The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999)


Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala / Padmé), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker). Screenplay by George Lucas. Directed by George Lucas. Rating: U. Running time: 136 minutes.

The Phantom Menace gives us Lucas in the modern era, and that means at least on one front he’s allowed to be at his very best. Now, not only armed with cash but also with CGI, he gives us a galaxy that is furiously imaginative, on a level way above that of the original Star Wars trilogy. From the glorious, waterfall-laden land of Naboo and its underwater illuminated Gungan city, to the desert-land of Tatooine and the now Manhattanesque city of lights, Coruscant, we are here treated to something that is, at a minimum, visually very special. I think, though I realise I am most likely in the minority here, we are also given one hell of a good story. If you thought enough of a plot drove forward the sci-fi adventure seen in the likes of A New Hope, then you would be crazy to feel disappointed here. The Phantom Menace has more space-politics shaping its structure than any of the previous three Star Wars films, and whilst the motives behind the Dark Side’s war are, as always, elusive, this hardly detracts from the battles and adventures it allows to ensue. After all, who really knows why maniacal figures throughout history have gone on the power-hungry murdering rampages that they have done?

The light-sabre fights have become fanatic. Long gone are the short and stiff strikes of the late Obi-Wan; here, much younger, he’s slicing through droids and deflecting their laser-bullets at every opportunity, accompanied by his Zen-like teacher Qui-Gon Jinn, another master of the Force. They ultimately battle it out with a new enemy that is practically modelled on what must be Lucas’ idea of the Devil Incarnate. Black and red face paint and horns ensure ‘Darth Maul,’ when given a two-pronged sabre, gives the Jedis a fierce and hugely thrilling run for their money.

This, however, is the film’s emphatic finale. Long before this the attention is turned in another direction: towards the introduction of what has to end up the series’ main antagonist: Darth Vader. How many times must Lucas have rewritten how to set up this development which would stretch over three films? He couldn’t pluck somebody so pivotal out of the air like he did Darth Maul just for the sake of this film. Whatever his options were, the one he finally decided on is excellent – a young boy showing no signs of evil (as no children do, obviously, by virtue of their age). Anakin Skywalker is a slave on the planet Tatooine, who Qui-Gon immediately senses to be special. After a few gambles and pod-races (here’s another casual invention, and it’s absolutely amazing), Anakin is free, and on his way to becoming… well, a powerful man?

There’s probably only one real problem here: Jar Jar Binks. I don’t know if the studios insisted on inserting a merchandisable character that children would flock to get action dolls of. It is conceivable Lucas did just make a mistake here – after all, whilst useful to Han, Chewbacca’s meaningless groans become pretty damn tiresome by the end of the Return of the Jedi. Jar Jar can talk, so that’s an advantage. If only he didn’t spout out so much shit and just walk around the film like an alien version of Mr. Bean, he might have been a good addition. It’s impossible to describe just how frustrating it gets. He’s used as a bridge between the Jedis and the Gungans, telling the former of and introducing them to his species and its leaders living in Naboo’s lakes. You would have thought, however, that an alternative could have been found that wouldn’t force two Jedi Knights to carry this hopeless goon around with them on their travels. Sometimes when Jar Jar delivers his lines and inevitably gets the gang into trouble, Liam Neeson looks at him with a clear ‘what the fuck?’ expression written all over his face. The fool is lucky he ended up with Jedis, who refuse to get angry. Darth Maul would have stabbed him within seconds.

Fortunately Jar Jar’s role is limited, and there’s a good amount of time in the middle of the film where they seem to recognise what a mistake he was and let him just follow the others around silently. He’s easily forgotten about, and when you’ve done that you’re left with what can only be described as a true gem. For me, this is second only to The Empire Strikes Back.

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