LUCASFILM LTD. / 20th CENTURY FOX (1999)

Director: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Ahmed Best, Ray Park, Pernilla August

Sixteen years after Return of the Jedi (1983), The Phantom Menace was the film many thought they’d never get to see. Set 32 years before the events of A New Hope (1977), The Phantom Menace sets the wheels in motion for the events that led to the fall of the Republic and Jedi, the rise of the Galactic Empire and the transformation of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader. The first chapter of the saga must surely be an incredible return to the galaxy and a brilliant first building block? Not entirely no, in fact, it’s disappointing.

I’ll start with the positives. The film isn’t as bad as the world would have you believe, for a start. We are shown Obi-Wan Kenobi as an apprentice learning his way as a Jedi, and McGregor does the best that he can with script he has.

Liam Neeson’s casting as the wise yet defiant Qui-Gon was a great choice; Neeson brings his trademark intensity and brooding nature to the role and has the authority to pull off his position. Ian McDiarmid is wonderful as the charming Senator Palpatine, a seemingly genuine man with a dark side (pun intended? You decide). We get taken to new planets and environments that previously hadn’t been seen in the saga before (mainly due to effects and budgetary constraints) and with it bring new ships and technology. Lucas was expanding the world he created, and that can only be a good thing. I also liked the political machinations that were occurring – just like real life eh?

 

The movie looks great, in terms of Visual FX of the day – Lucas has always been a pioneer of visual technology and The Phantom Menace introduced a wave of technology that was new to everyone, and later imitated by many. The planets looked great, especially the trickery employed to expand upon Campania, Italy to create Naboo, which looked beautiful. The podracing scene looks superb, the wide shots of Tozeur in Tunisia feel like Star Wars, and the racers look at home speeding through the canyons and terrain. The shots in space also look great, and no effort was spared creating the visuals – even Jar Jar looked OK at the time. Similarly, as to be expected, the sound is out of this world (no pun intended) especially during the podrace.  Also, who doesn’t love the sound of a lightsaber activating?

 

Darth Maul. What an awesome villain…he could’ve been. Silent for the majority of the movie, Maul prowled across the movie like a…phantom menace, seemingly providing a worth enemy for the Jedi and brandishing a super cool double lightsaber. It’s a huge shame his character was wasted.

 

The movies final battle is epic. In a hangar on Naboo, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul engage in a fierce lightsaber fight, set to John Williams’ incredible ‘Duel of the Fates’ score. Highly choreographed, but unlike any saber battle seen before, it’s one of the best moments in the entire saga, let alone the movie.

 

Now, what wasn’t very good? The script is bad, real bad. The actors delivering the lines don’t seem to fully understand them at times, and if they do, they seem perplexed that they have to actually read them – all leading to some very wooden performances, devoid of life and the spark shown in the previous three movies.

 

The battle droids started off as unworthy foes, and as the movie went on became less and less of a ‘threat’ as they were easily cut down by the Jedi and the Gungan army. They seemed to be employed only for bad comic relief, bumbling around repeating “Roger Roger” and not serving any purpose as a legitimate adversary. I think my Nan could take these guys down.

 

The midichlorians and what they stand for. Attempting to demystify the Force and claim it to be something that can be passed down, or in your blood, is sacrilege to what came before. Burn the idea.

 

Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker. Cutting the lad some slack, he was a young boy given a naff script, but I wish even he had decided to cut down on the “woos!” and “yee-haa’s!” that punctuate every scene where he is required to do anything remotely testing. It would’ve been nice for the character to have been less…nice, and more foreshadowing been shown as to who he would become.

 

Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader created C-3PO? Come on…

 

Jar Jar Binks. Where to start? The horrific decision to give him that voice? His mannerisms? Disgustingly annoying clumsiness at all times? Stepping in “poodoo”? His general inclusion is the reason. Such a terrible character and whatever Lucas was thinking in his head, it surely couldn’t have been what materialised on screen. In an attempt to appeal to the youngest of children, he created an utter turd. An extremely distracting presence on screen and really did drag the movie down badly.

 

As a reintroduction to the world of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace had almost impossibly high expectations tagged on to it and unfortunately did not scale the heights it was hoped/expected it would. Frustratingly, hidden beneath the script delivery, the bad comedy and Jar Jar is a good basis for a story and with a few tweaks, adjustments and omissions could really have been a pretty damn good film. Beyond the negatives, there are a lot of positives throughout and moments that stand up to others in the whole saga – so it isn’t all doom and gloom. It just could’ve been so much more.

 

The Force was not strong this time.

November 13th 2016

© 2016 Matt Hudson / What I Watched Tonight / Essex

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