Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace

By Marc Savlov

MAY 24, 1999: 

D: George Lucas; with Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Jake Lloyd, Natalie Portman, Pernilla August, Ahmed Best, Samuel L. Jackson, Ray Park. (PG, 133 min.)

It's 22 years later, but George Lucas is finally back in the saddle, pitting good against evil in a complex web of intergalactic skullduggery that makes those old Republic serials look as dull as the chrome on Rocketman's codpiece. Episode 1, however, draws heavily from the Republic crypts, as well as Ben Hur, Citizen Kane, and innumerable other cinematic and literary references (the original Star Wars got by with a smattering of Joseph Campbell and Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress). Drowning amidst the oceans of hype, marketing, and the endless lines of Lucasfans waiting, endlessly waiting to get inside, there is a movie, and unfortunately it's not a terribly good one. As that off-yellow opening crawl informs us, the dreaded Trade Federation is mucking about with the good people of Naboo, a verdant, peaceable planet ruled over by Portman's Queen Amidala. Intent on helping out the beleaguered innocents, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and his cocksure apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) arrive with light sabers in hand and find themselves in the middle of a full-blown war. Add to this mix precocious Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker (having not yet affixed the Darth Vader nom de guerre; he's still a slave child on dusty old Tatooine) and the Jedi's bizarre, lop-eared Gungin pal Jar Jar Binks, as well as a handful of old favorites (Yoda, C-3P0, R2-D2), and you have a crowded cast indeed. Crowded, come to think of it, is an accurate assessment of the whole film. Lucas, eager to please everyone it seems, crams gobs of action into every part of every frame. If there's not computer-generated shots of massive armies colliding on the fruited plains, there are monstrous cityscapes, or explosions, or Samuel L. Jackson's sage Mace Windu pontificating with a Jackie Brown accent. Lucas' script seeks to explain something, but I'll be damned if I know what it is. Episode 1 often has the rushed, stop-start feel of old newsreels, with information being parceled out at an alarming rate but minus the emotional or character-driven narratives we've come to expect from our dealings with Lucas. The entire film is curiously soulless, with major characters making their entrances and exits (some of which are unexpectedly final) as if they were breezing in from some other screening next door. Neeson's Qui-Gon is the only interesting one in the bunch, or at least the only one solid enough to anchor a scene, though the villainous Darth Maul (Park) is. Lloyd is far too precious to make much of an impression as the once and future Vader (his constant cries of -- I kid you not -- Yippee! are disturbing in all the wrong ways), McGregor appears to be waiting for craft services most of the time, and Portman leaves no peculiar accent unscathed in her Kabuki-inspired getups and chilly Eurotrash syntax. What works, of course, are the effects, computer-generated and otherwise, of which there are over a whopping 2,200. The cosmic Huggy Bear that is Jar Jar Binks may be the most annoying Star Wars character since the Ewoks first piddled on the forest floor, but for an entirely CG-character, he's impressive, if not human. What does it say about a filmmaker when his effects come out better than his human cast members, when a single laser strike is more dramatic than a whole raft of (stilted) dialogue? It says he ought to spend more time on story and less time crunching binaries, more on pacing the myth and less on cramming it down viewers' throats.
2.5 stars


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