Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: george Lucas
Stars: Liam Neeson, Samuel L Jackson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ray Park, Terence Stamp, Jack Thompson.
When it was initially released in July 1999, expectations were high for this eagerly awaited and long overdue prequel to George Lucas’ classic sci-fi adventure Star Wars. Given the barrage of hype that preceded the movie, Star Wars Episode 1 was always going to have a hard job living up to those lofty expectations. The Phantom Menace proved to be more than a little disappointing! The original Star Wars was a film ahead of its time; The Phantom Menace was merely a film for its time!
And now Lucas has re-released the film in a retrofitted 3D format. The movie wasn’t great the first time around, and the 3D process does little to improve it. A couple of sequences are superb, such as the spectacular pod race, but the digitally created character of Jar-Jar Binks is even more annoying in 3D.
Returning to the director’s chair after a twenty-year absence, Lucas took the audience back to the beginning of his envisaged nine part saga, and introduced us to the young Anakin Skywalker (played here by Jake Lloyd). As every Star Wars fan knows, Anakin is the Jedi knight who, of course, later grew up to father both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia before crossing over to the dark side of the force as the evil Darth Vader.
In many ways, The Phantom Menace followed the broad plot threads of the original Star Wars, although without the same sense of wonder and inspiration. What was once a simple fable about the battle between good and evil became far more mystical and mythic, and occasionally bogged down in more complex ideas. In establishing the framework for what follows, Lucas raised nearly as many questions as he answered.
One of the main problems was that the film was occasionally a little slow, with some passages of plot development proving tiresome and a little boring for younger audiences. The film also lacked any villain as imposing or as intimidating as Darth Vader. Instead, the best Lucas could offer us here was the rather bland and forgettable Darth Maul (played by martial arts champion Ray Park, in his film debut). There was much more obvious emphasis on slap stick humour throughout the film, especially with antics of the accident prone Jar-Jar Binks, a computer generated character who speaks his own strange language.
However, some of the action sequences are quite exciting, with a couple of light sabre duels and a battle sequence between two digitally created armies. The undoubted highlight is the pod race, an incredible sequence that resembles a futuristic version of the famous chariot race from Ben Hur for the Nintendo generation.
The special effects and state of the art computer generated imagery, which took some two years to complete, was spectacular, and represents the future direction of film making. Unfortunately, it is a pretty heartless and soulless future in which human performers are dwarfed by increasingly spectacular effects and technology.
About 90% of The Phantom Menace was digitally created, and the human performers seemed a little lost when called upon to interact with their brilliantly realised cyberspace universe. In many ways this is symptomatic of Lucas, a pioneer of digital effects, who shows little understanding of the emotional development of his characters. Lucas seemed to regard his human cast as mere accessories to his whiz bang technology and cynical mass marketing techniques, and, in this aspect, he was light years ahead of Hitchcock in his reputed disdain for actors.
Liam Neeson, who normally has a powerful screen presence, seems a little awkward here as Qui-Gon Jinn. Ewan McGregor, as the youthful version of legendary Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi, seems as bewildered and as uncomfortable as Alec Guiness did in the same role twenty years earlier. Performers of the calibre of Terence Stamp and Samuel L Jackson are wasted in small, undemanding roles.
Many of the new characters introduced here are fairly unimpressive. Whereas we once might have followed the charismatic Han Solo, the impetuous Luke Skywalker and the feisty Princess Leia to the ends of the galaxy, I’m not so sure that I’d follow this bland and forgettable lot for a stroll in the park!