Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Release Date: May 19th, 1999 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: George Lucas Actors: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park
he long-awaited return of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, leading into the title card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by John Williams’ unforgettable theme music, is enough to inspire chills. It’s a setup that, after 16 years of anticipation, can’t possibly herald a faithful return to the cinematic greatness that began with “Star Wars” in 1977. Ultimately, the iconic space opera has now been reduced to a somewhat childish, episodic adventure that sacrifices storytelling for overblown visuals.
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic as taxation of trade routes is in dispute. The corrupt Trade Federation has set up a blockade around the small planet of Naboo, forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) to dispatch two Jedi Knight ambassadors to resolve the conflict. Peaceful but powerful warriors, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) expect short negotiations with Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson), but are met with battle droids and hostility instead. They flee to Naboo, where they rescue Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), a leader held hostage for a treaty signing, before escaping in a rebel cruiser, with the intention of heading to Coruscant to plead for help from the senate.
When the hyperdrive generator on the Queen’s vessel is destroyed, requiring a complete replacement, the travelers must stop at the remote desert planet of Tatooine, controlled by Hutt gangsters. Qui-Gon, Naboo native Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), astrodroid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and Amidala’s handmaiden Padme (also Portman) speak with Watto (Andrew Secombe) for the necessary parts, but he demands more money than the group can scrounge up. Slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) gives them shelter for the night and suggests they raise the money by entering a dangerous podrace tournament – one in which Anakin will serve as the pilot and provide his own racer, all without thought of personal reward. As the big event looms, the mysterious Dark Jedi Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), commanding the Trade Federation’s movements behind the scenes, sends his apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) to Tatooine to dispose of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and retrieve the missing Queen.
Leading the way for science-fiction epics, the starship designs and related special effects are phenomenal, particularly when it comes to mechanical creations and highly detailed environments. Many alien entities stick with the usage of rubbery masks and makeup, which inevitably holds up better over time than newer computer graphics techniques, though the appearance of a younger (and uglier) version of Yoda (still voiced by Frank Oz) is unusually silly. But when CG employment involves human movement and humanoid aliens, it’s noticeably poor. This is especially evident with Jar Jar Binks, whose faulty imagery would be more forgivable if it wasn’t for his stupendously pitiful dialogue, unfunny clumsiness, and abrasive accent. His role is not only extraneous, but also hugely injurious to the tone and seriousness of the adventure.
As a counterpart to Princess Leia’s frequently changing, unconventional hairstyles and costumes from the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Amidala sports an outlandish wardrobe, additionally embellished with clownlike makeup and ludicrously oversized hairpieces. This over-the-top visual excessiveness carries over to the character designs of many other roles. Perhaps more troubling than the frequently obnoxious sci-fi organisms is the sheer number of bodies that crowd the screen. Many minutes are wasted on new monsters, robots, and alien species, as if writer/director George Lucas was intent on building up the “Star Wars” universe solely for further exploitation of merchandising.
Although there are familiar scene wipes, plenty of action, regular homages to the original trilogy, and thrilling new music, other problems arise when young Anakin’s viewpoint starts to push into the narrative. Moreover, the dialogue is amateurish at best; questionably racist speech patterns plague each society and subculture; a troublingly pointless Christ parable presents itself; and the forced, awkward relationship between Amidala and Anakin (for the sake of a well-known future development) is initiated. Despite the repetitiveness and subpar feeling existing in just about every aspect, there’s still fun to be had with the lightsaber dueling and space battles. Considering that these films come along so infrequently, it’s unfortunate that Lucas can’t seem to tell a new story.
– Mike Massie