Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" Review

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Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, two Jedi Knights escape a hostile blockade to find allies and come across a young boy who may bring balance to the Force, but the long dormant Sith return to reclaim their old glory.
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Sci-Fi Movie Month: "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" Review

-- Rating: PG (violence)
Length: 136 minutes
Release Date: May 19, 1999
Directed By: George Lucas
Genre: Sci-fi Action

Everyone knows the story of the "Star Wars" original trilogy-Luke Skywalker discovers his heritage as the son of the most powerful Jedi Knight and uses his burgeoning Force powers to topple the evil Galactic Empire and restore the Jedi Order, all while coming to terms with the existence of his father, Darth Vader, who turned to the Dark Side. However, this was the latter half of the overall story. "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" starts the prequels, telling the story of Anakin Skywalker's rise and fall as well as the rise of the Empire. Every story, as they say, has a beginning.

The main plot of the film focuses on a blockade from the Trade Federation, a corporate conglomerate, on the planet of Naboo. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is still a young Jedi Knight at this point and has been sent with his master, Qui-gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), to help resolve the dispute. Negotiations go south, involving many battle droids being lightsabered by the two Jedi as they escape to the planet. There, they meet up with an amphibious creature, Jar Jar Binks, and make their way to the capital city to speak with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). They help her escape from the planet and agree to protect her on her journey to the Republic capital planet, Coruscant. An attack from one of the blockade ships damages their ship and they have to crash-land on Tatooine, the desert planet featured in "A New Hope."

There, they meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), and Qui-gon is attempts to get the parts to repair the ship. During the adventures on Tatooine, Qui-gon discovers Anakin is unusually strong in the Force, which proves beneficial when he wins a Podrace, securing his freedom and the necessary parts.

Meanwhile, Sith apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) has been dispatched to bring back the Queen. He lands on Tatooine and briefly fights Qui-gon, but Qui-gon manages to get on board his ship and they travel to Coruscant. While Amidala makes her case before the Senate, Anakin is taken before the Jedi Council, but refused training because Jedi Master Yoda rightfully believes he will turn to the Dark Side. At the Senate, Palpatine, Amidala's confidant, has been unable to secure aid for the planet of Naboo.

When the Jedi and Amidala return to Naboo and make peace with Jar Jar's people, a four-front battle commences: the Queen's troops securing the palace, the Gungans engaging the droid army on the plains outside Theed, a space battle to destroy a droid control ship, and the obligatory lightsaber duel between Qui-gon and Obi-wan versus Darth Maul. Qui-gon dies, Obi-wan kills Maul, and the rest of the battles wrap up, providing an overall happy ending with Anakin becoming Obi-wan's Jedi apprentice. Of course, the looming threat of another Sith hangs overhead.

Most of the actors were relatively unknown at this point, and the dialogue at times felt very forced. However, this could be attributed to the pressure of playing such famous and beloved characters. Qui-gon, however, was one of the most well respected performances of the film, and Obi-wan stepped into his shoes in subsequent films.

This "Star Wars" film is heavier on special effects, allowing for bigger action sequences. This is because of the technology newly available. Also, the action feels more hyperactive. The lightsaber duels in particular were far more fast-paced and featured more flips and spins. Depending on how the viewer perceives Jedi, this can be a detriment or a good thing. However, aside from this, the action sequences almost have a foregone conclusion. The Jedi are repeatedly shown throughout this film to be virtually unstoppable in battle against groups of droids, but this arguably increased the emotional impact to see Qui-gon fall in battle to Darth Maul and made it even more satisfying to see Obi-wan slice him in two.

John Williams reprises his role as music composer for the film and does, as usual, a fantastic job. From the fast-paced "Duel of the Fates" to the melancholy "Qui-gon's Funeral" to the peaceful theme of Anakin Skywalker, he used the full capabilities of an orchestra to bring the film's score to life.

The film works well as a stand-alone piece, even without the "Star Wars" name attached. Looking at it as a political or war drama similar to films of the '50s, Lucas's influences are easy to see. "The Phantom Menace" also makes excellent use of foreshadowing for fans of the original trilogy. Plenty of characters are introduced in younger form, and it's interesting to see the changes. Obi-wan, rather than the wise Jedi Master from "A New Hope," is a brash young Jedi Knight. Yoda senses Anakin's inner fear, and as Yoda says, "Fear leads to the Dark Side." Give this film a watch to see how the "Star Wars" universe develops.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars