Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

It’s been an entire month since it opened. Well, about a month. Anyway, I now feel that I have digested this film enough to review it. Of course, by now it’s already become a part of pop culture–witness the denigration of Jar Jar Binks–as well as a part of Star Wars lore, so I’m probably not looking at it entirely objectively. But I’ll do my best. This review, unlike several of my others, will not be a pseudo-professional review–given my enthusiasm for the subject matter, though, that would be nearly impossible anyway. But I digress–on to the review!

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a (deep breath) good film. I will not lie; it is not a great film, nor is it anything like what I expected. That is both a good and a bad thing.

I was discussing this film with a friend online, and I believe I have hit upon the main dilemma that George Lucas faced and, ultimately, failed in solving. Lucas wanted to create a film for both the core group of Star Wars fans and the mass-market audience. Thus, he ends up pandering to both. Jar Jar Binks is not just in there for kids; he’s there to make the women who came with their obsessed boyfriends laugh. And I have first-hand evidence–a friend or two of mine–that he did his job, in that respect. The “Jar Jar Must Die”-style websites are the creation of diehard Star Wars fans, embittered by this shameless creation.

Jar Jar Binks was entirely computer-generated. This could have been an excellent opportunity to show how a realistic CGI character could take the leading role in a film–IF JJB had been cool. But he is decidely not so. However, he is at times amusing. Even I will admit that. This may actually be a greater achievement than a bad-ass CGI character.

But allow me to lay JJB aside. He is just one part of the problem. You’ve also got the stuff for the core group which the mass-market knows nothing about–for instance, the fact that Senator Palpatine becomes the Emperor of Return of the Jedi. Lines like “We’ll watch your career with great interest” (spoken by Palpatine to young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader) fall entirely flat on the ears of anyone who hasn’t seen the previous trilogy. In that respect, this is almost definitely a film that must be watched after viewing the original trilogy.

But enough–down to the nitty gritty. The characters are not particularly well-developed; only Neeson’s Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, is given any kind of backstory–and that’s because he dies at the end of the film (I warned you there’d be spoilers!). This is Lucas’s only chance for characterization; Ben Kenobi, Queen Amidala, Senator Palpatine and, most importantly, Anakin Skywalker will be developed over the next few films. Luke, Leia and Han were similarly underdeveloped in the original film; only Ben Kenobi was given any characterization (Peter Cushing embedded some in Tarkin with his acting alone, but that’s somewhat different).

Now, the acting. Neeson does fine in most scenes, especially when acting with Ewan McGregor; however, if he’s ever in a film with CGI characters again, he’s going to need to work on his imagination. He never feels like he actually sees Jar Jar Binks. Ewan McGregor, on the other hand, does a marvelous job with Jar Jar, as does Natalie Portman. Portman’s performance is also wonderful, and seeing a young actor like her do so well makes Jake Lloyd’s acting seem even worse. I really, really hate to pick on a kid at all, but I simply wasn’t impressed with Lloyd’s performance in this movie.

However, all the actors–including Neeson–are upstaged by Ian McDarmid as the sinister Senator Palpatine. Darth Sidious aside, McDarmid seamlessly enters the science fiction world of Star Wars, and seems perfectly comfortable in his role. He’s devious, scheming and insincere–just as his character should be. He’s a pleasure to watch.

The plot: mediocre at best. Who is this Trade Federation? I’ve never heard the like mentioned in all of the Star Wars mythos. In terms of the Star Wars mythos as a hole, this film’s plot has no real significant elements except the fact that Queen Amidala and Anakin Skywalker meet, and Senator Palpatine becomes the Supreme Chancellor. The Gungans? Never heard of ’em in the original trilogy. Darth Sidious? Pretty obvious he’s just the Emperor. Darth Maul? Dead, dead, dead.

The effects, of course, are astounding. However, I’ve reached the point where I’m a bit jaded with computer graphics. This film, with a computer-generated aspect in almost every shot, actually rings a bit false to me. In the original films, those deserts, those arctic places, even those forests–none of it was CGI, and we got to see lots of it, close-up. Naboo looks gorgeous–in the CGI long-shots. But we never get a real good look at the landscape. And as good as the effects are, I can still tell that JJB, the battle droids and most of the pod-racing aliens are CGI.

I have to admit, this review isn’t as in-depth as I’d like to be, and it’s also a little more negative than I might have written. I may revise it at a future date, maybe after I see it again, because it’s been a while. In any event, it is a Star Wars film, and it’s still a lot of fun.

If anyone strongly disagrees with this review or any other review on this site, feel free to write in your own–I’ll post it under the same review.

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