Star Wars:  Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Directed By: George Lucas
Starring:  Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman,
Jake Lloyd,  Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels
Rated:  PG (Violence)
Running Time:  133 Min.
    A long time ago, in a movie theatre far, far away...  before the hype of multi-million dollar film franchises, before the term 'Summer Blockbuster' had been coined, even before theatres made people leave after each showing of a film, there came a movie called Star Wars.  Since then, moviegoing has never been the same.  With Star Wars, writer / director / producer George Lucas had created a matinee masterpiece with few 'big name' stars, visual concepts so original that an entire special effects industry had to be created to realize them, and a budget of about 11 million dollars.  Now, 22 years later, he has attempted to do it again, but with a budget more than 8 times that of the original.

    Chances are that most people reading this have already seen The Phantom Menace, since it has been one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time.  If you are not one of those people, then regardless of anything written below this paragraph, SEE THIS MOVIE.  It is worth your 8 bucks if it's still playing in theatres near you, and it's worth the rental price on VHS.  For the rest of you who have seen The Phantom Menace, and have probably also read many reviews of it, here's my two cents worth:

    Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace does what it is designed to do.  For over two hours, it takes its audience on a wonderful ride, shows them sights they've never imagined, gives them action, humor, and drama, and dares them to remember a time, not so long ago, when they were 10 years old.  On that level, The Phantom Menace succeeds beautifully.

    Now, having said that (here it comes), The Phantom Menace is not the equal of any of the first three Star Wars films.  While the special effects are stunning, the plot is very thin, serving only as a backdrop to introduce us to the important characters of Episodes II and III.  There is almost no character development, and although we are supposed to be rooting for young Anakin Skywalker throughout the film, we are really given no reason to, especially since we already know that he grows up to be Darth Vader, a guy so evil that he destroys entire planets just to make a point.  There is no hint in The Phantom Menace that Anakin could ever be capable of such acts, just as there was no hint in the first trilogy that Darth Vader could ever have been a little kid as sweet and innocent as young Anakin.  How this transformation takes place is still a mystery, which I'm sure is by design.  Only time, and two more films, will tell.  (Bring on the Clone Wars!!)

    The movie was also packed with computer generated characters.  So many that the human characters often looked out of place.  That brings us to Jar-Jar Binks.  Jar-Jar is a completely computer generated (C.G.) character, and a major one, at that.  While obviously designed to be comic relief, many aspects of what plot there is hinge on him.  Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about Jar-Jar, and I'm no different:  Jar-Jar was annoying.  I'm sorry, but he was.  Because of Jar-Jar, I hope to never see another computer generated, speaking character in a live-action film ever again.  However, if I were still 10 years old, I probably would have liked him.  Either way, I get the feeling we're all going to have to deal with him in Episode II, so I'll stop complaining and move on.

    Strong showings from Episodes II and III could redeem some of the apparent faults in The Phantom Menace, but it will never stand on its own as a classic of the genre.  The theme that carries through the first three Star Wars films, the triumph of one's faith and spirit over technology, is noticeably missing in Episode I.  Hopefully the next two chapters of the series will have more of the human element that was so central to the first trilogy.  I can only imagine how much better The Phantom Menace would have been if Lucas & Co. had invested as much in its human characters as in its special effects.
A.J.'s Rating: 3.5 Computer Generated Sidekicks

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Review published
May 26, 1999
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