Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Retro Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

Here are some updated thoughts (2015):  This review is likely to blow your mind . . . or cause you to blow your brains out.  First let’s jump into the wayback machine . . .

Sixteen years have passed since The Phantom Menace was released.  Back in 1999 I must have been jacked up on nostalgia laced Kool-Aid (and Milk Duds), driving my bias off the deep end.  And for good reason.  I’ve often thought how the 1977 original affected me, and I credit it for many of the “right” choices I would later make in life when I could have very easily been influenced by much darker choices.  For that reason the franchise means more to me than cosplay or nerdism or conventions or a reason to bash George Lucas or a fantastical adventure.  It goes far beyond nostalgia.  It goes to the core of who I became.  Star Wars: A New Hope was a form of escapism for me that went far beyond a form of entertainment.  It was a way to escape a self destructive sibling, abusive siblings, poverty, and a broken family.  So how can I blame myself for being so positive in my review of this movie those sixteen years ago?  And who could fairly criticize me for giving it the positive score I did, not knowing the tangible and real bias behind it?  Not an artificial “Lulz, Star Wars is so wizard Ani!  Let’s dress up as bikini Leia and go to a con to see if our piccies go viral on teh Instagrams!” fanboyism bias, but something more deep and meaningful.  I make no apologies for my original and misguided score.  Thus the review stands just as it did sixteen years ago.

THAT being said, the logical side of me needs to make some points.  Many movies age with time, like fine wine . . . or Limburger cheese.  When they’re originally released, they are unforgivable messes that should have gone straight to video.  Then time mellows my opinion of them.  Examples being . . . David Lynch’s Dune:  an abomination of film making that was an insult to Frank Herbert’s legacy and his novel of the same name.  Starship Troopers:  an utter parody and insult of Robert Heinlein’s classic novel.  I now look at these movies with some level of fondness, remembering how bad they were in the theater but realizing that everything shouldn’t be taken so seriously.  Those movies still aren’t “good,” but they are now pseudo-guilty pleasures, especially Starship Troopers.  The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, has not aged well with time.  I’m still fond of it . . . but over the years I’ve also realized it’s a hot mess.  The acting is atrocious.  The mind blowing special effects now look jaded, cartoony, and artificial.  Jake Lloyd was such a wrong choice to play Anakin Skywalker that the realization today almost hurts my soul.  And Jar Jar Binks really is one of the most ridiculous characters in cinema history.  Even had I been 12 years old (the target audience) at release I might have thought the same about Jar Jar.

I recently re-watched Episode I and parts of it are quite good:  The pod race (sans cheering crowds and stupid two-headed announcer) is still fantastic and exciting; duel of the fates at the end against Darth Maul is great.  Other parts are cringe worthy:  Almost every scene with Anakin; the Yoda puppet that looks worse than the puppet used in 1980; the inept Trade Federation droids; all the Gungans, especially Boss Nass and Jar Jar; the flat and off color special effects.  And midi-chlorians, fucking midi-chlorians!  Way to just sweep aside all the mysticism behind the Force!

No, The Phantom Menace has not aged well, even in my grotesquely biased eyes.  Thankfully Episodes II and III were improvements.  But, I’m happy to say that my general prediction concerning Anakin’s eventual turning to the Dark Side were pretty spot on.

Okay, enough looking back, that’s way more than I planned on writing.  Let’s look forward … behold my 1999 review of The Phantom Menace.  Go easy on me!

Back in May of 1977 I was fortunate enough to be at the right age to experience one of the most amazing events in film history.  The previews started showing up on television.  I ran out and bought the novelization by George Lucas (actually ghost written by Alan Dean Foster), and quickly read it before the film begin showing in my town.  I was a lonely and introverted 12 years old . . . the perfect age to escape to a galaxy far, far away.  I’m talking about Star Wars of course.  At the time there was no “Episode IV” or “A New Hope”, only a stand alone movie that dazzled the senses, boggled the mind, and made us all wish we could wield a lightsaber.  The lines were ridiculous, literally stretching entirely around a city block.  These days there are no city blocks, just cold, sanitary malls and cinemas.  Regardless, I was ready to re-live some of the excitement in one of those lifeless cinemas . . . for they have one advantage over those old theaters on main street:  THX sound!

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace ticket stubMy wife and I bought our tickets a week ahead of time for opening day.  Unfortunately, the addition of 22 years to our age has caused us to come down with a case of grownupitis.  Thus our jobs caused us to wait until the 9:00 PM showing.  Not a problem, it was still opening night.  We managed to secure seats near the center of the theater, optimum for stereo goodness.  Chatting with the two dudes sitting next to us revealed that one was on his fifth viewing of the day, and the other was on his second.  Whoa!  Now that’s hardcore . . . or a little crazy.  I’m not sure which.

Finally the lights dimmed and we endured a Leonardo De Caprio preview during which the entire theatre booed, laughed, and mocked.  It was hilarious and helped set the mood.  The crowd was definitely into the event.  A cheer surged through the crowd as the familiar Star Wars text exploded on the screen in sync with John Williams’ brilliant score.  The familiar scrollby marking this as Episode I: The Phantom Menace set up the beginning of a new Star Wars experience.

First I want to set the record straight concerning the “critics” out there that have been trashing and panning this film prior to its opening.  These “critics” are completely missing the point of this movie.  The Phantom Menace isn’t a standalone movie with a tight plot, a distinct beginning, and an absolute ending.  This movie is 1/6th of a huge, sprawling space-opera epic, much like the movie serials from the 1930’s to 1950’s.  You MUST include all your memories of the original trilogy when viewing this installment.  If you can’t remember much of the originals, view them prior to going to The Phantom Menace! The plot isn’t the important thing in this movie.  It’s simply an underlying vehicle used to setup and introduce the new characters.  The only reason it might be considered important is because it creates circumstances that cause all the character to meet up, AND causes Senator Palpatine to begin his secret mission to erode the power of the Senate (thus the “phantom menace”).

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace PosterStranded on the desert planet Tatooine after rescuing young Queen Amidala from the impending invasion of Naboo, Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi Master discover a nine year old Anakin Skywalker, a young slave unusually strong in the Force.  Anakin wins a thrilling Podrace and with it his freedom as he leaves his home to be trained as a Jedi.  The heroes return to Naboo where Anakin and the Queen face massive invasion forces while the two Jedi contend with the deadly foe named Darth Maul.  Only then do they realize that the invasion is merely the first step in a sinister scheme by the re-emergent forces of darkness known as the Sith.  The Phantom Menace.

Star Wars Episode I:  The Phantom Menace
Director:  George Lucas
Starring:  Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Genre:  Science Fiction
Media:  Film, 133 minutes
Rating: PG
Budget: $115 million
Box Office: $1.03 billion, worldwide
Year: May 19, 1999
4.5 out of 5 stars

Basically this installment introduces us to Anakin Skywalker (Luke’s dad, a.k.a. Darth Vader) and shows us origins, how he met his future mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the very beginning of his Jedi training which will ultimately help cause the rise of the Empire and the fall of the Old Republic.  If you aren’t somewhat familiar with the Star Wars universe you might get confused.  That’s why I recommend you watch the originals beforehand.  There is so much going on and so much foreshadowing, that it’s almost a must for multiple viewings.

The acting is pretty lukewarm, but that doesn’t surprise me.  The acting in the original (A New Hope) wasn’t exactly stellar.   Liam Neeson is a convincing and stubborn Jedi Master.  Ewan McGregor pulls off a perfect young Obi-Wan.  Jake Lloyd makes us forget the seething evil that is deep within Anakin Skywalker with his innocent, cute, and sometimes annoying demeanor as a child. Natalie Portman pulls off both a cold, rigid princess . . . and at the same time a caring, warm princess pretending to be a servant (like father like son).  I’m not really giving anything away here.  It will take you all of 10 seconds to figure it out.  The last standout character is Jar Jar Binks.  Completely CGI rendered, he’s the comic relief element in the movie.  I was a bit skeptical that ILM could pull of a main character done in CGI and at the same time have us believe he’s a character and not a generated image.  They did a good job.  After his initial showing on screen he quickly became one of the cast . . . albeit a quirky one.  And then there’s Darth Maul.  Wow.  He didn’t say much, but his actions spoke louder than words, and his tattooed face will make him an instant favorite villain right up there with Darth Vader and Boba Fett.  Lastly, we discover the origins of our two droid pals R2-D2 and C3PO.

Let’s clear up a couple things before continuing . . . No, young Anakin is not the “phantom menace!”  No, he’s not a young Luke Skywalker, with an inexplicably different name!  Pay attention people!!

The special effects are incredible.  George Lucas and ILM are true world builders.  Some of the scenes are simply breathtaking.  Without a doubt the pod racing scenes on Tatooine will go down as one of the most exciting sequences in movie history.  It’s almost impossible to describe, you simply have to see it.  The lightsaber duel at the end make the duels from the original trilogy look like schoolyard challenges between kids.  I’m talking fast and furious, with some martial arts and Jedi powers thrown in to spice things up.  The movie is a visual feast and could be viewed a second time for this reason alone.  One of my main concerns was that Lucas wouldn’t be able to capture the look and feel of the original episodes.  Thankfully I was proven wrong.  This definitely has the look and feel of the Star Wars universe written all over it.  John Williams’ inspiring score definitely created the right atmosphere.

It will be a long wait for Episode II.  My predictions for that installment: well, I can’t really say without giving a lot away about Episode I . . . and I wanted to avoid that going into this review.  It will be safe to say that Anakin will be embroiled in the Clone Wars.  Something terrible will happen to his mother pushing him over the edge of the Dark Side.  At the same time he will be courting Luke and Leia’s mother (won’t give anything away, you’ll figure it out).  Yes, the three years will be a long wait indeed.

Kids will love this movie since Lucas has publicly stated that it is geared towards twelve year olds (the exact same age I was in ’77).  Casual movie goers with little knowledge of the Star Wars universe may have mixed feelings about it.  While those of us that have Star Wars savvy will soak it up like a sponge that has been deprived of water . . . for about 16 years!  Is this a little biased?  Perhaps.  But at least I’m telling you like it is, and giving you the other point of view.

Give The Phantom Menace a chance and don’t make final judgement on it until the series is complete.  In the meantime, enjoy it for what it is: a rollicking good time!  Thanks George, it was worth the wait!  Now get to work on Episode II!

Words © 1999-2022, Neal Ulen. All rights reserved.
Images/videos cited © to their respective owner(s).

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