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Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – Movie Review

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace poster

Written & Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid

My Advice: Matinee.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, two Jedi Knight ambassadors, Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), have been sent to try and help negotiations between the Trade Federation and the government of Naboo, run by Queen Amidala (Portman) and representated in the Republican Senate by Senator Palpatine (McDiarmid). Upon arriving to perform their duties, they find much more than they ever bargained for.

Well, it’s all over but the shouting and the cash registers clanging, and I have to say up front that I am not displeased with this film. Neither am I very pleased. Here’s the good things I have to say. First of all, let’s face it–this is a CGI fest of proportions we’ve never seen before–and they kick ass. The palatial expanses of Naboo, the stadium for pod racing, the Republican Senate–these are amazing images. Hell, a bit with two armies, completely CGI, facing off against each other was tremendous. The actors, having to work around all this generated stuff, are all well in their roles.

[ad#longpost]Neeson has the Jedi Master bit down pat. McGregor is a young Alec Guinness so much so that it’s damn eerie, I tell you. Portman is a great young monarch, Lloyd is a young dark scion of the galaxy–everybody plays their part to the tee. McDiarmid sets himself up well to be completely consumed by the Dark Side later on. The duel between Kenobi, Jinn and Darth Maul (Ray Park, voice by Peter Serafinowicz) is the most breathtaking fight I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Now–here are the problems. Back to that CGI stuff–anytime that there was a non-CGI something, it really looked like a guy in makeup, say. Or a Muppet in the case of Yoda, who looks just as crappy as he did in the trailer. Stand CGI aliens next to guys in latex and it’s over with. Go whole hog next time, George, please.

Now back to this wonderful duel (and I’m not giving anything away, you’ve seen bits in the trailer)–once I got to this point in the film, I realized that up until this point, this thing had been heavy on the CGI, heavy on the cheese, and not heavy on thrilling me or kicking my ass around the cinema, which is a crying shame. Visually I had been placated, but storywise everything else had been lacking. The much vaunted pod race is nothing but a diversion from the main storyline and it feels like it lasts an entire third of the film. The trip through the planet’s core is about as exciting as Deep Star Six, with George saying: “Look, we can make big sea monsters!” Whoopee. Jar Jar Binks, the CGI main character, is a Disney sidekick on acid and about as endearing. Every move he makes is telegraphed, because he’s there for the kiddies, pure and simple. In fact, most of this film is pretty obvious from start to finish what’s going to happen–again, for the kiddies. No big surprises here, like another movie, say, Episode IV or something. The most we get are cute references to Anakin’s fate. “I don’t want to be any problem,” that sort of thing. I was afeared that the film was going to be geared toward the wee ones, and when I saw the nine-year-old Rodian leaping about in a victory dance, I knew my fears were well-founded. Also, let me just say that the throwaway bit about Anakin’s origin is just that–throwaway and a little much to swallow.

I really really wanted to love this film, but I went into it like I do every movie–just wanting a decent film. And you know what’s sad? That’s all I got. Lucas made a film that not only couldn’t stand up to the hype monster, but also couldn’t stand up to multiple viewings. Save your money and go one afternoon.

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