EVERY GENERATION HAS A LEGEND. EVERY JOURNEY HAS A FIRST STEP. EVERY SAGA HAS A BEGINNING.
According to Merriam Webster, the word “anticipation” means among other things “pleasurable expectation”. They might as well have included an image of the poster for this film, the fourth in the Star Wars series, the first in chronological order. George Lucas had prepared its arrival wisely by re-releasing the technically juiced up first three films in 1997. Two years later, there was no way that you were not going to see the phenomenon known as The Phantom Menace.
Beginning with a trade dispute
The story starts from the beginning, taking place a half-century earlier than Star Wars (1977). The Trade Federation and the Republic are involved in a trade dispute that has led to a blockade of the planet Naboo. Two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are dispatched to Naboo to solve the conflict but they walk into a trap set by Darth Sidious, an evil figure that controls the Trade Federation. The knights escape and liberate Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) who had been detained by the Federation. The three of them head for Coruscant to ask for the Senate’s help. They make a pit stop on Tatooine, a desert planet, where they meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and his mother (Pernilla August) who are held as slaves by a junk dealer.
Qui-Gon senses that the Force is strong with the boy (who is also quite the inventor) and tries to trick the junk dealer into agreeing to free him if Anakin wins a dangerous pod race. Meantime, Darth Sidious has sent a special apprentice of his, Darth Maul (Ray Park), to kidnap the Queen and kill the Jedis.
Too kid-friendly chapter
After watching the first three films a few weeks ago it is interesting to see how much technology had improved in the years between 1983 and 1999. This film has stunning visuals of the places that Lucas created in his mind and the CGI makes several sequences not only look damn fine but also has you realizing that they could not have been made 20 years ago. The most thrilling action set piece is of course the pod race, held at breakneck speed. Another highly memorable scene is the fight between the knights and Darth Maul, an intimidating new villain that one would have wanted to see more of. Other characters are less successful. The most heavily criticized is Jar-Jar Binks, an annoying, inane, computer-animated sidekick that had some people accusing the director of having created a racist stereotype. Jar-Jar is a stupid addition to an already too kid-friendly Star Wars chapter that also features the very American, apple-cheeked Lloyd as the ever chipper Anakin.
Die-hard nerds will get a kick out of the political intrigues that would lead to the rise of the Galactic Empire, but the story is uneven and the cast is not really a good enough replacement for the charisma of Hamill-Ford-Fisher. However, John Williams’s music helps remind one of the glory days.
The best part of the film is watching all the details that give clues to future chapters. It’s not a movie for newcomers. That pleasure cannot be tainted, not even by cute Hollywood brats.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 1999-U.S. 133 min. Color. Widescreen. Written and directed by George Lucas. Music: John Williams. Cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Samuel L. Jackson, Pernilla August… Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Sofia Coppola, Keira Knightley. Voice of Frank Oz.
Trivia: Sally Hawkins is an extra; this was her feature film debut. Kenneth Branagh was allegedly considered for the part of Obi-Wan; Benicio Del Toro for Darth Maul. Re-released to theaters in 3D in 2012. Followed by Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002).
Razzie: Worst Supporting Actor (Jar-Jar Binks (as performed by Ahmed Best)).