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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ahmed Best, Ray Park

Written & Directed By: George Lucas

The Short Version

The Phantom Menace was easily the single most anticipated movie of all time.

Could it have ever lived up to that level of expectation?  Probably not.

As it turns out, Jar Jar Binks really is most of the problem… or at least, what he represents is.

The podracing scene is easily worth the price of admission on its own.

Despite Jar Jar Binks, The Phantom Menace is actually a much better movie than you might remember.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PROVOLONE.

Italian cheese that’s much tastier than many people tend to recall until they find themselves tasting it again, and which would be right at home at any Naboo table, I suspect for some odd reason.


Pairs Well With...

WINE COOLER.

Doesn’t matter what kind.  People complain about how cheap and awful the stuff is all the time, but it still sells extremely well, and I have yet to see anyone spit it out and send it back.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side!  Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.  I sense much fear in you.”


The term “blockbuster” has become so overused that it’s essentially worthless now.  Originally a description reserved for films so popular that box office lines literally stretched around the block (a phenomenon once created artificially when the studio execs behind Jaws purposely only allowed it to be shown on half the number of screens that demand suggested proper), it has since come to be applied to movies that marketers would like to hope will be popular even before they’re released.  And though I have stood in many a long line over time, I have only experienced the reality of the term “blockbuster” once in my life.

That happened on opening day for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and measured properly, the line was actually about three or more standard city blocks long and – where the ushers could contain it – about ten people wide, with many bulges in the middle.  This despite the fact that the multiplex in question had it showing in enough auditoriums to start a new showing at regular intervals on two to three new screens at a time.  The lines were that way all weekend.

Eat your heart out, iPhone launches.

Even trailers for other movies contained lines like: “If you see just one movie this year, see Star Wars, but if you see two…”  So, was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace “highly anticipated?”  Oh, just a wee bit.

In fact, I think a case could very easily be made that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the single most anticipated movie of all time.

Could anything possibly have lived up to that kind of hype?  Objectively speaking… not a chance.  And sure enough, after the initial nerdgasms died down, the general vox populi started leveling some pretty scathing vegetable matter at the film, even as these same people were seeing it two, three, a dozen times.  Some of the naysaying was contrarian bombast, but really, there was a fair amount of critical truth to it, too.  With that said, though, now that the smoke has cleared, however imperfect it may be, The Phantom Menace is probably a much better movie than you remember, even if you’re a fan.

It starts as they all do, with the old school 20th Century Fox fanfare, and the words…


“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”


…followed by that immediately recognizable and still unsurpassed opening theme music from John Williams.  (And truly, there is no moviegoing experience comparable to that moment as witnessed inside of a large theatre.)  As the brass plays, the text begins to crawl…


“EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.  The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.

While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict...”


Of course we know that it’s not going to be that simple, and that before we’re finished, we’re destined to meet a little boy who will one day become Darth Vader…

…and from the very moment that the first set of end credits rolled, the geek debates began to rage, as they will continue to do until roughly the end of time.

So, let’s get the bad news out of the way.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace didn’t quite live up to all of the hype.  What a shock.  Being realistic, nothing short of real life Star Destroyers showing up over the skies of the world’s capitals and squads of AT-ATs plodding down the Washington Mall and Red Square on the movie’s opening day would have been equal to that challenge.

Even recognizing and allowing for this, it’s still a flawed film.  The most glaring of the flaws are new, while some of them carry over from the three movies that came before.  But it’s also an awesome film that retains much of the epic spirit of its predecessors despite the combined weights of history and newly acquired baggage, and at the end of the day, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.  What’s more, it’s got that special something that idealists like to assign to all motion pictures but which only a select few actually have in any real quantity: magic.  And it’s that magic that kept people coming back five, ten, and even fifteen times or more during the movie’s initial run on the big screen, just as it keeps people popping the disc back in the player over a decade later, even while they complain about the stuff they don’t like about it.

Let’s cover that first.

What’s not to like about The Phantom Menace?  For most people who complain, that question can be answered with a single name: Jar Jar Binks.  However, most people stop with the name and a simple “I hate him,” “he’s annoying,” or “he sucks.”  And while all of these are no doubt sincere expressions of opinion based on the tastes of the people involved, I think that there’s actually a real, deeper answer there, because most of what there is to find wrong with The Phantom Menace really is embodied by Jar Jar Binks.

One sentence covers most of the major bases: Jar Jar Binks is a cartoon.

First off, it’s what he is in a literal sense: a piece of computer animation.  Even more than a decade later, audiences are still outspoken about how computer animation is not as good as the real thing, and in 1999, filmmakers didn’t even have anyone named Gollum to point at as they jabbered in denial.  George Lucas and his production companies have been at the forefront of Hollywood’s effort to promote CGI as “technology ready for prime time now” (whenever “now” may be), and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was certainly meant to be the most outstanding billboard for it, featuring, among other things, characters who screen presence would be fully rendered using computer animation edited into scenes with live actors.  Alas, despite vehement protests from Lucas and company to the contrary, Jar Jar Binks and his other CGI buddies are not good enough to pass the test with an “A.”  A “C,” yes, but no “A.”  Yes, they are (mostly) well rendered and (mostly) not quite so jarring as an old school piece of Harryhausen stop motion clay, but at the end of the day, they still jump right out at the viewer as obvious products of computer animation at a level which is arguably close to Roger Rabbit.  (Yes, there’s more detail here, but it’s no less obvious.)  For many of those fans who came in remembering the original Star Wars saga as the home of the two greatest, most lifelike puppets in motion picture history (Yoda and Jabba the Hutt), this didn’t just look jarring; it was like a slap in the face, especially when they got a load of the embarrassingly terrible blob of fat green poo that the once-mighty Jabba turned into here.  For younger audiences who could barely if at all remember a time before rampant CGI, it wasn’t quite so bad, but for those who grew up on the best puppets ever, Jabba and Jar Jar were practically insulting.

But Jar Jar’s not just a cartoon in the technical sense; he’s also cartoonish in his physical design.  He is drawn as an exaggerated oaf: an obvious caricature of the sort one would expect to see in a children’s cartoon.  (And just for consistency, the same can be said for the rest of his fellow Gungans, as well.)  Along with only further magnifying the obviousness of his computer animated nature, this also magnifies something else…

Specifically, it magnifies the fact that Jar Jar Binks is a cartoon character on the inside, as well.  More to the point, he’s a children’s cartoon character, and that’s very much outside the mold of what came before.  Even at their cutest and fuzziest – the Ewoks (who may have gotten a Saturday morning cartoon spin off later, but in the movies, they were solid and mature) – the original films never went the blatant kiddie character route.   Yes, they definitely had appeal to children – an entire generation-plus fanatically grew up on those flicks and bought zillions of toys, after all – but the line of flagrant absurdity was never crossed.  The first trilogy was a mature adventure that was accessible to anyone; with flagrant kid-grabs like Jar Jar Binks, The Phantom Menace bursts that bubble, and something important gets lost.

Finally, there’s the matter of Jar Jar’s voice, which has a highly exaggerated West Indies accent, complete with derivative slang.  Couple that with the fact that Jar Jar is blatantly portrayed as a moronic caricature, and you’ve got an instant recipe for disaster in the form of accusations of racism, which were indeed leveled almost instantly.  Do I think that was the intent here?  Absolutely not.  In the Star Wars universe, each species and even some political affiliations are given a different accent, and for nonhumans, those accents are ubiquitous across the species.  (Much like George Lucas seems to think that every planet can only have one kind of landscape.)  And so, every Gungan talks like Jar Jar, including the shrewd Boss Nass.  With that said, though, I do think incredibly bad judgment was shown here, especially with regard to the Nemoidians (the Trade Federation), who all sound like Depression-WW2 era caricatures of shifty “Oriental” villains.  In a search for distinctive sounds, somebody really just wasn’t thinking two steps ahead to the larger audience and the era in which the film would be released, and that’s that.  (Instead, The Phantom Menace was just made for an audience of one.  You do realize that, don’t you?)

With the Nemoidians, we move away from Jar Jar Binks to one last new problem with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and that would be flagrant allegory to modern politics (which would only become amplified by later films).  To be fair, it’s been said that George Lucas had the frame for this story in his head as far back as the time when he was writing the original Star Wars in the 1970s (with real but brushed-over roots in 1930s history), and honestly, I believe that.    However, when the time came to actually write this script for real, the temptation to thrown in the modern world was apparently just too great.  It’s one thing to draw abstract parallels between the Empire as seen in the original trilogy and Germany in the 1930s, but quite another when the slimy leader of the Trade Federation’s name is an obvious play on “Newt Gingrinch” and “Ronald Reagan.”  (Nute Gunray.)  Subtlety with history is one thing; “in your face with the news” is quite another.

As for the widespread complaints about the writing in general, I must wonder if those people paid attention to the three movies they put on a pedestal, because that much hasn’t changed.  No movie in the Star Wars saga, original or extended, is written with the poetry of Shakespeare or the endless convolutions of Frank Herbert.  For all that’s going on in them, they’re all reasonably simplistic… and it works.

That’s right, folks, we’ve moved on to the “compliments” section of our program.

Take away the stuff that emphasizes Jar Jar’s voice, and even with its one major head-scratching revelation (which I’ll keep quiet about for those six people who don’t know it yet), Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is actually pretty well written.  The story moves at a steady clip: not too fast and not too slow.  It makes sense within the framework of the future that fans of the original trilogy know is to come, but also stands well as an independent story.  Character development is given its due – with almost mathematical precision – without bogging down the pace.  When familiar characters are introduced “for the first time,” it’s not only sensible, but those moments are also given that couple of extra frames to give audiences a moment to smile without overselling things.  The plot and subplots are straightforward and well adhered to.  Is it poetry?  No.  But unlike the epic sagas of old, it doesn’t have to be poetry in order to be, well, and epic saga.  Movies are flexible that way.  And if Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in any way lives up to the anticipatory atmosphere into which it was released and the legacy from which it was derived, it is this: without question, this movie feels epic.

A large part of that, of course, derives from the one element that even the movie’s detractors cannot (and for the most part don’t even try to) deny for its awesomeness: the musical score of John Williams.  Building upon already amazing work from the first trilogy, he does the impossible by merging it with new themes that harmonize flawlessly with what came before while at the same time defining the musical experience of this film as something unique.  His showcase piece here is, of course, the “Duel of the Fates” theme that utilizes not only the orchestra, but also for the first time in a Star Wars film calls upon a grand choir.  The result is nothing less than astounding; so much so that even some pop rock stations would play that theme on the air when The Phantom Menace was first released.  But it’s not just this one theme staked on a catalog of previous work slightly retooled; Williams has even more up his sleeve, from relentless martial music to soft character themes that moviegoers may find themselves unconsciously humming or whistling for months afterward.  Even George Lucas knew better than to mess with the creativity of John Williams (who had more license than any other artist working on this movie by far), and one really cannot praise the results enough.

Along with the epic music, there are also epic moments, and yes, they often derive from the very same CGI evil that created Jar Jar Binks.  The thing to remember here is that it’s not the tool itself that’s the problem; it’s the judiciousness with which it is applied.  In the case of Jar Jar, the judgment involved was remarkably poor.  In the case of the podracing scene, however, the result is one of the great signature moments of not just The Phantom Menace, but indeed of the entire filmed Star Wars saga.  Even you don’t like traditional racing (which I for one don’t), you can’t help but get caught up in the excitement.  The racing pods themselves are incredible, and the sequence itself is so amazingly put together – both in its theatrical form and in its extended form – that when it’s all said and done, even the people bitching about Jar Jar are likely to have forgotten how much of that race was computer generated.  (Not all of it, though; for example, when you see a long shot of the crowd, you’re looking at a model with stands full of Q-Tips.)  It’s all the thrill of a space battle without the blaster fire, and it’s the sort of magical adrenaline rush moment that could make an audience want to go back right away and play the scene over again, save for the fact that it’s part of a story that’s grabbed the attention and that’s really demanding to move along.  For all of the naysayers who like to poo-poo The Phantom Menace, the podracing scene is the very loud and very powerful response from the defense.

But let’s go back to that epic music we were talking about a moment ago, because it’s the backdrop for that other signature moment everyone was waiting for: the climactic lightsaber battle.  (And for those who just can’t understand the thrill so many of us felt when we realized that the villain’s lightsaber had two blades… I pity you.)  It’s not just the music that makes this one epic; The Phantom Menace takes lightsaber combat to the next level with one bit of modern influence that I have yet to hear anyone object to, which is to say a modern approach to martial arts.  This is the Jedi order at its prime sending in combatants at the prime, and the styles are fast, fluid, and fantastic.  Kicking it up yet another notch is Ray Park under Darth Maul’s makeup (Darth Maul, of course, being the major new “cool factor” character), showing that whatever the choreographer can tell him to do, he can pull off even better than expectations.  All of the fighting in this film is well done, but that last extended lightsaber battle truly takes the prize.

And while we’re on the subject of Jedi…

For Star Wars fans, this film was the chance to finally see what the Jedi were like before being annihilated by the Emperor, and again, I have yet to hear anyone say they were disappointed by that part of the story.  Even the CGI Yoda, though frowned at by many (including me the first six or seven times around), tended to eventually get a pass even from those making a sport of coming up with naughty ways to say Jar Jar’s name.  Liam Neeson is fabulous as the gritty, rule-bending Qui-Gon Jinn, and like most people I know, I was extremely impressed with how Ewan McGregor handled the role of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, fitting into the shadow made by the formidable Sir Alec Guinness without stepping on it.  And hey, when Star Wars superfan Samuel L. Jackson gets a seat leading the Jedi Council… that’s just cool.

And then of course, there’s that other Jedi-to-be, Anakin “Don’t Call Me Darth Yet” Skywalker.  Young actor Jake Lloyd was the subject of a lot of harsh criticism when this film first came out, and frankly, I find it to be wholly undeserved.  As a child actor thrust under the world’s biggest spotlight, Lloyd handles himself extremely well, and let’s remember, folks: he is still playing a young kid, and an almost entirely self-and-street educated one, at that.  So, wow, you can tell he’s a young boy.  What a freakin’ shock.  That’s the role.  If you want to pile on Jar Jar Binks, go ahead, but I think it’s more than time to give Jake Lloyd the credit he’s due for a perfectly fine performance.

As it is also more than time to give Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace its due.  Did it live up to the tsunami of pre-release attention it received as the most anticipated film in motion picture history?  Not quite, but it’s also very much worth noting that it held up far better than any reasonably objective person could have had any right to expect.  Yes, Jar Jar Binks and all that he represents make for a letdown, but at the end of the day, this is still a fun, epic adventure that really does have an air of magic about it.  There’s a reason that even the complainers went to see it for, five, fifteen times when it first came out.  Whatever they didn’t like, there’s still so much else there left to like – and indeed, to marvel at – that it far outweighs any problems.

When all is said and done, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is an awesome movie.  And if you’re wondering about the 3D conversion it recently got, frankly, I didn’t notice much difference save when there were words on the screen.  Yeah, I could tell that it had been done, but, if you’ll pardon the unavoidable pun, nothing else really jumped out at me.  Honestly, though, I don’t care.  Gimmick or not, it was an excuse to put this movie back on the big screen, and the big screen with the big sound system is where it belongs.  That’s where epics play out, and where the real magic is made.  Hell yes you own a copy of this and the other five for playback at home, but sometimes, the big silver screen just can’t be beat.

Bottom line, whatever its flaws may be, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a far better movie than many people remember it to be, and it’s more than worth experiencing again.  And again.  And again.  On a big screen, if you can manage it.

May the Force be with you.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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