Saturday 2 January 2010

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

The first Star Wars movie in 16 years had to carry a large load: The expectations of an entire generation, as well as the foundations of the entire story.

On both counts, The Phantom Menace was a relative disappointment. Director and series creator George Lucas makes several critical decisions: he decides to start the story with Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) at age nine; Lucas then places Anakin at the centre of the action; and in a heroic role.

With these decisions, and intentionally or not, Lucas ends up creating what is a primarily a kid-oriented movie, and he shuts the door on any escape path by introducing the character of Jar Jar Binks as a cartoonish (although incomprehensible) sidekick.

Star Wars for kids does not work too well, particularly when coupled with awkward puppy love between Anakin and Queen Padme; and Lucas' uninspired dialogue.

Too many scenes take too long. Instead of the quick and sharp scenes that characterized episodes four to six, here we get an endless pod racing sequence that, from introduction to conclusion, seems to occupy half the movie and two thirds the budget.

Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn is by far the most watchable thing about the movie, and he stands tall among the otherwise unremarkable cast. Natalie Portman as Queen Padme and Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi are both stiff, and both would only get better in future episodes. Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu is the best of the supporting cast.

As for the story: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are two Jedi Knights sent to the planet Naboo to help resolve what appears to be a minor economic dispute initiated by the Trade Federation. They are soon caught in an unexpected all out invasion of Naboo, and the Jedi help the young Queen Padme Amidala flee. En route to Coruscant where Padme will appeal to the Republic Senate for help, they stop at planet Tatooine for supplies and repairs, and there the Jedi and the Queen meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave boy.

Qui-Gon senses that the Force is enormously strong in Anakin, and after the interminable pod race, Qui-Gon takes Anakin into his care and nominates him for training as a Jedi. Crucially, Qui-Gon cannot also gain the freedom of Anakin's mother, and she is left behind as a slave on Tatooine. Nine year old Anakin is soon developing an icky crush on the not-much-older Queen.

Unbeknown to all, Senator Palpatine of Naboo (Ian McDiarmid), who is actually the Dark Sith Lord Darth Sidious, is behind the scenes manipulating the conflict with the Trade Federation, and he succeeds in using the dispute to get appointed as the Supreme Chancellor of the Senate, moving him a step closer to his evil plan to take full control of the galaxy.

The movie ends with Queen Padme leading the Naboo forces in a battle for freedom from the Trade Federation, and young Anakin unwittingly plays a key role in the battle outcome, while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan square off against the cool Darth Maul, Palpatine's partner in evil.

Throughout, the imbecile Jar Jar Binks plays the fool, providing what is supposed to be comic relief, but for any viewer over 10 years old, he succeeds only in being irritating in the extreme.

There is plenty of action, blaster fights, and light sabre duels, and for all its faults the movie does maintain interest. But ultimately, it is adequate only as a kids' movie, and that's just not good enough for this franchise.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.


  1. The most boring entry of the star wars series, with the second not as appealling.

    1. Not as bad as its reputation, but still weak.


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