Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiarmid, Hugh Quarshie, Samuel L. Jackson
Plot: Two Jedi Knights are thrown into a war between the planet Naboo and a growing army of droids, unaware that the Sith Lords are making a comeback…
Let me start off with the controversy: the Phantom Menace is nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. The truth is no matter what George Lucas came out with the hard-core fans were always going to riot. Lucas was tarnishing a cult trio of movies. However, compared to the other two instalments of the prequels, Phantom Menace was the closest to getting Star Wars right.
It starts off strong. Two Jedi Knights make their way onto a spacestation to negotiate with the Trade Federation, end up getting ambushed and, in fighting their way out, discover a plot that threatens to engulf the peaceful planet of Naboo. It goes from strength to strength as the Jedi tear their way across several set-pieces, planets and battles. Critics have complained that the plot gets bogged down trying to explain Trade Law and Midichlorians, but compared to the rest of the prequels Phantom Menace is actually the fastest paced addition yet. The action rarely lets up and when it does, it is usually for all the right reasons.
Yes, Jar Jar Binks was a mistake and the kid who portrays Anakin, the man who will eventually become the iconic Darth Vader, is one of the most terrible child actors to grace the big screen. But for every mistake or dud character, we get a great hero. Liam Neeson takes the lead for this movie and he is phenomenal, channelling the wise mentor and our first look at a Jedi Master at the height of his power. The only downside to this great actor is that he takes all the spot-light away from Ewan MacGrego’s young Obi Wan Kenobi. It could be suggested that this movie could be so hated, because we are rooting for the guys in power, while it is the Sith who are playing the underdogs here. Yes, this does affect the stakes here and there is never really any major sense of fear for the protagonists, but this is a better call than having Lucas attempt to copy the Rebel Alliance. Hell, we’ve already had two Death Stars; let’s try something new.
The reason the Phantom Menace deserves your respect is that we are finally getting a look at the Star Wars universe with modern special effects. No longer are we treated to terrible cosmetics for the aliens. Instead, we get to see Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan explore the underwater labyrinths of Naboo and take on fearsome sea creatures. Lucas shows us more sides to the planets. Rather than re-tread old ground, he shows us another district of Tatooine, which serves as an excuse to give us a pretty awesome pod race scene. Basically, when watching this movie, other than a few dud lines or narrative devices (that are also littered throughout the original three movies), there isn’t much to hate about the Phantom Menace.
And the icing on the cake is this film’s antagonist, Darth Maul. Although the title does not refer to Maul, it very well could have been. He is given few lines, winning us over with a deathly stare and silent menace. When we see him in action, he does not disappoint, giving us a climatic finale. He is the one thing even the angriest fans cannot deny was a pretty awesome addition. We may not have Vader, but Darth Maul works as a pretty good substitute.
Final verdict: Quite possibly one of the most harshly judged films of all time. When you get over the small mistakes, you are left with a pulse-pounding Sci-Fi epic.