Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/20/05 19:59:24

"Ignore the disgruntled fanboys and sign up for a great ride."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I can’t think of a single film that has caused as great a love-hate relationship among movie fans as “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace.” Some people think of it as the biggest disappointment in cinema history. Others (OK, mostly kids) think of it as a terrific film, a truly great adventure in every regard. Most, however, combine these two thoughts; for every scene they feel is brilliant, there’s another that makes them cringe.

I’m one of the people that adores the movie and all it offers - yes, even Jar Jar. It took me a while to figure out why so many dislike it so much, and after having regarded many theories over the past three years, I think I figured it out. (By the way, I’m going to assume you’ve all seen this one and don’t require the usual plot rundown or backstory on the film’s production, media exposure, and fan mania. Fine with you? Good. Now, where was I?)

My initial reaction to the slamming of “Menace” was that it was all just backlash, that the hype surrounding the movie’s release and rabid fans’ own expectations oversold the movie, and nothing, no matter how great, could top expectations. So when the film turned out to not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, viewers turned their disappointment into anger, and used the media saturation as a starting point.

As months went by, I dropped that argument in exchange for the idea that “Star Wars” fans had grown up with the trilogy, and had expected the new film to grow up with them. They had forgotten that these were kid flicks at heart, and when they got Jar Jar instead of more adult characters or darker situations, they got pissed.

Then I figured the movie was getting bashed because, well, that was the fashionable thing to do. Conventional wisdom said the movie stank, and liking the more mature sci-fi film “The Matrix” instead became hip.

But now, watching “Menace” for the umpteenth time, I think I’ve figured it out. For while “Menace” is not a movie without flaws, and while those flaws are minor compared to the film’s many plusses, it seems to me that those flaws weigh more in many people’s minds than they should, and as such, the film has a negative connotation attached to it. And all of the flaws, the basic reason people don’t care for the film, can be traced to one thing: George Lucas was a little rusty.

Think about it. When he began work on “Menace,” he hadn’t directed a movie in over two decades. And while he had penned a few stories, he hadn’t written a full screenplay since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” - and that was with a co-writer.

Watching “Menace,” one can see that Lucas just wasn’t back in his groove yet. The film’s pacing is too clunky and uneven in the early scenes, which forces the audience to wait before they can truly get comfortable with the plotting. It’s not until a half-hour in, when the heroes escape from Naboo and head toward Tatooine, that the story slows down enough for us to catch our breath, kick back, and relax in Lucas’ fantasy world.

Even then, the pacing has its problems, as Lucas searches to find his rhythm. Things finally fall into place in the final half-hour, the climactic battle which nearly everyone can agree was truly amazing to watch. It’s here that we get the “Star Wars” that we know and love, where things stop feeling awkward and ill-fitting and start kicking ass.

Not that that brilliant final battle is all that “Menace” has to offer. Even with the clunky pacing, the occasional off moment, and that stupid part that has Anakin say “yippee,” “Menace” is a sheer pleasure to watch from start to finish.

For starters, it’s a damn fine space adventure. Taken on its own, with no comparison with the older “Star Wars” flicks, “Menace” comes off like a glimmering, action-packed Saturday matinee sci-fi thrill ride. When compared to the rest of the franchise, it does come across as the weakest of the bunch, but there are still enough dynamic moments to captivate.

The pod race is usually seen as the most entertaining part of the film, not including the final battle sequence. And, yes, it’s plenty sweet, a fun update of the “Ben-Hur” chariot race, only a whole lot faster and a whole lot cooler.

But what about the rest? There’s lots to see here, like the Jedis’ swim to the underwater Gungan city, a moment so unexpectedly beautiful my jaw drops every time see it. It sets the tone for the whole film, really; hold on, the filmmakers tell us, there’s a lot more to see, and it’s going to look amazing.

In fact, I’d say “Menace,” with its stunning art direction, amazing special effects, detailed costumes, and complex sets, could rank among the best looking films ever made. I could stare at this thing for hours and be constantly marveled by the level of imagination and technical craftsmanship that went into producing this movie. It’s a milestone in visual effects history.

Getting back to the story... A lot of naysayers complained about the lack of excitement in the movie’s basic premise; when you get right down to it, this is just a movie about a trade war, which just isn’t as sexy as a rebellion, I suppose. Me, I dug the politics of this film, especially the Senate sequence. Not only is it crucial to see how the Republic became the Empire, it lets us take a break from the action while still retaining interest. (Then again, I liked the stuff in the first “Star Wars” with the various bad guys sitting around a table and bickering.)

And what about those characters put in for the kids? I’ll admit it: I like Jar Jar. True, his first scene is a bit off, but after a few minutes into my first viewing, I warmed up to the guy. He’s made me smile ever since. Besides, every kid I know goes crazy for him, and that’s all you need, right?

I also have a soft spot for some of the film’s other less-respected characters. Boss Nass is just wonderful, as is Watto; not only are they technical marvels, they’re also fun characters. Watto, in fact, such an interesting, engaging personality, that when he loses all his money betting on the pod race, I kinda feel sorry for the guy.

Then there’s Shmi Skywalker, played by Pernilla August. Those that complain about a weak performance from Jake Lloyd miss the fact that his important scenes are still emotionally effective, thanks to a fine turn from August, who picks up the slack.

In a way, that’s sort of how you can describe the whole film. Yes, there are weak spots. But in a sprawling epic of this scope, you’re bound to have some down time. What’s important to remember is that the better moments don’t merely balance out the weaker ones - they topple them. There are scenes in “Menace” so captivating, so mesmerizing, so much friggin’ fun, that thoughts of clunkiness disappear. By the final frames, I’m so wrapped up the excitement of it all that I’m reminded of why we started watching “Star Wars” movies in the first place. As far as space operas go, I’ll take “Menace” any day.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.