Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace - movie review (May 24, 1999)

This wasn't a movie that grabbed me and shook me out of my chair the first time I saw it, but then again, neither did episode 4, 5 or 6. Those took time and repeated viewings to get me hooked, and I expect the same to happen with Phantom Menace. The process seems to have already started since while I liked the film after the first viewing, I've liked it more and more upon a second viewing, much contemplation and numerous discussions.

The special effects are, of course, amazing and impeccable, save for one tiny little scene which looks like a blip from one of the video games I used to play.

We are reimmersed into a universe we have come to know so well, but with a twist - the Star Wars universe as we know it does not yet exist. We meet and get to know some new characters who inhabit the Star Wars universe at a point before the civil war, when the Galactic Republic, predecessor to the evil Empire, is still in control. Like the universe we know, however, this universe is also full of characters interesting and annoying. While I liked the understated Qui Gon and Anakin's quiet but strong mother, I found Jar Jar Binks to be particularly annoying, but by contrast, I didn't mind the Ewoks while some would just as soon burn all the negative prints of episode 6 because of their very existence. I loved the Destroyer droids, and the pod race segment was a thrill to watch, even though we know the outcome going in. Who cares? It's not where we're going. In the grand scheme of things, we know where we're going if we've seen episode 4. The fun is in how we get there. And fun this movie is, with bits of humour (in particular having to do with Qui Gon's failed mind-control attempt) that will be recounted with laughter in any discussion involving Phantom Menace.

I loved the little nods to the universe we know, from the Tusken Raiders' cameo appearance to the appearance of one of Anakin's young non-human friends. How many people shivered when Senator Palpatine addressed Anakin as "Skywalker" at the end of the film? And with the amazing choreography of the lightsabre duels among Darth Maul, Qui Gon and Obi Wan as well as numerous other battle scenes, we see the awesome power wielded by a fully trained Jedi (or Sith) and a lightsabre.

Like each of the other episodes, though, there are things I don't like - bits of dialogue, accents that are simply annoying and difficult to understand but which don't add much to the feel of the universe, and points of humour that go a bit too far.

How well the movie does, and what die-hard fans' reaction will be will depend, I think, entirely on how they go into this movie. If they're going into this movie, expecting it to wow them as much as the first trilogy did, I think they're going to be disappointed because there's no way any movie can do that, and their fascination with the Star Wars universe was not built on one viewing of one movie, but rather, endless repeated viewings of three movies. Also, this movie doesn't answer all the questions everyone has and instead, creates more questions, which is going to be frustrating as hell because again, we've gotta wait a while for the continued adventures. There are plot points that would seem to contradict what we already know about the history of the Star Wars universe. But, these points may be addressed in episode 2 or 3. After all, we were told by Obi Wan in episode 4 that Vader killed Luke's father only to find out in episode 5 that Vader is in fact Luke's father, with Obi Wan admitting in episode 6 that his recounting was true, "from a certain point of view".

The strangest thing about The Phantom Menace is the opening crawl. I'm reading it, and half my brain realizes that unlike the last forty bazillion viewings of something in the Star Wars universe, I don't actually know what the crawl says nor do I automatically understand what the story is, and it was really weird that I had to actually pay attention to the crawl and try to understand the background I needed to continue the story.

Do I recommend this movie? You bet. Am I going to see this again? You bet. Am I going to wear out my videotape copy (letterboxed, of course) whenever I can get my hands on one? You bet. The Phantom Menace is completely deserving, for better or worse, of the Star Wars moniker.


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