After a 16-year hiatus of the space opera known as Star Wars; creator, writer, and director of episode 4, titled A New Hope, George Lucas reintroduces the galaxy far far away that so many fans have become obsessed over – starting at the beginning with Episode 1, subtitled as The Phantom Menace. To say there are high expectations after the epic conclusion of Return of the Jedi is an understatement, and with technology undergoing the advancements it has, Lucas brings the contemporary style and visuals to the vintage aesthetic. All it needed was a fresh coat of paint and the galaxy is the best it has every looked or been portrayed. Visually breathtaking, this is Star Wars at its most eye catching.
Even the details have details and the team at ILM, Industrial Light & Magic, have come out swinging with how extravagant The Phantom Menace looks and feels. Cinematographer David Tattersall captures the spectacle of the infinite universe – the stars have never been this close before that anyone can reach out their hand and grasp a handful of burning space dust.
Also returning to the franchise is composer John Williams – creating magic, dazzling sounds, supplemented with moments of tension and tenderness. Within his outstanding score is the best piece of music the composer has created for the franchise besides the opening crawl – ‘Dual of the Fates’, coming at a time when the narrative reaches its climactic sequence and the Sith make their presence known to the entire galaxy. Something hinted at with whispers behind closed doors.
Speaking of the narrative, The Phantom Menace, hereinafter known as ‘Episode 1’ predates the events of the first Star Wars and the first Death Star to a time of peace and prosperity. The galaxy is governed as a republic by Chancellor Valorum (Terrence Stamp) and the Jedi are at their fullest power acting as the Chancellor’s ambassadors for an illegal blockade by the trade federation of the planet Naboo. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to negotiate a treaty with the trade federation but its Star Wars, when does anything go according to plan for the heroes.
For the first 60 minutes or so in the 115-minute runtime, Lucas‘s screenplay is messy and uneven, leaving the viewer at the mercy of an exposition dump to be explained rather than the story to be propelled forward. In that first hour, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan along with a Gungan known as Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) escort the queen of Naboo, Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and a select few of her royal handmaidens and protectors to the planet Coruscant but make an emergency landing after their ship is damaged on Tatooine. Introduce Anikan Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August).
By this point in Lucas’s film, detour after detour and distraction pop up. Signaling the end of the first act, Lucas suddenly shifts his film into high gear, ramping up the adrenaline with an homage to his second feature length film American Graffiti and the era these vintage cars ruled over. Anikan is entered into a pod race to win his freedom along with money for parts to repair the damaged ship. It’s in the anticipation of the start that Lucas’s love for muscle cars and showmanship shine the brightest. Once a familiar character Jabba the Hut starts the race, exhilaration takes over, the film’s pulse beats faster and faster as the galaxy’s best go 3 rounds at high-speed winner take all.
This one sequence will have any fan of Star Wars on the edge of their seat, cheering on Ani as the only human that can race a pod. It’s a sequence that can make the exposition vomit forgettable for a moment or the fact that Anikan is Lucas’s version of a religious figure born in tragedy and suffering as a beacon of hope as the chosen one to bring balance to the Force according to Qui-Gon.
As I mentioned before, Episode 1 has a sequence that outshines the pod racing. Set to the outstanding ‘Dual of the Fates’, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon encounter the Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) in a stunning battle, beautifully choreographed and full of anticipation, the 2 on 1 lightsaber dual is the films main draw. Edited in between the battle is the re-taking of the capital by queen Amidala and pilots and fighters attacking the main vessel of the blockade that control the roger roger’d droid army. 3 action set pieces and only one will steal the spotlight every time.
While there is much to admire about Episode 1, there is also a lot to forget it ever existed. 3 quarters of the film is spent head-scratching instead of becoming engrossed in the spectacle that A New Hope created. Most of Lucas’s characters don’t hold an ounce of gravitas to them, nor do they have any relatability outside of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. The screenplay is poorly thrown together without cohesion and the dialogue is even more puzzling.
No child would ever speak the way Anikan does, its clunky, doing a disservice to the character. And then there is the Jar-Jar of it all – oblivious to logic and completely in the way, Jar-Jar will get the attention of a younger viewer, but the character is empty calories in a meal that over stays it’s welcome. The actors do the best with the material they’re given but said material falls short of the standard the original trilogy set making scenes hard to watch, stomach and digest.
Ambitious as it is Episode 1 falls prey to overpromising, lacking the heart and poignancy of the originals. Catching lightning in the bottle twice is impossible but 4 times would be a miracle. For the good that it does, Episode 1 plants the seeds for characters that have been established previously. It’s Star Wars after all, there is no way Lucas would leave a story incomplete.
Screenplay By: George Lucas
Directed By: George Lucas
Music By: John Williams
Cinematography: David Tattersall
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Terrance Stamp
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Release Date: May 19, 1999
Running Time: 2 Hours 11 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 51%