(Guest review by Lawrence Ryan)

STARRING: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park, Terence Stamp

1999, 133 Minutes, Directed by: George Lucas

phantom1.jpg (9247 bytes)The Phantom Menace is a bit of a disappointment. This is not the fault of the hype, and it is not the fault of the advertising. The fact is that, compared to the previously produced Star Wars movies, Episode 1 is weak. Those who were disappointed because they did not think Return of the Jedi was up to par with Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back will be similarly disappointed by Episode 1.

However, I must concede that it's a fun movie to watch. As everyone expected, the special effects are extremely good and the movie is packed with them. The numerous artificial creatures and characters are astonishingly well integrated into the world, and they are nothing short of convincing. The worlds on which the story progresses are breathtakingly beautiful, each one different from the others, and each one is obviously the product of careful, thoughtful design. Also, it seems very clear that a great deal of effort was put into filling the movie with little details. This results in an extraordinarily well-realized world, one that buzzes with continuous activity. It's like the bar scene from the original Star Wars, where you see all sorts of interesting aliens. With Episode 1, the whole movie is like that, only more detailed! Lucas has really succeeded here.

phantom3.jpg (12927 bytes)The Phantom Menace is severely flawed in other areas. The whole movie seems rushed, and little time is spent developing the characters. As a result, no reason is ever given for the viewer to care about what happens to the characters. This is a serious error. Darth Maul, for example, who could have been very interesting, is dealt with quickly and only on a very basic level. Unfortunately, he really doesn't do much except swing his lightsabre. He is menacing and could have been positively vile, but he never actually amounts to much. He is introduced, scowls continuously, fights a bit, and that's about all for him. This sort of flatness is typical of almost every character in the movie. Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin Skywalker, does not deliver his lines properly. This may have to do with the fact that he is so young, but I think Lucas' script's awkward dialogue may have had a lot to do with it. In any case, he does the important part properly: the angry facial expressions that foreshadow his fall to the dark side.

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn are great, the solidly acted, heroic protagonists. Queen Amidala is impressive, Natalie Portman playing her with precisely the right demeanor. These characters remain underdeveloped, however, which is truly a shame.

Then, in a class of his own (and it's not a good class), we have Jar Jar Binks, the character who consumes screen-time valiantly trying to live up to his moronic name. He falls all over the place, saying annoying things and trying his best to cause a mess. I suppose that kids will find him to be hilarious, but anyone over the age of 13 will recognize that something is amiss. Sadly, Lucas has given him plenty of cute stuff to say and plenty of oh-so-cute stuff to do. The guy in the seat next to me had the right idea when he queasily exclaimed, "Oh God, why won't he just go the hell away?" On the other hand, the junk dealer, also a computer-generated character, is much more humorous, and is surely one of the most memorable pieces of the movie, even though he is only onscreen for a short while.

phantom2.jpg (12460 bytes)Tragically, "cuteness" pervades The Phantom Menace. You will not be smiling when the movie ends and you realize that almost every conflict was resolved in favor of the good-guys thanks to a fluke event of some sort. Nevertheless, the action sequences are well constructed and entertaining. The 12 minutes of the pod-race are thrilling: tight, fast, and exciting. The lightsabre battles are excellently choreographed and very satisfying, although they are ludicrously short. Throughout, the sound effects are delightfully crunchy, and lightsabres have never sounded so cool as they do in Episode 1. So, although it is critically flawed, The Phantom Menace is still a good movie.

As it ended I found I really didn't care about any of the characters except Jar Jar Binks, for whom I recall I felt a distinct hatred. When the movie began, the theatre was filled with cheering and clapping. When it ended, a few people clapped briefly and quietly, and then everyone left. In any case, the movie sets the stage for the next two episodes, and is undeniably a beautiful thing to behold. That alone is worth $10. Maybe the next two will be better.

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