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"STAR WARS: EPISODE I -- THE PHANTOM MENACE"
(1999) (Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor) (PG))

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-fi: Two Jedi knights attempt to help a desperate Queen from an evil Trade Federation that wishes to take over her planet.
PLOT:
A galactic trade dispute sends Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (LIAM NEESON) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (EWAN MCGREGOR) as ambassadors on a diplomatic mission, but they discover that they've been set up by Darth Sidious (IAN McDIARMID), who's plotting to take control of the republic. Barely escaping with their lives, they arrive at the planet of Naboo and find its young ruler, Queen Amidala (NATALIE PORTMAN), upset about the Trade Federation's strong- arm tactics -- now embodied as a planetary blockade and an android invasion -- to force her to sign an unfair treaty with them.

As they set out to rescue the Queen, the Jedi also meet and save the life of a Gungan, Jar Jar Binks (voice of AHMED BEST), an odd amphibian-like creature who's an outcast from his subterranean world. Upon their successful recovery of the Queen, their small party sets out for the Imperial city of Coruscant. Their ship, however, is damaged during a brief battle, and despite being partially fixed by a little 'droid, R2D2 (KENNY BAKER), they're forced to land on the desert planet of Tatooine (the future home of Luke Skywalker as fans of the series are long aware).

There they try to get spare parts for their ship, but are forced to enter into a racing wager with their hopes and future riding on the success of a young boy, Anakin Skywalker (JAKE LLOYD), who, along with his mother, Shmi (PERNILLA AUGUST), is a slave to a local barterer.

Qui-Gon senses a powerful force in Anakin, who's been building a partially completed 'droid he's named C3PO (ANTHONY DANIELS), and once their ship is repaired, they set off again for Coruscant, but not before an encounter with Darth Maul (RAY PARK, voice of PETER SERAFINOWICZ), who's been sent by the ever-hooded Darth Sidious to stop them.

Finally arriving in the Imperial City, Queen Amidala pleads her case before the Senate while Qui- Gon does the same before the Jedi council about him teaching Anakin to become a Jedi. Other knights, however, including Yoda (voice of FRANK OZ) and Mace Windu (SAMUEL L. JACKSON), however, aren't so sure of Qui-Gon's confidence and sense something unsettling about Anakin's future.

From that point on, the two Jedi, Queen Amidala and their companions return to Naboo where they plan to battle the Trade Federation and their army of 'droid warriors.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
For those who've been living in a cave for the past six months or so, the most anticipated film of the year and perhaps all time -- unless one remembers a little film by the name of "Gone With the Wind" -- arrives in theaters this summer in the form of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace." For those who aren't standing in lines days in advance to buy tickets, the three films that made up the original "Star Wars" trilogy were actually episodes four, five and six, and so we've now jumped back in time to see the first chapter of what eventually will lead to them.

For fans of the series, this film is the culmination of waiting sixteen years for its release, a point that undoubtably has led many to believe this will be the quintessential movie experience. After all, George Lucas, the creative force behind the films and the huge marketing universe that's evolved from them, returns to the director's chair for the first time since 1977 when he helmed the original "Star Wars." It also marks only his fourth major directing appearance overall (with the others being the great "American Graffiti" and "THX 1138," itself a remake of a featurette he made at U.S.C.).

Thus, the hype and marketing machines have been working overtime -- including the media that's made this their darling story -- and there's been talk about the film possibly out grossing the top moneymaker of all time, 1997's "Titanic" (which has a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion).

People should remember, however, that massive hype leads to high expectations that often can't be met, such as was the case last year at about this time when the last episode of TV's "Seinfeld" was going to air. Everyone wondered about the secretive plot and whether it would be any good or could possibly draw a larger audience than the final episode of "M*A*S*H."

It wasn't and it didn't, and the same is probably going to hold true for this film. It can't ever possibly live up to sixteen years of expectations, and far more problematic, it's not even in the same galaxy of the first two original "Star Wars" films on either an artistic or pure enjoyment level. It's also doubtful that it will even come close to "Titanic's" box office -- let alone Oscar winning -- success.

That's simply because beyond the diehard fans, people will not return to see this often boring and less than engaging film that relies too heavily on special effects while shortchanging its characters and plot, the latter of which greatly consists of elements from the original films.

While Lucas obviously had to insert some recurring themes -- as well as familiar characters such as Yoda, R2D2 & C3PO -- to keep the stories related, one will immediately sense many similarities between the films. Audiences will find that this film's pod race seems very similar to the through the forest speeder bike scene in "Jedi." The same goes for a funeral pyre scene, a light saber battle with a similar outcome, a Queen in distress instead of a Princess, and, of course, a seasoned Jedi and his young protégé.

It's the much heralded special effects, however, that present as much of a problem. After the original "Star Wars" film was released and surprised everyone by beating "Jaws" and becoming the biggest grossing film of all time, the imitators came out of the woodwork. They misinterpreted why the film was such a huge success, however, and delivered film after film with great -- and often not-so-great -- special effects hoping that audiences would flock to their film for its flashy bells and whistles.

Of course they failed because while audiences enjoyed the effects in "Star Wars" -- such visuals only enhanced a fun and surprisingly deep and resonant story. Here, Lucas has forgotten all of that and fallen into the same trap as his former imitators. He's also a perfect example of the old saying about not seeing the forest for all of the trees.

As such, he's so preoccupied with creating and inserting every special effect known to man and computer -- reportedly 95% of the film's frames have some sort of digital effect -- that he's forgotten that they should only complement the story and not overwhelm it. The end result looks like a great video game, but is as cold and emotionless as the computers that spit it out. The signs of this were present in "Return of the Jedi" in the climatic outer space battle scene where so many ships were zooming and zipping around each other that while the scene was visually exhilarating, it neared and often strayed into the realm of overkill.

Here, there are special effects everywhere that may give the film a more "realistic" look in that scenes are brimming with activity like an afternoon walk down a busy Manhattan street, but they distract the viewer from the proceedings. Although audiences may "ooh" and "aah" over them, their eye candy appeal unfortunately and unnecessarily draws the audience's attention to them and away from the characters and the plot. To borrow and paraphrase an exchange between Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum's characters in "Jurassic Park:"

Hammond: "I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our special effects people have done things which nobody's ever done before."

Ian: "Yeah, but your special effects people were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Case in point is the needless insertion and use of Jar Jar Binks, an entirely computer-generated character that looks like a mix of Roger Rabbit and the odd, but also fake character that appeared in Michael Jackson's 1988 "film," "Moonwalker." While we understand that this character is present for comic relief -- much as Chewbacca and the Laurel and Hardy antics of R2D2 and C3PO were in the original trilogy -- several problems immediately come to mind upon first seeing him.

First, he's incredibly annoying, what with his Jamaican sounding pidgin English and Roger Rabbit- like clumsy goofiness. Far worse, however, is the fact that no matter how much of a technical marvel he may be, that's the only way he appears. In fact, he's far more appropriate for pictures such as "Toy Story," "Antz" or "A Bug's Life" -- completely computer-generated films that, ironically, didn't allow their special effects (and that's all they were) to get in the way of telling fun and compelling stories via interesting and well-thought-out characters.

Jar Jar never looks or feels as if he's part of the scene. As such, he doesn't appear to be in the same visual plane as his co-stars, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, and it's quite obvious that they had to play off a nonexistent character while filming such scenes. That's probably a good thing, however, since if they had known what he was going to look and act like, they might have quietly stepped off the set and never returned. Or, perhaps they would have taken a light saber to him and thus spared them and the audience from further insult.

Another problem is that the film is clearly aimed at young kids. While that's not a horrible fact in and upon itself -- especially with so many films aiming above them at the growing teen audience -- this film evokes the same feeling as parts of "Return of the Jedi" did. Thus, we have the stupid Jar-Jar Binks designed to appeal to kids and thus sell lots of toys, the proceeds of which undoubtably line Lucas' pockets.

While there's little doubt that a Jar Jar action figure will end up under many a Christmas tree, he'll certainly become one of the most hated cinematic creations in the eyes of "Star Wars" fans since the appearance of the dreaded, but similarly kid-friendly Ewoks from "Return of the Jedi."

We also have cute-as-a-button Jake Lloyd, who obviously studied at the Mark Hamill School of Acting. While Hamill did get better in the later "Star Wars" films, his appearance in the first, while charming in a country bumpkin sort of way, certainly won't go down in the annals of noteworthy thespian efforts. The same holds true for Lloyd.

Although he could never meet the expectations of both critics and crazed fans who've been longing for this film for light years before Lloyd was even born, he's a big dud. While he's got the obligatory cute looks, his acting style is, how shall we say it, a bit more appropriate for a 30- second TV commercial than a major motion picture. Of course, he's most likely just filler, a body to play that character and lead us into parts two and three of this trilogy, which shows signs of yet another problem with this film.

The story rarely engages the viewer, and certainly doesn't feel complete upon its conclusion. Instead, it comes off more as an extended teaser for the next batch of films slated for release in 2002 and 2005. While the original "Star Wars" obviously set up what was to follow in "Empire" and "Jedi," it easily stood on its own. The story was fresh, the characters brimming with life and zest, and it was a heck of a lot of fun to watch in a classic battle of good vs. evil. That's not the case with this one.

Beyond the kid-oriented material, the basic plot is the stuff of a boring history class. Instead of a young man getting involved an evil character's quest to destroy the rest of the good guys, we have a boring trade dispute and planetary blockade. Yes, we realize that this film has to deliver the ingredients that eventually lead to the familiar occurrences in episodes 4, 5, and 6, but does the concoction have to be so boring and bland?

This film really misses the "gee whiz" farmhand charm of Luke Skywalker and the tenacious spunk and biting sarcasm that princess Leia exuded. It also lacks the gung-ho but sarcastic Han Solo, not to mention the chemistry among the three that got better and took unexpected twists as the trilogy progressed.

Then, of course, there was the perfect visual epitome of evil, Darth Vader. For this film, we get a hodgepodge of lackluster villains, with the most menacing, Darth Maul, appearing for only a few scant minutes and the earlier storm troopers being replaced by silly looking 'droid warriors. Otherwise, most of the characters are drawn as if to play in a sci-fi version of "Masterpiece Theater" and are as cold and disengaging as the computers that generated most of their surroundings.

As the seasoned Jedi veteran, Liam Neeson ("Michael Collins," "Schindler's List") is easily the best thing this film has to offer, and he brings a proper solemn dignity to his role, but is anything but exciting or fun to watch. The same holds true for the usually volatile Ewan McGregor ("A Life Less Ordinary," "Trainspotting") as Obi-Wan Kenobi. While he seems to be concentrating on matching the vocal performance of Sir Alec Guinness from the original "Star Wars," his character is flat and relegated to supporting character status. Although the signs are there that we'll get to see more in episodes 2 and 3, it's disappointing to see McGregor's talent wasted in this installment.

The same holds true for Natalie Portman ("Beautiful Girls," "Mars Attacks!"), one of the best young actresses working today. While she gets a few moments to shine while interacting with young Anakin, her stuffy, Elizabethan take on the queen character is dull and horribly contrasts with Carrie Fisher's regal, but still spunky Princess Leia. Then, of course, there's Jake Lloyd ("Jingle All the Way") as the later-to-become Darth Vader character.

Not to endlessly rag on Lloyd's performance, but he wasn't the right choice for the part. While it's probably too much to ask of nearly any kid that age to play the part of not only being a kid, but also showing signs -- no matter how small or mostly hidden -- of what's to follow. Same may say that's an unfair criticism, that he could be just a normal kid at this time, but audiences will know who he is and who he'll become, and thus will be looking for such signs by default.

For what it's worth, the film -- beyond being disappointing and often boring -- isn't horrible. There are some decent scenes, such as the "pod" race that consists of vehicles resembling high- tech chariots with two big engines dragging a seating compartment behind them in a desert, grand prix-like course. Then there's the ending, with its three action sequences unfolding simultaneously -- including a terrific two-on-one light saber duel -- that finally delivers some of what the audience has been yearning for during the preceding two hours.

Most of the effects -- despite their overuse and not always seamlessly fitting into their "real" surroundings -- are often quite impressive, and John Williams' familiar score -- while also a bit overused at points where the bland drama needed some reinforcement, particularly in the film's first half -- is as rousing as ever. And simply put, it's fun to go back to this universe, see some familiar faces, and experience the back-story to the best-known trilogy of all time.

That said, we can't really give this prequel more than a moderate recommendation. Some may think that critics such as myself are being too critical and that the film should be judged on its own merits and not be compared to the original films. While there's some validity to that argument, one must realize that such a standalone critique is next to impossible considering the mythic like status of the original trilogy and the fact that this film is purposefully designed to be tied to those three films.

As far as being too critical of the film as a piece of entertainment, I offer this final view of it. While I went into our screening with purposefully set low expectations -- not only because of initial less than glowing responses to the film from critics and fans alike, but also because of realizing that no film could live up to the massive hype being built around it -- I also made it a point to compare my reaction to that of the overall audience while watching the film.

In this year's "The Mummy," which was enjoyable, but clearly an artistic dud, the audience loved it and were hooping, hollering and generally enthusiastically responding to the movie from beginning to end. For our "Phantom Menace" screening, the audience was obviously stoked for it. When the familiar John Williams score played as the backwards scrolling text began disappearing into the distance, the crowd cheered, for this was the movie they had waited some sixteen years to see.

As the film then continued through its two-hour plus length, however, the audience quickly grew more silent until there was nearly no reaction at all. Save for a few subdued cheers upon seeing familiar characters and a villain's demise, the audience sat in silence, a clear indication that the film doesn't deliver the goods.

While the picture will make hundreds of millions of dollars and diehard fans might enjoy it -- probably because they feel like they must after the hype, and would be embarrassed to admit standing in line for days to see it -- most will probably find that the film doesn't live up to that hype, their expectations and certainly not its predecessors. We felt the same way and thus give "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 11, 1999 / Posted May 19, 1999


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