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
- 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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