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The evil Trade Federation, led by Nute Gunray is planning to take over the peaceful world of Naboo. Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent to confront the leaders. But not everything goes to plan. The two Jedi escape, and along with their new Gungan friend, Jar Jar Binks head to Naboo to warn Queen Amidala, but droids have already started to capture Naboo and the Queen is not safe there. Eventually, they land on Tatooine, where they become friends with a young boy known as Anakin Skywalker. Qui-Gon is curious about the boy, and sees a bright future for him. The group must now find a way of getting to Coruscant and to finally solve this trade dispute, but there is someone else hiding in the shadows. Are the Sith really extinct? Is the Queen really who she says she is? And what's so special about this young boy? Written by
I know it's fashionable to scorn the "prequel" trilogy, but if one stands back a bit, things tend to snap into perspective. Compare "Phantom Menace" to most any other fantasy/sci-fi film, and it has to rate very high indeed.
Plot: this is the more "adult" side of the Star Wars galaxy. The politics are remarkably credible, with the entire plot hinging on the result of a vote of no-confidence! How many adults even know what that is? (Hmm... maybe this explains the low ratings.) The relationships between the races on Naboo, the role of the Jedi... these things are established more clearly, and depicted more credibly than in any of the other five films.
Technical achievement: Lucas paints on a vast digital canvas, and creates a world of wonders that have simply never been imagined by lesser talents. This is a living, breathing, believable world, that makes the world of the original trilogy seem cartoonish and contrived by comparison. Naboo, from the city, to the underwater kingdom, to the rolling green hills, is one of the great fantasy worlds, up there with those of the Thief of Baghdad (both versions), Blade Runner, or 2001. And our first glimpse of Coruscant has got to be one of the most memorable "wow" moments in the history of the movies.
Characters: Liam Neeson's Qui Gon is one of the strongest characters in the Star Wars films, and Ewan McGregor's Obi Wan a worthy, more-dashing successor to the older version created by Alec Guinness. And Jar Jar Binks? Annoying? Not compared to the insipid C-3PO, or the insufferably perky R2-D2. Jar Jar is a fully formed character, with surprising depths. His manner is odd, perhaps abrasive, but he offers far more than the single note that Lucas used for his original comic-relief characters. And, of course, the fact that he is one of the first fully digital characters in film history has to be worth something. But Ian McDiarmid's Senator Palpatine is perhaps the most under-appreciated of all. This is an Oscar-worthy supporting performance, a character who is both frighteningly real and perfectly ambiguous. McDiarmid balances his performance on a knife's edge, managing to be both fatherly and deeply unsettling.
Yes, it may be that a certain human dimension is weaker here than in the original Star Wars. We don't have a clear "hero". There's no Luke, no Han. That's a valid point, but it is not inevitably a criticism. Qui Gon and Obi Wan aren't the comic-book heroes of A New Hope, but they are likable, heroic, and rich in characterization. If I had a choice between seeing 10 more episodes of the life of Han Solo or of Qui Gon Jinn, I'd choose the latter without hesitation.
Story: The storyline in this film seems more real, more substantial than in the other five. We have the perfect sense of scale, from human drama to global (or interstellar) conflict. The one quibble might be the pod race. It's certainly entertaining, but does it go on too long? I think perhaps so. This is a structural weakness, but not a huge one. (Does Luke spend WAY too long on Dagobah, listening to warmed over Zen platitudes from that rubbery little jerk Yoda? Yes! Yet this is in the film most viewers seem to, unaccountably, pick as the "best" of the six. Clearly, there's some latitude for narrative digressions...)
And then there's the climactic sword fight. I'd rate the three-way duel in Phantom Menace as the second-best sword fight in the Star Wars series, close after the finale of Return of the Jedi. The latter has a wonderful mythic quality, but this one is more visceral, more scary... partly because Darth Maul is such a cold, merciless villain, and partly because you know from the outset that the outcome is genuinely in doubt, that one of the Good Guys really could die. And the staging, using three master swordsmen, each with very different technique... This is just about as good as action film gets. Only two or three other movie duels come close: Rob Roy, again with Neeson, oddly enough; Scaramouche; Robin Hood... I can't think of a fourth. The closing duel ALONE should raise Phantom Menace into the front ranks of action and fantasy films.
Bottom line: there is so much to enjoy in this film, so much to see, so much to feel, that it is amazing how anyone can possibly rate it below a 7 or 8. This is a scale of film making that few have ever attempted, let alone pulled off so beautifully. Perhaps that's the film's biggest fault: Lucas makes it all seem too easy.
But, of course, we all know the REAL reason people can't give this film the 10 it richly deserves. That reason lies within themselves. Viewers in 1999 (let alone 2007) just couldn't feel as young, as innocent, as optimistic as they did when they saw the very first Star Wars. (Especially if they saw it way back in 1977, 30 years ago). Star Wars hasn't changed, George Lucas hasn't changed, nearly so much as the audience has changed. Alas. Moviegoers who are truly so jaded that they can't feel the passion and revel in the breadth of vision of The Phantom Menace have my sincerest sympathy. Yes, you can be ever so-o cool by putting down the prequel trilogy, but missing one of the best movies of all time is a very high price to pay.
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