A Hyperspace Ride Through The Star Wars Saga: The Phantom Menace (1999)
16 years after we left the galaxy in ‘Return of the Jedi’, it was time for George Lucas to go back and tell the story of young Anakin Skywalker and his journey in becoming Sith Lord Darth Vader. Teased with scattered words and snippets of events gone by during the original trilogy of films, it was a story that many fans were eager to explore and see happen. Now with the might of CGI and new film-making technology behind him, writer and director Lucas presented us with the most anticipated film of all time; and this would soon turn out to be the most divisive and controversial films of all time, especially for ‘Star Wars’ fans. At least, that was, until ‘The Last Jedi’ came along.
As the iconic title bursts onto the screen, this is the same franchise but different. John Williams returns for another memorable score that acts as a safety blanket across the story and lots of familiar planets and characters return such as Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and, of course, Yoda (Frank Oz), but it also presents a new visually stunning galaxy rich in CGI landscapes and technology that transports us even further back into a time long ago and gives us something we’ve never seen before in this universe.
Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) acts as a mascot for a targeted younger audience and manages to come across goofy and annoying rather than naïve and misguided. Still, he helped sell millions worth of promotional goods so they got something right. Darth Maul, played with great gusto by Ray Park, shines and helps create the most exciting sequence with a 3-way lightsaber duel towards the end, but he is never given much time to develop into a threat that could have continued well over the prequels. Effectively he was here to market the film before being axed once the punters were in and had paid up.
A promising cast excite on the outset but are let down by flat dialogue delivery and constantly working opposite green-screen backings or stand-in actors rather than an “in the moment” scene. Still, we have great talent in the guise of Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, a young Obi-Wan in McGregor and even Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine, all roles they know can be enjoyed for what they are with looming foreshadowing, even with the nonsense they are forced to talk about including the taxation of trade routes, diplomatic committees within the Senate of the Galactic Republic and midichlorians.
We have some exciting action sequences and trademark land and space battles dotted around the narrative, and the Tatooine Boonta Eve podrace sequence is a giddy 15 minute video game sequence, but one that is visually very slick and exciting to watch. It does go on for a little too long and doesn’t REALLY need to be there, but it did spawn a number of video games and toys for that sequence alone so…maybe it was important for George to have a CGI playground after all.
With so much potential and the expectation so high for new and old fans, this was never going to be perfect, but it could have been so much better if the tone was darker to cater to older fans, the characters more solid and the story less “political”. People say if ‘The Phantom Menace’ started on the same track ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ did, it could have been a whole new experience, and they were right. It delivers a few token Star Wars thrills but doesn’t hit the great high people expected, but it certainly does have the heart and magic to win over new younger fans and be entertaining at least.