Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)

D: George Lucas
S: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman

I've got a bad feeling about this...

Overbusy but visually spectacular "first" episode in George Lucas' Star Wars saga which rather too sombrely (and arguably unnecessarily) begins the exposition of the backstory of the original trilogy. Set a generation before Episode IV: A New Hope (known once upon a time and to my generation simply as Star Wars), the story concerns the events which transpire when Jedi Knights Qui Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to settle a trade dispute between a sinister Federation (an in-joke at the expense of the other big sci-fi franchise of the twentieth century?) and the peaceful planet Naboo, headed by elected Queen (um..?) Amidala (Natalie Portman). Dark forces are at work behind the scenes however, and it seems as though the galaxy is poised for the reemergence of the sinister dark Jedi cult known as The Sith. Meanwhile Naboo senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) consolidates his position in the Galactic Republic by manipulating the crisis for his own ends. In the course of their adventures, Neeson and McGregor land on the remote planet Tatooine where they encounter young slave boy Annakin Skywalker (Jake Loyd) whose extraordinary powers promise a great future and perhaps even make him the messiah predicted in Jedi prophecy who will bring balance to The Force.

To get the inevitable question out of the way which all reviewers have had to face in 1999 (and which may become moot within months and after the usual retractions and/or revisions of opinion have begun), my personal feeling about The Phantom Menace is that it is worth seeing. It's not a particularly good film, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand.

The Phantom Menace is not uninteresting. As a collection of conceptual moving pictures, it is consistently spellbinding. As Lucas' himself observed in interviews when the film was in the planning stages, digital technology and computer graphics have begun to transform the cinema from a mechanical to a painterly medium, and The Phantom Menace is a triumph of creative design and conceptual art which stimulates the eye and engages the imagination in a way that few films have done since the silent era. This is not enough, of course, to make it great art, or even good art, or even good film, but it is enough to make it something more interesting than the rash of slam-bang wannabes which Lucas' original film has spawned since 1977 and therefore a suitable result of so many years' germination.

It does have problems though. It is not great entertainment the way its first two predecessors were, and it is much too concerned with trying to set up a series of plot threads for the prospective second and third parts of this 'first' trilogy for its own good. It does have trouble juggling its wealth of exposition and plot with characters who are given very little room to manoeuvre (and whose growth we must presume will follow in parts 2 and 3), and it is certainly more a showcase for special effects and production design rather than the all-important quasi-mythic storyline for which the previous films have been lauded and lionised (though for my money, Return of the Jedi was already headed in that direction and only managed to get away with this because we had been so hooked on the story by Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that it had emotional resonance to see things work themselves out).

The appeal of Star Wars has always been its story, and whatever about its much vaunted direct relationship to classical mythology, Lucas was certainly aware of Joseph Campbell's study of the structure of myth and fairytale and therefore managed to hit enough archetypes and story points to simply spin a good old fashioned yarn. In production, The Phantom Menace promised to continue this legacy (or should that be to begin it?), heralded by a derisory advertisement in Variety at the expense of Roland Emmerlich's Godzilla in 1998 which promised that "Plot Does Matter." But in the 'been there, done that' Pepsi Max climate of the late twentieth century, is there a place for good old fashioned storytelling? Well, yes, there is, but that place may not be that to be occupied by the director of Star Wars.

In a sense Lucas was his own worst enemy here, and though fans clamoured for the completion of the trilogy of trilogies (now apparently truncated to a duology of trilogies, unless Lucas' descendants rob his copyright grave in the future and extend things when it suits them), the mythology which has built up around Star Wars has become so complete and so ingrained in the popular consciousness that it was going to be more or less impossible for him to meet the expectations of fans or survive the long-sharpened stilettos of the critics who had waited so long for their opportunity to sound off either way. George Lucas may well be the biggest independent producer/director in the world (remember that Fox were literally begging to be allowed to contribute money in exchange for distribution rights, etc.), so this film and its sequels could never be released and received in the kind of atmosphere in which the relatively low budget original found itself in 1977. His appeal to classic storytelling was refreshing at a time when such values seemed to have been willfully abandoned in American cinema, and the rediscovery of a well spun yarn was about to resurrect Hollywood's ailing hold over the box-office.

As a creative personality, Lucas himself may have felt the need therefore to do something different in 1999, and it was only his fascination with the possibilities of computer effects that finally gave him the impetus to make the film in the last few years. Thus his real interest this time is less the story than the potential of digital art to create landscapes and mount elaborate scenes upon them with more realism than traditional animation allowed, but less restrictions than boring old reality. If he was a puppet master in 1977 (and he was), he is now a Virtual God, literally not limited by anything but his imagination and his ability to co-ordinate those of the designers and programmers he employed to help him realise it. He thus becomes something of a kid with a new toy, almost like the recent film school grad of 1977 pushing the envelope of effects technology in the name of his nice little homage to old-fashioned entertainment. Of course now the homage is to himself, and his attempt to fully flesh out the details of the universe in which Star Wars is set has gone beyond the point of being much fun in and of itself. It therefore requires a much greater level of attention to plot and character to hold itself together. Lucas seems to have missed that point in his eagerness to explore the technical limits of traditional cinematic imagery, and instead of coming up with a great story, he has lost himself in the details.

The Phantom Menace races through vast swathes of plot from its opening on-screen narrative scrawl, as if eager to get on with it and show us what Lucas has managed to cook up from the digital stew. Changing location virtually every five minutes and featuring more characters and copyright soon-to-be-available-at-a-store-near-you vehicles, robots, and miscellaneous gadgets, it lays out in great detail the locales and personalities who comprise the world of the film throughout the first two thirds of its running time. On a design level, these are fantastic. Design Director Doug Chiang, Production Designer Gavin Bocquet and Costume Designer Trisha Biggar are the real talents behind The Phantom Menace, or at least behind those elements of the film which are truly interesting (John Williams is there, of course, and his score is quite fascinating when listened to on its own, though it doesn't actually make its presence felt on screen). The film is a marvellous phantasmagoria of imaginary landscapes, beautifully rendered with a mixture of model and matte work enhanced by computer generated moving elements such as ships, flying animals, various foreground objects and artificial characters. Computer effects also manage clever tricks such as reflections on surfaces, realistic shadowing and creating perfect physical environments when none exist in nature into which 'real' elements can be dropped as easily as artificial ones.

Evocative, imaginative, sometimes haunting (the underwater city of the Gungans, with its transparent globes, is particularly memorable, as is the Naboo palace where Queen Amidala lives), these land and cityscapes are so complete that they seem to breathe, and make the film almost like a series of conceptual paintings, all of which are interesting, if not necessarily therefore aesthetically challenging. It calls to mind the fantastical shorts of the early cinema, weird and colourful attempts to use the virgin medium to stretch the boundaries of the visual imagination. There's a similar, heady feel to the purely decorative imagery here, and the story seems almost an intrusion into what could have been a fabulous, surreal journey through a realm of pure fantasy. Similarly, the costume design, character make-up and creature design are lovely. As usual the Star Wars menagerie is packed with races of creatures seen for half a second whose entire population will eventually turn up as action figures or computer games, and on a visual level, they are interesting. From the amphibian Gungans to the racially problematic scrap-dealer Watoo from whom Qui-Gon Jinn eventually obtains Annakin's freedom, there is a wealth of imagination on display here. The computer age has liberated Lucas from humanoid form in a big way, and though there are still plenty of traditional puppets and men in masks, he is much freer to people his universe with all manner of strange little beasts (sometimes using races from the previous films with an unusual twist, such as Annakin's playmate who is of the same race as the ill-fated Greedo from Star Wars and the sight of not one, but two Hutts at the Tatooine podrace).

The problem is that moving so rapidly through all of this in the interests of a plot which doesn't really excite the imagination quite so much as Luke's eternal quest in Star Wars did means that the background is more interesting than the foreground, which is not good. The film's final third presents a titanic donnybrook which brings everything together, but unfortunately tells us little more about these wonderful creatures and their worlds than the fleeting glimpses we have already had. There is no orgasmic relief after the final battle, which while again visually spectacular (in terms of design), only serves again to set up things which may or may not be resolved and/or continued in parts 2 and 3. It is also not very satisfying to see a ten year old boy blow up a big ship pretty much by accident. It's hard to feel that the Gungans deserve their victory (after all, they didn't execute Jar-Jar when they had the chance), or to particularly care that Boss Nass has decided to live in harmony with the Naboo, because while he's interesting looking and his world is fascinating, we have no time to get to know him even the way Lando Calrissian was introduced and transformed so neatly in The Empire Strikes Back. There are some good set pieces by way of compensation, including the showpiece pod race and the excellently choreographed final lightsabre duel. There is even an evident sense of humour in places ("There's always a bigger fish"). None of these scenes or touches are as entertaining as those which peppered its predecessors though, probably because the characters with whom they are concerned simply do not win our affection or admiration.

Qui-Gon Jinn is played with dignity by Liam Neeson, but his stone-faced (some have called it zen-like) calm makes him largely uninteresting, and he neither grows nor changes in the course of the film, which is a fatal character arc by any standards of dramatic writing. He serves a narrative function, of course, and his fate is all very symbolic and sets up some issues for other characters to resolve later (Obi-Wan and Annakin), but in himself he is reduced to spouting aphorisms and interacting with nonexistent landscapes and computer-generated characters with whom only the most synthetic of relationships exist. It is little wonder that Neeson's disenchantment with his craft caused him to momentarily announce his retirement from film acting just before this film was released.

Obi-Wan is performed with canny prescience by Ewan McGregor. The actor beautifully captures the nuances of Alec Guiness' speech and attempts to fill in the blanks of the character as suggested by the original trilogy (his rebellious nature, his relationship with Annakin Skywalker, etc). This naturally forces to mind the question of to what extent an actor playing another actor playing a part in another movie is capable of making more of his assignment than the demands of continuity allow, and there is certainly an argument to be made that the young Scotsman is wasted. Again he has relatively little freedom, and the character's story arc is so predetermined as to make his appearance here more a point of academic interest than something which takes hold of you emotionally. For those unfamiliar with the original trilogy (that chap who stands on the street corner screaming about the radio transmitter stealing his thoughts, maybe), this may not be an issue, but laying aside this artificial double-bluff of pretending that Star Wars comes later, we know what is going to happen to this man, and there is not much suspense in seeing him get there in this movie.

Ian McDiarmid fares better in this regard, and as a supporting character has less weight and focus upon him in the narrative. It is therefore interesting to see the senator manipulate his way to power knowing that he will later be Emperor, and it certainly is exciting to see where he goes next, and if he really is the mysterious Darth Sidious. The inclusion of C-3P0 and R2D2 is a complete waste of time, and while Yoda gets to make one or two speeches, Jabba the Hutt literally sleeps through his cameo.

Of the new characters, the most effective is Queen Amidala, played with suitable majesty by Natalie Portman. Under a plethora of outrageously marvellous costumes designed by Trisha Biggar, the young actress makes the Queen believable and well suited to the story arc of the two trilogies (there's a touch of the Princess Leia to her all right) while holding her own in this film to a much greater extent than any of the others. There's some predictable nonsense about her 'secret' identity best not mentioned, but overall she makes a creditable addition to the menagerie, marred only by the unconvincing affection she holds for moppet Annakin Skywalker. Again, this is a set up for their inevitable romantic pairing in subsequent episodes, and it seems forced here. He seems to earn her admiration all too quickly, and there's something vaguely disconcerting about the suggestion that a fourteen year old girl has the beginnings of the hots for a ten year old boy... It's not Portman's fault though, and she adds another notch to her belt in a short but brilliant career.

In the all-important role of Annakin (which no one, I mean no one in the world will think of as anything but Darth Vader) young Jake Loyd is cookie-cutter cute and does as well as a ten year old boy can, but as a character he remains too young to be taken seriously and too full of contemporary one-liners to be worth paying attention to. There may be a narrative significance to having him start his journey as a child, but there is a shadow of demographic pandering to having the small, blonde, techno-geek flying spaceships and racing pods which makes me a little queasy. He's not particularly believable, and his role in the final battle doesn't wash. It's not "use the Force Luke," it's just a "Whoops" Bang! There go the bad guys. There's little satisfaction in that. There is a sense that perhaps Lucas is ruing the line in Star Wars where Obi-Wan told Luke that when he first met his father he was already a great pilot. It will be interesting to see where he takes the character next, but certainly in terms of the storyline of this film, he is a weak link.

Annakin is not nearly so problematic as the accident-prone, computer-generated Jar-Jar Binks, whose incomprehensible dialogue represents another of Lucas' half-hearted attempts to continue where Tolkien left of in the creation of new languages. Unlike Tolkien, Lucas does this simply by inverting sentence structure and making accents so thick and ethnic that they become confusing. This is distracting rather than fascinating, and gives the film no added depth. It actually threatens to destroy many of the minor characters encountered by our heroes, and it certainly destroys Jar-Jar. Jar-Jar is also all too much like one of those extraneous comic relief animals who continually ruin Disney animated features. Attempts by Lucas to imbue Jar-Jar's people with a certain dignity and interesting cultural/evolutionary backstory fail largely because he himself is so painfully uninteresting. Kids many enjoy him though, and again the spectre of demographic pandering becomes the real phantom menace.

Much of the advertising for the film draws attention to the terrifying presence of the main villain, the Sith apprentice Darth Maul. Dressed simply in black gear and supporting greasepaint and a little crown of horns, Ray Park is visually impressive in the role. His martial arts skills give the climactic lightsabre duel tremendous punch, and he does exude suitable menace and power. Unfortunately, as has been well noted, he appears on screen for relatively little time, and though his virtual silence is actually sneakily effective in comparison with Darth Vader's inimitable vocal presence in the original trilogy (God bless James Earl Jones), it does limit his character to a tough hit man rather than a genuinely villainous foil for the Jedi. The climactic battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is a terrific showcase for Hong Kong style martial arts action to which Parks contributes brilliantly, and he does generate considerable presence pacing back and forth behind a force field awaiting his foes to come forward. Again though, we're left wondering about the sequels, and what role the Sith will play in tapping our fears of darkness. We don't genuinely feel anything here and now, but there is a promise (or is it hope?) of something more to come. Maul is obviously less substantial than Darth Vader was in Star Wars, and ultimately comes off more like poor old Boba Fett in Return of the Jedi. The same goes for the obviously ineffective robot armies employed by the Trade Federation in their conquest of Naboo, who seem all too easily swatted and exploded by anyone with a lightsabre or a weird glowing ball (don't ask). This is probably a set up for the Clone Wars as suggested by the original trilogy... and again we're back to this problem that The Phantom Menace, as a story and as a presentation of characters cannot escape the mantle of its predecessors which are to be its descendants.

The root this problem is that Lucas has not attempted to address it. On the contrary, the entire film seems to be merely a set up for something else. Even its title refers to something that is not there, but is whispered on the wind. A closing exchange between Yoda and Jedi Council member Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) is a laughably literal statement of this fact and leaves a sour aftertaste rather than whets one's appetite. There may be a precedent for this in the classic serials which Lucas has always cited as his inspiration. Yet even the first episode of a Flash Gordon saga tended to suck you in by quickly and efficiently getting to the point and introducing the main players within twenty five minutes. Lucas takes over two hours and he's still just fiddling with an introduction. Star Wars was relatively complete because it was made with no certainty of sequels. The Empire Strikes Back had the luxury of building both backwards and forwards and played both ends against the middle brilliantly. Return of the Jedi somewhat lazily brought things home. The Phantom Menace is the Atlas of the series, and bears a huge weight in holding everything that follows on its shoulders. The burden proves too much for it, and it remains unfortunately aloof and unsatisfying as a piece of narrative on its own terms, creative and fascinating as it is as spectacle. Some would argue that Star Wars has always been so, but I would argue that it has been subsequent imitations which have made it seem so. Unfortunately The Phantom Menace cannot stand on its own as a work of cinema, or as a piece of storytelling, or as a slice of classic entertainment. It is impossible to talk of it without referring forward and backward, and unlike The Empire Strikes Back, it fares badly by the comparison. Of course any speculation about the shape and form of Parts 2 and 3 is inevitably tinted by hope, but after the savaging the film has received and its slightly less spectacular than expected box office returns (they'll break records, of course, but they're not quite what had been predicted), at least our expectations will not be the problem Lucas has to grapple with.

You should still see the film. It is a masterwork of design and conceptual computer art and it is actually refreshing to visit the Star Wars universe again and encounter new sights, sounds and characters, even if the latter are disappointing. It mounts some good moments of spectacle and it will, I'm sure, be more interesting in retrospect when the sequels come out and the story (presumably) takes on greater import and makes more sense. It is also interesting simply because it closes out the first full century of film on a level of hype which would probably have terrified the Lumière Brothers, and because, let's face it, to coin a phrase from the 'other' "Star" franchise; "Resistance is futile."

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.