On May 19, 1999, George Lucas unveiled his long-awaited prequel to his Star Wars trilogy in theaters. At the time, to call Episode I — The Phantom Menace highly anticipated would be doing a disservice to the concept of anticipation itself. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
By this point, there are few people left on the planet who won’t experience a shiver of excitement upon seeing movie screens light up with the phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by the opening fanfare of John Williams’ thrilling theme music. The promise of a new chapter in George Lucas’ groundbreaking sci-fi saga has been greeted, by fans and the industry, with a rapturous fervor of near-religious proportions.
Sixteen years after Return of the Jedi comes the first installment of the new trilogy, for which expectation are nothing less than cosmic. Lucas, directing his first effort since the original Star Wars, has delivered a brilliant technical achievement, light years ahead of its forerunners in its computer-generated special effects, but a less emotionally resonant exercise likely to appeal most to younger viewers.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace seems designed more as a promotion for Lucasfilm’s billion-dollar merchandising concerns than a meaningful chapter in the Star Wars canon. Hardcore fans are likely to be the most disappointed, but that won’t stop them from lining up to see it again and again. While the film will do mega-blockbuster business — Lucas could perform the saga with shadow puppets and gross a few hundred million — it may not match its predecessors’ long-term commercial appeal.
For those who just emerged from a coma and missed the massive publicity blitzkrieg, Phantom Menace takes place years before the original Star Wars and spotlights young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who will grow up to become Darth Vader. The complicated plot, which incorporates many themes and philosophical bromides of the first trilogy, centers on a conflict between the giant Trade Federation and small, peaceful planet Naboo, ruled by young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).
Attempting to restore peace are two Jedi Knights, master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). When Qui-Gon meets Anakin, who lives with his mother (Pernilla August) as a slave on planet Tatooine, he senses that the boy, to use Star Wars parlance, has the Force with him and is destined for great things. Qui-Gon resolves to train Anakin as a Jedi Knight, against the wishes of the Jedi Council; ever-wise Yoda (voice of Frank Oz), in particular, sees the troubles that lie ahead.
The new villain is shadowy Darth Maul (Ray Park), who displays an athletic style of fighting, and the primary alien sidekick is computer-animated Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best), a cutesy, floppy-eared, amphibian-type creature who speaks in a thick, Caribbean-style patois.
Although fans are bound to debate the film’s fine points ad infinitum, the story line ends up being less important than the set pieces. The opening credits have barely ended before the first lightsabers have been drawn, and the next two hours are filled with high-octane, intergalactic action.
Lucas and his crew at Industrial Light & Magic have outdone themselves in production design and special effects. Nearly every shot contains a complicated computer-generated effect, supplemented by the usual model work. The film displays one dazzling visual after another, from what seem like hundreds of types of photorealistic creatures to a multitude of elaborate scenic designs.
A lengthy pod-racing sequence uses many of the same techniques as the celebrated forest chase in Jedi, only more elaborate and skillful. And the climactic scenes, including an extended spaceship battle and a duel to the death between the two Jedi Knights and Darth Maul, are beautifully executed.
Williams’ music, so important to the success of the original films, is suitably soaring, incorporating familiar themes as well as new elements like a haunting choral background during the final battle.
Less impressive are the human elements. Perhaps because Lucas’ creation has been elevated to such pop-culture deification, Phantom Menace doesn’t come close to the original trilogy’s witty, self-consciously ironic tone. Instead, it vacillates between ponderous solemnity and a distressing tendency towards silly schtick. The original characters, not to mention the actors who played them, are sorely missed, with no one displaying the personality and flair of Luke, Han Solo or Princess Leia.
Rather, everyone seems oddly muted, as if overwhelmed by the pressure of their soon-to-be-iconic status. Neeson’s Qui-Gon is a solid but semi-boring paternal figure, more a visual than emotional presence. McGregor, who possesses no shortage of charisma, is barely given anything to play, though he provides a skillful suggestion of the young Alec Guinness’ vocal quality. Portman, as the Queen and her look-alike handmaiden, plays the former with Kabuki makeup and an undefinable accent and the latter in a conventional, not particularly enthralling fashion.
Lucas seems to have miscalculated placing so much emphasis on Lloyd, whose Anakin is a central figure; he even commandeers a fighter plane during the climactic space battle. Designed as an alter-ego for millions of children wishing to project themselves into the Star Wars universe, the character is unlikely to interest anyone much older than 13, and the child actor, though cute, isn’t up to the task of carrying so much of the film.
For all of its years in gestation, Lucas’ screenplay seems oddly underdeveloped and lacks the earlier trilogy’s strong plot line and genuine wit. Whereas the original characters engaged in often-amusing, self-reflective banter, most of the humor here is infantile, revolving around the antics of aliens who use phrases like “big doo doo” and aren’t shy about expelling gas. Jar Jar Binks, more suitable for Toys R Us than the big screen, is particularly egregious and far more irritating than endearing.
Truly damaging to the overall impact is the lack of a compelling villain. Darth Maul, whose black and orange visage seems ready-made for a Halloween mask, plays like Darth Vader lite. His is notable for his elaborate, kung fu-style moves while fighting with his dual-sided lightsaber.
The biggest audience response came with the reappearance of several familiar, beloved characters from the originals, including R2-D2 and C-3PO, the latter seen in a skeletal stage; a younger, more vibrant Yoda, who apparently developed his backward-speaking style earlier; and ever-popular Jabba the Hutt. We get to see the original meeting between the two beloved droids, but it’s handled in decidedly low-key fashion. Cameo performances are delivered by Terence Stamp as a Senate head and a bald Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi Council member.
Ultimately, it’s hard to avoid feeling that Lucas has placed so much emphasis on outdoing himself technically that he lost sight of what made his original films so much fun. There will be those who respond enthusiastically to the stunning technical wizardry, but what has made Star Wars resonate so long in the public imagination is not its visual style — important as that is — but its ability to transport us to another dimension, to inform its imaginative, fantastic environments with rich humanism.
For his next two chapters, the supremely talented filmmaker may wish to spend less time working with computers and more dealing with the heart and soul of the mythical creation that has proven so seminal to today’s pop culture. — Frank Scheck, originally published on May 10, 1999.