A film review by Craig J. Koban February 15, 2012



1999/ 2012, PG, 133 mins.

Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson / Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor / Queen Amidala: Natalie Portman / Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd / Jar Jar Binks: Ahmed Best / Shmi Skywalker: Pernilla August / Yoda: Frank Oz / Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson / Darth Maul: Ray Park / Chancellor Valorum: Terence Stamp

Written and directed by George Lucas



It’s hard to encapsulate how much unbridled anticipation there was for the very first film in George Lucas’ STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy – titled EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE – when it was released nearly 13 years ago in the summer of 1999.  The first film chronologically in the series, the fourth film released (coming 16 years after 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI), and fuelled by a salivating legion of rabid STAR WARS fans waiting and waiting…and waiting...for the flannel shirted one to make due on his promise to make the first three films in the heralded saga, THE PHANTOM MENACE opened to massive box office success and grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide.  

Alas, it was paradoxically despised. 

Much has been made of the relative quality of THE PHANTOM MENACE in the pantheon of STAR WARS films.  To be fair, it’s the least of all of the entries, but the film’s biggest sin is arguably not its inherent value, but rather that it unfortunately came after a long gestation period of fanatically built-up fan eagerness for new films.  Those original films are so permanently entrenched in our pop culture milieu and in the hearts and minds of the most feverous of aficionados that disappointment, on some level, would prove to be inevitable with the advent of THE PHANTOM MENACE; for Lucas to recapture creative lightning again in a bottle was improbable.  There is simply no manner that any STAR WARS film - from any directorial or creative mind - could have attained the same sense of startling freshness, audacious originality, and revolutionary artifice as the first three films.   

I could go on ad nauseam about how the unimaginably high fanbase expectations doomed THE PHANTOM MENACE to failure even before it was initially released (how could any film possibly eclipse such unattainable expectations?).  What’s important, I think, today for people that re-watch Lucas’ space opera is to view THE PHANTOM MENACE within a very tight viewfinder outside of history, outside of our collective childhood memories of the past films, and outside of the repellently – and unfairly - hostile response the film received in 1999.  Looking within a narrow prism of our lifelong associations and reverence to the original STAR WARS canon, it’s deceptively easy to label THE PHANTOM MENACE as a supreme letdown.  However, looking at it more constructively, the film has the Force, so to speak, with it…just not as much as the original three; it certainly is still a film of limitlessly awesome ambition, but perhaps not as much discipline.

Watching the film in its original release and now for its 21st Century three-dimensional upgrade (which ranges from underwhelming to tastefully subdued and neither fundamentally adds or detracts from the experience), it’s important to look at THE PHANTOM MENACE in context.  It had to facilitate itself as a worthy introductory chapter to not only EPISODE II, but to the entire STAR WARS saga as a whole (to complain that Lucas was too heavily and slavishly expository with THE PHANTOM MENACE misses the point).  It had to establish not only new characters, but also old and familiar ones in either a younger or different form.  Most importantly, THE PHANTOM MENACE required itself to be a stand-alone film on its own, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.  On all of these primary levels as an origin story, the film was – and still is – an efficient accomplishment.   

Like all of the STAR WARS films, Lucas does not waste much time in THE PHANTOM MENACE and thrusts us head first into his galaxy far, far away and, in the process, essentially tells a good narrative, even if the title card crawl confounds us with news of "the taxation of trade routes" (what the...?).  The plot details Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, bringing solemn gravitas and dignity) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) attempting to escort Queen – and future mom to Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia – Amidala (Natalie Portman) from her home planet of Naboo to the Galactic governmental epicenter, Coruscant, in order to find a diplomatic end to her planet’s trade route dispute (the film's heavily politicized themes that tend to bog down the spectacle is now, more than ever, an inherent and obvious weakness here).  Along the way, the trio of heroes make a required detour to Tatooine where they encounter future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, a bit mannered, to be sure, but adequate in his role), a young slave that’s atypically strong in the Force for a boy that has not achieved puberty.  Throughout their journeys, the Jedi Knights and Queen are ruthlessly hunted down by a Sith Lord named Darth Maul (a penetratingly intimidating Ray Park) who serves the needs of his master - a Dark Lord of the Sith and phantom menace to all involved - to eradicate the Jedi order with extreme prejudice.

Re-watching THE PHANTOM MENACE on the largest screen that Saskatoon had to offer, the one thing that strikes me now as it did in 1999 is the film's stunning fairy tale visual richness.  It has become annoyingly easy to dismiss or take for granted the scope and scale of this film, but Lucas’ incredible mastery of utilizing of all the tools in his visual effects bag of tricks to conjure up a galaxy-spanning universe feels just as tactile and immersive now as it did in the original trilogy.  The screen is always alive in THE PHANTOM MENACE and is to be savored as a visceral experience first beyond anything else and it contains so many individual moments of joyful creativity.   



Lucas thanklessly engages us in scenes of the fantastical throughout the film, many which were frankly impossible using the antiquated methods of the early films: underwater cities covered in membranes; the Queen’s expansive and richly opulent city that is a Renaissance painter’s wet dream; extraordinary underwater vistas featuring Godzilla-sized marine life that can swallow ships whole; the obligatory – but still infectiously thrilling – aerial dog fights between heroes and villains in the sea of outer space; a jaw-dropping ode to BEN HUR where Anakin engages in a thrilling race involving hovering pods that defy gravity through the rocky caverns of Tatooine; and a concluding ground battle pitting thousands of battle droids versus Gungans (the underwater denizens of Naboo).  John Williams’ trumpeting and boisterous musical score – including subtle cues to STAR WARS themes of old as well as the operatic “Duel of the Fates”– is as enthralling as ever while accentuating all of these moments.   

Then, of course, there is one Gungan in particular, Jar Jar Binks, and even though he has an infamously annoying personality that has made STAR WARS fans pull their collective hair out since '99, at least he has a distinct personality.  Sure, he’s become the most loathed of all of the STAR WARS characters, but as one of the very first all-CGI creations, Lucas’ watershed efforts in envisioning and creating him –in hindsight - were undeniably state-of-the-art and pioneering for their time.  Without Jar Jar they would have arguably been no Gollum in THE LORD OF THE RINGS and countless other computer fabricated characters that have dominated movies in the last decade-plus.  How THE PHANTOM MENACE escaped an Oscar win for Best Visual Effects is positively stupefying, even today.  To be fair, Lucas did acknowledge the negative response to Binks by severely limiting his screen time in the following two episodes. 

Lucas is also under-appreciated for knowing how to stage action, as is the case with a thrilling three-way lightsaber battle between Maul, Jinn and Kenobi, which is arguably a high point in the annals of Jedi versus Sith battles in STAR WARS (that, and it propelled the little seen Maul into the upper echelon of enigmatically cool villains in Lucas' space fantasy universe).  After suffering through so many films over the years that seem to operate on attention-deficit disorder with their cutting, looking at the crisp staging of this epic sword battle, done with an editorial clarity and precision, still remains a treat for the eyes.  What strikes me about THE PHANTOM MENACE - and all of the other films in the series - is that they exist as primal out-of-body experiences: we sit through them and gaze at the screen to be engaged and immersed within their fantastical images and sights; we're active participants, not passive ones.  To many modern action films, by comparison, are almost aggressively antagonistic with their hyper-stylized visuals and migraine-inducing overkill.

It's hard to deny that THE PHANTOM MENACE is most definitely not an actor’s paradise (Portman in particular looks stiff and uncomfortable throughout, and Lloyd, at his best, ranges from mediocre to serviceable), nor is it a wellspring of memorable dialogue.  Yet, these two faults have been unfairly attributed to the film’s longstanding - and overall - lack of merit.  Those elements are almost tertiary to films like this: all of the STAR WARS pictures are about escapism in the purest form.  Asking the most loyal devotees of the original trilogy what their fondest memories were of the early films and I hardly think it was Mark Hamill’s thespian skills or the shrewd and thoughtful dialogue passages between characters involving Toche Stations or nerf herders. 

No, STAR WARS tapped into something more ethereal in filmgoers: a desire to be transported into another world and time where all of their glorious and otherworldly sights become so real that we vicariously begin to feel a part of them.  That’s the everlasting power of transformative fantasy and myth.  Ultimately, critics and fans have bemoaned the lack of performance range and character dynamics in THE PHANTOM MENACE since 1999, but is that really what matters with this film and all of the other episodes?  The entirety of the STAR WARS franchise exists as propulsive visual tour de forces first and foremost; that’s their long-standing legacy.  THE PHANTOM MENACE can be fairly chastised for not containing the same magic of its predecessors, but the magic is nonetheless still there.  To quote Yoda, I enjoyed the film "no more, no less" upon its new 3D re-release.  But I still enjoyed it enough.

In closing, I pose this experiment to all of the people that live within an impermeable bubble of hyperbolic hatred for this film.  Try this: take a child to THE PHANTOM MENACE, especially if they have never experienced a STAR WARS film before.  Watch their reaction.  If you could time travel back to 1977 and witness yourself seeing STAR WARS for the first time, your reaction was, no doubt, not too different: enthusiasm, exhilaration, and delight in being privy to a grand and awe-inspiring adventure serial of cosmos-spanning good versus evil like never experienced before.  

How could that experience possibly be labeled as a bad thing?

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