[Image from ImpAwards.com]
Every saga has a beginning, and for some reason, this one comes in the middle. Fair enough. THE PHANTOM MENACE is arguably the most heavily criticized of the STAR WARS films, and it's easy to see why. One of the most heavily hyped and anticipated movies in the history of the medium, it was almost destined to disappoint at least some of the audience. On top of which, it was clearly aimed at an audience younger than the fans who had grown up with the original trilogy, who were obviously going to be the most vocal in their response. And then there was Jar Jar. But despite its flaws, THE PHANTOM MENACE is a grand spectacle, and may even be a better film than RETURN OF THE JEDI. The canonical beginning of the STAR WARS saga, this "Episode I" tells its own relatively self-contained story while effectively setting the larger myth in motion.
Apparently angered by the Galactic Republic's taxation of their trade routes, the greedy Trade Federation, secretly led by the sinister Lord Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), have decided to make a point by putting up a military blockade around the idyllic world of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights- Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)- are sent to negotiate things, only for the Federation to try and kill them while it sends its droid armies to the planet's surface for an all-out invasion. The two Jedi escape to the planet's surface and, after meeting with klutzy Gungan refugee Jar Jar Binks (a CGI creature with voice and movements by Ahmed Best), help Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage escape from the besieged planet, hoping to go to the galactic capital of Coruscant. Their spaceship takes some damage on the way out (though shipboard droid R2-D2 helps things), and they're forced to hide out on the remote desert world of Tattooine. In order to get the right parts to repair their vessel, the Jedi, accompanied by Jar Jar and the Queen's handmaiden Padme (also Portman- hmm), none of whom have currency that the locals will accept, are forced to ask help from a young slave worker and racer named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd)...
THE PHANTOM MENACE operates on two levels. On the first, we have a single planet in jeopardy, menaced by an evil space-corporation headed by scheming green aliens and their armies of skeletal robots. But from the very first conversation between the two Jedi Knights, we're given hints that something deeper is going on. Though it was never said in RETURN OF THE JEDI, the Emperor's proper name was "Palpatine", and that just happens to be the name of the Senator representing Naboo, who is also played by Ian McDiarmid, who is also Lord Sidious, who looks and talks a lot like the Emperor. And we know that this trilogy is going to show the rise of the Empire, among other things. So, when Palpatine suggests that the Queen, stymied by the gridlock of the Senate, call for a vote of no confidence in the current Chancellor (played briefly but memorably by Terence Stamp), which leads to his nomination for the position, we get a sense of what's really going on. We also have the introduction of a prophecy: Qui-Gon believes that Anakin is the person who will bring Balance to the Force, something as-yet undefined but may become more apparent once you work out what the kid goes on to do in the very end. He wants him trained as a Jedi, the Jedi Council senses something dangerous in that, but fate intervenes.
Doubling is actually a theme and motif that recurs throughout the film. We have two Jedi, two Sith (Sidious and his fearsome apprentice Darth Maul, played by stuntman Ray Park), two races on Naboo, two Trade Federation executives, the Queen and her double, etc. More explicitly, the idea of symbiosis comes up a lot- Obi-Wan tries to persuade the Gungans to help the human inhabitants of Naboo by pointing out that their fates are intertwined, during a high-speed Podrace Anakin fixes his vehicle by transferring power from one engine to the other, and there are the midichlorians- microscopic organisms apparently found in all living cells which make life possible, and also channel "the will of the Force" (hence, when Anakin is revealed to have an extremely high midichlorian count, it's a sign that there may be something more to him than just having good luck.) That last bit was and is particularly controversial with fans, as it appeared/appears to give a scientific explanation to the Force, but I don't think it quite goes that far. It's more of a plot device. There's also a broader theme of faith and risk; Qui-Gon takes a particularly desperate gamble in essentially staking the entire mission on Anakin's ability to win a Podrace when he hasn't even finished in the past, betting the party's ship while calmly recognizing how this could leave them stranded for a very long time, and later he is willing to accept the risk of taking Anakin on as an apprentice when the Council has already decided not to train him (while the Queen decides to travel back to Naboo and risk everything on a final battle with the Federation.) At heart, STAR WARS is about desperate gambits and long odds, but that element is emphasized here.
As mentioned earlier, Jar Jar Binks is probably emblematic of the problems people had with this film and the prequel trilogy in general (though his screentime was increasingly reduced in the next two movies.) With a high-pitched voice, a goofy patois that seems to include the Wayne's World expression "Exsqueeze me", and a cartoonishly exaggerated clumsiness, he's an attempt at a comic relief character that just doesn't work. (There was even some controversy owing to him vaguely resembling black stereotypes of the thirties and forties.) For some, he completely ruins the picture, but I think I'm partly immune to characters like this (i.e., bad comedy sidekicks.) By their nature they don't do much and usually stand off to the side while the protagonists do the actual busy work of the story. I find Jar Jar tolerable because of that. The real weak link is Jake Lloyd as Anakin; apparently cast for his cherubic appearance, Lloyd makes the obvious Child Actor mistake of over-enunciating and emoting his lines, putting way too much emphasis on individual words and generally being rather plastic-y. On the up side, Neeson and McGregor make a very good duo, combining badass swagger (this is the first film where we truly see the Jedi at the height of their power) with Zen-like detachment. Portman is convincingly authoritative as the Queen, and not without her charm, and McDiarmid is wonderfully innocent as Palpatine. (I also have an inexplicable fondness for the battle droids, the most helpless mooks in all of cinema, with twitchy gestures and halting voices that seem to convey a deep sense of being completely screwed.)
Pacing is a bit of a problem here, as it was in JEDI, though it's not quite as bad. The first twenty-five minutes or so are pure cliffhanging, but there's a stretch of about twenty minutes starting when the ship lands on Tattooine and ending with the Podrace getting underway that simply drag a bit, and could easily have been cut down. (This was Lucas' first time in the director's chair since the original STAR WARS, so understandably he was a bit rusty.) Of course, the Podrace itself is a great pick-me-up; expertly cut and matched with some great sound effects, it's a thrilling, hectic and upbeat little mini-movie on its own. A later portion on Coruscant also goes on a bit, but that's okay because the planetary-metropolis offers some jaw-droppingly beautiful visuals. Indeed, one of the unsung virtues of this picture is just how good it looks; the CGI effects are convincing, yes, but there's so much visual detail and harmony of design and composition in some shots that they reveal more little bits on subsequent viewings.
Like RETURN OF THE JEDI (the prequel films each share a tonal similarity with a different entry from the originals, though it doesn't work like you'd think), the film is essentially a big, colorful extravaganza, offering exotic sights and sounds, a fairy-tale story and lots of thrills and spills. On this level it works quite well, and if it's just a bit too bright and sugary for its own good, well, that's about to change anyway.