Review by Greg King
3 stars out of 4
Expectations have been high for this eagerly awaited and long
overdue prequel to George Lucas' classic sci-fi adventure Star Wars.
Given the barrage of hype that has preceded the movie, Star Wars
Episode 1, subtitled The Phantom Menace, was always going to have a
hard job living up to those lofty expectations. Inevitably, The
Phantom Menace is a little disappointing! The original Star Wars was
a film ahead of its time; The Phantom Menace is merely a film for its
Returning to the director's chair after a twenty year absence,
Lucas takes the audience back to the beginning of his envisaged nine
part saga, and introduces us to the young Anakin Skywalker. As every
Star Wars fan knows, Anakin is the Jedi knight who, of course, later
grew up to father both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia before
crossing over to the dark side of the force as the evil Darth Vader.
Caught in the middle of a trade war between the powerful
Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo, Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn
(Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) try to
negotiate a settlement. While on the planet of Tatooin, Jinn
recognises the nascent power of the young slave Anakin (played with
charm by Jake Lloyd), and decides to take him under his wing.
In many ways, The Phantom Menace follows the broad plot
threads of the original Star Wars, although without the same sense of
wonder and inspiration. What was once a simple fable about the battle
between good and evil has become far more mystical and mythic, and
occasionally bogged down in more complex ideas. In establishing the
framework for what follows, Lucas raises nearly as many questions as
One of the main problems is that the film is occasionally a
little slow, with some passages of plot development that will prove
tiresome and a little boring for younger audiences. The film also
lacks any villain as imposing or as intimidating as Darth Vader.
Instead, the best Lucas can offer us here is the rather bland and
forgettable Darth Maul (played by martial arts champion Ray Park, in
his film debut). There is a much more obvious emphasis on slap stick
humour throughout this film, especially with antics of the accident
prone Jar-Jar Binks, a computer generated character who speaks his own
However, some of the action sequences are quite exciting, with
a couple of light sabre duels and a battle sequence between two
digitally created armies. The undoubted highlight is the pod race, an
incredible sequence that resembles a futuristic version of the famous
chariot race from Ben Hur for the Nintendo generation.
The special effects and state of the art computer generated
imagery, which took some two years to complete, is indeed spectacular,
and represents the future direction of film making. Unfortunately, it
is a pretty heartless and soulless future in which human performers
are dwarfed by increasingly spectacular effects and technology.
About 90% of The Phantom Menace has been digitally created,
and the human performers seem a little lost when called upon to
interact with their brilliantly realised cyberspace universe. In many
ways this is symptomatic of Lucas, a pioneer of digital effects, who
shows little understanding of the emotional development of his
characters. Lucas seems to regard his human cast as mere accessories
to his whiz bang technology and cynical mass marketing techniques,
and, in this aspect, he is light years ahead of Hitchcock in his
reputed disdain for actors.
Neeson, who normally has a powerful screen presence, seems a
little awkward here, while McGregor seems as bewildered and as
uncomfortable as Alec Guiness did in the same role twenty years ago.
Performers of the calibre of Terence Stamp and Samuel L Jackson are
wasted in small, undemanding roles.
Many of the new characters introduced here are fairly
unimpressive. Whereas we once might have followed the charismatic Han
Solo, the impetuous Luke Skywalker and the feisty Princess Leia to the
ends of the galaxy, I'm not so sure that I'd follow this bland and
forgettable lot for a stroll in the park!
Copyright © 2000 Greg King