Star Wars. Episode I. The Phantom Menace. That, in and of itself, should be review enough, merely the mention of the name, the fact of what it is, what we have been waiting sixteen long years for. It is here, the cultural phenomenon of our generation has begun its sweep over a new generation, like the Trade Federation sweeping across the planet of Naboo. I get ahead of myself.
There will be no plot summation, not of this film. In no way will I be party to any further spoiling of this movie, beyond what damage the trailers and countless pre-release interviews have already done. What I will talk about, however, is the impact this film will make on you, the viewer, mild as that impact may be.
This film should have begun the best folk-tale of the latter half of the 20th century, a tale begun with Star Wars, continued in Empire Strikes Back, and 'concluded' in Return of the Jedi. And even though it didn't really, we are still now able to see, for example, Yoda as a younger, more powerful representative of the Jedi. We are now able to witness some of why Obe-Wan Kenobi behaved as he did with Luke, by experiencing the end of his training with his master, the Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn. We are now able to see, perhaps, a taste at things to come, explaining why Darth Vader was as much machine as he was... who else would he have trusted to build his life-sustaining accoutrements but himself?
Visually striking? Yes. Breathtaking in its special effects? Yes. Rather shallow on characterization within the plot? Yes. Does it matter? Just a bit. This film is not going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards any time soon, but is that really important? No. This film is the culmination of a dream by George Lucas, and the hope of something wonderful by the millions, perhaps billions of people world-wide who have been touched in some fashion or another by this mysterious mythology. Unfortunately, it is a dream that seems wonderful to the dreamer, but leaves others wanting in the telling.
For all its flash, there are some tepid performances turned in by the actors and actresses in the film, most notably by Natalie Portman, who plays Queen Amidala, the ruler of the planet of Naboo, where the film begins and ends. Her ability both to play the Queen herself, in her calm and almost icy calm, and one of the Queen's more personable handmaidens (and personal guards, I suspect) is adequate, if somewhat stilted.
Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, the master, and his apprentice Obe-Wan Kenobi, played admirably by Ewan McGregor, create the first of the film's bondings. Although we are not permitted to see this bonding develop, as they are first introduced to the film's audience together, we can quickly feel the master-apprentice tie as soon as we see them in action for the first time, fluid and synchronized in a well-choreographed dance of balance and defense. McGregor, in particular, did fit the role of a young Obe-Wan so well that at no time did I have any difficulty in accepting him as such, even with the ghost of Alec Guinness watching over my shoulder.
Newcomer Jake Lloyd, as Anakin Skywalker, was cute and annoying... everything a furless ewok should be I suppose. The scenes that he did requiring anything other than an standard kid precociousness came across reasonably well for one so young, and he held himself reasonably well in the shadow of Neeson, McGregor, and Yoda himself, voiced again as only he could be by Frank Oz. Samual Jackson, as Mace Windu, is a wonderful image, but sadly, too little is seen of him for anything other than a cursory observation to be taken of his character as well as Jackson's ability to play him. One would hope we will see more of him in the second film.
R2-D2 helps save the day early on in the film, and this explains so much about why he always seemed rather worldly-wise and somewhat crotchety in his beeps and whirrs and clicks. He is later introduced to his future counterpart, C3-P0, who at this point could be called "See-Through-P0" due to his uncompleted state. Anthony Daniels once again does the voice, and it is that symmetry, the two droids we have come to know and love, together once again, if even for a short time, that brings this film crashing full-circle for those of us who have grown up with the tales of the Jedi, the evil Darths, and the Force. Unfortunately, the older C3-P0 comes off as a bit of an annoyance, young-ish and sounding older and more frail than in the earlier films.
Ah yes... let me mention two other characters: Darth Maul and Senator Palpatine. Darth Maul is the second frightening Sith Lord we get to see, (the other being Vader, who is really more menacing). This devil-faced evil Jedi is the silent death through the film, appearing here and there, and each time carrying with him such a sense of menace that my spine is just now returning to its original non-shivering position. And Senator Palpatine himself gave me more of a sense of foreboding, even though he is portrayed as a gentle, silver-haired diplomat and politician trying to help the Queen in her time or crisis. Does anyone else remember that the Emperor himself was named Palpatine? Ah... I see your spine has begun to shiver. Mine has too.
When you combine all of this with the incredible special effects from ILM, and the most stirring score every to come from Maestro John Williams, you get a film that delivers the chills and excitement, but comes wanting for any sort of depth of storytelling or breadth of acting. This film should be seen, if only for the basic story elements, effects, music, and Ray Park's amazing choreography. Those looking to re-live the wonder and awe we felt back in 1977 when a film called "Star Wars" opened across this country will be disappointed, as I was, but once that fades, the movie is enjoyable for what it is.
I give this film an B-. Star Wars. Episode I. The Phantom Menace. It is a film event that has had audiences waiting for sixteen years, and while I would have preferred to have a bit more meat on my plate, it was worth seeing.