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Film Review - Phantom Menace, The
Every once in a blue moon a movie is released that becomes a cultural icon. The most successful of these icons has been Star Wars. Now, 22 years after the original Star Wars film, the fourth installment, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace has been released. The curse of any new Star Wars film is the same curse the child of a famous parent has: does the new installment do credit to the cultural legend?
The Phantom Menace certainly occupies the Star Wars universe very well. The continuous characters whom we've seen before are true to their histories, with a small exception of exactly who was the master of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The same good versus evil stories apply. Evil is always machines. What does not work is that there is really no great story. Here we are once again into Act One of a three-act play. There is a bittersweet ending, but on the story meter this one only gets three out of 10. We mostly get a lot of set-up for the other films, especially with Senator Palpatine politicking his way to being the Chancellor of the Republic. We know that later he will declare himself Emperor. But not in this film.
If you're a Star Wars fan, you know the first trilogy had the silent title, The Adventures of Luke Skywalker. This title was never used because it wouldn't fit on a theater marquee. This new trilogy's silent title is The Adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Kenobi is a Jedi apprentice as the film opens. He and his master are on a diplomatic mission to settle a trade embargo. Meanwhile, in outer space .... the horrible Sith have been resurrected. The Sith are never really explained in the film. We do know that in the first trilogy Darth Vader was the Dark Lord of the Sith. But that's all we know. The Sith were supposed to be wiped out 1,000 years ago. Now at least one is back, Darth Maul, and he's plenty pissed about something. Maul rarely speaks. In fact, when the big light-saber duel begins at the end of the film, no words are ever spoken between the three combatants, even though they have never met. You would think curiosity would have forced one person to ask Maul, "Who are you?"
You may have heard of all the characters who are computer animated. Indeed, there are many animated characters. This is good and bad -- good because interesting creatures can be portrayed, bad because we tend not to care about computer animated characters. Indeed the "bad" army are all droids who are computer generated. They are the most boring characters.
Then there is the supporting role of Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar is supposed to be the comic relief. However, his accent and dialect are so foreign, I couldn't understand most of what he was saying. Personally, I think the picture would have been better without Binks.
All told, the animated characters cause, what many others describe as, the humanity of the picture to be low. I agree, there really isn't much humanity in the film, and maybe that's because there aren't many humans in it. I don't care about droids, or really big spaceship eating fish. I want a story of human heroes and villains, and they do exist in this film, but the computers have watered down their impact.
The Phantom Menace is certainly major eye candy. The effects are just stunning, especially when you consider that many of the sets, like the characters, existed only in computers. It always strikes me ironic that George Lucas loves to use technology to film his anti-technology message movies.
Finally, we must talk about young Anakin Skywalker. We know he will one day become Darth Vader and hunt down the Jedi. But today he's just a little boy. There's been a lot of criticism that actor Jake Lloyd can't act. For an 8-year-old, I think he did well. What I had a hard time swallowing about Anakin was the implied virgin birth. We are told by his mother that there was no father. She borne him and raised him. It just happened. Later we find that Anakin has more stuff in his body that tunes him into the force that any other creature ever. In fact, this stuff that tunes people into the force is a little bitty thing that makes life possible, and it is implied that this stuff has consciousness and conspired to bring about Anakin's birth without a father. OK, I just have one question: Where the hell did the name Skywalker come from? It has a noble sound, but Anakin and his mother are slaves. Since Anakin is the "chosen one," this makes Obi-Wan's master John the Baptist. This, I think, is pushing it a bit too far.
All in all, The Phantom Menace scores for a fun afternoon. Check your literary blaster at the door and remember what Ham Salad once said in Hardware Wars, "Relax kid, it's just a movie."
Directed by George Lucas
Released in 1999
MPAA Rating: PG
Reviewed by Mongo