The Phantom Menace

(Dir. George Lucas 1999)

Star Wars is one of the all-time classic movies which people love. The Empire Strikes Back is a lot weaker, has no pace, no form, and no satisfactory ending (but great music), and JedI pushed Mark Hamill's acting ability beyond breaking point, and involved Ewoks (my friends all like the bit when the walker trod on a few of them). Phantom Menace had a lot to follow.

First, a comment on the SFX. They are good. Though computer animation still usually looks like computer animation, it has to be admitted that this is about the best to be done so far. The character of Jar Jar Binx (a few shots excepted) is better animated than the human cast. Alas, though, many of the special effects are gratuitous, the most obvious example of this being the underwater journey through the core of the planet - a wholly silly sequence.

This film contains several revelations which I did not like about THE FORCE. Whereas ObI Wan in Star Wars told us that The Force surrounds all living creatures, in this film we find a creature immune, for plot reasons, to The Force. Also, a few times the "Will of The Force" is mentioned. This suggests that The Force is an intelligence, like a monotheist god, and that this intelligence has desires and plans. Surely it is better to have The Force as something which people can use to good or evil, an energy source which a few talented people can make use of. If The Force is all-powerful and has a will, then surely the events we are seeing are all pre-destined and the characters merely puppets.

Anakin Skywalker, played by a child with a wildly over-cute face, is introduced to us as a mechanical genius. For some reason, it was thought a good idea to have him as the creator of C3-PO (so why doesn't Darth Vader recognise him in the later episodes?), and as the builder of a tremendously fast racing machine. Surely it would have been far better to have him with a strange social influence. I'd have had him as the leader of a huge gang of children, many older than he, who all look out for his welfare, as their benign dictator. Surely The Force has more effect on hearts and minds than on circuitry.

The pod race is just an inferior Ben Hur, with a silly two-headed commentator. Nothing very clever happens.

Some say that the film is too obviously talking about the current real-world situation. The Evil Trade Federation represent the Japanese, Corruscant and the Senate represent the USA, and Naboo represents Europe. This is a fair point, and perhaps the film would have been better if such interpretations did not fit so well.

On the plus side, it is EPIC, with impressive locations and a cast of thousands. The sheer amount of design involved is staggering. Huge numbers of creatures, buildings, costumes, and objects needed to be designed for this film. Much of the design is good, and all the design is impressive because there is simply so much of it. I for one liked the political plot in the senate, which is not what I or many others were expecting. This side of it was quite mature and interesting, although I doubt that the kiddiwinks would appreciate it much, but they have plenty to like, as there are lots of explosions.

A definite low point is that the baddies are not very menacing. The robots who die in droves do not look frightening (I love the design of the Star Wars storm-trooper uniforms), and move with daft slowness (and why didn't they have rubber soles to their feet for grip and quietness?), and so are just not at all scary. They are even worse at shooting than the storm-troopers from the earlier films. Whereas Darth Vader was an excellent villain, who appeared early on in Star Wars, who had lots of good powerful and evil dialogue, and who did much to shape events, instead we have Darth Maul, who has nothing to say, and is nothing more than a fighting machine.

The JedI are central to this film, and are alas one of its weaker points. ObI Wan and his master are very dull characters, and all suspense and mystery about them is thrown away. After seeing ObI Wan use super-human agility, we are required to fear for him when he is hanging off a walkway. The JedI in council (all male, so far as I can tell) are shown as vague and indecisive, and Yoda's eyes still don't seem to focus on anything, as though they were made of lumps of glass.

Overall, I'd say that any Star Wars fan should see it, and it does set up the next film pretty well. I want to see what happens next. There are many niggling little flaws in it, some bits don't make sense, others are very predictable, but one would be missing out of a piece of world culture to miss it.

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