The Phantom Menace (1999)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 5/19/99
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Music: John Williams
Special Effects: Industrial Light & Magic
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid

Walking out of the theater at 2:30a.m. I felt the same bizarre mixture of elation, frustration, and disappointment that I felt after seeing "Return Of The Jedi" (1983) the first time. Except that this time, the Ewoks show up at the beginning of the film, in the form of an annoying Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (who is easily one of the most detestable characters in recent cinematic history). The treatment of his character is so painfully juvenile that it sabotages any attempts for the film to take itself or its cast seriously. Kids will shriek with joy as they watch Jar Jar stumble through the film, get into trouble, fall on his butt, make goo goo faces for the camera, and generally make a mess of things (hey, why wasn't Jim Carrey signed up for this film?). Maybe I'm just too old to appreciate this sort of in-your-face slapstick mentality, but the root of the problem is that I don't want to laugh at a "Star Wars" movie. I want to go "ooh" and "ah", and "oh my god" as I gasp in amazement. I want to cheer for the heroes, hiss at the villains, bite my nails during the action scenes, and maybe shed a tear or two. I don't want to snicker about fart jokes and self referential parody. The entire film could have been saved if only Jar Jar had received a serious treatment. Is that too much to ask?

Anyway, it's easy to dwell on the negative aspects of the film, but in its defense I'll say that it is very good for what it is - which is a children's movie. It's just not at all what I wanted it to be - which is a melodramatic space opera. The film is beautiful to watch and just a tad overwhelming because there's SO much visual stimuation to process. The "Star Wars" mythology remains intact, and it's good to be back in familiar and well loved territory. All of the effects are very good, but they become numbing after a while. The spaceship action sequences are adequate, but minimalistic, and overall the combat sequences are great. I was extremely pleased with the swordplay between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It was dynamic, highly kinetic, and very exciting to watch. (now trying to figure out WHERE they were fighting and WHAT was going on is a little tough - maybe I'll have to read the book)

Overall, I'd have to say that my faith in George Lucas has been challenged, although the film manages to generate a lot of anticipation for the coming events. I only hope the next sequel seriously kicks some ass (like "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) ). The inclusion of some female Jedi Knights would definitely be enough to bring the franchise back to the light side of The Force, but I'm sure I'll never see that come about.

However, the film does improve dramatically on multiple viewings and becomes far more immersive and interesting once you peel back the offensive layer of juvenile clutter.