Shall I damn with faint praise or praise with faint damns? This is the question...
I wish I could say that Lucas has done it again. I can certainly say that in some ways he has bettered himself, as one would expect after sixteen years. The special effects are superb -- so superb that in many cases it's hard to see that they are special effects; you'll believe that Gungans and Traders are real creatures, hired by Lucas from some casting central in the sky, not CGI constructs. Backgrounds, particularly urban ones (on Naboo, Coruscant and Tatooine), start from what Lucas showed us in the recent special edition of Return of the Jedi and go on from there.
In fact, one of the (in this case, very minor) flaws in the film derives from the improvements in technology over the past decade or so. It is hard to believe that the sleek, powerful spacecraft of The Phantom Menace precede the x-wing fighters of Star Wars by a third of a century in the context of the story.
Unfortunately, when we take our eyes away from the effects (very hard to do) and look at the story, we find that it has been seriously slighted. There may be reasons for this, but if these reasons are valid, then Lucas might have done better to skip the prequel and do something else entirely.
At the core, the story is the beginning of a classic tragedy -- actually, two classic tragedies, a la Aristotle's definition. The main potential tragic hero is the Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), whose character flaw is his own pride and certainty, in the face of doubts from the Jedi Council and his own apprentice, our old friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, anticipating Alec Guinness); the secondary potential tragic hero is, of course, the little boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), whose fear and rage -- perhaps deriving from his boyhood as a slave on Tatooine -- will contribute to the enslavement of a galaxy in his later life. Unfortunately, neither of these tragedies has time or scope to play out in this single two-hour episode; and, also unfortunately, we all know what comes later. So for both these reasons, the story is really sort of a non-starter. Much of this may, of course, be recoverable in the second and third episodes; it will be interesting to see, for instance, how much Obi-Wan's and the Council's reluctance with regard to training Anakin will contribute to his eventual turn to the Dark Side. But this episode fails to stand by itself.
Furthermore, handling of some characters by the story was either wrong or unnecessary, particularly a few of our old friends from the former series. It is hard to recognize in smiling, jovial, conniving Nabooite Senator Palpatine the sinister, hooded and cruel Galactic Emperor of Return of the Jedi, but it's easy to see how the one became the other, and Ian McDiarmid has done a consummate job in both roles (sixteen years apart!!!). (1) But the robot C3PO (Anthony Daniels) really had no place in this story, and should have been left out; and R2D2 (Kenny Baker), while his role was important, was badly mishandled, given an important job to do early in the episode (thus bringing him to Queen Amidala's attention) and then allowed to do nothing much but trail along after the other players through the rest of the story -- this sequence should have been reversed, with R2D2 playing a genuinely critical role in the climax. And it's hard to see sinister, dominating Darth Vader in little Anakin, who succeeds in destroying an enemy space installation more through fumbling and bumbling than through conscious, dedicated effort; in fact, it's almost impossible to see any sort of future Jedi Knight in the kid, however many "mitochlorians" this offspring of a virgin birth has in his cells. There are also a couple of semi-familiar names that get little play, but contribute to the ambience, perhaps most notably Bail Antilles, the Senator from Alderaan (C3PO "Our last owner was Captain Antilles" [Star Wars]) who runs against Palpatine for the Chancellorship. (Political note the Senate of the Republic seems to be modelled on the Supreme Soviet, in that not only geographical entities -- planets such as Naboo -- but also non-geographical entities -- such as the Trading Federation -- are represented there.) In one notable sequence, Jabba the Hutt (Return of the Jedi) appears as (according to the credits) himself. We also get a quick glance at some Jawas, a group of Sand People (Tusken Raiders) as proactive pod-racing fans, and a friend of Anakin's who happens to belong to the same species as Jabba's later (and late) minion Greedo (Star Wars).
I probably should add that, if you break the film down into pieces, you'll get the impression that you have seen at least some of the pieces before -- and sometimes better done. The pod race is by Ben Hur out of the jet speeder chase in Return of the Jedi. The laser sword battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the one side and Sith apprentice Darth Maul on the other is a staple of all the movies so far. The attack on the blockade station is the attack on the Death Star from Star Wars and Return of the Jedi -- except that it's shorter, more desultory, and considerably more disappointing. Even the final scene is a take-off on the one in Star Wars; but where the original was Lucas pastiching Riefenstahl, this one is merely Lucas pastiching Lucas, and it shows.
Story aside, though, Lucas's attention to detail also contributes much to the overall ambience. His universe has a certain consistency to it. The aerial landing platforms on Coruscant will remind you of the one in Cloud City on Bespin (The Empire Strikes Back) in both form and function. Tatooine here is, like the Emperor, not the Tatooine of either Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, at least socially (whatever became of the Hutt hegemony? chattel slavery? pod racing?), but there are routes for getting from here to there, and it would be interesting to see what role Anakin Skywalker plays in destroying the first two, which are blots on the galaxy. And Lucas is also more faithful to his own vision than might appear at first sight; while many viewers of the whole series (to date) will be surprised to find that there is a counter-Jedi brotherhood called the "Sith", this group was mentioned in novelizations at least as early as 1977 (Darth Vader was known as "the dark lord of the Sith"). We also discover (if we are attentive) that the "Darth" in "Darth Vader" would seem to be not a name but a title, also carried by this espisode's secondary villain Darth Maul.(2) On the other hand, it's not clear to me why "light sabers" have become "laser swords".
One additional lovely Lucas detail the Gungans (did I get that name right?), which appear (it is hard to tell) to be strictly CGI products, are all individuals. Despite the fact that they are totally non-human in appearance, except for being bipeds, there's no feeling whatsoever of "those people all look alike"; their physiognomies and bodily structures differ as much among themselves as a similar group of humans would.
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman)? Other reviewers have discussed her at length. Most seem to take it for granted that she will eventually become the mother of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, but her relationship to young Anakin seems to be more quasi-maternal than otherwise -- anything else, of course, would have left fans' eyebrows raised, given that Anakin is only about nine or ten years old, at most. Still, who knows what will happen when Anakin is twenty and Amidala is only thirty?
Music? I paid little attention. In one or two places it became annoyingly obtrusive, but that happened in the original films as well. I'll need to hear the sound track without benefit of the film before I comment on Williams' work this time around.
Language fans may be happy to know that the language spoken on this Tatooine would appear to be the same used by Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. I noticed one phrase, used by pod racer Sebulba, that I particularly remembered from the earlier film ("Bantha podu" = "Bantha fodder"). However, most inhabitants of Tatooine seem to be able to speak the same English that was used generally long, long ago in this galaxy far, far away. Even Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and the other Gungans speak English -- using the name very loosely and generally, of course.
Worth seeing for aficionados both of the series and of cutting-edge special effects. Probably worth seeing more than once for these. But it just doesn't have the feel of the original Star Wars, I'm sorry to say, and probably won't have the "legs". Well, maybe Episode 2 (in 2002) will mark a pickup.
Ironic post-note Mad magazine, in a parody of one of the earlier movies, had a character based on Jabba the Hutt renamed "Pizza the Hut". Has anybody noticed, from TV ads, that Pizza Hut is now one of Lucas's marketing partners?
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