Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz
Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas
Rating: PG Running Time: 2 hr. 16 min
At a minute past midnight, May 19th 1999, my family and I lined up to see The Phantom Menace. It had been 16 years since the Return of the Jedi, and the long line of people impatiently waiting for this first of three origin stories, were excited. Some were dressed as their favorite characters; all were hoping George Lucas would bring the magic.
Once the end credits rolled, you could tell all was not right with the force. Sure, there were a few people applauding, and based on what I saw, I bet the kids had a great time with the film. But something wasn’t right. No one in my family was raving about the film, and the conversation in the car on the way home mostly focused on the parts we enjoyed. Desperately trying to grasp onto those now dying hopes we had just a couple of hours before. Alas however, nothing could be done. The Phantom Menace was a disappointment.
From the vague performances, to the poor dialog, it seemed Lucas was too focused on his new visual effects toys, and less on developing his characters. Quality actors like Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson seemed lost amidst sets locations and CGI characters they couldn’t interact with. And Lucas certainly isn’t the kind of director best suited to working with their talent, and help them visualize the elaborate constructs in his mind.
As an exercise in pure creativity, The Phantom Menace is actually quite wonderful. Lucas and his team conjured up worlds, droids, weapons, aliens and spaceships. Massively broadening the scope of what a Star Wars film can be, but at the cost of characters we can relate to and invest in emotionally. When Lucas struggled through the production of A New Hope, he wasn’t distracted by the technology, he had to invent it, and his focus gave us iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, R2 D2 and Han Solo. The Phantom Menace dazzles us with cool new stuff, but doesn’t give us a reason to care about any of it.
If you grew up with the original trilogy, you’re probably not going to find much to like in The Phantom Menace. This film is geared towards entertaining kids. With the now infamous Jar Jar Binks, prat falling his way through the film.
This is a Star Wars film, and works best in a theater. At home a HD screening on a large TV is your next best option.
I did enjoy (and still do) the pod racing scene. But my absolute favorite moment in the film is nearer the end, when Obi-Wan tackles Darth Maul one on one. It’s a fantastic single shot, and a beautifully choreographed set of moves that got a massive cheer out of the crowd during that visit to the theater back in 99. 13 seconds of absolute bliss!