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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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*Also starring: Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Ahmed Best

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Review by Greg King
3 stars out of 4

Expectations have been high for this eagerly awaited and long overdue prequel to George Lucas' classic sci-fi adventure Star Wars. Given the barrage of hype that has preceded the movie, Star Wars Episode 1, subtitled The Phantom Menace, was always going to have a hard job living up to those lofty expectations. Inevitably, The Phantom Menace is a little disappointing! The original Star Wars was a film ahead of its time; The Phantom Menace is merely a film for its time!

Returning to the director's chair after a twenty year absence, Lucas takes the audience back to the beginning of his envisaged nine part saga, and introduces us to the young Anakin Skywalker. As every Star Wars fan knows, Anakin is the Jedi knight who, of course, later grew up to father both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia before crossing over to the dark side of the force as the evil Darth Vader.

Caught in the middle of a trade war between the powerful Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo, Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) try to negotiate a settlement. While on the planet of Tatooin, Jinn recognises the nascent power of the young slave Anakin (played with charm by Jake Lloyd), and decides to take him under his wing.

In many ways, The Phantom Menace follows the broad plot threads of the original Star Wars, although without the same sense of wonder and inspiration. What was once a simple fable about the battle between good and evil has become far more mystical and mythic, and occasionally bogged down in more complex ideas. In establishing the framework for what follows, Lucas raises nearly as many questions as he answers.

One of the main problems is that the film is occasionally a little slow, with some passages of plot development that will prove tiresome and a little boring for younger audiences. The film also lacks any villain as imposing or as intimidating as Darth Vader. Instead, the best Lucas can offer us here is the rather bland and forgettable Darth Maul (played by martial arts champion Ray Park, in his film debut). There is a much more obvious emphasis on slap stick humour throughout this film, especially with antics of the accident prone Jar-Jar Binks, a computer generated character who speaks his own strange language.

However, some of the action sequences are quite exciting, with a couple of light sabre duels and a battle sequence between two digitally created armies. The undoubted highlight is the pod race, an incredible sequence that resembles a futuristic version of the famous chariot race from Ben Hur for the Nintendo generation.

The special effects and state of the art computer generated imagery, which took some two years to complete, is indeed spectacular, and represents the future direction of film making. Unfortunately, it is a pretty heartless and soulless future in which human performers are dwarfed by increasingly spectacular effects and technology.

About 90% of The Phantom Menace has been digitally created, and the human performers seem a little lost when called upon to interact with their brilliantly realised cyberspace universe. In many ways this is symptomatic of Lucas, a pioneer of digital effects, who shows little understanding of the emotional development of his characters. Lucas seems to regard his human cast as mere accessories to his whiz bang technology and cynical mass marketing techniques, and, in this aspect, he is light years ahead of Hitchcock in his reputed disdain for actors.

Neeson, who normally has a powerful screen presence, seems a little awkward here, while McGregor seems as bewildered and as uncomfortable as Alec Guiness did in the same role twenty years ago. Performers of the calibre of Terence Stamp and Samuel L Jackson are wasted in small, undemanding roles.

Many of the new characters introduced here are fairly unimpressive. Whereas we once might have followed the charismatic Han Solo, the impetuous Luke Skywalker and the feisty Princess Leia to the ends of the galaxy, I'm not so sure that I'd follow this bland and forgettable lot for a stroll in the park!

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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