How do you review the most anticipated and hyped movie of all time? I think it’s essential to position yourself towards it. I, for one, am not a Star Wars fanatic. I think that George Lucas‘ series is well crafted and very entertaining (especially “the Empire Strikes Back”), but many movies left a much bigger impression on me. Hence, I wasn’t that excited about this new movie so my expectation weren’t as high as some die hard fans. So what did I think of the “Phantom Menace”? Well, it does have flaws, but so did the original movies. That doesn’t take away from George Lucas that he is one of the most visionary of all filmmakers.
An even longer time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The Empire has yet to be created. The galaxy is ruled by the Republic, which is supposed to be righteous but isn’t immune to corruption. The Trade Federation is officially a corporate conglomerate competing to rule the affairs of the Republic, but underneath lies a galactic conspiracy masterminded by a mysterious Sith master acting under the influence of the Dark Side of the Force. This is the Phantom Menace, which I guess will be revealed in the next episode. But for now, a duo of ambassadors is sent out to the peaceful planet of Naboo, which the Trade Federation has surrounded with a blockade until the inhabitants surrender to its will, or something. The Feds just won’t negotiate, but they didn’t plan that they’d have to face two Jedi knights, the solemn master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. They’re interpreted by Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who are two very good actors but seem a bit tame next to the colorful monsters and places around them. Maybe that’s because Lucas hasn’t given them much to work with besides stiff dialogue and one-dimensional characters.
The Jedis achieve to land on Naboo, where they stumble across Jar Jar Binks, a digitally created character voiced by Ahmed Best. Most people seem to hate the clumsy amphibian creature, but I actually found him amusing. Okay, he’s childish and kind of annoying, and his Jamaican-style dialect is sometimes hard to understand, but he has more personality than the humans, and it’s impressive to see what modern technology is now capable of. Jar Jar leads his new friends to is hometown, a city which is built inside glass bubbles under water, and then to the royal palace, a wonderful creation complete with canals, towels and waterfalls. They meet with Queen Amidala (Nathalie Portman), who’s determined not to abdicate to the Trade Federation’s bullying, even when they send an army of combat droids (which are as bad shots and easy to destroy as the Storm Troopers). Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan agree to take the Queen to the Senate, a huge assembly that sits in a sphere on a planet which is all one big city.
But engine trouble with their starship forces them to land on a planet nearby, the desertic Tatooine, which we’ve already visited in Episode IV and VI, but it never looked this good. This is where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, pretty lame even on child acting standards), a slave boy in whom Qui-Gon sense freakishly strong Jedi powers. He believes he found the chosen one who, according to the prophecy, will bring balance to the Force. I guess we all know what a mistake this is, since Anakin will grow up to become the evil Darth Vader! The turning point of the movie is the already famous pod race, between various alien creatures and Skywalker. If he wins, he will be freed and able to follow Qui-Gon. If he loses, he will remain under the custody of his sleazy owner, a crooked, disgusting street merchant. None other than the horrible Jabba the Hut presides over the race, which is an absolutely riveting sequence: think “Ben-Hur” on speed! The scene is videogamish, but it sure is exciting.
Lucas’ films might not be very deep, but they’re rather complex and involving in a comic book kind of way. One of the pleasures of “Episode 1” is how it allows us to witness the foundations of the Star Wars myth. I enjoyed watching Anakin Skywalker as a kid under the wing of twentysomething Obi-Wan, knowing that he would eventually kill him. I liked seeing an uncompleted C-3P0 meet for the first time the droid who would become his lifelong companion, the already heroic R2-D2. And what about the Jedi Council, ruled by a healthier Yoda (still voiced by Frank Oz) and Mace Windu, who is nicely embodied by Samuel L. Jackson but doesn’t do much. This all leads to the grandiose finale, as four groups of people are caught in climactic confrontations at the same time. Jar Jar and his peers war against countless combat droids, while Anakin and a fleet of space pilots attack the Trade Federation’s command ship, and Queen Amidala and her guards regain control of the royal palace. And finally there’s the three-way lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul, the coolest character since Darth Vader. There’s already a cult around the Sith hitman, who turned on geeks everywhere with his devilish make-up, his double lightsaber and actor Ray Parks‘ martial arts chops. Some will obviously be disappointed to see that Darth Maul has very little screen time. Personally, I think it’s for the best: since he remains mysterious for most of the film, that makes his apocalyptic showdown with the Jedis even more of a blast.
I really don’t understand why most of the early reviews were negative. Maybe some people were expecting too much and felt they had been let down. I was just looking forward to more great visuals and fun creatures, and I got well enough for my money (I actually went to see the movie twice on opening day).