RELEASED: May 19th 1999
DIRECTED BY: George Lucas
WRITTEN BY: George Lucas
PRODUCED BY: Rick McCallum
MUSIC BY: John Williams
STARRING: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGreggor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Ian McDiarmid, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Terrence Stamp, Silas Carson, Keira Knightley, Ray Park & Peter Serafinowicz
After a sixteen year absence, Star Wars finally returned to the cinemas with The Phantom Menace, the first film directed by George Lucas in 22 years. And unfortunately, that shows. However, before we discuss the problems with this film (and there are several), we should first look at some of the great aspects that Lucas did bring back with him from his hiatus.
The film follows Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, as they are assigned by the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic to resolve a trade dispute between the Trade Federation and Queen Amidala of the Naboo. In this adventure, they meet the clumsy Gungan Jar Jar Binks, the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO and Anakin Skywalker, a boy whom Qui-Gon believes to be ‘the chosen one’.
Just looking at that synopsis, you can see that one thing The Phantom Menace does right is build up Star Wars lore exponentially. Whereas in Episodes IV-VI, we got a vague idea of how the Galaxy worked, for the most part, the focus was just on Luke, Han and Leia’s adventures. Here, we get to see everything: the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Council, the Outer Rim areas where Republic influence doesn’t reach. We get to see leisure activities like pod-racing, and inter-species relationships between the people of the Naboo and the Gungans. Flora and fauna is also shown in abundance. And (for a nineties film, anyway) it’s all pretty beautiful.
The designers did a fantastic job on this movie, and the production team should be proud to have created such fantastical and magnificent worlds.
Unfortunately, the excellence of the film’s design is let down by a wealth of other bad choices.
The acting, for one, is… well… it’s not great. While veteran actions like Neeson, McDiarmid and Jackson bring gravitas to the table, the younger actors like Lloyd, Portman (and even McGreggor, at times) seem lost and unrefined. I understand that this is a product of their age, but that in itself leads to another problem: the kid-focused angle.
I understand Star Wars is a family-film series, and if you ask George Lucas, a set of films specifically for kids. And that’s fine. But Episodes IV-VI succeeded in capturing the hearts of both kids and adults without having its leads be children. Sure, Luke and Leia are in their late teens in A New Hope, but they’re far enough removed from childhood that they are convincing as heroes and freedom-fighters.
Anytime kid-Anakin rushes in to save the day feels unearned. We were told in the Original Trilogy that Anakin was ‘the best star pilot in the galaxy’, but then we’re shown that in truth, he was just some kid who worked in a junkyard and has never even finished a pod-race, let alone flown a starfighter. From a story-telling perspective, it just doesn’t make sense*, and lessens the impact of everything that happens on screen.
Starting the trilogy with Anakin’s childhood is a pointless endeavour, and that, paired with the lack of any real STAR WAR or character development we can empathise with means that the film, to be blunt, is superfluous to the franchise. There are a lot of interesting design choices, but the script, story and acting let the film down a great deal. And don’t even get me started on Jar Jar Binks.
Also, this film is kind of racist. Some of the stereotypes the character’s fall into are ill-advised, to say the least (see: the Gungans, the Nemodians or Watto the Toydarian).
The one-on-one fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul just after Qui-Gon has died is pretty great though, so that’s something.
All-in-all, I give it a:
*I want to clarify before anyone comments, I know he’s strong with the force. But that doesn’t make it good writing.