Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
directed by George Lucas
(LucasFilms/20th Century Fox, 1999)

I'm going to buck the trend of reviewers here, but heck, I'm willing to stick my neck out for a few firmly held beliefs.

I liked it.

Star Wars has never been about deep, multilayered plots or powerful statements on our time. It's about action (there's a ton), special effects (more than ever), strange aliens (OK, some of them were a little silly, and one in particular was downright annoying) and unblinking optimism in the struggle between good and evil.

In this, his fourth/first Star Wars movie, George Lucas made some bonehead mistakes. Taking blood samples to measure the Force? Virgin births? A kid accidentally flying to the enemy mothership and destroying it when a team of seasoned fighters couldn't even scratch the thing? Yeah, right. Shame on you, George!

The aquatic Rastafarian, Jar Jar Binks, is of course the annoying character mentioned earlier. He would have made a damn cute alien if he made one or two brief appearances, but by mid-film he was tiresome. If he had to survive until the climactic ground battle at the end, he should have bought it quickly in the fight. Instead, we get Keystone Kopp shenanigans during what's supposed to be a serious, pulse-pounding action bit.

Introducing the droids was a nice touch for those who like some continuity throughout a series, but I wish Lucas had brought only the perky R2-D2 into the fold at this point and left C-3PO for later. Bringing the half-built translator into the story as the self-assigned science project of a poverty-stricken slave child just didn't work for me. And linking everyone to the future Luke's home planet of Tatooine was a bit forced. (I'm assuming the droids will conveniently have their memories wiped later, to erase the potential conflict with the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.

There's also not a lot of long-term suspense in this one. Sure, we might wonder how our plucky heroes will get themselves out of this one, but anyone familiar with the later films already knows (SPOILERS! Don't read this paragraph if you live in a cave and didn't see the first three films!) that Senator Palpatine becomes the evil Emperor, that waifish Anakin grows up to be the evil Darth Vader, that plucky Queen Amidala mothers Luke and Leia before dying young, that gnarly Jedi master Yoda will spend his final days as a hermit on a far-off swamp planet, and that virile young Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi will end up living lonely in the desert before becoming the ghost-like mentor of young Luke. (And we can also see where Leia will inherit her sense of hair style.)

The most visible villain, Darth Maul, is two-dimensional at best, doing little but scowl and fight. And could someone please explain the makeup?

But with all that said, The Phantom Menace is still a rollicking addition to the Star Wars universe. Liam Neeson in particular, as the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, gives an excellent performance, and the lightsaber duel at the end is one of the most ass-kickin' sword fights I've seen on film.

The Phantom Menace is mostly eye candy, it's true, and it poses more questions than answers. Certainly Lucas could have done a better job after his long absence from the Star Wars realm. But damn it, I liked it anyway ... perhaps because I tried to watch it with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as the 11-year-old who watched the original Star Wars on the big screen back in 1977. So sue me.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Read Chet Williamson's counterpoint.

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