, if not quite as effective as the “Lord of the Rings” films. However, it’s very obvious that Lucas has gone too far in employing digital FX to the point where I feel like something is lost. I didn’t feel it at the time, but I definitely felt while watching “The Force Awakens”, that the mostly practical FX in that film gave me more of an emotional reaction. These films seem somewhat sterile and have one feeling a bit detached, like everything appears to be too pristine and untarnished (aside from fucking lens flares. Yes, Lucas employs lens flares!), and therefore unreal and un-relatable (Meanwhile, some of the CGI in “The Force Awakens” rubbed me the wrong way, because it felt out of place with the rest!). I also have to say that I’m not overly keen on the design of the Battle Droids. I mean, not only are they beige (Really? That’s just setting them up for failure), but they’re the most emaciated, weak-looking things I’ve seen in a “Star Wars” film.
However, one thing I do think people have been a bit silly about is the racialisation of the various characters here. Yes, the scheming Trade Federation people sound Asian, but really? Is this even a thing we need to worry about? It’s “Star Wars”, they’re aliens, and people would complain if they were all white Anglo Saxons or American/English accents anyway. It’s just dumb. I’m less enamoured with Jar-Jar Binks, but not for being a racial stereotype. At the time, my take was that George Lucas was making this film for the youngsters of 1999, and being 19 at the time, I wasn’t the target market, so I gave Jar-Jar a pass. He made the original “Star Wars” films for kids too, people seem to forget. Seeing the film again 17 years later…yeah, I get the hate. He’s pretty fucking annoying, though I still think some of that is due to my age then and now. Talk to someone who was a kid when this came out, and they probably liked the guy. He’s certainly not as annoying and lame as Gen. Grievous in “Revenge of the Sith”.
It’s a shame that he was a one-and-done character, but everything about Darth Maul is frigging cool here. Hell, even his hologram entrance is freaking bad arse, and his big fight scene is one of the film’s highlights for sure. Unfortunately, his fate was to be this film’s Boba Fett or Captain Phasma. As for old friends C3PO and R2D2, I found their comedic antics in the other two films rather annoying and I could take or leave them in “The Force Awakens”, but here we get to see their initial meeting and it’s hilarious. Meanwhile, Baby Greedo is…everything. So cute. Look out for an excellent cameo by Tuskan Raiders, who here appear to be the “Star Wars” universe equivalent of drunken yokels taking shots at pod-racers.
Aside from the brilliant sound design, the film’s strong suit for me is the action, and boy does it ever work on that level. The pod race is one of the few truly joyous, fun moments in this trilogy, as most of the rest is political machinations that only get darker as the trilogy goes on. It’s a fun scene, though I could’ve done without Greg Proops providing comedic narration, giving it a bit of a “Wacky Racers” vibe it didn’t need. Aside from Jar-Jar’s slapsticky intrusions, the final 20-30 minutes of action is everything you love about “Star Wars”, just with more focus on modern computer FX. It’s great, rousing stuff and the FX still hold up, sterile as they may be. While I personally prefer Count Dooku vs. CGI Yoda in “Attack of the Clones”, the two-on-one handicap lightsabre duel here is still sensational. It also leads me to one of the film’s unquestionable highlights, the score by John Williams (“Jaws”, “Star Wars”, “Superman”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). I was disappointed with his rather ‘Greatest Hits’-sounding work on “The Force Awakens”, but his work in this film is freaking epic stuff. I was less impressed with the overall pacing of the film, it’s in serious need of an editor, and I don’t mean fan edits that remove all the Jar-Jar. This one’s a bit draggy at times.
Seeing this film again in 2016, I’m pleased to report that it holds up surprisingly well. I don’t have the great emotional attachment to it that I do with other “Star Wars” films, but of all the prequels, this one still deserves to be called great entertainment.