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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Ahmed Best

Review by Walter Frith
2½ stars out of 4

When 'The Godfather Part III' was released in 1990, people knocked it as disappointing and not living up to the standards of the first two films. There was a 16 year gap between II and III and Francis Ford Coppola was able to find a fresh story and I thought the film was well executed. When such great films play on our sub conscious minds for years and we replay every exciting moment in our heads over and over again, it is human nature to expect the roll to continue. How many of us want our favorite sports team to win the championship every year? It simply won't happen.

George Lucas once commented that he wanted to wait many years after 1983's 'Return of the Jedi' to tell the story contained within the first three chapters of his 'Star Wars' saga because he wanted film technology to excel and become what it has today. There is a 16 year gap between 'Return of the Jedi' and 'The Phantom Menace' and the original three 'Star Wars' films generate as much debate as they do entertainment. Many are split on what film is better, 'Star Wars' or 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Certainly 'The Empire Strikes Back' was a better character enhancement of its leading cast and isn't it odd that Lucas had no hand in the film's finished screenplay or the direction of the film. Lucas was responsible for the film's story line, however. Those credits for the movie's finished script belong to Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett and the man who directed it was Irvin Kershner. Most agree that 'Return of the Jedi' was the weakest chapter and Lucas not directing it makes you wonder if he's a better businessman that filmmaker with the success of all the merchandising tie-ins and his creation of many post production facilities for motion pictures

'The Phantom Menace' begins about thirty years before the original three films started. The peaceful planet of Naboo is involved in a dispute with the sinister trade federation. Two ambassadors who are also Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to peacefully negotiate the trade dispute but the trade federation, who would eventually become the evil empire seen later in episodes IV, V and VI try to wipe them out and pursue the good Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) into signing a treaty that will do more harm that good for her people. Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) is the most evil of the federation members. A trait that would serve him well in eventually becoming the Emperor, Darth Vader's lord and master.

Throughout the course of the Jedi's adventures, they come upon a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) whom they will train to become a Jedi knight since the force is with him so strongly. This idea is brought fourth by Qui-Gon Jinn but Jedi master Yoda is unable to see his future through the force and fears the boy may be an element drawn to the dark side of the force and is against his training as a Jedi.

The story is sort of self defeating in many ways because we know how the events will play out later so this is a major setback for the film. It also has a silly and unnecessary computer generated character named Jar Jar Binks thrown in for no other reason than to mildly entertain children and even then, some little ones may find his antics too silly. On the redeeming side of things are a space pod race halfway through the film that is absolutely mesmerizing and a climax that manages to include four major conflicts that keep our eyes glued to the screen. Combined with the introduction of a new master villain named Darth Maul (Ray Park, Peter Serafinowicz), and a look at the origins of R2-D2 and C-3PO and Jabba the Hut also making an appearance, the film is marginally well done from an academic stand point and superb from a technical outlook.

Does 'The Phantom Menace' live up to its hype? No. It has major character weaknesses that make many of the film's actors look like life size action figures with little personality or complexity. The story is well told in part but is a bit tiresome and bears the markings of trying to go home again which is usually not possible. For technical zest and the memory of old friends seen in the film, I recommend 'The Phantom Menace' to be savoured as an experience that will only be a one time deal for many but I am also recommending it as giving George Lucas the benefit of the doubt that he will improve in the weak areas when episodes II and III are released in the coming years. Maybe his plan is to build a slow burn uphill and not downhill. Time will tell.

OUT OF 5 > * * * 1/2

Visit FILM FOLLOW-UP by Walter Frith

* * * * * - a must see * * * * 1/2 - don't miss it * * * * - an excellent film * * * 1/2 - a marginal recommendation * * * - can't quite recommend it * * 1/2 - don't recommend it * * - avoid it * 1/2 - avoid it seriously * - avoid it AT ALL COSTS 1/2 - see it at your own risk zero - may be hazardous to your health

Copyright 2000 Walter Frith

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