Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
What could we possibly say about George Lucas' Phantom Menace to All Other Summer Movies that hasn't been said before?
Nothing, really. Except that we stood in line all night to see it, which fuels the need to throw in our own two cents. Not that you'll listen. This is Star Wars, and Guru George doesn't need anyone bagging his intergalactic baby.
But Menace shows that being a baby isn't exactly a bad thing. All eyes, short attention span and an attraction to flashy, dazzling objects. Adventure and danger loom before you! There's also room for a little growth, however, and that's something that can possibly be remedied before the second installment digitally imprints itself into theaters.
Cue music of epic proportions. The crowd cheers. Scroll up plot-line. Frown pensively. Hmm.... It seems the evil Trade Federation is blocking all trade to the planet Naboo, since there's a big uproar regarding galactic taxation and well... just comprehend later. It's economic piracy sponsored by the Dark Side of the Force (two guys named Darth).
If this doesn't already make you say, "I've got a bad feeling about this," then don't worry. Our two fearless Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) say it for you, because they don't like negotiating their way through commercial terrorism any more than you do. But negotiations go awry, with Trade Federation/Dark Side pawns endangering Naboo and its monotoned, palefaced Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Never fear. Whack some bad guys with your light saber and steal the queen. Qui-Gon, take me awaaaaaay...
Somewhere along the way, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan pick up an obnoxious, jabbering Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks, who supposedly provides comic relief. Despite his fashion sense-savvy boot-cut dungarees-and his uncanny ability to make Liam Neeson look constipated, Jabba the Hutt should have eaten him.
Ahh, there's just too much to mention. The daring bunch encounters young slave Anakin Skywalker among the avaricious people of Tatooine, home of junkdealers, Jabba and a winged Cheech Marin-ish pugster named Watto. Qui-Gon immediately detects the force emanating from young Skywalker, while Obi-Wan confirms with his handy chemistry set that Anakin possesses stellar Jedi blood traits! Science and religion DO mix!
If you're looking for sinister elements of supreme villainy, there aren't that many. Lucas just teases us with Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, who spend most of their air time lurking in shadows and saying things like "I'll get my revenge on those Jedis." Maul flips, kickboxes and wields his double-bladed light saber with mesmerizing flair, but why does such an intriguing character have only one line?
Unfortunately, it seems that Lucas has forsaken dialogue for the almighty special effects. But oh, what special effects they are! Is that Neeson and MacGregor hiding behind that digital enhancement? Who can forget the dazzling underwater swamp city surrounded by monstrous toothsome Goober Fish? Or Chief Artist Doug Chiang's intricate creative design? Perhaps the most captivating and even mind-numbing is the spectacular pod race on Tatooine. Ships hurtle through crevices and mountain passes at uncanny speeds, daring your eyes to catch up with them on screen. At times it's a little too much thrown at you all at once.
Oh yes, and there are the actors. Let's not forget about them. Neeson exudes a certain stately stage presence as Obi-Wan's patient but stubborn teacher. It will be interesting to see how Obi-Wan evolves. McGregor is charming and often lightly playful as a young Alec Guinness-he impersonates the legendary actor very well. Jake Lloyd as Anakin is a plucky little guy with a slight tendency to overact, while Portman is better as a plain-clothes Amidala than she is as the stoic Kabuki-theater queen with the wavering British accent.
If you want to hear a good British accent, Ian McDiarmid is magnificent as the Naboo's slimy, smooth-talking Senator Palpatine. His voice conveys just a hint of the dry-leaves crackle of the menacing Emperor he later becomes.
It is, however, some of the film's quirky details that delight. Warwick Davis's (Wicket the Ewok! Willow!) cameo in the crowd of pod race spectators. A random cluster of squawking Sandpeople with rifles picking off racers in the middle of the desert while the two-headed announcer gleefully details the unfortunate but hilarious incident. Ah yes, and C-3PO, that paragon of "human cyborg relations," is a primitive model stripped down to the wire and bolts. "Oh, I'm naked!" he realizes. "My parts are showing!"
Indeed, through the slick golden exterior that was Lucasfilm hype, some of the rusty innards of The Phantom Menace were not quite fleshed out. But who cares? This is another Star Wars movie after all, and that's really all that matters.