Review: “Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace”

As I came out of the theatre, I overheard a father asked his young son what he thought of the film – the son replied “it was pretty good I guess”. That best sums up “The Phantom Menace”, not bad but not great either – just good. I’m what you’d call a casual fan of the “Star Wars” saga – I watch any of the films once, maybe twice a year at most.

I love the first two films, while “Return of the Jedi” was just OK. Going into “Episode I” I had no greater expectations than I would for say about half-a-dozen other flicks I am very keen to see this year so I went in hoping to like it but wouldn’t be disappointed if it were bad. As the words scroll across the screen one gets that feeling of breathlessness you get on rollercoaster as you hit the top of a big drop. Breathe. Relax. Then we pan down and are thrown into the middle of the action so fast it takes a while to get used to what’s going on. The best way to review it is by subject so lets begin (be aware there are minor spoilers ahead so watch out if you haven’t seen the film):

Acting: Surprisingly good considering some of the dialogue, and even though the running time is quite long, there are so many characters that one wishes many of them could’ve been developed more. This is Liam Neeson’s movie really, he plays the ‘solid rock’ which everyone else seems to revolve around and does a good job of being noble, yet likeable. McGregor’s acting is fine and he’s skilfully adapted Alec Guinness’ accent without making it seem forced at all. But he has little room to develop in this chapter of the saga, being little more than a sidekick to Qui-Gon.

The amazing Queen costumes are an effect in themselves, distracting us from Portman underneath. Her character is no Leia, but Portman has real talent which helps with a relatively flat female role. The big surprise was Jake Lloyd, who at first one thought “great, another annoying young kid” but he’s actually not that bad. Ian McDiarmid and Pernilla August use their experience to give solid supporting roles which we’ll hopefully see continued in later chapters.

The one thing overall that these characters are missing that was so predominant in the first films is pep. All seem respectful and restrained, none having the great enthusiasm of the original gang to give the flick a sense of high adventure.Alien Creatures: One of my main pet hates of the original trilogy was that while many of the alien characters looked good, those with major speaking parts pretty much sucked. From the EXTREMELY annoying walking car-alarm that was Chewbacca, to the cute but preachy Yoda, and don’t get me started on those Ewoks. This time around the cameos are even more impressive, but the major speaking roles are only a bit better.

Darth Maul is criminally underused – a character who gets basically next-to-no dialogue and hardly any more screen time. Thus the final duel could’ve been even more exciting if we hated Maul more, but we’re not really given a chance to like or dislike him. In fact, the Viceroy gets twice the screen time and he’s as threatening as a hood ornament – albeit one with an accent straight out of a bad kung fu movie.

Despite the vast array of rubbery CG alien supporting roles, the only real one to leave any good impression is the junk dealer Watto whose the sci-fi equivalent of a shifty car salesman. Anakin’s race rival Sebulba is forgettable while Boss Nass looks so fake it distracts us from the character itself. For the first time I can remember, I thoroughly enjoyed Yoda’s scenes as he wasn’t up on his high moral soapbox. Then of course there’s Jar Jar…..

Jar Jar Binks & Comedy: Oh Jar Jar, how I loathe thee, let me count the ways. Here is a perfect example of a terrible character – one-dimensional and whose merely there for comic relief but is completely unfunny. If your under 12 or the kind of person who found the Olsen twins on “Full House” funny then you might get a giggle, but in the two-thirds packed theatre I was in (which was a predominantly kid audience mind you) only three or four people laughed at all – and they seemed to be very emotional adults.

The other trouble with Jar Jar is that not only is he unfunny, but practically ALL the film’s humour (except the alien cameos) relies on him. The original “Star Wars” at least had the great Han/Leia verbal spats as well as the droids, instead of relying on crap like “ex-squeeze me” and stepping in animal droppings. Sad that such a breakthrough character in animation is so hollow.

Storylines: Split into four sections, each relating to the planets they’re set on: Naboo – Basically is a batch of action sequences stacked together that while visually stunning, feels flat as we’ve only just met these characters and so don’t feel involved in the action just yet. It doesn’t help that the scenes are so CG-intensive that there’s constant distractions.

Tattoine – The predominate segment relies around the fantastic pod race and some slow family scenes which are as emotional as the average emotional scenes in a summer blockbuster.

Coruscant – While the Jedi Council scenes provide little more than some nice cameos, its Palpatine’s manipulations of the Queen and the Senate which are a joy to watch – providing about half of the ‘meat’ of the film in 1/10th of the running time. There were several scenes in the senate edited out which I would have loved to have seen instead of another stupid Jar Jar gag.

Naboo Again – The final section is split into three sections. A 100% CG-animated ground battle that feels like a completely different movie, a cool as heel palace infiltration and duel between the Jedis & Maul, and a relatively small and confusing space dogfight which seems to be there merely to have some kind of spacefight in the movie.

Action: For the most part is very cool and on par with the original trilogy. The highlight? Would have to be a tie between the pod race and the final duel. The pod race is superb, and while the CG has that slight distancing effect (meaning you can’t get 100% into the action) the pace was breakneck fast and turned the usually repetitively dull sport of motor racing into something extremely watchable – it was a 20-minute segment which only felt like 5 minutes and had some great fun with various cameos of creatures (the sand people one was a stroke of genius).

The duel at the end however was only about 10 minutes at most in total and is worth the price of admission. Using the obligatory Star Wars duel setting (extremely glossy and high-up walkways), the filmmakers have combined techniques from the original trilogy’s best duel (Luke-Vader in ‘Empire’), the gravity-defying leap and somersault tricks of Xena, and the sharp body twisting of Hong Kong action movies to come up with what is the best (and sadly shortest) duel in the entire series. Also one sequence worth a note is the first act’s only real impressive action – the underwater trip filled with giant critters.

Special FX: ILM’s effects range from jaw-dropping to weak. One thing this film highlights is that CG is at its most realistic for creating great backgrounds. From the immense size of the podrace stadium, the glowing baubles of the underwater city, to the towers of Coruscant – the environments they’ve created are beautiful and flawless. One of the rules of computer animation that still applies is that CG-animation looks great for distance shots, but for closeups its not realistic.

Lucas hoped to break that rule and has ended up only making a slight bend, some close-up scenes are convincing but others scream animation – especially those scenes mostly made up of animated elements (eg. inside the Gungan city). The CG characters unfortunately all look just like that – CG-animated characters. At several times one could ALMOST forget their animated, until about 5 seconds later when they would do something or move in a way that defies the laws of nature (ie. Jar Jar’s ears moved way to fast for the size they were).

Ships: One thing this film finally does introduce some sexy looking ships into a series which desperately needed to improve on its lego-brick looking vessels. Honestly if you were in space would you prefer riding in a lumpy dirty white piece of junk or one of the state-of-the-art smooth and curved ships in the various recent “Star Trek” spin-offs? Now, these SW ships have become much sleeker – from the yellow Naboo fighters to Darth Maul’s Empire-like personal transport. But its the Queen’s reflective skin cruiser which has to be one of, if not the best looking ship on-screen in ages.

The Force & Midi-chlorians: One of the most annoying things of the original trilogy was the whole pseudo-religion that was The Force. At times it was used to fantastic effect (ie. the duels, Vader’s strangulation trick), but it was also the basis for the only weak moments in Empire – the training scenes which suffered from slow pacing. The first film of the original trilogy used it best by having it as merely a part of the background, thus making it interesting and mysterious.

A lot of devout fans have complained about this ‘Midi-chlorian’ thing which, when you put it in basic terms, says the power to manipulate the Force lies in one’s genes rather than some mystical determination (in other words science vs. religion). If you follow “Star Wars” devoutly and love the whole religious aspect to it then you’ll possibly be upset by this issue. I on the other hand never cared for it so the ‘issue’ made no difference at all to me. This film used the force even less than in the first film, in fact for the first time I wished they had focussed a little more on it (ie. make the duel scenes longer).Humans vs.

FX: Here’s where the film’s biggest fault lies. Tension and conflict in a film are built by having characters emotionally interacting with each other, something which takes a backstep in this to pure visual FX displays. As a result the proceedings feel oddly distant and scenes supposed to be tense or teary only stir a mild reaction at best. Lucas seems more concerned with showing off the film’s FX and wierd alien critters rather than having characters and a story which actually develop (and don’t give me that its just a setup for Episode II crap, this film should be able to stand on its own merits – the original “Star Wars” did). Still, it manages to have more of a story than half the summer blockbusters out there, and for the age group its aiming for (8-12 year olds), you don’t have to have a particularly deep movie.Sum-Up: Its really hard to make a fair judgement on the movie at the moment as despite what some say, hype does play a part in feelings toward a film ).

In about 9-12 months from now when its come and gone, people who aren’t sure or are afraid to express their real feelings toward the film will say what they actually thought. With me, honestly, I had a decent time. Certainly nowhere near the best time I’ve had in a theatre, but certainly one of the best I’ve had this year. A second viewing of the movie pretty much solidified my original thoughts, and if anything the film is weaker after repeat viewings. I hope next time there’s a little more of a focus on the human characters than on the FX, and that they’ve got some more enthusiasm doing what they do. Casual fans like me will find it decent, devout ones will be disappointed or love it totally, and newcomers will probably like it but wonder what the hoopla is all about.