STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE-3D REVIEW (Grade: C)
By Jonathan Decker
Denial. Anger. Depression. Acceptance. I went through all the stages of grief when, in 1999, I was a mega-fan confronted with the terrible fact that The Phantom Menace, easily the most eagerly-anticipated movie in 16 years, was a crushing dissappointment. The story was dull, the characters mostly uninvolving, the dialogue tepid, and everyone feared that JarJar would sully the entire prequel trilogy. This was Star Wars with all of the flash but none of the substance, spunk, humor, or soul of the originals. The years have been somewhat kind to the film, however. Revisiting it in 2012, it's better than remembered, both because expectations have been lowered and because of the film's association with the other two imperfect-but-underappreciated prequels.
The same flaws are as present now as they were in '99. There is little of the camraderie and charm that made the originals so beloved by the general public. Instead, this is a “geeks only” affair that offers mythology and imagination with characters running the gamut from annoying to horribly bland, with a few exceptions (more on that in a second). Natalie Portman is a fine actress, so why George Lucas directed her to show absolutely no emotion is beyond me; the droids are more lifelike.
Supporting characters are all one-note and dull: Samuel L. Jackson looks unsure of how to act against a greenscreen. JarJar remains the most excruciatingly awful attempt at comic relief in pop culture history; kids love him, sure, but the originals knew that a film can please children and adults simultaneously. Jake Lloyd, as young Anakin Skywalker can be cheesy and unbelievable, but in fairness, he was just a child actor doing what George Lucas, at the time cinematic royalty, was directing him to do. In some moments he's actually quite good at conveying innocence, goodness, and heartache.
The central conflict holds little interest; the taxation of trade routes simply doesn't have the romance of a battle for freedom against an evil empire. Though Lucas wants the story to be viewed “in order,” there's little attempt here in the “first story” to give new generations a heads up on the mythology. Concepts such as “The Force” and “Jedi mind tricks” are portrayed with no explanation and the assumption that audiences have seen the original Star Wars. Worst of all, the film is sluggishly paced, with far too much expositional dialogue. The occasional bursts of action help only somewhat.
Still, the story holds interest in the context of the whole saga. It gives us a bright, colorful landscape and a time of relative peace in the galaxy; this lack of serious conflict sinks it as a standalone film but serves as a nice contrast to the chaos and tyranny that we'll see later on. The endless debates of Senate hearings set up an ignorant public's discontent with the process of democracy and blind willingness to later subject themselves to opression. Palpatine's politicking and chesire-grin nicely segway into a Machiavellian power grab in subsequent films. Anakin's fear of losing his mother will lead to his obsession with control. The “mystery of the Sith” is introduced, a plot thread that will ultimately lead to the great two-villain duo of Darth Vader and The Emperor. The Phantom Menace is all setup and no payoff, but seeing it in context all these years later, it's far easier to appreciate.
And there is much to appreciate. Lucas remains the foremost cinematic expert in “world-building.” From the gorgeous architecture of Naboo to the underwater city of the Gungans to the city-planet Coruscant, there is much to engage the eyes and imagination here. JarJar, though annoying, is cinema's first major CGI character, and the animation still holds up today. Indeed, all of the visual effects are better than most fantasy films today, some thirteen years later.
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, as the two main Jedi Knights, give solid performances and rise above the screenplay with charisma, nobility, compassion, and attitude. Pernilla August, as Anakin's mother, effectively conveys kindness, intelligence, and quite strength. Ray Park's Darth Maul is an undeveloped character, but a fantastically realized one in terms of design and intimidation. Their three-way lightsaber duel remains one of the most impressively choreographed fight scenes in movie history. The pod race, a type of intergalactic Nascar event, is still thrilling to behold. Indeed, all of the action is terrific. The creatures and sound design are incredible. John Williams' “Duel of the Fates” is justly considered an iconic work of movie music.
As for the 3D conversion, it doesn't add much, but neither is it distracting. A few scenes, notably those in space, do benefit from the added dimension. The film looks and sounds amazing on a big screen, however, which is the main draw for fans to go out and see it. Also fun is the “new Yoda,” i.e. the digital version that has replaced the puppet in this film in order to match the other two prequels (Lucasfilm assures us that Empire and Jedi‘s puppet will remain untouched). If, somehow, you've never seen a Star Wars movie, they do get much better after this. As a standalone film, The Phantom Menace frustrates; as a piece of a larger puzzle, however, it has just enough magic to whet our appetites for the rest of this quintessential saga to return to the big screen where it belongs.
IS IT OKAY FOR YOUR FAMILY?
The Phantom Menace is rated PG. It contains no foul language, sex, nudity, or substance abuse. There is plenty of bloodless fantasy violence (laser shootouts, etc), mostly directed at robots, though (spoiler) a man is cut in half and another is stabbed in the stomache during a laser-sword (“lightsaber”) duel.
ANY WORTHWHILE MESSAGES?
We sometimes cope with fear by translating it into the false power of anger, which anger then leads to hate, which hate leads to suffering. Curiously it is perfect love, i.e. self-sacrifice for another, that most effectively casts out fear; this series explores that concept much later in Return of the Jedi.
Ewan McGregor shines in The Phantom Menace as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Have you seen his fantastic turn in director Tim Burton's Big Fish? Such a powerful film!
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.