This review appeared in the Aug/Sept 1999 issue of Frontier, Australia's science fiction media magazine.
We shall watch your career with great interest.
The long wait is finally over. Twenty-two years after "Star Wars" first entered into the realm of popular culture, and sixteen years after the debut of "Return of the Jedi", George Lucas returns to the big screen with the latest chapter to his multi-billion dollar film franchise, the highly-anticipated and over-hyped "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace". And though it reinforces Lucas' reputation for being able to capture the public's imagination with his technically-impressive flights of fancy, some stumbles in the areas of writing and acting seriously hamper the emotional resonance of what should be the first chapter in the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. Unfortunately, these shortcomings will most likely limit the appeal of this sci-fi epic to die-hard fans or the very young.
The story begins approximately three decades prior to the events in "Star Wars". After the familiar opening scroll accompanied by the unforgettable "Star Wars" theme, we are taken to the planet of Naboo, which is being blockaded by the ruthless Trade Federation as a result of a dispute over taxes. With the planet on the verge of invasion by the Trade Federation's android army, the teenage ruler of Naboo, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman of "Beautiful Girls") urges Republic intervention in the matter. As a result, two ambassadors are sent to negotiate a settlement, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson of "Michael Collins") and his young understudy, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor of "Trainspotting").
Unfortunately, the negotiations are revealed to be a sham when the Federation authorities attempt to assassinate the two Jedi knights after they come on board. With their mastery of the lightsaber, they are able to escape the ambush and make their way down to the surface of Naboo by hitching a ride with the invasion force. With the help of a perpetually clumsy and ambiguously amphibious local, Jar Jar Binks (a computer-generated character voiced by Ahmed Best), Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are able to spirit the Queen and her entourage (which includes R2-D2) off the planet. It is their hope to reach Coruscant in time for Queen Amidala to plead her planet's plight to the Senate.
However, the Queen's transport is damaged while outrunning the Federation blockade, forcing them to land on the distant planet of Tatooine for repairs. It is here that they come to know Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a technically adept nine-year old boy enslaved by a local spare parts dealer. As Qui-Gon spends time with the boy, he begins to sense that the Force is strong in young Anakin, and that he may be the Chosen One, the one prognosticated to bring balance to the Force. However, as the Jedi Knights and the Queen attempt to have the ship repaired, dark forces in the Republic are quickly moving against them, including the underhanded political maneuvering of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and the arrival of a deadly dark Jedi, Darth Maul (Ray Park). And so begins the first steps that Anakin Skywalker will take on his long and dark journey, one that will eventually taint his innocence and transform him into the ruthless Darth Vader.
As he did twenty-two years ago, Lucas makes it very easy to suspend disbelief and buy-in to the possibilities being visualized on the screen. The visual flourishes that adorn "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" are impressive, and Lucas' extreme attention to detail is quite apparent in the breathtaking planetary vistas and imaginative scenes that he creates. Many scenes are overflowing with small visual minutiae in the background that will take numerous viewings to fully capture, and this in turn creates the impression that the worlds are not only tangible, but are also dynamic and thriving. Some of the more impressive visual sequences include a high-stakes pod race in the middle of the film, and the arrival at Coruscant, a planet that is covered by one giant city. And while some of the backdrops and creatures are obviously computer-generated, the attention paid to form and movement imparts some sense that these could be genuine.
In addition to the special effects, the film's production design continues the design motif first seen in the first three films. However, given that the film takes place several years prior to "Star Wars", production designer Gavin Bocquet has given the sets and vehicles a more streamlined 'retro' look, with more emphasis on esthetics than functionality. And like the original films, the sets in this latest film have a 'used' and 'broken in' look about them, perpetuating the illusion of authenticity.
One welcome change over the previous films is the better choreography of the numerous lightsaber battles, arguably one of the film's strong points. Using Park's martial arts skills to full effect, the lightsaber battles in this current outing are much more dynamic, action-packed, and fun to watch, even eclipsing the outer space dogfight in the film's climax.
Unfortunately, "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is saddled with a number of problems that are bound to disappoint many avid fans. The foremost issue with the film is the script, which eschews the original trilogy's mythical good-versus-evil storytelling in favor of less-than-compelling political intrigue and the cliché application of Christian symbolism. "Star Wars" was a very simple story of a young man's coming-of-age, and limited itself to a minimum number of archetypal characters in order to move the story along. In contrast, this latest installment is burdened with a large number of main characters and an even larger number of minor characters, resulting in much time being wasted on character introduction and exposition, leaving fewer character 'moments' that allow the audience to actually get to know them better. Furthermore, because of the political intrigue aspect of the story, extensive set-up and explanation is required in order to move the story along, which further slows down the film's pacing. As a result, this latest film lacks the emotional impact that the original films had, as too much time is spent dwelling on the plot mechanics than in developing the characters, which also contributes to the second act's noticeably laggard pacing.
Furthermore, because of the need for extensive exposition, the film becomes very dialogue-driven. Unfortunately, Lucas has never proven himself to be a master at writing convincing and compelling dialogue, and it is very apparent in "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace". In the hands of some capable actors, such as Neeson and McGregor (who does an excellent job matching the vocal inflections of Sir Alec Guinness from "Star Wars"), the hackneyed dialogue is tolerable, though there are still some scenes that do come across strained, especially a scene with Qui-Gon providing a scientific explanation of the Force to Anakin.
However, with some of the less experienced thespians in the cast, notably Lloyd, the poorly written dialogue can quickly dissipate the suspension of disbelief. Though Lloyd conveys the innocence and spunk needed to counterpoint his character's eventual fall from grace, many of his lines come off in a 'golly-gee-whiz' manner that is jarringly inconsistent with the emotional tone of the scenes he is in. As a result, the intended subtext of some of his more poignant lines never has the expected impact it should.
Another problem arising from the film being so dialogue-driven is the difficulty in understanding some of the dialogue spoken by the alien creatures. Between the faux-Japanese accents of the Federation authorities and the incomprehensible pidgin-English of Jar Jar Binks, it is often difficult to follow some of the conversations. Using subtitles consistently throughout the film for all alien characters might have gone a long way in comprehensibility.
Finally, perhaps one of the most exasperating aspects of the film is the character of Jar Jar Binks, a special effect of the annoying kind. This entirely computer-generated comic relief character is not only often difficult to understand, but distracting to watch. And while his appeal is strictly targeted to the younger set, the pratfalls, physical comedy, and scatalogical humor will not impress, and possibly even alienate, older audiences. Not only is his presence unnecessary, but it often detracts from the milieu that the film tries to achieve.
Instead of being the bittersweet first chapter of Anakin Skywalker's descent into corruption, "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" comes off more as a special-effects extravaganza with plenty to see. Unfortunately, it lacks the emotional hooks needed to make it a truly captivating and wondrous experience. And while it certainly does warrant a look, if only to satiate one's curiosity and capture some of the wonder of George Lucas' universe, this latest chapter in the "Star Wars" saga is not the state of cinematic nirvana that audiences are clamoring for. I only hope that Lucas' next installment, scheduled to hit theaters in 2002, will put in as much, if not more, effort on the storytelling elements as it does the visual elements.