Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Written & Directed by George Lucas

The Star Wars series is easily one of the most storied franchises in the history of cinema. The original trilogy from 1977-1983 revolutionized filmmaking for its use of special effects and the shear ambition of its ability to create a world which has lived on for generation after generation to consume and to lose themselves. However, it is also a series which has seen plenty of criticism. Some have criticized the original trilogy, though they are mostly drowned out by those who hold it in such high regard. The prequel series however, which came out 1999-2005, is quite the opposite, receiving quite harsh remarks from most all parties with the vast minority being those who like the films. Some say Lucas ruined the series entirely with the new installments, but I for one am one of the minority who feel there is much to be happy about in the newer films.

It is not too often you see a series come back with sequels which are in fact prequels, though the origin story has become very popular recently. When Lucas returned to the Star Wars universe he decided to start with Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the father of the original protagonist, Luke. We have the hindsight with the original series to know that this gifted kid turns out to be the evil Darth Vader, so the question is not who, but rather how. We don’t get the answer to that question here, but we do get a fun journey back to Tatooine to discover where he came from. We also get to meet a young Obi-Wan Knobi (Ewan McGregor), learning the tricks of the Jedi from Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) as they work to protect the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of Naboo protect her people from the evil Trade Organization.

I will readily admit up front that this is a flawed film and one that is far from perfect. I still don’t agree with all the detractors though because there is a lot of magic here. Yes, Jar Jar Binks is one of the worst realizations ever put to film, but honestly I think he is a good character. They just should not have had him delivered in the manner in which he is because that is just annoying instead. Yes, Jake Lloyd is quite awful in the pivotal role as Anakin, but you will have that with child actors. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. This time they missed and bless little Jake’s heart because it isn’t for a lack of trying, I really think Lucas did fumble the ball with his direction here. Too often there are those awkward moments, to steal a meme, when the camera captures strange asides which seem very staged and jarring when set to the rest of the film. It comes off as childish at many times.

But the good news is that we are back in the Star Wars universe. That is the major draw of the series to begin with, that magical universe in a world a long time ago, and in a galaxy far far away. Any time spent in that universe is time well spent and Lucas does manage to capture that magic once again both on Naboo and in the airy nature of outer space. The special effects here are again top notch, and no, I am not distracted by the advance in technology in an earlier time than the originals. It just doesn’t bother me. And speaking of advancement in technology, the 3D did absolutely nothing to this film. I hardly even knew I was watching it in 3D, in a bad way. It wasn’t so much a bother as much as it really added no new dimension to the universe other than more money in the pocket of Lucas, which I can accept only for the fact that I get to see these films on the big screen again.

The overall story of the film is fantastic, and it affords for some great classic moments in Star Wars history. For instance, the podrace is extremely well done and very memorable. The same can be said of the epic lightsaber battle between Darth Maul, a character who is quite good if not a little underused, and the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And speaking of those two, how awesome is it that Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are in this? And in my opinion they are quite good. Another great bit of casting, to offset the horrid Lloyd, is Natalie Portman as the young queen. She rocks it in this role. Honestly, there is just way too much fun to be had here to call it a bad film. I think what we have here is an amazing concept and a great story coupled with some really lackluster execution, which yes is a real shame because it could have been an all-time great, but at the end of the day it is still a good, fun film, and one which I will still cherish and watch with my little nieces and nephews when that day comes. And my children will get a kick out of it too I’m sure, every generation does.

*** – Very Good

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