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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Aisle Seat Review by Andy Dursin

***1/2 of four

Yes, we are about movie MUSIC, not movies. But this is Star Wars and we're making this ONE exception for Andy Dursin's take on this highly anticipated, and music-oriented, film. Thanks!

Forget about the early reviews. Skip the petty complaints from the most rabid of all STAR WARS fans who would have been disappointed seeing virtually anything that George Lucas might have made. Try to resist comparing this film to its predecessors (not an easy task, as you'll find), and adjust to what Lucas and his crew have made -- a veritable cinematic prelude that satisfies and entertains on the purest of levels, and that is as visually stimulating as any film I can remember seeing on the big screen.

THE PHANTOM MENACE may not be perfect, and indeed it has its share of faults (a few of which could have been corrected), but taken on its own terms, and considering the faux-spectacles that we have seen coming out of Hollywood for most of this decade (a roster that includes everything from the JURASSIC PARK films to INDEPENDENCE DAY), this is a movie rich in visual imagination, graced with creatures and worlds that are at times familiar and at others totally alien to even the STAR WARS galaxy.

It's a fabulously mounted ride with dissonant elements, yet offers much to enjoy and savor, especially once you get over the fact that this isn't Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia fighting Darth Vader. Hearing John Williams's brilliantly de-constructed film score (which, predictably, works marvelously in the film) should have been a tip-off that THE PHANTOM MENACE is indeed a different movie, with a tone that only in its final stanza truly recalls the originals.

Different, but certainly nowhere near the "disaster" that a lot of critics -- many of whom would love to see this film fail out of their own snobbery if nothing else -- have called it.

So, instead of just providing you with a basic plot rehash that we'd typically go into here (I think we've all read enough by this point concerning what this movie is about!), here are an assortment of comments that ran through my mind during and following my viewing of the Most Eagerly Anticipated Film of All-Time:

  • If this movie isn't rewarded with at least Oscar nominations for Production Design, Cinematography, Costumes, Make-Up, Effects and Music, there's something unfathomably wrong. THE PHANTOM MENACE is one of the most beautifully shot pictures I've ever seen, and the digital effects -- used from creating the alien creatures to supplying enhanced backdrops to the sets -- reach yet another plateau in the ILM canon.
  • Don't let the first fifteen minutes of the movie deter you from enjoying this film. True enough, Lucas does a poor job setting up the scenario and -- perhaps the result of re-editing -- almost immediately launches into an action sequence right when we ought to be slowly introduced and re-immersed into the STAR WARS universe, and more importantly, the new characters who populate his film. Meanwhile, the picture's convoluted but intriguing tale of intergalactic politics will be of great interest to fans in particular (especially as it begins to chronicle the rise of the Empire), but even they will be hard pressed to make out all the exact details and intricacies of the backstory. Sure, repeat viewing will help to smooth this over, but nevertheless, a more developed and less frenetic opening would have set the stage more effectively (it's the sort of thing where folks not all that interested in STAR WARS in the first place will be turned off from the start).
  • Jake Lloyd's performance as Anakin Skywalker isn't a total wash -- he's better than most movie tykes, and projects enough believability (the kid is 10 years old for crying out loud!) into the part to make it work. He isn't Henry Thomas, but then again, this isn't E.T., either.
  • While Liam Neeson is unsurprisingly excellent (Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan is essentially a supporting player here), I was especially impressed with Natalie Portman's performance. In a movie where the actors aren't given a great deal to do (something that I sense -- and hope -- will change in the next two films), Portman shows that not all female members of intergalactic royalty look and sound like Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia (in fact, it's hard to believe there's going to be much of a resemblance between mother and daughter by the time Episode III concludes!). And her costumes, reflecting Asian (and Alien) stylistic influences, are gorgeous as well.
  • The much-discussed comedic sidekick, Jar-Jar Binks (played by Ahmed Best and completely computer generated) is -- it's true -- no Chewbacca. With half of his dialogue almost entirely incomprehensible, Jar-Jar is strictly a character for kids to identify with, but like the movie, he finds a purpose in the second half. Still, I'm not sure we need to see his (mis)adventures continue in Episodes II and III.
  • Be on the lookout for cameos by a few veterans of the series, not to mention relatives of Lucas's pals (including Sofia Coppola).
  • The pod-race is thrilling -- it'll go down as the STAR WARS equivalent of BEN-HUR's "Chariot Race" -- and Lucas's brief allusions to the "sequels" (the original Trilogy) during the Tatooine scenes should evoke plenty of applause from audiences. There's one great moment during the race that... nah, I won't spoil it, but if you've seen it, you probably know what I'm referring to.
  • John Williams's score is yet another masterpiece, reprising brief themes from the original series in such a way that it's almost as if the scores from the original Trilogy are being developed from more fragmented material in this film. (With that said, folks clamoring for a Second Volume of music should have enough ammunition on their hands after having seen the film, which sounded to me like it contained plenty of extra music to comprise a follow-up album. However, don't look for it from the end of the film, where the score is mixed in and out of the picture -- likely the result of late re-cutting on Lucas's behalf. More on this part of the movie below).
  • There's not as much humor in THE PHANTOM MENACE, and although I hate to write this since I'm directly comparing the originals to this movie, two words come to mind when you think about what the original pictures had that this film doesn't -- Harrison Ford. Picture Han Solo not being a part of the STAR WARS series and you'll have an idea what this film lacks in terms of audience identification. Then again, it's a different movie -- keep telling yourself that. Speaking of which...
  • I'm not sure it has been so much a case of "expectation" with some folks having a tough time getting into THE PHANTOM MENACE as it is simple adjustment. Forgetting about the original films, with Hamill, Ford, and Fisher, is difficult and certainly one of the toughest tasks for anyone to follow. This is a new movie with new characters, and obviously posed George Lucas the greatest challenge of his career. It has been over two decades since he's directed, and something tells me he'll learn from his mistakes here and make an even better film the next time out. And yet, despite the flaws, he's still made a movie that ought to be please most audiences around the world -- and should work even better the second time around, once you've adjusted to what Lucas has made, not what he hasn't.
  • The last twenty minutes of the film are sensational and exhilarating, and should win over any viewer who, up until that point, has found THE PHANTOM MENACE to be something of a mixed bag. With three separate episodic adventures occurring, Lucas the director finally hits his stride, intercutting the various sequences with a genuine energy that truly recalls the original STAR WARS. Sure, it might have taken a while for the movie to get there, but it's certainly better late than never, and the film's rousing ending grabbed me in the proper spirit, no doubt about it.

If, ultimately, THE PHANTOM MENACE feels like an appetizer before the main course, that's because it really is. Lucas has publicly stated that Episodes II and III will focus more on the characters (and less on the effects), the rise of the Empire and Anakin Skywalker's downfall, and that EPISODE I is the "children's special effects film," the one with the most FX and toy tie-ins -- which I think a lot of folks should have taken into consideration before raising their expectations to an insanely high degree like they did here.

It sets the stage for what's to come, whets your appetite for something more substantial the next time out, and yet by itself, manages to work in spite of its flaws. I know I'm going to see this movie again, and I think a lot of viewers will. In fact, despite the mixed reviews the film has received, most audiences have been walking out of the movie thoroughly excited and entertained.

THE PHANTOM MENACE is a technical marvel in every sense, and an achievement for Lucas as a filmmaker in that he has successfully returned to a series as beloved as any perhaps in the history of cinema, undertaking more risks artistically than financially. Its lukewarm narrative notwithstanding, EPISODE I is still a fitting entry into the series, offering a solid beginning to a story we already know the ending of. Now, if Lucas can reach down and pull out the dramatic fire that finally catches at the end of THE PHANTOM MENACE, it's entirely possible that Episodes II and III could be the greatest installments yet from a galaxy far, far away.

(PG, 131 mins, **** score by Williams on Sony Classical)

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