Film (1999). A Lucasfilm Ltd Production. Directed by George Lucas. Written by Lucas. Cast includes Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman. 133 minutes. Colour.
Although the work of a man in his fifties, The Phantom Menace is the most juvenile of the Star Wars films. The opening film in a prequel trilogy, the movie suffers from being a first act. Characters are introduced, future events are foreshadowed, but very little actually happens. The Phantom Menace follows the exploits of a pair of Jedi Knights (Neeson, McGregor), a teenage queen (Portman), a Machiavellian senator (McDiarmid) and a pre-pubescent Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd) – who is destined to become the villainous Darth Vader – as they seek to bring an end to a trade blockade of the planet Naboo.
While the Star Wars movies were never known for their maturity, The Phantom Menace is considerably more like a cartoon than its predecessors. The mythic grandeur that characterized the earlier movies when they were at their best is gone; instead the film offers slapstick, broad racial stereotypes and feeble villains. Lucas further alienated many of his fans by filling the second half of The Phantom Menace with dry political debates and diplomatic wrangling. While not without interest, and necessary background for the fall of the Senate in the following films, these sequences clash with the tone of the rest of the movie, and would probably be almost incomprehensible to the youthful audience that Lucas seems to be aiming at.
The Phantom Menace was the first Star Wars film since the original to be scripted and directed by Lucas, and is clear evidence that the series works better when its creator's ideas are filtered through others. The cast is more respectable, if less enthusiastic, than that of the original trilogy. However, they all give wooden performances. No doubt this is partly because of the stilted dialogue, and also because of the strain of performing in a kind of vacuum, since they are regularly playing opposite creatures that did not exist until they were added in post-production.
However, the film partly redeems itself with its vibrant visuals. Just as Star Wars (1977) redefined what miniatures and matte paintings were capable of, so The Phantom Menace redefined the boundaries for digital special effects. The novelization is Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) by Terry Brooks. [JN]
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