Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

on May 19, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
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It's true that no film could have lived up to the hype surrounding the release of "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace." Indeed, no film in history has had people lined up six weeks in advance, toy stores mobbed at midnight and phone lines jammed the moment tickets went on sale. But to have the film in question disappoint on so many levels is, well, exasperating. George Lucas' talents as a director and a storyteller haven't blossomed in the 22-year leave he's taken since "Star Wars" first appeared on the bigscreen. Instead, they've withered while his gift as a digital artist has bloomed.
   The story of Darth Vader's origin, "The Phantom Menace" focuses on the peaceful planet of Naboo's efforts to ward off an attack by the greedy Trade Federation. Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) escort Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to the Galactic Senate in Coruscant to plead for the protection of her people. En route, they make a prolonged pit stop at Tatooine, a desert planet ruled by gangsters, to make repairs on their damaged ship. It's there that Qui-Gon discovers a slave boy by the name of Anakin Skywalker, in whom he senses the power of the Force.
   When this rebel band finally arrives in Coruscant, a planet blanketed by skyscrapers, the Senate forestalls addressing the Queen's concerns by forming a bureaucratic committee. Also, the Jedi Council denies Qui-Gon's request to make Anakin his apprentice, sensing in him not only the Force but also a tremendous amount of fear. As Yoda tells him, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." (Foreshadowing, anyone?) They then return to Naboo to defeat the Federation on their own.
   Consisting of four separate battles, the climax embodies the basic problem of the film: over-saturation. There are simply too many characters and too much going on to care about any of it. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take on Darth Maul (Ray Park), a villain who could have eclipsed Darth Vader had he not just been a lap dog for the bad guy, in an operatic two-on-one light saber brawl. Meanwhile, Naboo's underwater residents battle the droid army, the Queen breaks into her own castle, and Anakin saves the day by accident.
   While consummate actors, the cast has too little to do here. Portman's delivery is stiff and flat, perhaps hindered by the gorgeous but cumbersome costumes designed by Trisha Biggar. Qui-Gon's fate is undramatic, simply because we haven't had the time to get to know him (nor young Obi-Wan, for that matter). Lloyd rattles off his lines like he's the star in a grade school Christmas play, and supercool Samuel L. Jackson is grossly underused.
   Lucas' digital work, while visually stunning, distracts from what little story there is. A kind of sidekick to Qui-Gon, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a floppy-eared amphibian with a Jamaican accent who's constantly getting in the way, resembles the annoying chameleon creature in "Lost in Space," only he's life-size and talks. The Podrace on Tatooine--a heart-racing but long and extraneous scene drawn directly from the speederbike chase in "Return of the Jedi"--puts a pause on the pace of the plot. And the completely digital ground war looks like a cartoon posing as live action.
   "Star Wars'" biggest problem, though, is that it's beloved by a generation who were kids when it first came out; their passion is based on nostalgia. But it's been 22 years since "Star Wars" premiered, and now those hardcore fans are adults. Yet Lucas still makes his movies for kids. Arguably, he's introducing the legacy to a new generation, and today's children will remember "Episode I" as fondly as the series' loyalists recall "Episode 4." But the majority of today's moviegoers aren't watching in wide-eyed wonderment anymore. Eye candy isn't a reward in and of itself--it has to be backed by substance. Reviews    Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd. Written and directed by George Lucas. Produced by Rick McCallum. A Fox release. Science fiction. Rated PG for sci-fi action/violence. Running time: 131 min.
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