Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: May 16, 1999
DIRECTOR: George Lucas
CINEMATOGRAPHY: David Tattersall
WRITER: George Lucas
MUSIC: John Williams
I must admit that I actually enjoy “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”, chronologically the first story in creator George Lucas’ epic sci-fi saga. I got a little nervous typing out that admission because I’ve gotten a lot of crap from other fans for even saying such a thing. However, if my idol Roger Ebert can say that he thoroughly enjoyed the film, then so can I.
Before I carry on, I’ll go ahead and admit that the film definitely has a bunch of problems. George Lucas’ over-reliance on green screen effects and his stiff dialogue is in full effect here. Also, I totally agree that Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is one of the worst characters ever created in the entire history of film.
I must also admit that this film is better to me than the next entry, “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”. I’m also not a convert, either. I genuinely had a great time with this movie when it was originally released in 1999 and it wasn’t until later in the year that I began to hear about how much people hated it.
The movie’s story is simple enough. The Trade Federation has blockaded the small planet of Naboo and invaded with their droid army. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent in to negotiate a peaceful settlement but instead, the Federation tried to kill them so they end up helping Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) escape in order to reach the Senate on Coruscant to get more help for Amidala’s people.
Along the way, they have to stop and make repairs on their ship on Tatooine. Here, they also meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave who decides to help them get off the planet. Qui-Gon senses a strong connection to the Force with Anakin and decides to take him to see the Jedi Council. He believes that Anakin may be the Chosen One, a Jedi that is destined to bring balance to the Force.
Now, one other problem that often gets brought up in conversation is Lloyd as the nine-year-old Anakin. I’ll go ahead and say that while I think he gives an average performance overall, he also isn’t the worst child actor that I’ve ever seen and ultimately his performance has never bothered me. It’s not particularly good, but it’s far from the worst.
The other performers are pretty good, especially Neeson as Qui-Gon. In just one movie, Neeson made the character one of my favorite Jedi. There is a genuine feeling of compassion with Neeson’s performance along with his underlying defiance of the more dogmatic Jedi Council.
Another thing that I liked seeing in this film is the fact that it is the true beginning of the Skywalker story. Here, I get to see the first meeting between Anakin and Obi-Wan as well as his introduction to Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), two people that will influence his ultimate destiny.
Beyond the story, though, there is plenty of action as most of the film is a race against time to save Queen Amidala and her people. There are thrilling space battles as well as battles on Naboo itself. Ultimately, though, it is the lightsaber action that steals the show here.
Before this film, we never really got to see the Jedi at the height of their power. In this movie, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon do battle with Darth Maul in what is still one of the best lightsaber fights featured in the series. It was genuinely thrilling to see these three give us something that we could only imagine when watching the previous films.
Yes, “The Phantom Menace” is definitely flawed. I’ll also agree with any criticism that any fan comes up with, but ultimately it won’t matter. I still have a blast with this film and I think that its notorious reputation was built on 16 years of anticipation and hype more than the film itself.
There are plenty of other people who will tell you how bad they think this film really is and that’s a perfectly acceptable opinion. However, I’m afraid that I just can’t join the haters on this one. I’ve watched this film several times and yes, there have been viewings where I’ve tried to hate this film for its flaws, but I ultimately have to throw in the towel and admit that I actually like “The Phantom Menace”.