Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Mary Dieng

Directed By: George Lucas

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, and Frank Oz

In honor of the re-release of the Star Wars movies in 3D, STMR is doing a Retro Review series on the franchise.  When I found out that I was tasked with the honor of reviewing these classics, my inner geek squealed with delight.  What child of the ‘80’s wouldn’t be thrilled?  I had fake lightsaber battles, I wanted to rock Princess Leia side buns, and I wanted use the force like everyone else.  But in the midst of my dance of dork joy, my euphoria started to fade as I realized that I would have to review ALL of the Star Wars films.  I couldn’t just skip right to Episode III, but I would have to start with the hot mess that is The Phantom Menace, and I would have to again see one of the most reviled characters in cinematic history: Jar Jar Binks.  Bugger!

Let’s start from the beginning.  Phantom Menace begins with the dastardly Trade Federation set to invade the planet of Naboo and force Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to sign a treaty.  Two jedi knights—Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor)—attempt to intercept the Federation and prevent the hostile takeover of Naboo.  They are unsuccessful.  Consequently, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are forced to flee when the Federation turns on them.  The knights land in Naboo and rescue the Queen from the Federation’s forces.  They vow to take her to the Senate to seek assistance for Naboo.  On their way, the group is forced to land on the planet Tatooine to obtain parts to repair their ship.  On Tatooine, Qui-Gon encounters a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and senses a great power within him.  The rest of the film follows the knights, the Queen, and young Anakin as they attempt to save the people of Naboo and stop the evil Federation.

Where to begin?

Problem 1 – The Phantom Menace could never live up to its classic predecessors.  For any Star Wars movie, the expectations are sky high and anything short of perfection was bound to disappoint legions of fans that have come to anticipate greatness from George Lucas.  Moreover, because it is a prequel, the cat is out of the bag.  We already know how it ends.  Thus, Phantom Menace had two fairly substantial hurdles already set up before it even got out of the gate.

Problem 2 – Anakin Skywalker is just too good.  Darth Vader is one of the greatest villains ever. Who else could be so menacing by just breathing?  To see Vader portrayed by the kid from Jingle All The Way just seems so wrong.  Frankly, I would like to have seen Anakin played by a child actor with more layers.  Child actors can portray innocence but also can add depth to their characters as well (i.e. Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment, or Elijah Wood).  Lloyd just didn’t do it for me.

Problem 3 – Jar Jar Binks.  Even his name is stupid.  I understand that he was added for comic relief, but not only was he racially offensive, he wasn’t even funny.  What is funny about a character whose lines include: “Ooh mooey mooey I love you!”; “Ye gods, whatta meesa sayin'?”; “Mesa day startin’ pretty okee-day with a brisky morning munchy, then BOOM! Gettin’ very scared and grabbin’ that Jedi and POW! Mesa here! Mesa gettin' very very scared!”   What is this—slave dialect? Jar Jar’s catch phrase is “how wude.”  This buffoonish character is a blight on the Star Wars franchise.  He is neither funny nor interesting, and his presence is a drain on every scene in which he appears.

Generally, there are other issues with pace and dialogue in the film as well.  With all of that said, there are some positive aspects to the film.  Liam Neeson is a revelation as Qui-Gon.  Neeson is the perfect jedi knight.  Before Taken or The Grey, Neeson was the wise butt kicking jedi who epitomized the calm, cool demeanor of a master.  In addition, Darth Maul (Peter Serafinowicz) (although fairly silent) was quite menacing, and the final light saber battle was well worth the wait.  (Sidenote, I had no idea that Serafinowicz was Darth Maul.  I associate him with comedies such as Shaun of the Dead, Run Fatboy Run or Couples Retreat).  Ian McDiarmid also was masterful as the slimy conniving politician Senator Palpatine.

Phantom Menace is without a shadow of a doubt, the worst film in the Star Wars franchise.  With that being said, it still satisfies in some areas and sets the stage for Episode II.  I would recommend throwing back a couple of Coronas while watching this first installment.