Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace (1999) Movie Review

Selling a Star Wars movie to the moviegoing public is like selling blood to vampires. You know they want it, they know they want it, and not any amount of bad press or bad reviews about the movie (or blood) is going to put them off from getting it. This is the dilemma (if you can call it that) for Star Wars guru George Lucas as he embarks on the latest installment in his space opus.

Episode 1 is the kind of movie that requires you to see it more than once. The first time is to get over the mind-boggling special effects that are seamlessly integrated with the human actors and live surroundings. It is a task (but far from impossible) to distinguish between flesh and blood actors and animated characters such as Jar Jar Binks, or an army of cgi-blooded characters that populates the screen. In one amazing scene that takes place in the massive Senate Chamber, the entire cast is made of cgi with only a few humans interspersed. And you know what? I couldn’t tell the difference. Episode 1 is that well done.

So after seeing it the first time and getting over the massive leap in cgi technology, what can you expect from the second, third, or even fourth viewing? Well, if you’re like me, a second viewing is enough to see the many faults in the movie. This is not to say that Episode 1 is a bad film. That isn’t the case by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not, well, a very good film if you take away all the cgi and sfx. Episode 1’s bread and butter is its legend — its Jedi myths, its alien worlds, and its pirate cantinas. Take all that away and there’s not much to hold onto.

Story, as was the case in the original Star Wars, its sequels The Empire Strikes back and Return of the Jedi, is sparse and simple. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out and where it’s going. Star Wars is a bedtime story to get your kids to go to sleep. It’s a “Once upon a time” movie, and though memorable for its inventions, it will never be taught in screenwriting classes. The script, written by Lucas, is just not very good.

There is no depth to the characters, no sense of personality, and little semblance of “acting” on display. Truly, even renown thespians such as Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson are wooden. Worst, young actress Natalie Portman and young Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) are terrible. Both actors speak their dialogue like machines without the ability to emote. Portman is especially terrible as Queen Amidala, who has a monotonous speech pattern that is sure to invoke howls of laughter — or at least a lot of cringing by acting students. It’s atrocious, wooden, and if indeed it was Lucas’ order that she speak like this, it was a terrible choice. She comes across as a lifeless Kabuki without heart, and considering that she is the engine that runs the movie, it is a bad choice for Lucas, and an even worst display of acting by Miss Portman.

I cannot believe I am going to say this next sentence, but…

In fact, the cgi characters have more personality than their living, breathing counterparts. Gasp! Even the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks shows more personality than his human counterparts.

Taken as a whole, perhaps the bad acting and terrible dialogue means little. A movie like Star Wars, which has garnered such a huge fan following, is beyond critique. Like blood to vampires — they know they want it, you know you want it, and bad P.R. — or even bad story, bad acting, and bad writing — is not going to change anyone’s mind.

All that being said, Episode 1’s special effects and its brilliant use of cgi work are truly magnificent. That aspect alone will make Episode 1 astounding. Unfortunately, if you’re in the mood for something more than eye candy, you shouldn’t bother with Episode 1, since you’ll come away still starving.

George Lucas (director) / George Lucas (screenplay)
CAST: Liam Neeson …. Qui-Gon Jinn
Ewan McGregor …. Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman …. Queen Amidala
Jake Lloyd …. Anakin Skywalker

Buy Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace on DVD