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Star Wars - episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Director: George Lucas

review by Tony Lee

Star Wars has always been about bigtime spectacle. But the first blockbusters also had a measure of heart, imagination and simple charm, and delighted audiences young and old with their clever mix of traditional space opera and postmodern references. This first prequel to the original trilogy - recently, and perhaps foolishly, re-titled into franchise 'episodes' for series marketability as Star Wars episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Star Wars episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Star Wars episode VI: Return Of The Jedi (1983) - fails pitifully to recapture any of the dramatic thrills and excitement generated by the first batch of adventures.

One of this film's obviously spectacular scenes is the pod race where little know-it-all Anakin (Jake Lloyd) participates in a hectic 'sporting' event (seemingly modelled after the cartoon series Wacky Races), where most of the alien drivers are anything but honourable sportsmen. The race is reminiscent of that jet-cycle chase through the forest world of Return Of The Jedi, and harks back to trainee-Jedi Luke's X-wing attack on the Death Star in Star Wars. What all these sequences have in common, I think, is a portrayal of extreme speed without actually going anywhere within the mileu of the film, or moving the narrative forward in a convincing or honest way that's faithful to story-logic. It's just giving viewers the runaround and, as such, is analogous to the affect of video-arcade and computer games. It seems to me that the main purpose of these sequences in the films is nothing more than to boost the appeal of such lucrative media spinoff products. In this film, the illusion of fantastic velocity is generated mainly by CGI, and these sometimes dazzling visuals are technically far superior to all the miniatures and camera trickery used on the earlier Star Wars productions. However, great filmmaking requires more than just cutting-edge technology. It calls for gifted writing, artistic skills, talented performers, and a seasoned (or at least well-motivated) director with an eye for striking imagery. Despite the vast sums of money and manpower resources thrown at this new Star Wars project, The Phantom Menace is staggeringly awful with George Lucas at the helm.

Playing the youthful Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor is alternately wooden and Hollywooden, while the usually charismatic Liam Neeson (excellent in Rob Roy, 1995) is insufferably bland as a master Jedi (who's really so boring I'm unable to remember his character's name and can't be bothered to look it up again), and the likes of both Samuel L. Jackson and Terence Stamp could have been replaced with CGI characters for all the life they bring to their supporting roles. Of course, CGI is the cause of this film's downfall, too. Digitally generated, the execrable Jar-Jar Binks has been denounced as offensively racist parody or the most damnably irritating 'creature' ever designed for genre cinema.

The saving grace of Phantom Menace is Natalie Portman (my, hasn't she grown since her debut in Luc Besson's classic Leon, 1994!), who essays nobility and feistiness as Queen Padme. She doesn't get sufficient screen-time out of her faintly ridiculous makeup, ghastly hairdos, and impractical costumes to make the impact here that her pivotal character deserves, but Portman's strong-willed heroine instantly banishes all thoughts that what this film requires to counterbalance the awkward and intelligence-mocking Jedi bullshit, and overlong scenes focusing on boy wonder Anakin, is a worthy substitute for the first trilogy's Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). At time of writing, I haven't yet seen the forthcoming Star Wars episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (due in 2005), but I was pleased to see at least some development of Padme's character in follow-up episode II: Attack Of The Clones, and was quite impressed by Portman's showing as a full-blown action heroine, though overall, that instalment has its own legion of faults despite being marginally better fun that this.

For me, the very best sequence in Phantom Menace is the first appearance of Darth Maul, on the desert planet. Just as the Jedi heroes and their rapidly-growing entourage are preparing to leave in their spacecraft, the baddie catches up with them and starts a brief yet highly energetic lightsabre duel. It's a brilliantly choreographed scene of martial arts stunt work and classy special effects that results in some exhilarating action with almost no dialogue. There's no time for talking, Darth Maul is only there to fight! This favourite bit is Star Wars at its cinematic finest, and it's a terrible shame that the rest of this frightfully overblown movie couldn't match that one scene's level of amazingly pure sci-fi pulp hokum.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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