Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

star wars the phantom menace

“How wude!”

The Scoop: 1999 PG, directed by George Lucas and Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, and Natalie Portman

Tagline: Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning.

Summary Capsule: See the roots of the Star Wars saga get planted.  (good metaphor, eh?)


Poolman’s rating: I’m no member of the Jar Jar fan club, but I know what I like!  (way to dodge a numbered rating, Sean!)

Poolman’s (revised) review: Okay, has the hype died down yet? Phew, good. The date of this writing is August 1, 2000. That means it’s been over a year since I wrote my previous review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and I’ve finally had a chance to calm down. All this time to reflect and start living my life outside my Jedi robe has given me the chance to cool down, take a few deep breaths, and finally view TPM on a bit more of an even keel. After all, the first time I saw it was opening day with precious little notice and less sleep, following months and months of hype, speculation, and leaked information. And the theater had guys with lightsabers. Lightsabers!!!

When I had a second look at my own original review of TPM, I was shocked by my own sacharrine sentiments. I mean, I made some good points, but I have to blushingly admit that I was probably still too excited to be level-headed, and too caught up in the moment to be fair. That’s not too say that I disagree with everything I wrote before, it’s just that my own review sounds like someone else’s words now, and that just won’t do. You need the full, overconfident ego of the PoolMan!

So, where do I begin? How about the good? Good. There’s enough right with TPM that I have no doubt that it’ll have a place in my video library. Personally, I wet my pants every time I hear the “vmmmmmm” of a lightsaber, and I find myself still excitedly giving great kudos to Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, and (especially) Ray Park. The training that went into the fight scenes is still top notch, and gets me absolutely cranked every time I watch it. My kickboxing heart just loves the complex martial arts movements, and the frenetic pacing is excellent.

I will admit that the pod race is indeed a “made for Nintendo” scene. I knew the second the race started that I would own the video game (and in fact, I do). However, this takes nothing away from the greater purpose of painting Anakin as a gifted youngster in a sport where the normal human’s response time invariably gets him killed. This sets up Obi Wan’s later statements of praising Anakin’s piloting skills to Luke nicely, and it puts a shot of much needed adrenaline into the movie. It’s a cool, groundbreaking scene (tell me where else you’ve seen that kind of action), and it works.

Still on the plus side, I like the fact that major characters old enough to have been born yet are introduced in the first movie. Yes it’s true that it seems crazily coincidental that apparently the fate of the galaxy is repeatedly determined by the same six to ten people, and that they keep ending up on the same backwater planet despite its description as a planet on which no one ever shows up. But be honest, wouldn’t you feel cheated if you never saw Yoda? Would it be the same without the younger incarnation of Obi Wan pulling out the old saber? (easy, ladies) Of course, it’s also true that if the timelines actually permitted, George probably would have cast babies to play Luke and Leia just to throw them in. Alas, that scene is yet to come, probably in Episode III.

Moving to the mediocre: to quote Justin’s excellent 10 Things Justin Hates About The Phantom Menace article: “Who the hell wants to see a Star Wars movie about trade sanctions and senate debates?” This is an apt observation, and one I agree with. The original trio begins with shooting, chases, planets being blown up, and a background mention of the senate’s dissolution when the smoke clears. In other words, we’re already hip deep in the action. But the problem is, we’re also hip deep in the timeline (Episode 4 of 6). There has to be a calm before every storm.

What we’re seeing in the first movie is that calm; the political uprisings haven’t taken place yet, the lines are not yet drawn in the sand. There IS no War in them thar Stars yet. Would it not make sense to know WHY there’s a crazy man made of melty wax building planet-sized guns and shooting people with purple lightning? Is there more to the weird dude in the desert who roars like a krayt dragon than a neatly trimmed beard and a penchant for confusing everyone around him? Who the hell is the asthmatic in the black suit? I think Lucas had to make the call as to whether he was interested in making Episode I a whole story or a chapter, and he chose the latter. Personally, it makes sense to me that we should know the motivations behind all the conflict in Episodes 4-6. Besides, The Empire Strikes Back is pretty widely regarded as the best Star Wars flick to date, and it definitely wouldn’t stand up on its own as a complete story. (but the comparison does end there)

Also on the “medium tedium” factor (hehehe) is the fact that the performances do seem a little mailed in. For every one contained fury like Darth Maul, there are seven Prozac addicts who walk around with bored looks. Maybe that had something to do with talking to CGI characters who weren’t really there, making it hard to avoid talking to the non-moving trees in the distance.

And now, we get to what I casually glossed over in the first place: the bad. To sum it up in one word, “midichlorians”. Sweet merciful crap, my brain! Even during my euphoric first viewing, I distinctly remember hearing the whole Qui Gon discussion about the tiny little creatures that live inside us and thinking “my god, you mean the same thing that gave me chicken pox could have given me superhuman powers? Damn, why didn’t I learn this earlier!” This pseudo-science absolutely crushes the charm of the gentle explanations that Obi Wan would later give on energy fields, life forces, and common bonds from man to nature. To say that little buggy things living in our blood stream give us the ability to lift rocks, crush tracheas, and wield a lightsaber without the loss of multiple limbs is quite ridiculous. Further, to use this same information to drive home the point that ANAKIN IS A SITH, BECAUSE NO JEDI HAS A MIDICHLORIAN COUNT *THAT* HIGH is just cheap and redundant. We know who Darth Vader starts out as, you don’t need to insult us. Besides, even assuming that there are actually a few people left who don’t already know this, there are two more movies in which you can explain it in a way that doesn’t make you or your audience look retarded. However, it DOES serve to explain why Jesu- I mean Anakin is born without a father, but one has to ask why that was necessary in the first place. A quick throwaway line about how his father was a spice freighter pilot who got killed (perhaps by a Wookiee?) would have explained Shmi’s single mother status much better than the flu bug with psychic powers impregnating her. Then again, maybe George is setting up for another “I am your father” scene…

Moving right along, I no longer defend Jake Lloyd. I just can’t excuse the fact that some casting director somewhere brought this non-actor into the studio. I didn’t know there were child actors who could actually act! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: wouldn’t it have been great if Haley Joel Osmont (The Sixth Sense) had played Anakin? Much less “yippee”, and much more real acting. Imagine Haley (can I call ya “Haley”?) delivering the “leaving Shmi” scene. It would have sounded like a child unable to cope with the loss of a parent, not a bout of “but I WANT some ice cream” poutiness. Jake brought a real vanilla-whiny-boy flavour to Anakin’s youth, and it’s too bad it can’t be reclaimed by something with some realistic tragedy.

Jar Jar. Urgh. Upon home viewing, I suddenly became very appreciative of the fast-forward button. Poo jokes do not a space opera make. ‘Nuff said.

Anyways, I’m aware this is becoming darker than I meant it to. I still really like this movie, and I still stand by the fact that being present for the first screening in my part of the world was a cinematic treat. I’ve never been in a movie theater so alive, and so filled with the buzz of anticipation. I doubt I ever will again. There’s enough action here to serve as the unique meat of a unique meal, even if it’s not as satisfying as the last three we ate. The fact that it’s a nitpicker’s dream is another matter altogether.

I think the way to treat The Phantom Menace is to pay attention to the full title. This is an Episode, not a whole movie. It’s like an act in a play, and every story needs some setting up. I’ll see it again, and I hope loyal Mutant fans will too, but next time I’ll do without the extra spoonful of sugar.

Kyle’s rating: I’ll have to see them all to know, so ask me again in nine years

Kyle’s review: Except for the story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the Star Wars saga has no peer in popular culture and entertainment value. At the very least most people have seen the classic trilogy. Casual fans enjoy the films and dress up as their favorite Star Wars character every Halloween; die-hard fans worship the films and dress up as their favorite character every day. People of all ages love the Star Wars movies. Even little kids raised on modern sci-fi (with superior effects and inferior plots) can enjoy the trilogy, and will definitely enjoy making lightsaber sounds as they beat the hell out of each other with cardboard tubes and sticks.

Of course there are people who don’t like Star Wars at all. Their opinions should be respected, even if these “people” are (generally) one or more of the following: 1. old; 2. crotchety; 3. stupid; 4. 30-year-old Pokémon master-players. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who are rabid for everything and anything Star Wars, and one or more of the following applies to them: 1. they have a website that teaches Jedi disciplines; 2. their accumulated minutes spent playing a Star Wars-related collectible card game or video game outnumber time spent on actual human interaction; 3. they honestly believe they can utilize the Force to read minds and cook TV dinners; 4. they not only have all the movie dialogue memorized, they have the dialogue from cut scenes and characters’ vital stats cemented in their brains.

My point with those first two paragraphs was simply to say Star Wars is an immense cultural phenomenon, with different importance and meaning to everyone. Some people (many of whom thankfully died before having to view Phantom Menace) were adults when Star Wars hit the screen in 1977 and found themselves willingly transported to a galaxy far far away. Some were kids and grew up playing with all the cool Hasbro toys or keeping them mint-on-card to sell for outlandish prices in twenty years to people who opened and destroyed their own. I was born in 1979 to two parents who wanted me to have cool stuff and were both blown away by Star Wars, which meant all the SW toys I ever wanted were mine if I asked for them. To this day I still have a big box out in the garage full of all the figures and vehicles that I’ll never get rid of, because except for my army of GI Joe’s I never had more fun with any other toys.

Yep, I grew up a SW fan. Not a crazed fan, though. I loved the toys and watched the movies, but as time passed and my days of play became days of school I allowed myself to mature just enough to handle the change. Most importantly, I developed crushes on girls and I needed guidance on how to handle flirtation and relationships. Star Wars couldn’t help me there; the only love triangle involves a scoundrel and two siblings! So I turned to what is truly the Dark Side to Jedi-heads: Star Trek. Captain James T. Kirk, to be more specific. I found Trek to be a more mature and satisfying entertainment as I entered my teens, and I pretty knew anyway I could never pull off Han’s roguish charm, Jedi Luke’s brooding intellectualism, or Chewbacca’s piercing screams. I needed a fictional role model that was pompous, arrogant, egotistical, loud and outgoing. I needed… Shatner. And I have to say my life proceeded smoothly, especially when I decided it wasn’t necessary to emulate my hero’s halting pronoun-emphasizing manner of speech.

Don’t get me wrong. I found more wisdom and enjoyment from Star Trek as I got older, but Star Wars always held a special place in my heart. So when it became clear that Lucas was truly going to make a new trilogy, I didn’t know what to think. Would it be faithful to my memory of the classic movies and be kids’ fare for all ages, or would it reflect that the original audience from ’77 are more than 20 years older and be skewed a bit towards adult sensibilities? But more importantly, I wondered, what kind of toys would there be?

Which brings me, finally, to Episode 1. I’ve taken up enough space, I promise I won’t keep you much longer. In a lot of ways Episode 1 is solid movie fun, and in a lot of ways Episode 1 is smelly liquid poo.

Main bad stuff first: What’s this podracing crap? Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobi are two of the coolest dudes ever, why isn’t the whole damn film built around them? What is this taxation crap? Gungans? We needed more general Jedi action and we needed to see Natalie Portman nude.

Here’s some good stuff: Darth Maul is one of the greatest villains I’ve ever seen! A double-bladed lightsaber, holy snikes! That final Jedi duel is compelling stuff! Um… I found a 12” Darth Maul the first day I went looking for it, the Holy Grail of modern Star Wars merchandise! You can find topless Natalie Portman pics if you look hard enough on the net!

Damn. I’ll admit it, I was disappointed by Episode 1. There were positives but overall the whole shebang seemed pointless and idiotic. It’s worth seeing once for a few great moments, including the best lightsaber scenes ever and a great moment at the end that darkly foreshadows what’s to come. However, in my humble opinion it’s mostly garbage. But remember: Episode 2 will be here in no time, and maybe Episode 1 will look incredible when we know the rest of the story. If not, hey, the classic trilogy is a slice, thanks for that Lucas! Now give us nude Jedi girls wielding double-bladed lightsabers and we’ll really be happy! Woo hoo!

Justin’s rating: Chapter Four: How To Botch A Good Thing

Justin’s review: For a long time, I felt like I said my piece about The Phantom Menace with my article detailing 10 things I hated about it.  But once in a while, my stomach churns as I think of Gunguns and midichlorians, and I know I haven’t laid this to rest.

The problem with Phantom Menace is that it just isn’t Star Wars.  Sure, it might have the artificial preservatives of the franchise — the “Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away”, the lightsabers, the “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” — but like the title itself, it’s just a ruse.  If you’re highly cynical, Phantom Menace is no more than an excuse to run complex graphic computers through their paces (after all, most of the movie was filmed against a green screen, and several characters didn’t even exist until a computer put them there).  If you’re less cynical but more let down, you’ll just slump in your seat and wave your hand sadly and try in vain to specify why this failed to capture any of the magic that the original Holy Trilogy holds.

It wasn’t always like this, in the world.  Twenty years is enough time to grow a movie trilogy into a world-wide religion of epic proportions.  Nevermind that Star Wars had much more to do with fantasy than any actual science fiction, fans still grew up memorizing every last technical detail about the Death Star trench fortifications.  These movies were loved, often more than actual blood relatives, and for good reason.  Star Wars was entertaining, witty, action-packed, and very pleasing on the eyes.

Particularly for newer and younger moviegoers, it’s harder to empathize with how much we older Star Wars fans felt about the upcoming new trilogy in the late ’90s.  A lot of us were elated, excited at the prospect of what new moviemaking techniques could give our beloved franchise, and thrilled at the thought of an official expansion of our three-movie universe.  And a lot of us were wary about the possible betrayal of our childhood favorite — more so after 1997’s “Special Edition” re-release, where (in retrospect) Lucas was testing the waters to see if he could get away with dabbing a bit of poo here and there on his creation before going for the full-on crapfactory.

What happened after the release is well-known, seeing as it only happened (as of this writing) five years ago.  Millions and millions of people saw it; about six loved it.  Everyone else ranged from a mild, constipated uncomfortableness to a frothing outrage.  This wasn’t Star Wars.  This was a war crime against humanity at large.

Even if it were possible to completely remove The Phantom Menace from the series and expose people to it on its own merits, it would crumble like there’s no tomorrow.  The dialogue and characters are wooden and forced, from Liam Neeson’s “Jedi are reduced to catching tongues” pinched look to little Darth Vader’s childishness.  The plot is vague and nonspecific — Lucas claims this to be intentional, as this whole film is mostly a tiny prologue chapter to the series, but that doesn’t excuse a lack of a solid threat or purpose for the characters to be struggling with.  And what has sadly become traditional with many big-budget blockbusters, the “epic scope” of action has all the thrills of watching one computer-generated army fight another computer-generated army, all without consequence.

This is tedious scifi, made more ridiculous by all the childish nonsense that permeates it.  Don’t get me wrong, the original trilogy wasn’t anything deep and it had plenty of kid logic going on, but the bold presentation more than covered up for any weaknesses.  The Phantom Menace‘s presentation flickers and falls to the ground, and then we’re left with the odd boggle of Amidala’s ridiculous rave costumes and listening to her dumb-as-dirt notions of being a planetary leader.  Darth Maul, while admittedly looking cool for a bad guy, is devoid of any personality or rationale; he’s Darth Vader, if Vader never really talked or was anyone’s father.  How droll.

While the original Star Wars boldly made up “facts” for its universe and mostly ignored any detailed explanations (wisely, since fan imaginations would cover that nicely), The Phantom Menace seems dubiously compelled to start digging away at the thin Star Wars mythos until it cracks and oozes like an infected wound.  Having a mysterious, inexplicable “Force” for the original trilogy worked wonders — it was a McGuffin that allowed our main characters to do cool stuff while being vague enough to deflect criticism.  Now, we suddenly have to drink in pseudo-scientific explanations for the Force, which, by the way, has turned into a grab bag of generic superhero powers that George Lucas remembers and forgets as it pleases the plot.

There’s a little boy in my church who’s about the biggest Star Wars nut I’ve ever encountered.  His room at home is literally covered with Star Wars memorabilia (including a massive Lego Star Destroyer), and he once berated me for not having enough Star Wars stuff in my office.  Even at that young of an age, his parents tell me how he still chooses the original trilogy over the newer, “improved” films.  I don’t blame him.  And I’m glad that the next generation will have at least one person with sense in their head.

Sue’s rating: My daughter can do a spot-on impersonation of Obi-Wan’s “the negotiations were short” line. She so rules.

Sue’s review: I don’t hate The Phantom Menace. I don’t even dislike it. Sure, I know that the dialogue is poor, the acting petrified, and the Gungan insufferable. Yes, I can think of far better uses for a Jedi Knight’s incredible reflexes than correcting some stupid amphibian’s table manners. And certainly, it’s an absolute fact that, barring the use of heavy sarcasm, no child of any age should ever be allowed to scream the word “Yippee!” in any conceivable universe, real or imagined. Anakin Skywalker makes a compelling argument for the development of anti-midichlorian birth control methods.

But I still don’t dislike TPM.

I’d say that it has a lot to do with my having “borrowed” and read several Jedi Apprentice books, giving me a wealth of back-story, but I saw the movie long before I read any of them. I’d say it’s rooted in my Ewan McGregor obsession, but even he was disenchanted with plot and process. I’d even say it’s because having kids of my own, I have a higher than usual tolerance for “poodoo” jokes, but I don’t. I’ve stepped in a lot of poodoo in my time, put up with a lot of poodoo in my time, shoveled literally tons of poodoo in my time, and I have to tell you, poodoo holds no fascination for me.

So why do I like — and I do like — this festering bantha boil of a movie?

Two reasons. Lore and Lightsabers.

First of all, Lore. This is STAR WARS. I’ve been a Star Wars junkie since 1977. How could I not be, when one simple movie gave my friends and I an entire new universe to play in? Cowboys and Indians? Bah. Cops and Robbers? Ptooey. Millenium Falcon doing the Kessel Run? You betcha! (And since we had a shortage of male-children for our roleplaying fun, I got to be Han Solo. It was amazing how far owning a blue vest could get you back in the day!) For those long ago summer afternoons filled with blaster fire and Wookie battle cries alone, I owe the franchise my steadfast loyalty. Just because TPM didn’t live up to expectations doesn’t mean I should reject it. Heck, my dogs and their parasitical loads have almost totally ruined my carpet and I still like them! Is there really that much of a difference between an errant movie and a worm-ridden pooch?

And then there’s lightsabers. TPM contains the best — and after watching all six episodes numerous times, I mean this — the BEST lightsaber battle ever. It was worth every broken finger suffered by cast and crew in the rehearsals to get the Maul-Kenobi fight on film. Okay, I know that the Kenobi-Skywalker slug fest in Revenge of the Sith was supposed to be a crown jewel of dueldom, and that the Yoda-Dooku spat in Attack of the Clones was cool in a Red Bull Marketing Division sort of way. But take away CGI and you’ve got no ninja Yoda. For that matter, take away the distraction of mood lighting and CGI lava and maybe the Kenobi-Skywalker fight looks a thousand percent better. But for sheer unadulterated and beautifully choreographed whoopass, give me those sword-sparking twenty seconds of The Phantom Menace any day of the week.

I admit, I ratcheted my expectations up too high and was disappointed as a result. Won’t be the first nor last time that’s happened. What the heck though. It’s still Star Wars!

All right, we’ll admit it. This was COOL.

Intermission!

  • Wookiees and ETs are in attendance at the Senate meeting.
  • Yoda says “Young Skywalker will be your apprentice.” Doubly fitting, no?
  • What a creepy feeling when Obi Wan and Anakin first meet.  That little boy will eventually murder that man…
  • Doesn’t the Gungan leader look and grin like a fat version of the Grinch?
  • This is the first Star Wars movie in which a character does NOT lose a hand/arm/clawlike appendage.  Unless you count the Trade Fed droids, but who cares, right?  It DOES, however, uphold the fine tradition of complaining about bad feelings in bad situations..
  • Qui-Gon Jinn’s communicator is a redecorated Sensor Excel Razor for Women.
  • In scenes where Padme and Queen Amidala appear together, Natalie Portman is Padme, while Keira Knightley is Sabe, one of the handmaidens disguised as the Queen.
  • Darth Maul blinks only once.
  • During the pod race, the short wild-haired man next to the cheering Watto is none other than former Ewok, Warwick Davis.
  • In the credits, Jabba The Hutt is credited as playing “himself.”
  • After the film’s end credits finish rolling, the sound effect of Darth Vader’s breathing can be heard.
  • Sets were built only as high as the tops of the actors’ heads and computer graphics filled in the rest. But Liam Neeson was so tall that he cost the set crew an extra $150,000 in construction.
  • In 1997, a fierce sandstorm destroyed several of the Tatooine sets in the desert outside Tozeur, Tunisia. Filming resumed two days later. George Lucas considered this a good omen, as the very same thing had happened during filming of the original Star Wars.
  • During filming Ewan McGregor made lightsaber noises as he dueled. It was noted and corrected during post production.

Groovy Quotes

Obi-Wan: You were banished because you were clumsy?

Governor Sio Bibble: A communications disruption could mean only one thing: invasion.

Anakin: Are you an angel?
Queen Amidala: What?
Anakin: An angel. I’ve heard the deep space pilots talk about them. They live on the moons of Iego, I think. They’re the most beautiful creatures in the universe.

Jar-Jar Binks: Ooh moi moi I love you!
Qui-Gon Jinn: You almost got us killed! Are you brainless?
Jar-Jar Binks: I speck!
Qui-Gon Jinn: The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.

Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.

Darth Maul: At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge.

Yoda: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.

Darth Sidious: Wipe them out, all of them.

Qui-Gon Jinn: There’s always a bigger fish.

Queen Amidala: I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!

Mace Windu: You refer to the prophecy of The One, who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it’s this boy?

Yoda: Always two there are, no more no less. A master and an apprentice.
Mace Windu: But which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?

Obi-Wan: The boy is dangerous. They all sense it, why can’t you?

Jar Jar Binks: Mesa day startin pretty okee-day with a brisky morning munchy, then BOOM! Gettin very scared and grabbin that Jedi and POW! Mesa here! Mesa gettin’ very very scared!

Jar Jar Binks: How wude!

Obi-Wan Kenobi: You were right about one thing, Master. The negotiations were short.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Star Wars: Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
  • Star Wars: A New Hope

11 comments

  1. […] 3.  Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D Release Date: 2/10/2012 Heather: Speaking of confusing 3D re-releases, I will not be paying to watch this thing in 3D or any form. It’s annoying and gimmicky enough as it is and, as the ride at Disneyland proved, 3D only improves my tolerance of Jar Jar slightly because he seems close enough to slap in the face. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s