STAR WARS Episode I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sci-Fi Action/Violence

PhantomMenace poster

Directed by: George Lucas

Written by: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Ray Park, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Silas Carson, Andy Secombe, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Sofia Coppola & Keira Knightley

2015 brings tons of new sequels for many nostalgic film series, the biggest being STAR WARS Episode VII. Like many kids of the 90’s, I grew up watching Episodes IV-VI on a regular basis. Darth Vader was one of the greatest villains of all time and I loved how this space opera series treated me like an adult with its serious storytelling. The original STAR WARS trilogy was an intergalactic battle between good and evil that deserved the fan base built around it. Enter 1999 and the much maligned Episode I. This blockbuster was garnering huge buzz. It was the second highest grossing film of the 90’s (behind TITANIC), but it now carries a much maligned reputation. While I don’t think PHANTOM MENACE is quite as bad as everyone says it is (I’ll get into why), it’s a major disappointment.

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Turns out this epic saga began with a taxation on trade routes. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are two Jedi knights (powerful warriors with a telekinetic ability known as the Force and deadly lightsabers) sent to negotiate a peaceful solution with the villainous Trade Federation. This kicks off a quest to save the peaceful planet of Naboo, thus throwing all sorts of alien beings, planetary battles, and the possibility of a prophecy being fulfilled in a young slave named Anakin Skywalker. That’s the basic outline of the plot, but there’s also an undercurrent of two evil Sith lords (powerful warriors using Jedi powers for darker purposes) at play.

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That summary might clue you in to the first big problem with PHANTOM MENACE. You’re telling me that this epic saga of Light Side and Dark Side, planet-sized weapons, and the ultimate conflict between good and evil sprang from a taxation? This isn’t colonial times of early America. This is freaking outer space! Surely, there could have been far more inventive ways of kicking this whole prequel trilogy off. The political talk has no real place in a Star Wars movie either, as the other films focused on interesting characters and simple (but powerful) plots. I remember being bored out of my mind when I saw PHANTOM MENACE on the big screen back in 1999 (I was in second grade). Maybe, George Lucas’s reasoning behind the annoying cartoon character sidekick that is Jar-Jar Binks was to entertain the kids. In this sense, it feels like the younger audience is being spoken down to and that’s something the original trilogy never did. To make matters even worse, there’s pointless clutter surrounding every scene. This is especially evident in the side antics of a lengthy Pod-Race scene. These silly quick bits amount to little more than George Lucas trying to show off.

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It might also help if there were characters worth caring about, but these folks are bland as can be. Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are fantastic actors, but they’re completely uninteresting as Jedi knights. They’re almost as wooden as the young Jake Lloyd playing Anakin. This child actor can’t get a single line out of his mouth in a remotely believable delivery. It’s ridiculous and makes the viewer wonder how many other worse kids were passed up for this shining example of who won the audition. Natalie Portman gives the only decent performance to be found, but she’s not given a whole lot to do. Finally, there’s Ray Park (who went on to play Toad in 2000’s X-MEN) as the double-sided lightsaber wielding Darth Maul. He looks cool enough and contributes to the best scene of the film, but is completely ignored as a character. The main problem comes from George Lucas throwing the viewer straight into action scenes without taking the time to flesh any of these people out. It’s the equivalent of Lucas directing a TRANSFORMERS movie.

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So with all my ranting and raving about what’s bad, you might be asking “What do you like about it more than most other people?” I actually think there are lots of cool visuals here. The planets look good, despite some of the sketchy inhabitants. Speaking of which, there are also cool looking aliens in this flick. I already mentioned Darth Maul, but I actually dig Watto (though he’s essentially a Jewish stereotype) and the Podracer Sebulba. The practical puppets look really cheesy though, especially the Trade Federation (Asian stereotypes) and a cheap looking Yoda hand toy. That being said, I really enjoy the Pod-Racing scene (in spite of stupid additions by Lucas) and the final lightsaber duel is fun (in spite of an underdeveloped villain).

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Don’t get me wrong. PHANTOM MENACE is definitely a disappointment and a bad movie, but I don’t find it to be as awful as many fans do. There are a couple of cool sequences (the race and the final fight) and there’s an entertaining spectacle level in the other worlds being brought to life. It’s bad, but if you turn off your brain, you might have a little more fun watching MENACE. Another tactic would be employing a drinking game where you take a shot every time Anakin yells “Yippee!,” Jar-Jar says “How rude!” or the droids say “Roger, roger.” You’re likely to be plastered within the first hour. PHANTOM MENACE is bad, but there are a few redeeming things in it. Also, I could write a whole essay about why Jar-Jar Binks sucks, so let me just award this film a….

Grade: C-

On a side note, I used to own one of these as a child.

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Just saying…

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