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Review: 'Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace' (1999) Dir. George Lucas

Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Park


Every generation has a legend, and 'Star Wars' returned with a bang to launch a new prequel trilogy...

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) are dispatched by the Galactic Republic to end to a blockade of the planet Naboo by warships of the Trade Federation. When the negations end in violence, the Jedi flee to Naboo as an invasion commences.

With a native Gungan, Jar-Jar Binks (Best), Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan try to escape to the Republic capital, Coruscant. But their ship is damaged and forced to land on the remote world of Tatooine where they meet young Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a boy who Qui-Gon feels has great power with the Force.

Meanwhile, Sith Lord Darth Maul (Park) works to end the Jedi and pave the way for dark forces to take over the galaxy. The Galactic Senate must act quickly and the Jedi must fight to repel the emergence of the Sith and save a fragile peace…

16 years after we left the galaxy in ‘Return of the Jedi’, it was time for George Lucas to go back and tell the story of young Anakin Skywalker and his journey in becoming Sith Lord Darth Vader. Teased with scattered words and snippets of events gone by during the original trilogy of films, it was a story that many fans were eager to explore and see happen. Now with the might of CGI and new film-making technology behind him, writer and director Lucas presented us with the most anticipated film of all time; and this would soon turn out to be the most disappointing films of all time, especially for ‘Star Wars’ fans.

From the start it’s clear this is the same franchise but different. John Williams returns for another memorable score that acts as a safety blanket for you and lots of familiar planets and characters return such as C-3PO, R2-D2 and of course Yoda pop up, but it also presents a new visually stunning galaxy rich in CGI landscapes and technology that transports us even further back into a time long, long ago and gives us something we’ve never seen before in this universe.

It looks slick and fantastical and the use of technology is very evident, and it works in creating such alien worlds and creatures to interact with imagination that has no limits.

However, to invest in something that is more fake than real proves very difficult and this is drastic leap in tone and pace from what we are used to. Lightsabers are effortless in design and sound, along with powerful starships and blasters thanks to the veteran sound editor Ben Burtt, but this fanciful design just covers the confusing story and pointless plot from George Lucas who brings politics, senates and a wealth of boring conversations to his galaxy.

A story has to start somewhere, but one filled with CG buffoons prat-falling, and CG robots as the substitute for real life Stormtroopers is overwhelmingly disappointing and lacks any connection to audiences, except those who enjoy cartoonish battles and slapstick comedy. Aka, under 7s. It detracts from any emotional connection you may want to feel to heroes and villains when they appear as a computer creation which is sad or have to face off against one, because there are many new characters here who have made such a great impact on culture that it deserves recognition; just a shame half of them are for the wrong reasons. 

Jar-Jar Binks acts as a mascot for a targeted younger audience and manages to come across goofy and annoying rather than naïve and misguided. Still, he helped sell millions worth of promotional goods so they got something right. Darth Maul played with great gusto by Ray Park shines and helps create the most exciting sequence with a 3-way saber duel towards the end, but he is never given much time to shine and develop into a threat that could have continued well over the prequels. Effectively he was here to market the film before being axed once the punters were in and had paid up.

A promising cast excite on the outset, but are let down by flat dialogue delivery and constantly working opposite green-screen backings or stand-in actors rather than an “in the moment” scene. Still, we have great performances from Neeson, McGregor and McDiarmid in roles they know can be enjoyed for what they are: great fun, even with the nonsense they are forced to talk about.

We have flashy action sequences and trademark land and space battles dotted around the narrative, and the Tatooine Boonta Eve podrace sequence is a giddy 10 minute video game sequence, but one that is visually very slick and exciting to watch. It does go on for a little too long and doesn’t REALLY need to be there, but it did spawn a number of video games and toys for that sequence alone so…maybe it was important for George to have a CGI playground after all.

With so much potential wasted and the expectation so high for new and old fans, this was never going to be perfect, but it could have been so much better if the tone was darker to cater to older fans, the characters more solid and the story less boring. People say if ‘The Phantom Menace’ started on the same track ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ did, it could have been a whole new experience, and they were right.

It delivers on the thrills and fun only 'Star Wars' could provide, but lacks a little of the core heart and magic that it follows on from last seen in 1983.

'Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace' is a LucasFilm Ltd. production

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