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THE PHANTOM MENACE, 1999
Directed by George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Lloyd
Review by Andrew Kosarko
The first of three prequels to George Lucas’s celebrated STAR WARS films, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is set some 30 years before the original STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE in the era of the Republic. Naboo, a peaceful planet governed by the young but wise Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), is being threatened by the corrupt Trade Federation, puppets of an evil Sith lord and his terrifying apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park). Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, performing an amazing vocal imitation of Alec Guinness, the older Obi-Wan) are called on to intervene in the trade disputes. Along the way, they acquire an apprentice of their own in the form of young prodigy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), or as STAR WARS fans know him, the future Darth Vader. They also encounter Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a goofy, lizardlike creature who has been banished from his underwater world for clumsiness. When the Trade Federation launches an attack on Naboo, the queen and her allies must battle hordes of robot troopers while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off against the sinister Darth Maul. One of the most anticipated films of all time, THE PHANTOM MENACE sets the stage for the tumultuous events to come. Lucas fills the screen with detailed sci-fi creatures and locations, revealing the most creative and exquisite sets, costumes, and character designs to hit the screen since the original trilogy
A Baaaaaa! Da da duhhhhhh…ba da duh da duh duh duhhhhh.. Bah bah baaah baaaah ba ba baaa baaaaaaa baaaaa. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. Ever since George Lucas renamed the Original Trilogy (OT) years ago to have episode numbers, fans have been waiting on edge for the prequels to the biggest feature films of all time. There is no argument, nor comparison. Star Trek and Lord of the Rings can kiss my wookie. But sadly, this outing didn’t match fans expectations.
The most repeated phrase for this review is going to be “hit or miss.” Simple as that. The story, jumps between awful moments that we don’t need, and spectacular moments that drop your jaw. The problem is that the former is the majority overall. Lucas has no box to be put in so it’s very much that vain indie film maker mentality of “I know how to do it better than the studio.” Which is very apparent in his commentary and bonus interviews. Most of the story is bogged down in details and that’s the problem overall. Yes, it’s nice to see someone selling alien snacks at a podracing event, but it’s not something we need to designate 5-7 seconds to in a stand alone shot. This, in small doses, is alright, but Lucas runs with it too far. Showing every nook and detail of the worlds he has us in with spot light shots (basically featuring just the detail alone) and not contributing anything to the overall story. These short details add up in time and slow the story down. Secondly, the story is paced way to slow. Many of the attempts to bring some life to it feel forced upon repeat viewings – most notably the Qui-gon VS Darth Maul on Tattooine battle. Lucas could have had a shorter film that was paced better if he hadn’t had 2 fish chase sequences back to back that both end the same exact way…I’m still trying to figure out why the hell we watch the same exact thing twice. If anyone knows, please feel free to drop me an email.
Alright, here we go again with “hit or miss”. Neeson – hit. McGregor – hit. McDiarmid – Hit. Lloyd – Miss. Portman – Miss. Jackson – ….that one is a 50/50 for me. The biggest ball dropped is Jake Lloyd. I’m sorry – he’s a horrible child actor. The blame does fall to Lloyd’s ability, or lack thereof, and Lucas’ casting decisions here. What’s mind boggling is watching the bonus features and seeing the footage of the two boys it came down to for casting Anakin and Lucas picks Lloyd, who also sucks in the audition. The other boy is fantastic and from that screen test, in this reviewers opinion, would have made the film a lot stronger and more legitimate. Oh and then there’s Ray Park as Darth Maul – That my friends, was a walk off grand slam in the bottom of the 9th in the championship game.
Lucas sees these films as his tribute to the old sci fi serials. A vision that was disregarded by Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher back in the days when he was a little known director. But over time, his reputation has been built off the franchise that he only wrote and directed one film of. Thus, I believe a lot of his direction is taken too close to heart by the actors. Namely, Portman and Jackson, whom I know are capable of a lot more.
The last Star Wars film to be shot on 35mm. And it shows, in a good way I mean. I love the way 35 looks with this world. In such an epic and fantastical tale, it’s nice to see the grain of film that reminds the viewer of reality. Granted, there’s less control over the image but that’s one of the creative boxes Lucas couldn’t get out of yet. It also most likely diminished a lot of the stylized CGI worlds that were to come. Everything is beautifully lit and framed and there’s never a moment your eyes want to look away, unless of course it’s the back of your eyelids.
Production Design: When it’s actually there, it’s great. I’m a fan of minimal CGI and I enjoy seeing the craftsman ship employed on actual objects an applaud the “movie magic” of yesterday that earned that illusion of disbelief. It’s stylized, but still fits this world and shows early indications of what’s to come in later films. A nice luxury of making a prequel.
Editing: Here’s where they could have done a lot of fixing in terms of the scripts pacing. But it’s not. I feel like the editors, mainly Smith, were influenced by the omnipresence of George Lucas. The Podrace is 10 minutes long. That’s 4 minutes too long by my count. Do you know what you can get done in 4 minutes in a feature film? And again…the “always a bigger fish” twice….come on? Was it so boring in the editing room that everyone fell asleep at the Avid and forgot to extract that scene from the timeline?
Score: John Williams. Duh? Duel of fates sold that score alone. I don’t know if I’d say it tops the OT score, but it definitely defines the new trilogy as having a similar, yet original score of it’s own.
Special Effects: “Too much of a good thing.” I cannot speak ill about the accomplishments of the CGI, but I feel as though there’s way to much, even when there’s no need for it. It over stylizes the film and really takes the audience out of the emotional connection with the characters and the surroundings. I realize puppets and animatronics and real sets are hard to create and cost a lot of money, but if you’re a real artist, you understand that it’s a better pay off in the long run.
In closing: I like this movie. A lot. I hope my review doesn’t lean too much towards the negative side. It’s just not the same as I expected. Which is hard to justify because I’m a film maker and a fanboy of this series. I think as a collective group we all expected the following most of all –
1) An older Anakin right from the start – preferably with better acting.
2) Lucas, being notorious for one single line of directing on A New Hope, “Faster and more intense” would echo that again. Instead we got “Slower, and more subdued.”
3) No Jar Jar.
4) A bit more of darker story tones. I’m not talking The Dark Knight here, but sparing moments to foreshadow Anakin’s eventual turn to the dark side.
5) No Jar Jar.
6) More action. The film plays like a drama instead of an adventure. And the majority of the action is rarely justified. Michael Bay does a better job at explaining why some things blow up in his movie than a couple moments in this film.
Had these things been focused on more, I feel like would be obsessed with this movie and fans would have received it a lot better.
….and no Jar Jar.
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