FILM OF THE MONTH
Selected from the August 1999
Film Review

Film Review Hotline
STAR WARS – EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE
5 Stars
Even the cast were bewildered by the need to queue
Oh my God! It's here
STARS: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid
DIRECTOR / SCREENPLAY:
George Lucas

CERTIFICATE: U DISTRIBUTOR and Picture copyright: Twentieth Century Fox
RUNNING TIME: 2hrs 13mins
OPENING DATE (UK): July 15 (previews)

Like Episodes 5 & 6 (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi – but you knew that!) The Phantom Menace essentially consists of a finely judged remix of the elements that made the original Star Wars such a resounding success. From the moment it begins, with that scrolling text and that yellow logo drifting away into space, you are never allowed to forget that this is a Star Wars film you’re watching. Not, I suspect, that any of us want to.

It’s both a relief and a pleasure then, to report that the expected, nay demanded, elements (tremendous effects, uncomplicated heroes, sinister villains, mysticism, lightsabres, space battles, a resounding finale and a sense of wonder) feature as prominently as any audience could require.

What comes as something of a surprise, however, is how Lucas has given his thrilling, superficially joyous fable a nihilistic core. Beneath the jokes, the action and effects, and the jive-talking, back-flipping comedy character of Jar-Jar Binks, The Phantom Menace is a story of manipulation, grand ambition and trust betrayed.

The audience’s foreknowledge of certain characters’ ultimate fates allows the film to be loaded with dark portents. Even the least attentive viewer cannot help but be aware that beyond the pomp and ceremony of the grand victory parade at the film’s end lies a future laced with tragedy.

This air permeates The Phantom Menace, but is never allowed to dominate it. For the most part we are given an accelerated thrill ride from one side of the galaxy to another, as a likeable group of characters race to defeat a planetary invasion. The Ben Hur flavoured pod-race, the three-way lightsabre battle and the amazing ground assault and simultaneous space-borne dog-fight stand out as the best of the adrenaline pumping sequences, but there are many others besides.

The cast deliver what is required of them with skill and aplomb. Neeson imbues Qui-Gon Jinn with a nobility that closely echoes the greatest heroes of Greek myth, whilst McGregor’s sometimes uncanny attempt to emulate Alec Guinness transcends simple impersonation. Believably portraying the same man and ever aware of the role’s previous incumbent, he nevertheless makes the part his own.

The best performance in the film comes from McDiarmid, who subtly and precisely shows us the power-lust and aggression in the future Emperor Palpatine, whilst simultaneously demonstrating the affability which means nobody around him suspects a thing.

Most importantly though, the widespread fear that having a child as a central character would inevitably backfire is proven spectacularly wrong, as Jake Lloyd gives a compelling, mature and totally unshowy performance as the future Darth Vader.

Wrapped in a diverse and dynamic John Williams score and produced with a rich attention to detail that borders on the distracting, The Phantom Menace is a rarity – a popcorn film made with the attention and care of a master craftsman, and as such it stands proudly as epic and glorious entertainment.

Jim Smith

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