movie film review | chris tookey

Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace / Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace

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  Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace / Star Wars Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
6.50 /10
Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson, Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor , Queen Amidala: Natalie Portman
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Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas

Released: 1999
Origin: US
Length: 133


About forty years before the Star Wars movies we have already seen (episodes 4 to 6) there's this taxation dispute in a galaxy far, far away, between the Nimoudian Trade Federation and the kingdom of Naboo, which results in the ousting of one politician by another on the planet Curuscani. Dsvqblkjzzzzzzzzzz… Sorry about that, I must have fallen asleep.

Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Forget the plot. It will have floated out of your head even before you have left the cinema. And forget the generally poor critical response. Not many reviews spotted the original Star Wars as a classic, back in 1977. Most dismissed it as just another trashy, low-budget sci-fi film with cardboard characters and rotten dialogue. Even its writer-director George Lucas thought of it as a children's film, only to find that his odd collection of ideas from Arthurian legend and old Kurosawa movies appealed to adults as well.

Part of the appeal of the first Star Wars film can never be recaptured, of course: the awe of its opening shot, the shock of John Williams' symphonic score, the freshness of the film's vision of good versus evil after the moral relativism of the Sixties and early Seventies. And I suspect that far too many of those who have been disappointed by the new movie are forgetting that they were children when they saw the old ones.
Phantom Menace is all about spectacle, and it really is spectacular. My eight year-old didn't mind the dreadful dialogue, wooden acting or the fact that he couldn't follow the story in every detail. He revelled in the look, the excitement, and special effects which are bigger and better than ever before.
This is a movie of astonishing grandeur, a reminder that Star Wars is at heart Space Opera.
The acting won't win any Oscars. Liam Neeson (who proved himself an actor of quality in Schindler's List) manages to radiate authority and integrity as the Jedi knight who is Obi-Wan Kenobi's mentor, but not even he can make his dialogue sound thrilling.
And it diminishes the drama that he seems so masterful and invulnerable even when gigantic sea monsters are trying to eat his ship, or he is being attacked by dozens of laser-shooting robots. I never thought I'd think this, but he made me nostalgic for the nervy heroism of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. At least he had a recognisably human response to danger.
Ewan McGregor (pictured left) announced around the time he was making this film that he was going to give up acting for a while; my feeling is that he should have waited until after appearing in this movie to go on sabbatical. Playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, this normally sparky actor gives a cowed, constipated imitation of Alec Guinness. For much of the movie, he seems to be heavily sedated, which makes Liam Neeson's description of him as "headstrong" seem over-optimistic.
It is hard to feel emotionally involved with any of the characters. None of them is much fun, and I found myself pondering how much of the original trilogy's popularity was down to Harrison Ford's charisma as Han Solo.
The nearest thing to an attractive character is nine year-old Anakin Skywalker. Like so many children under ten, he is a computer whizz and can work out how to play without looking at any rulebook. I could sense my son identifying with him like mad, not bothered at all that this child will grow into Darth Vader. Adults may be less impressed. The character is poorly played by Jake Lloyd, who seems to be in a perpetual sulk. The force may be strong within him, but energy and acting ability aren't.
In the feisty young female role of Queen Amidala, teenager Natalie Portman (so good in Leon) seems overpowered by her costumes, hairstyles and make-up. Her delivery is stiff and lifeless.
Terence Stamp and Samuel L. Jackson have little more than walk-on roles, and even the usually exuberant Ian McDiarmid is subdued, radiating false bonhomie as the nastiest man in the universe, while pretending for most of Episode One to be one of the nicest. His sidekick Darth Maul (Ray Park) is a characterless creature with creepy makeup and tremendous martial arts talents, but no background or motivation.
And if you thought the Ewoks were irritating in The Return of the Jedi - remember those teddy bears with nappies on their heads? - wait till you get a load of Jar Jar Binks (pictured right). He talks in a mixture of babytalk and eye-rolling nigger minstrel dialect (sample: "Meesa gettin' berry berry scared") which struck me as racially offensive, even if the race in question is the Gunga from the planet Naboo. Though intended as comic relief, when he's doing his Jerry Lewis slapstick he will strike virtually every adult who sees him as very annoying indeed.
It is at such moments that the movie deserves its withering dismissals by one American critic as "Teletubbies in space", and by another as "the biggest disappointment since the Clinton presidency".
And yet… there is so much about this movie that is terrific. The scenery is marvellous. The underwater city on the planet Naboo is beautifully conceived, and Curuscani the city planet is amazing too (especially if you haven't seen Luc Besson's The Fifth Element). The cavernous council chamber which acts as the galaxy's version of the United Nations is such a knockout, visually, that it doesn't matter too much that the scene played in it is a bore.
There are stunning action sequences: a tremendous light-sabre fight, a high-speed "pod" race modelled on the chariot race in Ben Hur, the climactic battle between thousands of aliens - just like an enormous, animated game of Warhammer. And the final victory parade dwarfs even Elizabeth Taylor's entry into Rome, in Cleopatra.
These are great sights, extravagantly designed, astonishingly detailed and richly populated. The art direction and special effects are worth more than the price of admission.
The director's reverence for his invented world is, at times, a weakness. Some of it is over-solemn, and the eagerness to draw a parallel between Anakin Skywalker and Jesus Christ - both are of virgin birth - smacks of pretentiousness.
Far too much of the dialogue is dull and expository, designed simply to move the story from A to B. All the same, the screenplay is carefully plotted, with an elegant structure based upon four climaxes of mounting intensity. It establishes a huge number of characters effectively, and - unlike, say, The Matrix - it achieves a satisfying denouement while leaving some issues unresolved for the sequels.
Its alternate universe is thought through, and on a genuinely mythic scale. It is this that stops the movie from being mindless pap, or a cynical exercise in merchandising. Lucas has a fantastic imagination, coupled with an epic vision of the battle between good and evil, and of how one can grow into the other.
Despite its faults, this is an extraordinary feat of cinematic creativity. There are sights here that you won't have seen before, and deserve to be experienced on the big screen.
I enjoyed it most of all for its sense of joy, the exhilaration that George Lucas obviously feels for his created universe. Lucas - through the Star Wars films and his special effects company Industrial Light and Magic - has done more than anyone else to free film-makers' creativity.
I enjoyed seeing him fire my son's imagination as effectively as he did a previous generation's, twenty years ago. Although critics should be free to criticise Lucas's shortcomings, I do wish they would stop whinging about how rich he is, and pay equal attention to his achievements. The man is one of the most important innovators of the twentieth century.
"I'm happy that Star Wars stimulates young people's imagination... but when you get a situation like this where you have so much hype and expectation, a movie can't possibly live up to that."
(George Lucas)

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