Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Posted by Joel Copling on June 14, 2015

Sixteen years after a previous trilogy detailed the Rebel Alliance's bid to overthrow the Galactic Empire, writer/director George Lucas, who was always at least in charge of the story for what became episodes four, five, and six (1977's "A New Hope," 1980's "The Empire Strikes Back," and 1983's "Return of the Jedi), brought his space opera back with 1999's "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace," an uneasy crossroads between stilted, awkward attempt at the "opera" part of that aforementioned term and a solid addendum to the mythology. For every scene featuring an actor forced to sell some unspeakable dialogue (most of them failing to do so), there is an established plot point that aids in the film feeling like a more involving experience than it really is.

Which is to say that the film is far from a total loss, and the proof is in the sometimes surprising intricacies of the film's sense of realpolitik. Our narrative picks up as the Trade Federation establishes phony negotiations with two Jedi ambassadors to the Republic, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), in order to attempt to assassinate Nabooan Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). The two Jedi aid her in her escape from a blockade of Federation ships orbiting the Queen's planet, but the attempt is not an entirely successful one. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up employing the help of a Gungan outcast named Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best) to smuggle the Queen away and onto another craft.

The party, which also includes various soldiers, Amidala's series of handmaidens and decoys, and a droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker in a series of beeps and boops), ultimately finds solace on Tatooine, a desert planet orbiting two suns, wherein they encounter a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd in a performance that inauthentic at best and wooden at worst). This boy, as Qui-Gon cottons on to rather quickly, is something special. He shows Jedi reflexes in the very hobbies in which he takes part (in this case, a race between mechanical pods that is still a master class in visual effects and sound design and the creation of a robot named C-3PO, voiced by Anthony Daniels) and in his uncanny sense of foresight (for instance, being able to call out Qui-Gon's occupation within a day of meeting him).

So, of course, he must be trained as a Jedi, and he accompanies the group (leaving his mother, played by Pernilla August, who also senses this great destiny in her own way) for this very purpose. The Jedi Council, led by the commanding Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the impish but wise Yoda (voice of Frank Oz), are not fond of the idea, but Qui-Gon insists. Meanwhile, the threat against the Republic grows nearer as Amidala must face opposition from the Republic Senate, particularly Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp). Even the politician on her side of the argument, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), seems to be controlling elements far deeper than even the Jedi are able to detect, though that may be due to his secret identity as a lord of the opposing Sith, Darth Sidious.

There is something disconnected at this movie's core. For about an hour and 45 minutes, it all adds up to sequences of over-acted dialogue on the part of actors who seem entirely uncertain about what they've been given. Is it a political thriller? The stuff about corruption in both the Trade Federation and the Republic Senate would make one think so, except there isn't anything beyond the surface elements of kidnap and vague espionage; moreover, the actual takedown of the Nabooan government in the final act seems far too easy and sudden to have any impact. Is it an action/adventure epic? If the attempt is there, it's a pretty weak one, offering only fleeting instances of lightsaber action that, until the climax, feel half-hearted (the way that Lucas usually cuts them to verge on incoherent, for instance).

The result is a mixed bag, constantly vacillating between canonical intrigue (You will definitely spot call-backs to the original trilogy, and this experiment will probably be a lot of rewarding fun) and dramatic disinterest (The mere presence of Jar Jar screeches to a halt every scene he is a part of, and Best's annoyingly rambunctious delivery of the character's mix of pidgin English and complete gibberish doesn't help the matter). This all sort of changes by the thilling third act, which pits two Jedi against a threatening Sith apprentice named Darth Maul (Ray Park and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) and the Gungan army against Darth Sidious' droid-heavy one. That the climax and the acts preceding it feel so entirely distended from each other just proves that "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace," while certainly onto something, ultimately can't quite find the right balance between its worth as an installment in a popular series and that as a movie on its own terms.

Film Information

Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Padme Amidala), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Keira Knightley (Sabe), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), Oliver Ford Davies (Sio Bibble), Sofia Coppola (Sache), Ralph Brown (Ric Olie).

Featuring the voice of Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Frank Oz (Yoda), Peter Serafinowicz (Darth Maul), Brian Blessed (Boss Nass), Andy Secombe (Watto), Lewis MacLeod (Sebulba), Greg Proops (Fode), and Scott Capurro (Beed).

Directed and written by George Lucas.

Rated PG (sci-fi action/violence).

136 minutes.

Released on May 19, 1999.