Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

The event of events is upon us. People have waited twenty-two years for the prequel to Star Wars and die-hard fans have been camping out at theaters for months to get tickets to see it. I don’t think that America will ever actually recover from what this hurricane of a film has caused. It is not a bit of an exaggeration to say that this is the most highly anticipated movie in history. Anyone who tells you “It’s just a movie” is either lying or clueless.

It is clearly obvious that after the waiting and the hype actually seeing the movie will be anticlimactic. The second coming of the Lord could not live up to the kind of buzz (which is far too weak a word) that Star Wars Epsode I: The Phantom Menace so effortlessly generated. But that does not mean that the film itself is bad. In fact, it is terrific. I strongly suspect that many of the people who were dissappointed by it have simply surrendered to the media machine and the inevitable backlash.

It is set some decades before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars took place. The film focuses on the fledgling Republic of Planets and the conflict that is raging: The Trade Federation, angry at some tax raise that was recently put in place has invaded the small, peaceful planet of Naboo. The Republic sent two Jedi Knights (people that can actively communicate with what is affectionately known as “The Force”), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to negotiate. Unable to stop the tide of events that was about to occur, the Jedi and the Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman) escape Naboo and head for Coruscant to try and get the Republic Senate to intervene.

On the way they get sidetracked to a planet called Tatooine, where they meet the movie’s real focal point, young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). He is an innocent slave boy, but “the force is strong with him” so Qui-Gon is determined to take him with them to the Jedi counsel and get him trained as a Jedi. As any self-respecting Star Wars fan should know, Anakin will grow up to be Darth Vader and give birth to Luke Skywalker.

From the beginning it is evident that this is not an actor’s movie. Around 70% of the characters, if not more, are computer generated in one form or another, and though the effects are seamless, the movie lacks soul. I think that although the computer has played an incredibly instrumental part in moviemaking this decade, cinema should still be a human art and The Phantom Menace nearly defies this.

This is the lightest installment in the Star Wars saga thus far, with plenty of broad comic relief to go around, much of it courtesy of an irritating knew character named Jar-Jar Binks. He’s essentially a computer-animated sidekick who says things like “Exqueeze Me?” and “Mesa go now, okeday?”, and although it is often amusing it is also inherently annoying.

The visual effects are astounding (although director George Lucas often chickens out by cutting away from them) and the movie is a thrilling triumph. If it lacks in plot and in acting it makes up for it through imagination and excitement. The climactic lightsaber battle (oh, come on, as if you didn’t already know), among other things, is outrageously entertaining and defines the term “popcorn movie”.

What made me surrender and give this movie ***1/2 stars was the score by John Williams. Even though it does seem like the man scores every single movie that comes out these days, his work here is nothing short of brilliant. His use of opera during the climax really does add a punch and his ingenious way of utilizing the Imperial March as a sort of prophecy is chilling.

The Phantom Menace is probably most effective as pop nostalgia. When you see “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, when the familiar music plays, when the words “Star Wars” appear on screen, you’ll feel a tingle even if you didn’t see the movie when it first came out in ’77. It feels oddly exciting to be introduced to young Anakin, a boy whose innocence, we know, will be taken away and who will soon cross over to the dark side. It is the perfect example of dramatic irony to see the Jedi masters aspire to get him trained in the Jedi arts; we know that it will do more harm than good, but they do not. We not only feel more involved in the story, but we feel like we’re seeing the beginning of a saga that we have cherished for years.

The Phantom Menace, although lacking in human aspects of the story, is a very worthy installment in the Star Wars. It works as an action flick, visually eye-popping and often paralyzingly exciting; it also works as an elicitor of memories, a piece of exquisite nostalgia.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log


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Jonathan Levine, 2013

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