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"Star Wars - Episode I" review: "The Phantom Menace" is good, not great

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” (1999)

Neeson reprises his "Star Wars - Episode I" role (voice only) in "Attack of the Clones" and in an episode of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars"
Photo by Michael Buckner

Written and Directed by George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Achmed Best, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

Sequels of giant hits, like children who follow Daddy's favorite, always have an unfair burden. They are not examined on their own merits but in relationship to the picture everyone loved. – Gerald Clarke

Love it or hate it, 1999's "Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is the first film of writer-director George Lucas's long-awaited and much-maligned Prequel Trilogy. Released 16 years after "Star Wars - Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" with the tagline "Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning," the film bore, in Gerald Clarke's phrase, "an unfair burden" of following one of the most popular film trilogies in history.

“Star Wars- Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is set 32 years before the events of 1977’s “Star Wars” (aka “Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope”). The Galactic Republic, the galaxy-spanning democratic regime which has peacefully governed millions of star systems for 1,000 years, has grown inefficient and corrupt. Special interest groups such as the Banking Clan and the Trade Federation have more clout than the average citizen. Politicians are more interested in being re-elected than the common good.

When the Senate imposes a tax on intergalactic trade routes, Viceroy Nute Gunray (voice of Silas Carson) of the Trade Federation retaliates by blockading the small planet of Naboo with a fleet of battleships. Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp), unwilling to use force against the Trade Federation, dispatches Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to Naboo in order to seek a negotiated settlement.

But Gunray and his lackeys, egged on by the holographic presence of Sith Lord Darth Sidious, aren’t interested in negotiations. They plan to invade Naboo with an army of battle droids and force 14-year-old Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to sign a treaty to legalize the Trade Federation’s occupation. To prevent the Jedi from warning the Queen and Valorum about their nefarious plans, Sidious orders Gunray to kill the Jedi.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan narrowly escape the assassination attempt and stow away in two of the invasion force’s landing ships. They evade capture by the battle droids with the somewhat-reluctant help of a well-meaning but hapless Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Best), who takes them to the underwater city of Otoh Gunga..

The Gungan leader, Boss Nass (voice of Brian Blessed) isn’t happy to see the accident-prone Jar Jar, who has been exiled from Otoh Gunga for being dangerously clumsy. He’s not too keen on seeing the Jedi or helping them to warn the Naboo about the droid army’s invasion.

BOSS NASS: Yousa cannot bees hair. Dis army of mackineeks up dare tis new weesong!

QUI-GON: That droid army is about to attack the Naboo. We must warn them.

BOSS NASS: Wesa no like da Naboo! Da Naboo tink day so smarty. Day tink day brains so big.

OBI-WAN: Once those droids take control of the surface, they will take control of you.

BOSS NASS: Mesa no tink so. Dey not know of uss-en.

OBI-WAN: You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle. What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this.

BOSS NASS: Wesa no care-n about da Naboo.

QUI-GON: (waves his hand) Then speed us on our way.

BOSS NASS: Wesa gonna speed yousaway.

QUI-GON: We could use a transport.

BOSS NASS: Wesa give yousa una bongo. Da speedest way tooda Naboo tis goen through da core. Now go.

QUI-GON: Thank you for your help. We leave in peace.

After a series of narrow escapes from underwater monsters and the Trade Federation’s battle droids, the Jedi and a few Naboo security officers commandeer a Royal Naboo starcruiser and spirit Queen Amidala and several handmaidens past the blockade. The ship is hit by blaster fire and almost loses its shields, but a R2-D2, a plucky droid, repairs the damage and the cruiser jumps to hyperspace.

A leaky hyperdrive forces the cruiser to land on the desert planet of Tatooine. There, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Jar-Jar, R2-D2, and handmaiden Padme Naberrie head to Mos Espa, a farming town and spaceport. There, Qui-Gon hopes to buy the necessary parts to repair the spaceship so that the Jedi can take Queen Amidala to Coruscant, the capital of the Republic, and inform the Senate that Naboo has been invaded.

Although Qui-Gon doesn’t know it., the layover on Tatooine will prove to be a turning point in the history of the galaxy. This desolate and hot planet isn’t just the only safe haven the Jedi and Queen Amidala’s party have from the Trade Federation and their Sith Lord ally. It’s also the home of Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) and her 9-year-old son Anakin (Jake Lloyd). The Skywalkers are slaves currently owned by Watto, a Toydarian junk dealer and compulsive gambler who bets on just about anything.

Qui-Gon, a powerful but unorthodox Jedi, senses that Anakin has a strong presence in the Force. After a series of events that reveals the boy’s latent Jedi abilities, Qui-Gon is convinced that Anakin is the long-prophesized Chosen One, a powerful individual destined to bring balance to the Force.

But before Qui-Gon can begin his self-appointed mission to train Anakin as a Jedi, he and his companions must evade pursuit by Darth Sidious’ menacing apprentice Darth Maul and return to the safety of Coruscant. Once there, Queen Amidala can join forces with Naboo’s senior representative, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and reveal the Trade Federation’s treachery to the Senate.

My Take

In its May 19, 1980 issue, Time magazine published a cover story by Gerald Clarke about “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second Episode of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The article not only contained a thoughtful review in which Clarke contrasted the dark tone of “Empire” to the lighter, more swashbuckling “Star Wars,” but also a sidebar that gave fans a fleeting glimpse of George Lucas’s vision for the fictional universe he had created.

The biggest spoiler (for those fans who had not yet seen the film) was the revelation that the second “Star Wars” film was subtitled “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” and, in conjunction with the yet-to-be made Episode VI , formed the middle trilogy of a nine-part saga set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Once the middle section of the series was completed, the sidebar hinted, Lucasfilm would produce a new Episode every three years. Time estimated that if Lucas and 20th Century Fox could achieve this plan, the “Star Wars” cycle would be complete by 2000.

That prediction didn’t quite come true because Lucas, 36 when that cover story first appeared, decided to hold off making the Prequel Trilogy until special effects technologies, such as computer graphics imaging (CGI) and digital editing tools, caught up with his vision for the “Star Wars” movies. Instead of releasing “Star Wars – Episode I” in the mid-1980s, Lucas waited until his special effects company, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), could create photorealistic dinosaurs for Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” and tweak the “Star Wars” trilogy’s limited special effects for the 20th Anniversary Special Edition (1997).

The result: “Star Wars” fans had to wait 16 years for the release of “Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” the financially successful but much-criticized film that gave the world a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the not-too-popular Jar Jar Binks (Achmed Best).

When “Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” premiered on May 19, 1999, it made millions of dollars at the box office but received mixed reviews from critics and fans.

The late Roger Ebert gave it a positive review, in which he says:

“Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace," to cite its full title, is an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking. If some of the characters are less than compelling, perhaps that's inevitable: This is the first story in the chronology and has to set up characters who (we already know) will become more interesting with the passage of time.

Other critics were not as enthusiastic. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly didn’t quite hate it, but he wasn’t as positive as Ebert. In his contemporary B-minus review, Gleiberman writes:

Some of ''The Phantom Menace'' is fun, but it's also skittery and overstuffed, too intent on keeping the audience wired into a state of sense-crackling excitement. Watching the movie, you feel as if you're simultaneously playing a maniacally rapid-fire videogame, wandering the aisles of a futuristic toy store, and, almost incidentally, sitting through a science-fiction fable about a couple of Jedi Knights who befriend young Anakin Skywalker, the spunky intuitive whiz kid who will eventually grow up to become Darth Vader.

A vocal faction of the “Star Wars” fan community was less restrained than Geiberman. They criticized George Lucas for relying too heavily on digital effects and gearing “The Phantom Menace” to appeal to young children by creating the much maligned Jar Jar Binks. (Some fans hate the Gungan so much that they have digitally edited Jar Jar Binks out of downloaded copies of the film to create “Episode I: The Phantom Edit.”)

Many fans also came down hard on actor Jake Lloyd, who was then 12 years old.. They said his performance was so lifeless that his character should have been named “Mannequin Skywalker.” Others complained that “The Phantom Menace” is too political, too talky, and doesn’t give Darth Maul enough screen presence.

Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning

Though there may be some validity in some of the criticisms, “Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” achieves its purpose and serves as the necessary exposition to set up the rest of the saga. George Lucas conceived the two Trilogies he was directly involved with as “The Tragedy of Darth Vader,” in which the central character starts out as a well-meaning but flawed hero, falls from grace, and becomes an agent of evil until he is redeemed by the love of his son.

“Star Wars – Episode I” may have its weak spots, but a viewer with an open mind can find things to like about it. Its clever – if subliminal – juxtaposition of Anakin’s first steps as a hero is intended to mirror the situations faced by Luke Skywalker in “Episode IV: A New Hope.”

Lucas says he borrowed this technique from certain styles of classical music, in which certain motifs or themes recur, often with different variations. Throughout the Prequel Trilogy, Anakin often faces some of the same situations his son Luke will find himself in a generation later. Lucas wants the viewer to see the how the two Skywalkers’ moral choices shaped their destiny – and the galaxy’s.

The one element of “Star Wars – Episode I” that even its bashers like is John Williams’ musical score. With the exception of Joel McNeeley’s score for Lucasfilm’s multimedia project “Shadows of the Empire” and some new musical material for the Special Edition of “Return of the Jedi,” “The Phantom Menace” featured the first new themes for the “Star Wars” saga in 16 years. Williams, who is currently working on the score for “Star Wars – Episode VII,” interwove new themes for Anakin Skywalker, Jar Jar Binks, and the evil Sith with such motifs from the original trilogy as the Force theme and traces of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme).”

“Star Wars – Episode I” is, like the other Episodes in the saga, a movie based more on its visual appeal than on the high drama of its story. In his audio commentary for one of the Prequels, Lucas says “Star Wars” movies are “silent pictures” in which he treats dialogue as if it were the musical underscore.

To paraphrase Roger Ebert, “Star Wars” movies aren’t supposed to be melodramas that explore human foibles and motivations; they’re supposed to be escapist, “forget about life for a while” fun viewing experiences. That, ironically, is what earned the original “Star Wars” its legion of fans back in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America. “A New Hope” has a compelling and almost self-contained story, true, but it was its then-groundbreaking special effects that wowed its audiences.

Even if “Star Wars – Episode I” will probably never be considered as good as its Classical Trilogy predecessors, it’s not a potpourri of annoying Jar Jar Binks hijinks, overwhelming CGI effects, and only a bit of Jedi-related story. Instead, it’s a slicker, more polished space opera told in the same comic book style as its 1977 forebear. Its tale of how Anakin’s hero’s journey begins is nicely told, showing the future Darth Vader as a generous, loving 9-year-old who has flaws that will later be exploited by Darth Sidious..

Lucas takes viewers to a wider, more diverse galaxy than he could back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The Phantom Menace”

True, “Star Wars – Episode I” may not be as original or compelling as 1977’s “A New Hope” or as beloved as “The Empire Strikes Back.” How can it be? What was new and revolutionary when the franchise began is now considered old-school by moviegoers and critics. “Star Wars” has been a part of the global culture for nearly 40 years, and it’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle more than once.

DVD and Blu-ray Releases

“Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was the first film of the franchise released on DVD. The first pressing by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment was in stores in early November of 2001. This first edition was followed by a November 2007 re-release with no changes to the packaging. Fox then reissued “Star Wars – Episode I” a year later as part of a redesigned box set, “Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy.” Though the content in the discs is identical in all three of the pre-2013 DVD releases, the 2008 box set features the slimmer cases most studios currently use for multi-disc sets.

In 2013, Disney-owned Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox (which owns the distribution to five of the six Episodes until 2020) re-released “The Phantom Menace” on DVD as part of a “Prequel Trilogy” Blu-ray/DVD combination set.

DVD Specs

Format: Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Widescreen, NTSC
Language: English, Spanish
Subtitles: English
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada)
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Number of discs: 2
Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
Studio: 20th Century Fox
DVD Release Date: August 2, 2007
Run Time: 133 minutes

Special Features

• Exclusive deleted-scenes documentary features seven new sequences completed just for this DVD release: Complete Podrace Grid Sequence, Extended Podrace Lap Two, The Waterfall Sequence, The Air Taxi Sequence, Dawn Before the Race, Anakin's Scuffle with Greedo, Farewell to Jira
• "The Beginning: Making Episode I," an all-new hour-long documentary film culled from over 600 hours of footage, including an insider's look at Lucasfilm and ILM during the production
• Multi-angle storyboard to animatic to film segment featuring the Submarine and Podrace Lap 1 sequences
• Five featurettes explore the storyline, design, costumes, visual effects, and fight sequences
• Award-winning twelve-part Web documentary series that chronicles the production
• "Duel of the Fates" music video featuring John Williams
• Never-before-seen production photo gallery with special caption feature
• Theatrical posters and print campaign from around the world
• Theatrical teaser and launch trailers, and seven TV spots
• "Star Wars: Starfighter - The Making of a Game" featurette from LucasArts
• DVD-ROM weblink to exclusive Star Wars content

Blu-ray Specs:

“Star Wars – Episode I” has been released twice on Blu-ray since September 2011. The first Blu-ray pressings by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment were available as part of the 9-disc “Star Wars: The Complete Saga” box set or in the less expensive 3-disc “Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy” box set. Two years later, Lucasfilm, now a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, re-released “The Phantom Menace” in a 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo box set..

Specs below include the running time for the entire Prequel Trilogy,

• Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Widescreen
• Language: English (Dolby Surround), French (Dolby Surround), Spanish (Dolby Surround)
• Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
• Dubbed: French, Portuguese, Spanish
• Region: Region A/1
• Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
• Number of discs: 6
• Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
• Studio: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
• DVD Release Date: October 8, 2013
• Run Time: 419 minutes

Blu-ray Only Bonus Features:: Audio Commentary for Each Movie from Archival Interviews with George Lucas, Cast and Crew