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Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999)

Directed by George Lucas

These reviews appeared in issue #17 -- June 1999, and "HO" opted for several mini-reviews rather than have one long review of "The Phantom Menace." This movie was probably the most eagerly awaited film of the past decade and proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. It's recent release on DVD, however, has become a big hit. Is it worth the bucks? See what some of the "HO's" think!


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Tom Graney Review

For all of George Lucas' talk about archetypes and mythology, "The Phantom Menace" is a strangely aloof, cold and soulless film. Set against the backdrop of some sort of trade dispute between the "good" people of Naboo and the "greedy" Trade Federation in a time long, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, it's as obscure and uninvolving as a war in the Balkans, that is, of course, as long as you don't live in the Balkans. Who knows what the hell is going on or why? The Republic dispatches two Jedi Knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) to mediate a peaceful resolution to the problem -- whatever the problem is. Unbeknownst (CHA-CHING! there's a word you don't see everyday) to the Republic, the Jedis, and the democratically elected Queen (?) of Naboo, there's a more sinister force (pun intended) at work than just the Japs... I mean, the Trade Federation. You have to see the film to get the Japanese reference.

Any geek familiar with the first three films, or last three films (I'm so confused), knows that the leader of the evil empire is the Emperor Palpatine. He's the only man more evil than his second banana, Darth Vader. In "Phantom Menace," we're presented with a mystery -- who's the evil force behind the Trade Federation and the evil master that sends a "dark Lord of the Sith," in this case Darth Maul, to battle the Jedis? Could it be the ambitious Senator Palpatine? That's the problem with making a prequel, we already know who the phantom is! Why be coy about it? And if the phantom isn't Palpatine, why spend two hours alluding to a new character without revealing who it is? Another problem is that Darth Maul makes Darth Vader look like a piece of wood. This guy is so bad that little horns are erupting from his forehead. Hong Kong action films have redefined the way a bad-ass fights, even when armed with a light saber. Darth Maul (martial artist Ray Park) is so skilled and so quick that it takes not one but two Jedis to combat him and his double-blade light saber!

But the biggest problem with "Phantom" is that the spiritualism of the first three films is completely missing. A Jedi even whips out a blood tester to measure the amount of "Force" little Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd and supposedly nicknamed "Mannequin Skywalker" by the film crew for his acting presence) possesses and guess what? He's off the charts! Not just awful, this is unforgivable, almost as wretched as the virgin birth thing. It's hard to picture Alec Guinness' "Obi Wan" doing this shit without projectile vomiting. Evidently, he had a hard enough time in that department in the old movies. "George, why don't you just kill off Obi Wan? I'm not coming back to do this shit again. I don't need money that badly. Maybe, I can appear in a cameo as a ghost or something little like that."

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Alec Guinness

In the "Empire Strikes Back," Luke has a vision where he fights and decapitates Darth Vader. When Vader's mask falls away, it reveals Luke's face. Luke is Vader. The implication is that Luke's choice of violence against Vader puts him at risk of becoming another Vader, the same as Vader. Luke meets evil and discovers that evil resides in himself. That point is echoed through the rest of the series. Luke is constantly reminded that he is at risk of becoming as bad as Vader especially when he's trying to destroy him. Luke only triumphs when he refuses to use violence.

After seeing "Phantom," I now think that it would've been better to have Luke discover that the evil behind the mask is George Lucas. For all of Lucas' ambivalence about technology, he seems completely unaware that he has become the Darth Vader if not the evil emperor of movie technology. In "Phantom Menace," Lucas has sacrificed the human element completely in favor of cold technology in the form of computer generated effects. Ew, ew, look what I can do!

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Luca$ the Hutt

I think it would be interesting to see a movie directed by Lucas with a budget of a million dollars and no special effects. What would he do if he needed to make a story about, you know, human beings? "American Graffiti 3"? While were at it, give Woody Allen the hundred million and have him make a special effects extravaganza. Even if it's a failure, it would probably be an interesting failure. Check out "A Bug's Life" instead to see how CGI should be done in support of interesting characters. "The Phantom Menace" is hands down the worst of the "Star Wars" series, no question, and amazingly, Jar Jar Binks is more annoying than the Ewoks from "Return of the Jedi." -- Rating: $2.33

Tom Graney -- copyright Hollywood Outsider 1999


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Mike Santoro

Having taken in the afternoon showing of "Star Whores Episode I: The Phantom Penis," I phoned Mr. Graney to tell him that I could probably get a review to him in time for this issue. After giving me a good talking to, he restated which movie he wanted me to review, and I scraped together some extra cash to see the correct film. Strangely, the only thing that the two had in common was the double-dong light saber fight.

Artistically speaking, George Lucas was able to spell "Phantom Menace" without the letters A-C-T. He managed to get the most wooden, stiff-as-a-board performance from every single member of the cast. If he was trying to lend an epic, saga-like feel to the film by removing any trace of humanity from his characters, he fell flat on his face. He should have watched the first "Star Wars" movie to refresh his memory about why the characters in that film worked so well: chemistry, attitude and humor for starters. This is not to say that there was no humor. In fact, there was big-time humor, just not the way Lucas intended. To make matters worse, it was at the expense of poor Jake Lloyd. Whenever you do reaction shots of a child at the controls of any vehicle trying to escape an enemy in hot pursuit, it's gonna look like the "Little Rascals." Every time little Jake winced and pretended to be looking down at some control panel that wasn't really there, I saw visions of Alfalfa speeding downhill out of control in a bathtub with wheels. Special effects have come a long way since the Hal Roach days, but kids are still kids. -- Rating: $2.00

Mike Santoro -- copyright 1999


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Gronky's Geek Korner

Welcome to Gronky's Geek Corner (for the total geek perspective): The movie we've all been waiting for, for sixteen years is finally here. I think you'll agree that it was not as good as the first three but if I were ten years old now, I would love it. I already have my Darth Maul figure and it's in the special Darth Maul/Anakin two-pack! I think it was a mistake to kill him off in this film. He was a good villain and having him die at the hands of a Jedi's apprentice was a little underwhelming. Especially since professional martial artist Ray Park made Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor look like they were standing still. Why not keep him around and have the Emperor use him to turn Anakin like he did Vader to try to turn Luke?

But, as I'm sure you've noticed, there were some interesting questions that this film brought up. First of all, if young Anakin built C-3PO, why didn't Vader recognize him when he saw him on Bespin in the carbon-freezing chamber? It was great to see Ian McDiarmid out of make-up as Senator Palpatine. But if he is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, who will later become Emperor Palpatine, why don't any of the Jedi feel any kind of tremor in the force at his presence? They can feel Alderaan being destroyed in another part of space, but can't sense a Sith Lord at three feet?

Anakin destroys the Trade Federation control ship by flying inside and firing on the main generator. Does this sound familiar to anyone? You would think that by the time of the second Death Star, someone would have come up with the idea of decentralized power generation. They could have taken a lesson from the Borg, huh?

If all other astro-droids are capable of independent action after being given instructions, how come top of the line Trade Federation battle droids shut down when their command ship is destroyed? (I can hear the Microsoft jokes already.) If you can check for levels of the Force with a blood test, wouldn't the Empire have mandatory testing for this microbe in order to identify possible threats to the Sith? And if so, why didn't they identify Princess Leia as a Skywalker or at least someone to be watched.

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Geeks

And what's all this about Jar Jar Binks being a rastafarian or gay or whatever? He's a Gungun! I don't understand why he isn't beloved of the viewing public. I mean, he's basically the Captain Parminter (F-Troop's Captain) of "Star Wars." I can't wait for the filk song about him. "Then Jar Jar who sneezed; abrupt-ly seized; retreat and he turned it to vic-tory!" (And by the way, I saw "Trekkies" too and I think the guy who was dressed as a dead woman astronaut was a poor choice to represent filk singing). We have to wait three years for the next film and I'm already looking forward to standing on line. See you there! -- Rating: $9.50 (or my life savings)

Gronky -- copyright 1999


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- George Higham

George Lucas, where's the beef? Boring and anti-climactic should not be words to describe "Star wars," but to the dismay of many fans, it is. Sure, Darth Maul was cool, but how far can you go with one cool character that has so little screen time, one or two lines, then gets off-ed in the most disappointing fight scene this side of "The A-Team"!

The first half of the film was a non-stop bore-fest leading up to the famous "pod" race scene. Completely devoid of tension and drama, even the high-speed effects couldn't detract from its predictability. With no real feeling of menace or threat, the second half of the film fared no better. Flat characters with shallow dialogue are no replacement for the cynical, wisecracking likes of Han Solo! And that robot army? What a bunch of non-threatening goofballs!

And don't even get me started on Jar-Jar Binks...

And all that CGI? Well, it certainly reached a new level in film making, but only in quantity, not quality. There's SO MUCH of it, but it still looks like a lot of CGI! C'mon Gen X... it's time to stop living in the past! The success of this film is purely a pathetic attempt to regain one's childhood... but its failure only makes the distance that much more evident. In the end, it's a mediocre outing, with a few good things -- but most probably embarrassing to anyone over the age of ten, that isn't socially retarded! -- Rating: $2.50

George Higham -- copyright 1999


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) --  Bob Menasian

When exactly did it happen that comic relief became more important than dramatic tension? Whenever it did happen was a sad day for sure, because for the time it takes to put you on the edge of your seat, it takes all but a second to destroy it with the witty banter of a too-cute-for-words sidekick at precisely the wrong moment.

One way to learn how to make a movie is by watching as many bad movies as possible and seeing what not to do. Unfortunately, the "Phantom Menace" was another lesson in how not to make a movie. Specifically, Jar Jar Binks -- he was presented as a central character and did absolutely nothing to forward the progress of the story, as thin as it was. Aside from all the gay and in my view valid racist comments I've heard about this character, he was utterly pointless. This was enough for me not only to dislike "Phantom," but moved me to despise it as well.

What makes Hollywood so uncomfortable about a tense, dramatic moment? Perhaps I'm taking it too personally, but I feel as though I'm not being taken seriously as a moviegoer. It's painfully patronizing to be thought so little of, that too much tension might drive me to put a gun to my head and blow my brains out. More now than ever, I feel that movies are being made not to stimulate thought but to entertain in the broadest sort of way. Kind of like the newer, safer tubular steel roller coasters. The ride is weightless and sorta fun, just missing the thrill of danger. -- Rating: $4.00

Bob Menasian -- copyright 1999


Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Frank Campanella

I saw "Episode I" twice on opening day and enjoyed it more the second time around. I think it's negative critical reaction is because the anticipation was so high and impatient fans wanted everything expected in this trilogy to happen in the first movie. It's true, the animated characters outshined most of the humans. Watto, the winged junk dealer, was a great mix of computer graphics and a slimy salesman. I also liked Anakin's pod-racing rival Sebulba who walked on his hands and drove with his feet. It seems everyone wants to kill Jar Jar Binks, probably because he's a blatant effort by George Lucas to commercialize the film for kids. I found him occasionally annoying, but I laughed when his face went numb from the pod engine's energy beam and when he tangled himself up with the busted battle droid which kept shooting other droids each time he tried to shake free.

As for the humans, Jake Lloyd was fine as young Anakin. (He's 9 years-old. Give him a break!) And Natalie Portman was perfect in a dual role as the strong-willed Queen and the compassionate Padme. There were also definite signs of the budding relationship between the 14 year-old Amidala and 9 year-old Anakin. "Are you an angel? I heard they're very beautiful," he asks upon meeting her. It reminded me of when I was 9 or 10 and I had a crush on a 13 year-old girl named Margaret who lived on my block. I hope that Ewan McGregor's Obi-Wan will develop more depth in the next film. He really didn't have much to do until the ending, but holy crap, what an ending! As expected, Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn gave the film its soul. But Samuel L. Jackson, though believable as a Jedi, was unnecessary as Mace Windu. Rumor has it that he bullied his way into the film, probably by reciting his "Ezekiel 25:17" speech from "Pulp Fiction" to George Lucas and promising to get Imperial on his ass unless he gave him a part.

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- The Queen

Unlike the simplicity of the first "Star Wars" film, "Phantom Menace" was poorly paced and became too political and repetitive in the middle. I think Amidala proclaimed, "I will sign no treaty..." about 4 or 5 times. I would rather have learned more about the Sith Lords than about the Trade Federation. But as much of a bad ass as Darth Maul was, I think his three, mostly brief, appearances were adequate screen time for him. Just like in "Jaws," if you see too much of the shark it's not scary. When Maul confronts the two Jedi at the finale and Qui-Gon announces that he and Obi-Wan will "handle this," I got chills similar to my experience when I first saw Luke challenge Vader in "The Empire Strikes Back." Obviously, the light saber battle was one of my favorite scenes. Maul's silent pacing like a caged tiger when separated from Qui-Gon by the laser barriers, along with John Williams' frightening choral music, added an intensity that made this the best light saber duel in any Star Wars movie.

Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace (1999) -- Darth Maul

In "Episode I's" other key action sequence, the pod race, we're treated to a sci-fi version of the chariot race in "Ben-Hur" and the 1970's cartoon "The Wacky Racers." Each contestant and vehicle are distinct. It's as if George Lucas combined the Cantina characters from the first movie with the speeder bike scene from "Jedi." Every detail of the sequence rang true to the Star Wars universe: Anakin using the Force, Sebulba’s treachery, Jabba flicking bugs onto the race track for fun, the two-headed announcer, and Jawas cheering "Ooh Tay Dee!" But the biggest laugh in any Star Wars movie came when the sand people appeared in the desert and started taking pot shots at the pod racers just for the hell of it. It's probably a moment those old windbags who bashed the film just didn't get because they aren't familiar with a world like Tatooine.

Although I liked "Episode I," I think it will be the weakest film of this new trilogy. Episodes II and III should be much tighter as they will concentrate on Anakin and Amidala's love story, Obi-Wan's misguided training of Anakin, and the fall of the Jedi Knights. Sam Jackson's role is said to be more prominent, and Boba Fett is rumored to make an appearance. I would love to see an all out Jedi Knight vs. Sith Lord light saber battle. Maybe 30 against 30. Imagine a room full of blazing sabers staged just like an old Robin Hood movie. Are you listening Mr. Lucas? -- Rating: $7.00

"The Usher" -- copyright 1999

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