Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace Review
By Joe Lozito
A Matter of Force
After the fervor surrounding the release of the trailer to "Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace" months ago, George Lucas joked that he would release the new film in two and a half minute installments. In essence, this is what he did. Certainly, no scene in the film lasts longer than that. The characters are given as much development as a one-line description in TV Guide. And the dialogue is, to be kind, stiff. But this is a "Star Wars" movie and the above complaints could just as easily be applied to the film that started it all back in 1977. In fact, if the original "Star Wars" were made today rather 22 years ago, it might look a lot like "The Phantom Menace".
The film follows a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) as they stumble upon a 10-year old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) while helping Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) protect her small planet of Naboo from the evil Trade Federation. Mr. Lucas may not create three-dimensional characters, but he makes up for it by packing about three movies worth of plot into the film.
There has been some controversy over the potential negative stereotypes that some of his characters evoke. Jar Jar Binks, for example, a computer-generated sidekick, speaks in a sort of Sci-fi ebonics, and there is a flying junk dealer named Wattoo who is pure "Chico and the Man". However, "Star Wars" has always been about types - the naïve farm boy, the princess, the wise old sage - and while Mr. Lucas can create realistic aliens completely via computers, he still needs old-fashioned human voices to place behind them. One way or another, the characters will sound familiar, but they certainly don't sound offensive.
In fact, Mr. Lucas has a trick up his sleeve. By setting "Menace" a generation before the original "Star Wars", he has insured that he has a certain amount of character development built into the film. Ewan McGregor's spot-on impression of Alec Guiness provides Obi-Wan with a much needed sense familiarity. Any interaction between him and young Anakin evokes memories of their lightsaber duel in the original film.
Of course, this would be an entirely different film if it wasn't known that innocent, young Anakin would grow up to be one of film's most memorable villains. Mr. Lloyd plays Anakin as a hyper-naïve child, which is surprisingly just right. Thank goodness there aren't scores of little nods to the fact that he was going to be breathing through a tube in a few decades. The sight of a young Darth Vader shouting "Yippee!" has some interesting ramifications (is evil born evil?).
Never fear, though, even after four films, the "Star Wars" standard conflict of extreme good versus extreme evil still prevails. The latter in this case is personified in both the holographic Lord Siddious and an over-the-top devil-faced character named Darth Maul (Ray Park). The film is thankfully balanced by the welcome presence of Mr. Neeson as the venerable Jedi Master assigned to sort the whole thing out.
The centerpiece of the film is an impossibly fast "Pod Race" presided over by Jabba the Hutt, which Anakin must win in order to free our stranded heroes. The scene is a sort of cross between the chariot race in "Ben Hur" and a soap-box derby, and it makes the speeder bikes in "Jedi" look like go-carts. Of course, the winner of the race is predetermined. This is, after all, a prequel.
Mr. Lucas also learned from the Ewok debacle which nearly killed 1983's "Return of the Jedi". In "Menace", Mr. Lucas has found a perfect balance between cutesy kid's stuff (filling in for Chewbacca is the goofy Jar Jar) and "force"-ful adult fare (the lightsabers fly fast and furious). However, while the plot of "Menace" is dense, it is not without its holes. Why, for example, is the evil Federation so interested in the small planet of Naboo in the first place? There is also a near-fatal plot point involving Anakin's birth and a scientific explanation of the Force. This can be forgiven, however. It's still a galaxy far, far away, and it still looks like nothing we've ever seen before.