1999 is remembered for many things in film: the passing of one of cinema’s legendary storytellers in Stanley Kubrick. The ascension of Paul Thomas Anderson via his multi-layered drama Magnolia. Two sibling writer-directors flipping the script on what science fiction (and to a larger extent, film in general) could be with The Matrix. It was also the year when George Lucas brushed off the cobwebs of a thirty-plus year old cultural changing space opera he created, and how many passionate fans felt he bollixed it up. I am, of course, referring to Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Full disclosure: if you’re expecting me to take a bat or a sledgehammer toward the first installment of the prequel trilogy, as well as to Lucas, prepare to be disappointed, because this isn’t the review you’re looking for, move along….
Now that I’ve Jedi mind-tricked those looking for a ‘I hate Episode I to infinity!’ reset, let’s dive into this conflicted installment: after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Lucas admitted to be burnt out by the vastness outlining and guiding the original trilogy, and decided to take a long hiatus away from the series. Still, the idea of developing a prequel trilogy had his attention, and it wasn’t until 1993 when he decided to return to Star Wars with a new storyline that would bring the saga to full circle. Decades before the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, the Galactic Senate and the Jedi both acted as the dominant force in the universe, until turmoil in the form of the Trade Federation threatens that peace, via a blockade of the planet Naboo and its invasion, under the mysterious leadership of Sidious (Ian McDirmid)
This plan is foiled when Viceory Nute Gunray fails to off Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Won Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who are sent by the Senate to solve the dispute and broker a peace treaty. The pair end up having to protect the planet’s young ruler, Queen Amidala from the clutches of the Federation, who need her alive to make the invasion legal, bypassing the Senate, but not before taking refuge on a remote planet called Tattoine, where they encounter the gifted young pilot and slave, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who has a unusually strong attachment to the Force.
Again, there are elements to Episode I which work in the film’s advantage. Take the ongoing theme of duality and balance as an examples: Amidala uses a handmaiden, Sabe, as her decoy to deceive her people into believing she is the ruler of the planet, in order to hide her identity from those that would try to kill her, while she, herself, poses as a handmaiden. Palpatine, on the surface, is believed to be an ally to the Republic, but in secret, he plans to use the naive young ruler to force the Senate to throw out acting Chancellor Vallorum (Terrence Stamp) and become the new ruler of the Senate, while, at the same time, aides the Trade Federation’s schemes of taking over Naboo. This illustrative device in the narrative works because it highlights the lengths of what the characters will do in order to achieve their own ends, both for good and bad. Amidala uses her duality to protect herself and those she cares about; while Palpatine uses his to exploit the weaknesses of a democratic process; or a balance, if you will.
The theme of balance is also prevalent thought the plot: before the Empire ascended, the Jedi Council acted as peace keepers all across the galaxy. Before Obi-Won became wise old Ben Kenobi and taught Luke the ways of the Force, he was a young, headstrong padawan learner under Qui Gon’s tutelage. And before Lord Vader became a sinister agent for for the Empire and it’s most fearsome monster, he was an idealistic nine-year old boy, dreaming of leaving a godforsaken wasteland and having adventures thought the universe. We know the ending to the original trilogy, thus making its inevitable conclusion all the more tragic.
Which brings me to Jake Lloyd. His performance is considered to be on of the negative aspects of the picture, but really, he isn’t. It’s unfair to judge a child actor for how he comes across in a movie, because he doesn’t have the experience of being a proper actor. On the contrary, I quite enjoyed his take on young Anakin: he’s inquisitive, a little mischievous and he has this innocent nature about him. You see his resourcefulness and gifted intellect for piloting, like how he builds his speeder from junk parts, and how he handles himself under pressure during a deadly pod race like an old-soul veteran who’s been racing for decades. You almost forget that one day, he will transform into a tyrannical and murderous warlord with a breathing helmet apparatus, thus making his character arc all the more tragic about how it all went wrong.
I know, I know: ‘What about the overuse of GCI? Lucas relied too heavily on green-screen effects, rather than practical ones!’ Short answer: You got me there. Much like James Cameron waited a full decade before making Avatar, Lucas wasn’t convinced the technology was there in order to expand on the Star Wars universe to where he wanted to take the series, and he wanted to experiment with how far he could push the advancements in computer-generate imagery.
There are moments where you can see where it pays off; like in the pod racing sequence, which is a marvelous feat of using sound, a practical set piece of a stretch of desert as the backdrop for the race, visual effects and near-wordless dialogue, yet letting the actions of Anakin illustrate his bond with the Force; as well as the climatic lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon, Kenobi and the deadly Sith apprentice, Darth Maul (a badass Ray Park), sent to kill the two Jedi. But, alas, there are moments where the visuals stick out like a sore thumb, rather than blend with the surroundings, like the diversionary battle between the underwater-dwelling Gungan race, rising to the surface of Naboo to meet the Trade Federation’s droid army. The Gungan characters, their weapons and their shields look tacky and take the appearance of creations that haven’t been fully realized yet by their creators.
And then, there’s Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best)……simply put: this character shouldn’t exist. I understand he’s there for comic relief, but I could forgive that if he actually contributed anything to the main crux of the story. He doesn’t. It’s just stupid prat-falls and him acting like a fucking moron thought the picture. If ever there was something Lucas should have taken more time to develop (besides the dialogue of his characters) or outright delete, it’s the Gungans and Jar Jar.
Star Wars: Episode I really isn’t the disaster its reputation has been billed as. It’s illustrative themes, the way Lucas sets up these characters and sets up the tragedy of what it to befold later on, as well as the advancements of sound and visual design make this a fine entry into the Star Wars canon, as well as a delightful and exciting space adventure. And for a nine-year-old kid, growing up into this series, that’s all you could ask for.