There’s just so much to say about this film. But, lets get one thing out of the way before we begin. Does The Phantom Menace live up to the hype? No. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a fantastic film though. This film has enough eye candy, ear shattering sound effects, and action to satisfy everyone. Strip away the hype and what you have is a popcorn film that entertains for its full running time. The Phantom Menace is a feast for the eyes and ears but not the brain it’s all dessert and no main course.
Much like the first film in the original trilogy, this film serves as the basis and introduction for the coming two films. Being so, the film has a lot of exposition which sometimes slows the film down, but this isn’t a bad thing because when George Lucas lets loose of his imagination, it is something that makes you forget about all the slowness of the film.
There is an evil force working to eliminate the peace that exists in the galaxy and to also take control of the Galactic Republic. When the Trade Federation sets a blockade of a peaceful planet, Naboo, a Jedi Master, Obi-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and his Jedi Appretice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to negotiate. The two Jedi’s are met by an attempt on their lives, which sends them down to the planet of Naboo. At Naboo they work to protect Princess Amidala (Natalie Portman) but are no match for the army that is sent down to the planet. From here the movie moves to the planet of Tatooine where the group meets Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the apprentice to a mysterious Sith Lord, Darth Maul (Ray Park).
From Tatooine the movie moves to a few other worlds and the story moves along with a reasonable pace. The Phantom Menace story does not have any of the wonder or awe that the first three films had, nor does it have a strong character that people can like from the original trilogy I found Han Solo the coolest. Among the other characters featured in the film are some familiar faces like Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, R2D2, and a barely recognizable C3P0.
The actors in the main roles all give decent performances, though most of them are a bit wooden. Liam Neeson is perfect as Obi-Gon Jinn, a Jedi Master who is wise yet sometimes rebellious. Ewan McGregor picks up the mannerisms and voice of Alex Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original trilogy) perfectly. He is enjoyable onscreen, but he is not given enough screen time though I think this will change in the second and third films. Natalie Portman is somewhat flat as Queen Amidala, but she does fulfill her role adequately. The only performance that I thought was sub-par was that of young Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker. He does fine in the quiet moments, but when he is asked to become ecstatic onscreen it comes off wrong watch as he flies around in a Naboo defense fighter near the end of the film.
The cameo that I enjoyed the most was that of Samuel L. Jackson. I knew that Jackson had a cameo in the film, but I didn’t know when and where. Jackson has been high on my must-see actors list for a long time now and it was a joy to see him in a movie of this magnitude though he did have a role in the second largest first-day-grossing film, Jurassic Park, his presence in The Phantom Menace was more memorable. I hope that he has a larger recurring role in the next two films.
Another actor who didn’t get many speaking parts but was very memorable was Ray Park as Darth Maul. Park doesn’t get to speak much, but with that hideous make-up and his lightning quick moves, his presence onscreen is ominous and quite scary. His make-up, for me, at first made me wonder what Lucas was thinking. But, after seeing Ray Park with the red and black face paint and the little devil horns in action, I was convinced that Lucas is brilliant in bringing Darth Maul to life in such a manner. Is Darth Maul as fear-inducing as Darth Vader? No, but he’s more of a formidable enemy than Darth Vader was, as Darth Maul sports a double Lightsaber and has the moves of a martial artist on speed.
I got John Williams’s score for the movie the day it was released, about a two weeks ago. I enjoyed listening to the score especially the track titled “Duel of the Fates” but, a film score is always missing something when you hear it before you see the film. After listening to the score many times, I got used to the cues that were presented in the score and during the screening of The Phantom Menace I got a taste of just how brilliant a composer John Williams is. Williams’s score plays for most of the two hour plus running time of the film and at the 74 minute capacity of a CD, you can see that there was a lot of music missing on the CD. The film score adds a whole new dimension to the movie. As George Lucas writes in the insert for the CD, “I like to think of the Star Wars films as silent movies, movies whose stories are carried forward visually and by a musical score.” John Williams not only helps tell the story with his musical score; his score at times is the story. His score is restrained enough that it does not overwhelm the audience and distract them from what is onscreen, but it is powerful enough to move you. Kudos to John Williams for this dazzling score.
Lucas uses The Phantom Menace not as a storyboard to tell an elaborate story with twists and turns. Instead, he uses the film as a canvas. At the most basic level, The Phantom Menace is a film as a painting. The beautiful settings and sets in the film are enough to go see the film again just to enjoy the views. From the waterfall laden valleys in which the capital city of Naboo resides to the underwater city to the ever-busy Coruscant to the raceway on Tatooine to the Senate chamber, The Phantom Menace screams of polished art, set, and production design. The Phantom Menace is a visual feast.
Not to let the art, set, and production design overwhelm you, Lucas throws in gobs of “Isn’t this cool?” type special effects. Most every scene in the film seems to have something digital added. This brings me to one complaint, although special effects can be used to help an audience see the image that a director has in mind, sometimes the overuse of special effects is detrimental. And in some places in The Phantom Menace, the special effects are just gratuitous, which jars the audience. Science fiction has to be somewhat believable and with some of the special effects Lucas pushes the use of special effects a bit too far. The biggest example of this would be Jar Jar Binks, a completely computer generated actor. Serving no real purpose next to some comic relief, every time this character was onscreen I flinched a little his presence was not as bad as the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi though. Don’t get me wrong, there are some special effects that are jaw dropping good. The best example of that would be the pod race.
The action in The Phantom Menace is top notch. The two standout sequences are the aforementioned pod race in which we get to experience, both visually and aurally, a high-speed race. The race utilizes small pods mounted behind big jet engines that gain speeds that are break-neck. This race had me at the edge of my seat, even though I knew how it was going to turn out. The way that the special effects were integrated and used in this sequence was amazing. The second standout action sequence is the Lightsaber battle between Obi-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul. I’ve never been so engaged by an action sequence before. The sound in this sequence shook the floor every time Lightsabers clashed the floor shook and the visuals of this sequence had my eyes glued to the screen. The sequence shows just how exciting a well-choreographed and tightly edited fight sequence can be. Both of these sequences were exhilarating.
Is The Phantom Menace flawed? Yes. Does it overcome its flaws? Yes. Should you go see the film? It probably doesn’t matter what my answer is, but, yes, you should see this film. Don’t Miss Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. This movie can be enjoyed if you leave all the hype that you’ve been exposed to at the front door of the theatre. This film doesn’t have the awe of Star Wars or the smooth storytelling of Empire Strikes Back but what it does have is enough visuals to make you want to come back for multiple screenings.
May the Force be with you.