To be clear from the beginning, Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace in 3D, should be treated in two ways. The first as an introduction to a new wave of cinema goers who missed its first outing nearly 13 years ago while the second is an invitation to see it in 3D for those who love the saga.
In a fictional galaxy, far, far away the Galactic Republic has introduced a tax on certain trade routes operated by the Trade Federation which propels them to create a blockade around the small planet of Naboo. Two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are dispatched by the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic to negotiate a peace treaty however it transpires the Trade Federation is taking orders from the Sith Lord Darth Sidious who commands the Jedi Knights be killed. Escaping the attack, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan land on Naboo and save a Gungan called Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) from being killed by an invading Federation tank. Indebted for his life, Jar Jar serves Qui-Gon and leads the Jedi Knights to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) – whom they also save before she’s taken as hostage by the Federation. They board a spaceship and meander through the orbital blockade but sustain some damage to the ship’s body forcing them to land on an obscure planet called Tatooine in order to located some spare parts. Unable to use Federation Credits as payment their hope of escape comes in the shape of a slave child called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) whose quick reflexes and vast technical skills allows him to enter a pod race and wins enough funds for the parts required. Qui-Gon soon realises the Force (described as spiritual organisms inhibiting all living things) is strong with the child. Far stronger than the eldest and wisest members of the Jedi Council. Realising Anakin could be part of a prophesy who could bring balance to the disturbance in the force, Qui-Gon buys his freedom and flies to planet Coruscant where Queen Amidala appeals to the Republic to send troops to Naboo to counter-attack the hostage takeover. Unimpressed by the Supreme Chancellor’s decision to check if the cry for help is true – Queen Amidala motions a vote of no confidence which allows Senator Palpatin (Ian McDiarmid) to step up and be nominated as the new Chancellor. With the election taking too long to decide, Queen Amidala returns to Naboo with the Jedi Knights and her small band of soldiers to appeal to the Gungans, the other race on the planet, to put aside their differences and fight against their common enemy. They agree. And so begins a series of battles with Jar Jar leading the Gungans to fight the Federation army consisting of thousands of droids, young Skywalker pilots a Starfighter with the rest of the pilots to destroy the ship controlling the droids, Queen Amidala attempts to break into her own palace to capture leaders of the Trade Federation and of course the light sabre showdown between the two Jedi Knights and Darth Sidious’ own skilful apprentice – Darth Maul (Ray Park).
George Lucas has created a universe, much like J. K. Rowling has with her Harry Potter series, filled with likable characters, supernatural elements and drama that span the length of time and space. But much like the Potter books, the problem with Star Wars has never been the story – but its execution. It’s almost blasphemous to waste the talents of Neeson, McGregor and McDiarmid to deliver such desperately horrible galactic dialogue that make no sense nor pull the story forward. Further character flaws come in the shape of Jar Jar Binks who annoys the audience every time he appears on screen and young Jake, who is likable but lacks the range of emotions required for such a demanding role. Much is promised but very little is delivered. There is hardly any action bar the excellent pod race sequence and the final light sabre battle; you see glimpses of Darth Maul but he only appears in full form at the end of the movie and what is meant to be a 3D experience – wasn’t worth the enhancement in the first place.
It does, however, have some positives. The special effects have been enhanced and ILM have certainly tweaked the finer details changing the likes of Yoda from puppet form to complete CGI. The background, planets and spaceships look lush and realistic and have stood the test of time. The other important factor of Star Wars is its music and sound effects. To appreciate John Williams score is to really hear it in the theatre as it epitomises the entire saga reminding you that while Episode I is the weakest of the hexology, it is still part of story arch that has influenced many other filmmakers, weaved its way into our lexicon and certainly marked its place in movie history.
Ultimately, George Lucas is selling us an experience. He succeeds in introducing us to a vast array of characters and opens up a universe very different from our own. Perhaps the films downfall lies in its great expectation from the fans whom have come to demand great things from a creator who’s also given us Indiana Jones. He sadly hasn’t with Episode I and the only reason we forgive him is because we know in due course he’ll present Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and of course Darth Vader – on the big screen. For that reason alone, you should see this film and appreciate the origins of how some of the most iconic characters you will ever see come to life.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha