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Star Wars: Episode I - The Phanton Menace   B+

20th Century Fox / Lucasfilm

Year Released: 1999
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Strip this film of its often striking images and its high-falutin' scientific jargon and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality..."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Like a lot of criticisms of The Phantom Menace. Thin characters, dull plot, a weak link in the franchise. The only trouble is, it's not a criticism of The Phantom Menace. It's a review of the original Star Wars, released in 1977. Amazing how little has changed in 20 years. After insufferable hype and fan-fed hysteria, The Phantom Menace opened to the exact same complaints as its now-canonical predecessor. Only this time, its very real assets have been almost completely dismissed. After two decades, we've grown so used to George Lucas' fairy-tale kingdom that we've forgotten what was so magical about it in the first place.

And magical it is. While most films today have the ability to render anything on-screen, few realize that potential as well as The Phantom Menace. Consider the city of Coruscant, a planet-wide capital composed of countless layers of buildings and ships; the Senate chambers, where an ineffective republic debates a seemingly minor squabble with ominous implications; or the underwater vistas of Naboo, filled with fearsome creatures and delicate cities alike. All of this covers territory that three other films have passed before, and yet finds something startlingly original there. The universe in this movie lives, it breathes, it surrounds us with three-dimensional vibrancy. Every character here has a background, every building a story to be told. Lucas has infused so much detail into his world that it attains a completeness that few other science-fiction films even aspire to. Every shot feels real, no matter how wild or fanciful its appearance.

Against that backdrop, any story would be hard-pressed to keep up. George Lucas has enough sense to keep his simple -- he sticks to the celebrated archetypes the series started with, and maintains a proper sense of fun. The Phantom Menace paves the way for the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, discovered here as a little boy by a Jedi named Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Anakin's trials, and the beginnings of the evil that will eventually consume him, are drawn along with high energy, exhilaration, and a genuine sense of wonder. The action sequences are breathtaking (topped by a lightsaber duel that may be one of the best examples of pure cinema I've ever seen) but never compete with the story for attention. A more complicated plot would get lost amid the exquisite visuals; here, it's straightforward enough to always stay on track.

Is the film perfect? Of course not. The truly obscene prerelease hype generated expectations that no movie could meet. The dialogue does clunk, the story is simple, and no human being on Earth is going to the mat for Jar Jar Binks. (Jar Jar's the only reason I didn't rate this film higher.) That, unfortunately, is part of the package; this has never been a series about arch conversations and convoluted plot developments. Lucas has likened the Star Wars movies to silent films, telling a story visually rather than with words. The Phantom Menace follows the same pattern. The script could have been tighter (and was rightfully critiqued for its tin ear), but that's really not the purpose of the exercise.

And the drama isn't as thin as it may appear. The best thing about The Phantom Menace is the way it sheds new light on characters we thought we knew by heart. Yoda's resigned bitterness in Empire becomes all the more poignant after seeing his quiet caution in Phantom; the twinkle in Obi-Wan's eye is just as clear in Ewan McGregor as it was in Alec Guiness (we know now why he moved through the first film's Death Star with such confidence); and there's something chilling behind Anakin's face... something that says he's making a list and all of us are on it. When you look at The Phantom Menace alone, these details are hard to notice. Taken as one chapter in a larger story, it brings out subtle nuances that didn't exist before. For that -- and for many other reasons -- it deserves our admiration.

I'm not trying to invalidate criticism of the film: its shortcomings are not insignificant, and the disappointment many people feel has some very real foundations. I hear the complaints, and I note their validity, and I agree: The Phantom Menace could have been better. When I respond -- when I try to show others the genuine magic that shines through despite the flaws -- my strongest argument comes from a little boy I saw in the lobby after my first viewing last May. Amid the hyperactive energy around him, he was still and quiet, and you could see his brow furrowed in thought. As I walked by, I saw him look up at his father and softly ask a simple question.

"Daddy, can we see it again?"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Review published 04.07.2000.

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