Wednesday, May 19, 1999

Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Welcome to May 19, the pop culture equivalent of D-Day. So a few questions answered before anything else. After all the carefully stoked anticipation-hysteria, is The Phantom Menace an earth-shattering, second coming experience? No. Is it a good movie, as solid and entertaining as the other three Star Wars episodes? Definitely yes.

For those few souls still unfamiliar with the plot, Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace chronicles the first encounters between the young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the seemingly innocuous demon seed who will eventually sprout into Darth Vader, and the people who will alter his future: Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), the Jedi mentors who introduce this prodigy to their dignified, Force-fueled warrior philosophy; and the brave, resourceful teenage Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the eventual mother of his children, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker.

If such a thing can be said to occur in a mammoth special effects film, The Phantom Menace was hand-crafted by Star Wars creator George Lucas, who wrote and directed. This means Lucas gets to fully indulge his fertile imagination, creating a spectacular visual treat packed with fully realized fantasy landscapes – including a phenomenal underwater city – and lifelike, computer-generated characters like Jar Jar Binks, the film’s designated comic relief.

But Lucas is also dead serious when it comes to establishing the Star Wars mythology in this film. The performances of Neeson, McGregor and especially Portman are in perfect sync with Lucas’ trademark gravitas, and no humans here are allowed the rule-bending charm afforded Han Solo. The weak link is Jake Lloyd, a generically bland actor who doesn’t project any of the intelligence or promise the story calls for – even his typical kid cries of "Yippee!" sound hollow.

As each magnificently choreographed set piece unfolds in The Phantom Menace – a Ben Hur-style space pod chariot race; swashbuckler Jedis dueling with the Luciferesque Darth Maul; a Braveheart-like battle scene recast with droids and amphibians – there’s little doubt that George Lucas knows how to create populist entertainment at its best.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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