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STAR WARS: EPISODE I–THE PHANTOM MENACE(director/writer: George Lucas; cinematographer: David Tattersall; editors: Paul Martin Smith/Ben Burtt; cast: Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala), Jake Lloyd (Anakin Skywalker), Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Pernilla August (Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother), Frank Oz (Yoda), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Terence Stamp (Chancellor Valorum), Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious), Kenny Baker (R2-D2); Runtime: 133; Twentieth Century Fox; 1999)
“A very pleasing technical accomplishment.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The new Star Wars trilogy, as a prequel to the Star Wars saga, will go back in time a full generation to tell the story of Anakin Skywalker. He is the innocent boy who will one day become the dreaded Darth Vader, who was the father of Luke Skywalker the young farmboy who became a hero in the struggle to overthrow an evil empire and had to confront his father.

In this movie that goes beyond the boundaries of what a movie is, because it has become a trademark name that is as easily recognized as any popular brand name. If I mentioned KFC, you would know that I am talking about a fast-food chain that sells fried chicken; and if I mentioned Star Wars, the same familiarity as a movie would ring a bell. Since the movie first surfaced in 1977 it has been a very popular film, basically overtaking many other types of films that took on the moral battle of good and evil; such as– the Western. It created a new myth that does not challenge the old myth but incorporates pieces of mythology not only from the Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible but from the Eastern religions, as well. It has become so commercially successful a film and enterprise that even though the film cost about $115 million to make, its profit margin is a sure thing since it has merchandise deals tied into its release that are estimated to be around $3.5 billion.

With this in mind there can be no ordinary viewing of this film since it is already hyped and promoted beyond any reasonable level of expectation. It is therefore hardly likely that it could meet such expectations, even with its fanatical fan base willing to stand on long lines for a long time and who will most likely see the film a number of a times; and, a public that is primed and ready for the product. How many times will viewers want to see it is hard to gauge at this early date, though what is guaranteed is that it will draw large crowds and pump life into the movie industry. Many will see this film as an event, therefore making it critic-proof and ensured of being a legendary film no matter what.

What takes place onscreen, if I can consider myself a voice of moderation on this subject, is not as terrible a storyline and acting job as one would be led to believe by listening to some film critics; nor, is it as great a film as many unabashed fans might think, who feel taken with the innovative special-effects and are really caught up in the aura and excessive exuberance of the total film’s package. Whether it is from John William’s recognizable Star War themes, to some original musical scores he added, or to its grand set designs, everything about this film is large-scale and crass, but something that is very appealing to the masses. There should be something in this film for everybody to like, especially in a THX theater where the digital sound system and wide screen is best suited for viewing it. The tremendous effort put into the details and scope of its project, makes it seem stupendous at times; and, even, when there are lulls in its story, it still sets a very galactic mood that is trance-like and illusionary in a positive hypnotic sense. But, it does suffer, at times, from being too talky and lacking enough emotions and depth in its story and in its characters. It also suffers by being scripted with a banal dialogue, plus there is no romance. It’s therefore a film that is more geared to a younger audience. I am cynical enough to believe that it was made for an audience who will be young enough to follow all the other episodes that will surely come forth again, ensuring this enterprise of a continuing rosy financial future.

One most positive feature of the film is that it is not interested in gratuitous violence, as it’s bloodless. All the action scenes involve mostly robotic things being dismantled.

As we read the film’s opening titles on the screen, we learn that two Jedi are off to arbitrate a dispute caused by the Trade Federation against the planet Naboo that is being interfered with unjustly by the Federation’s blockade. The two Jedi sent are master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a first-timer to the Star Wars series, and his apprentice, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), who was played by Alec Guinness in Episodes IV, V, and VI. They encounter difficulties and get caught in a trap sprung by the evil Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), who wants to take over the Galactic Republic. They are forced to use their lightsabers to successfully fight their way to safety. But, realizing that they could use someone familiar with this planet to be their guide when they escape Naboo, they discover someone named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). He is a non-stop talking and jittery Naboo alien, who is some sort of frog. He acts like a cartoon creature that children could gravitate to; but, whom I found somewhat offensive because of his speech patterns, which were subservient and stereotypical like Hollywood sometimes uses to depict certain ethnic groups. Only in this case he is only a representative of these Gungan creatures on Naboo, except he did talk in a West Indian patois.

After the Jedi rescue the 14-year old Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her favorite droid, R2-D2, they are forced to land while escaping the planet due to broken parts in their spacecraft. This leaves them in a remote desert planet called Tatooine. That planet is not part of the Federation. Here the Jedi meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave child, born by means of Immaculate Conception. He is now working for a junkman who has the parts to fix the space craft. Qui-Gon Jinn recognizes in Ani, the possibility of him being “The Chosen One”; that is, a special Jedi, with a tremendous potential in the Force. Though there is, also, a sense of uncertainty about him. Darth Maul (Ray Park) is the evil force with Jedi-like powers, who is sent here by Sidious to track and kill the Jedi and prevent help for the people of Naboo.

The pace picks up with its most innovative addition, a dizzying racing sequence featuring “pod” space ships. Ani has to win the race to gain freedom for himself and for the Jedis to get their needed space craft parts. A wager is made with Ani’s junkman boss on the pod race. This is pure video game stuff that should thrill its younger audience perhaps more than it did me, but it was effective and added something new to the Star Wars legend.

What gives Star Wars all its charged up energy are its great lightsaber duels. It is a good versus evil theme that propels it; and, here the duels are accomplished in a top-notch fashion, better than in other episodes. The villain, Darth Maul, with a painted black-and-red tattooed devil’s face and short horns, a menacing sneer and a graceful martial-arts movement, battles the master Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn(Liam Neeson). Liam doesn’t seem to be having much fun in this role. But, he is, nevertheless, convincing as a wise Jedi, teaching his more rambunctious apprentice Jedi, Ewan McGregor, the ropes. They both have a chance at dueling with Darth Maul.

Ian McDiarmid has the dual role of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. He is cast perfectly as a shadowy villain and a hypocritical senator, who in future episodes will become Emperor Palpatine and should provide more chills for viewers. Without its frightening villains, Star Wars would be stripped of its soul.

It is probably not nice to criticize the youngster Jake Lloyd who plays Anakin Skywalker because of his age, but I thought that he was miscast and did not have the skills to pull off the difficult role he was asked to fulfill. Anikin’s mother, the great Swedish actress, Pernilla August, is just right for the part (though it’s a wooden role); in fact, she is too good for the part. She makes the boy seem very amateurish and he can’t respond with the proper emotional responses expected.

There were insignificant cameos by Samuel L. Jackson and Terrence Stamp, that have neither added nor distracted from the film. I would have preferred seeing unknown actors in those minor roles, giving them a chance to get known and earn some “bread.”

Some of the more exciting scenes that weren’t crammed with every computerized gizmo Lucas could throw at us, so that we were literally choking on too much alien and droid consumption, came from the just gorgeous and eye pleasing set designs on the planets. The submerged underwater city on Naboo, filled with dangerous sea monsters. The Coliseum-like stadium on Tatooine was a stupendous computer graphic, it is where the “pod race” transpired. Then there’s Coruscant, the Republic’s capital–a planet where the single city encompasses the entire globe, with its skyscrapers and a sky filled with exotic spaceships . That is where the council chamber is, where Queen Amidala makes a plea for her people amidst the overwhelming special-effects of the Senate chamber floating in space.

All these space landscapes gave the film all the color and spectacle it could ever need, making it a most entertaining and enjoyable movie experience, which is really what this movie is all about. I find it difficult to get too worked up over its so called “new mythology,” Joseph Campbell blessed or not, since this movie only expresses what is just a shell of what myths can mean to a society. But, I do understand how many feel that is what is missing in today’s society — some kind of positive myth. “Star Wars” does offer some encouragement for those who feel movies have caused a certain amount of cultural degeneracy; they should be pleased that Lucas’s film reasserts his personal belief that good can triumph over evil.

This is an action film that lives for its battle scenes that has the “bad guy” droid army fighting the “good guy” army of Naboo, in a computer game war, as the victorious Naboos feel the pride and relief of victory over their enemy. But the film ends with the insidious Senator Palpatine taking over the Galactic chancellorship.

It is a movie that takes a step up the ladder in our technical and computer skills evolution, and in our deep yearnings to find hope in the world we live in through its simplistic good vs. evil message. It seems regrettable that we have to wait three more years for the next installment of these episodes to be released. I would say that this imperfect film is still not-to-be missed because of its special effects.

I immensely enjoyed the film for what it was and was not overly concerned about what it was not. Believe me, I realize this is no work of art! It is mainly a very pleasing technical accomplishment and is excellent as escapist fare and as a kidpic.

I think it is fair to say that you will be getting your money’s worth.

“May the Schwartz be with you!”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”