Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Despite its long gestation and its release more than a decade after the original trilogy, the Star Wars origin story (Episode I) is one of the worst instalments in the entire series.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom MenaceUSA
2.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
David Tattersall

Running time: 135 minutes

This is one in a series of reviews including:
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
– Star Wars / A New Hope (Episode IV)
– The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….”

Thus reads the opening crawl of the first instalment of the Star Wars series. It is lengthy (that final paragraph is a single, 35-word sentence), mentions taxation in the opening paragraph and is generally uninspiring. All in all, this is a terrible way to start a franchise, but luckily Episode I had history on its side: A trilogy of films, Episodes IV–VI, released between 1977 and 1983, had already gained a mass following and laid a firm fictional foundation by the time this origin story was released in 1999.

Episode I contains its share of dramatic irony, because thanks to the other films we have the benefit of foresight regarding many of its characters’ destinies. Nonetheless, it is surprising that director George Lucas presents key moments with a complete lack of energy or flair. Consider the first meeting between Anakin Skywalker, here an 8-year-old boy, and his future bride, Padmé, or the first time the astro droid R2D2 lays its eye on C3PO, its eventual partner through thick and thin. These moments are not visually highlighted, and there is nothing to suggest their future importance, even though Anakin asking whether Padmé is an angel is kind of cute.

But then, it is generally accepted that the instalments directed by Star Wars creator Lucas were mostly dull in comparison with those that were not. Episode I, in the works for a decade and a half after the original trilogy, disappointed many people who had grown up on this series loosely based on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人 / Kakushi toride no san akunin). Lucas fumbles with comic timing again and again and again, mostly because of the ludicrous character named Jar Jar Binks, a creature that is both physically and tonally awkward and reaches for laughs at many an occasion by saying “How wude!” with a pout that does not elicit a single laugh but rather a queasy shrug from the viewer.

The plot in this first film revolves around Queen Padmé Amidala, who is strung up so tightly in a variety of elaborate costumes that she can barely speak a word when she opens her mouth. This gimmick gets old very quickly and minimises the charm and sparkle she has when she is out of her costume, as in the first half of the film when she pretends to be a hand maiden and spends a great deal of time in the company of the young Anakin Skywalker.

Queen Amidala’s planet of Naboo has been taken over by a Japanese-accented Neimoidians. They are receiving guidance from a shadowy figure who only appears to them as a hologram (thus, he is the “Phantom Menace” in the title, although this term never appears in the film), whom we know from later films as the Emperor. Lucas finally reveals the identity of this individual during the final moments thanks to a quick pan that ends on the face of someone who has gained more and more power throughout the film. 

In the meantime, the origin story of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming a Jedi starts with a chance stop on the planet of Tatooine, where two Jedis, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, are seeking help while the queen’s planet is under occupation. They meet Anakin, whose midi-chlorian levels are off the charts, meaning not only that the Force is strong with him but also that he might very well be “The One” who will “bring balance to the Force”. Although just 8 years old, he is remarkably gifted at podracing (the film’s podrace is shown in full and lasts an exhausting 10 minutes) and has even built his own droid, C3PO.

Qui-Gon is so sure of himself that he decides to buy Anakin’s freedom and take him to the Jedi Council on the city-planet of Coruscant, where the boy undergoes a test not unlike the one the Tibetan lamas administer to find the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Master Yoda, who cannot see into the future but can sense negativity radiating back from it (possibly by means of past films), says Anakin may very well be The One, but his anger and fear, tied to his mother who was left behind on Tatooine, could lead him to the Dark Side. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This may be one of the worst chronologically first films ever in a series. While the technology in 1999 had certainly improved over that of the 1970s and 1980s, and Lucas was able to bring to life a civilisation like Coruscant and stage a fast-paced (albeit overlong) podrace inside canyons, there are major flaws. For one, the humanoid characters like Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin and Padmé all look above the faces of the CGI characters, like Jar Jar, when they are speaking to each other. That is very distracting and should not be happening.

Another problem is the chemistry between Anakin and his mother, Shmi. Although the latter was played by the legendary Pernille August, she speaks her dialogue as if she is performing a line reading. Meanwhile, Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd, is at times perfectly restrained, but when he is called on to show any kind of emotion ranging from sadness to elation, he rushes headlong towards the histrionic side of the spectrum. And when these two characters interact with each other in the same scene, the result is absolutely frigid and unaffecting.

Lucas also made the peculiar choice to break the fourth wall and put the viewer in the position of a droid, C3PO, on three occasions during a scene when Anakin is speaking to him (and looking directly at it/him). This feels completely out of sync with the rest of the filmmaking style and is not grounded in any apparent perspective.

The highlight of this first installment is the climactic lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the one side and the evil Sith, Darth Maul (basically, a nemesis of the Jedis), who wields a red double-sided lightsaber, on the other. While the location is limited, the stakes cannot be higher, and for those who have already seen Episode IV, the death of Qui-Gon will have at least a narrative, if not a visual, parallel with the death of Obi-Wan, who survives the attack here.

Episode I lays some of the groundwork for the rest of the story, but despite having a wealth of elements at its disposal and knowing full well that most people who saw it at the time were already familiar with the characters’ eventual development, the film is disappointingly reticent about presenting its material in a way that would enthuse its base. Lucas’s almost laser-like focus on mining for a laugh at the end of scenes, usually by deploying Jar Jar Binks, is as misguided a strategy as he could have embarked on, and ultimately the film feels exceptionally inept.

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