On the morning of May 19, 1999, just a few days short of the 22nd anniversary of the first Star Wars film's release (and just short of the 16th anniversary of the most recent theatrical release, Return of the Jedi) I was, like a plethora of other devoted Star Wars fans, huddled outside a Southern California movie theatre, eagerly awaiting the first early A.M. showings of what is arguably the most anticipated film in movie history!
After such a long wait by so many of the amassed masses, so much hope and so much speculation, how could any film live up to the hype? Truth to tell, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace almost immediately became one of the most polarizing films in movie history. In the almost 13 years since that morning and the re-release of the same film in often glorious 3D, the fandom has menaced and rebelled against this film while heaping an incredible amount of praise on it at the same time. Sure, they'll pour their derision all over many aspects and certain characters but will exalt so many parts of the same movie, it's hard to believe that these elements exist in the same film.
As for me, I'm not ashamed to admit that I absolutely loved it then and I absolutely love it now. Then again, I will admit that this isn't the absolute best Star Wars film that has ever been made, even though they're all pretty great.
You see, the energy of the audience, then as now, rises with that amazing 20th Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucasfilm LTD. logo... and those iconic words: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
And when the golden letters "STAR WARS" blast onto the screen with a brassy burst from John Williams' score, theatre owners might as well be pumping Amphetamines through the air ducts, considering the roar of the otaku crowd! And then the opening crawl that leads, as they all do, to a ship piercing the blackness of space on a mission.
Oh, that opening crawl starts out incredible, yes! "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic."
It has? Awesome! We're in for a hell of a thrill ride now!
"The taxation of trade routes to outlying star
systems is in dispute."
Aw, kick ASS, I can't... wait, WHAT?
We waited sixteen years to hear about a Trade Dispute? What is this, Star Wars or Public Radio's Marketplace? Are you George Lucas here or Kai Ryssdal, man? How's the DOW doing, Uncle George?
Let's recap opening crawls so far here... Episode IV gave us Civil War and stolen plans to an ultimate weapon; Episode V told us of thousands of probe droids sent by an obsessed warlord to find a hidden rebel base; Episode VI detailed the start of a daring rescue of a friend from a vile gangster and a new ultimate weapon for the galaxy. Rolling both forward and back to Episode I and we get complaints about taxes and trade routes passing for "Turmoil".
Luckily, this little brickbat is only the tip of the iceberg as this saga begins! As the ruthless Trade Federation attempts to tighten its grip on the peaceful planet of Naboo, we begin to see just what those old stories about the Defenders of Peace and Justice in the galaxy were all about. Enter the Republic's ambassadors in the form of the teenaged version of awesome Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (here played by an EXCELLENT choice for the role, Ewan McGregor) and his Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, kicking all kinds of ass)!
What starts out as a routine and short negotiation mission soon spirals out of control into an adventure involving political intrigue, Alien Invasion and, indeed, "Star Wars".
Along the way they meet young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), elected monarch of the Naboo, hapless local Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and a whole gang of running-scared Refugees on the run from a vast, mechanical army of Battle Droids!
In case you've been living under a rock, this is obviously the story of how Anakin Skywalker (here played by an eight and nine year old Jake Lloyd) meets Obi-Wan and sets out on his quest to become a Jedi Knight... and beyond. To this end, they have to take a side trip on their way to saving the world!
The adventure thickens when we add allies like Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and enemies like the super talented and terrifying Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park with the voice of Peter Serafinowicz)! And because this is Star Wars you can count on early introductions to R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)! Yeah, Baby, the Greek Chorus is HERE!
The tale twists and turns with Sea Monsters, impossibly fast car races, fair maidens, good and evil knights, ray guns, laser swords, sleek fighters, huge warships, strange alien worlds and aspiring heroes!
And let me tell you, every step of the way is beautifully rendered, from photorealistic CGI to miniatures to practical sets and props, this is one incredible LOOKING movie! Uncle George made the most of the years of advancements in the field of special effects (both video and audio) and offers up a groundbreaking (if occasionally overly self-indulgent) experiment in cinema. The use of motion capture and the rendering of fully CGI characters is an overlooked major advancement that this movie was the first to bring to a popular audience. This isn't even mentioning one of the most INCREDIBLE and Acrobatic Lightsaber duels ever seen on film. What's more, John Williams' score and Ben Burtt's sound design make this visual extravaganza a treat and thrill for the ears as well.
Where The Phantom Menace falls flat, however, is in some of the areas that all of the Prequel Trilogy tends to break down in one way or the other. For those of you expecting me to go on a cliche rant about Jar Jar Binks, that's not where I'm going with this.
What made Star Wars great in the first place was the exciting and enchanting MYSTERY of the original trilogy. It wasn't just the wonder that we saw on the screen, but the hints that there was something else much greater surrounding these incredible events. Here, Lucas seems devoted to filling in every gap. He over-explains some areas that could arguably be better served as being left mysterious, while allowing plot contrivances and conveniences to further the story where depth and detail would have surely been more believable. True, there are many more parts of the tale that are well-realized and fit perfectly with this mythology and that of the original... but there are those noteworthy moments that leave us scratching our heads. And, yeah, it's hard to really feel that the stage is set with talk about disputes over the taxation of trade routes, man!
Well, there's all that and the fact that everybody keeps calling young Darth Vader "Annie". I mean, really... "Annie"? Why, because living as a Slave on Tatooine is a "Hard Knock Life"? Dude. They say it so much that I half expect the newest version of the special edition of Return of the Jedi to feature Luke pulling off Vader's helmet at the end to reveal this massive red afro (this time in 3-D, no less) and blank eyes and have him dance around singing "Tomorrow, Tomorrow, I love ya, Tomorrow, I've just brought Balance to... the FORCE!" and the laugh at Daddy Warbucks down there at the bottom the Death Star chasm, call for Sandy and cruise on back home to teach Leia a few dance moves, man! "Annie". "Annie" indeed, man!
As I've said before, however, this is only one chapter in a larger saga... and one should no more judge the action in this episode by ONLY the action in this one episode, than one should rip out a single installment of the old Captain Marvel serial and complain about plot holes. There is an overall, amazing story here, and Episode I is but a single part.
Still, what we get here is fantastic. This isn't just the story of "Baby Darth Vader", although seeing and believing how he became the best star pilot in the galaxy, the cunning warrior and the good friend, is great to witness. The underlying greatness here is getting to see the Jedi, the guardians of Peace and Justice in the galaxy for a thousand generations, at their full strength and numbers. Hearing others cower in shock and awe at the very mention of the word "Jedi". The inside look at the Jedi Council, with Mace Windu (Sam Jackson) and Yoda (Frank Oz) presiding is brilliant. Seeing the seat of the Galaxy in its most shining form (even if it is being manipulated by the villainous Darth Sidious) is an amazing treat for the eyes! Hell, just seeing the Star Wars Universe "before the dark times" is incredible. Familiar faces like Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin and Jabba the Hutt serve only to illustrate more deeply how very much the galaxy changed over the decades! Lastly, seeing more classical and "primitive" sides of the "Old Republic" can be enthralling, from the shining, chrome spacecraft and polished marble of Naboo to Darth Maul's robed, but all-too-flesh and blood Pre-Vader Sith Lord! It's all amazing, even when the film does fall just a bit short of its promise.
A quick note on the 2012 3D Re-Release... Yes, it's worth seeing, particularly in a digitally projected format. While it's true, the 3D aspect of things doesn't add quite as much as one might hope for, when the digital 3D works, it really works! Regardless, this is still Star Wars on the big screen and how often does that happen? What's more (and with apologies to those who condemn Lucas for his changes to the films), it is interesting to see the CGI Yoda on the big-screen, replacing the not-quite-right 1999 puppet. However, if you own the 2011 Blu Ray of this film and have a high definition enough screen to watch it on, the experience is much the same. Still, the 3D is great and totally worth seeing in the theatre... if for no other reason than to experience Star Wars on the Big Screen all over again!
Then again, there will always be those who deride Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace as a let down with the emphasis on all the wrong areas. This either makes their complaints about the post-release changes more or less poignant, depending on your point of view. Some of these complaints are legitimate, of course and, truth to tell, this film doesn't measure up to the excellence of Star Wars or the incredible The Empire Strikes Back, but then again, had Lucas simply re-created these films with more modern technology, fan outcry would be overwhelmingly negative. Instead, he did something new with his story, his own way, and tried an original spin on the story that had been brewing for decades. Some of it worked perfectly, some of it... needed work, but taken for all with all, this Star Wars fan is giving Episode I Four and One Half Stars out of Five! Yeah, this one isn't perfect, but is almost there. It's a fitting beginning, however... and who knows... if this one keeps raking in the bucks, maybe there will be sequels... there could even be a fourth, fifth and sixth film if we're lucky. May the Force be With You, True Believers!