Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999, George Lucas)

still-of-ewan-mcgregor-liam-neeson-and-jake-lloyd-in-star-wars--episode-i-the-phantom-menace-(1999)-large-picture

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

It’s around 30 years before the destruction of the Death Star… While rescuing a queen from a blockaded planet, two Jedi knights find a young, talented and possibly very important boy called Anakin Skywalker…

WHICH VERSION? I watched the 2001 DVD release of the movie, which added some extra footage to the 1999 theatrical version (in the pod-race sequence, chiefly).

GOOD GUYS:

* Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) is a Jedi knight who’s sent by his bosses to sort out a trade dispute centered on the planet Naboo. He’s confident, a bit cocky, can handle himself in a fight, and brings some much-needed swagger to the movie. When the nasty Trade Federation attack Naboo, Qui-Gon and apprentice Obi-Wan manage to rescue the planet’s queen. During a stop-off on Tatooine for supplies, Qui-Gon then finds a boy called Anakin who he thinks has great untapped Jedi potential. He presents the lad to the Jedi council – but when they refuse to train him, Qui-Gon says he’ll take Anakin on as his new apprentice (ta-ra, Obi-Wan!). He then returns to Naboo with the queen and, with the help of the locals, they defeat the Trade Federation. However, Qui-Gon is killed by an agent of the evil Sith. He uses his dying breath to beg Obi-Wan to look after Anakin… Jinn doesn’t fade away when he dies, like Ben does in Star Wars or Yoda in Return of the Jedi. Does he not have the right credentials?

* Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is Qui-Gon’s ‘padawan’ (Jedi apprentice). He’s young, still in training, and has a silly haircut. McGregor is doing a distracting impression of Alec Guinness’s distinctive voice, and is sadly unsteady in the role. To be fair to him, the character is lightly written and doesn’t get much to do: he follows Qui-Gon around, meets Anakin, then is very upset when his master is killed. He becomes a Jedi Knight proper at the end, and takes Anakin on as his padawan.

* Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is the elected leader of Naboo, despite being a teenager (she’s meant to be 14, according to internet sources). She dresses in elaborate Oriental-style outfits with some outrageous headwear. And for some reason, she speaks with a strange bass-deep voice. Once captured by the Trade Federation, she noticeably changes – especially her face. That’s because she’s actually swapped places with her handmaiden Sabé (Keira Knightly in an early film role), who then acts as a decoy. Amidala now uses the name Padmé and slots in place as one of the queen’s entourage. It does genuinely seem like this is meant to be a unspottable plot twist, despite Natalie Portman’s fame and recognisable face. All the characters seem duped – except maybe Qui-Gon, who drops hints that he’s seen through the ruse. As ‘Padmé’, the character pretends to be a lowly lackey, even cleaning R2-D2 when ordered to by the ‘queen’. She ends up on Tatooine and insists on going with Qui-Gon when he searches for supplies. She meets Anakin, a young boy, and they make a friendly connection. Once the gang get back to civilization (on the capital planet Coruscant), she and Sabé switch places again; Padmé is said to now be on errands. After a bit of politicking, she returns to Naboo to help with its liberation… and switches back to being ‘Padmé’ again. It seems she does this solely so there can be a ‘dramatic’ reveal, which surprises other characters but none of the audience members. Portman is absolutely rotten in this film. It’s a soulless, lethargic performance.

* Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) is a bumbling, clumsy, foolish, irritating, childlike Gungan. His people are an amphibious, humanoid race of beings who share Naboo with the human queen and her subjects. Soon after bumping into Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Jar Jar takes them to the Gungans’ underwater city. After that, he kind of hangs around for the rest of the story – only in the final-act battle does he get stuff to do. Famously, justly, rightly, accurately, importantly, Jar Jar has been seen as one of this film’s mortal wounds: a moribund character who is as annoying as he is probably racist. The actor’s only doing what’s scripted, so we can’t blame him.

* Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) is Amidala’s head of security. Quarshie, now of Holby City, uses an American accent.

* Sio Bibble (Oliver Ford Davies) is one of the politicians on Naboo. Davies doesn’t use an American accent.

* Boss Nass (Brian Blessed) is the leader of the Gungans. What accent Blessed is using is anyone’s guess. But he’s good fun.

* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is one of the service droids aboard Amidala’s ship. He excels during a crisis, so is promoted to the queen’s retinue. He later takes part in liberating Naboo.

* Ric Olié (Ralph Brown) is the pilot of Amidala’s ship. Brown also uses an American accent.

* Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) is the young boy who Qui-Gon finds on Tatooine. He’s about nine years old and is a slave who works for a trader. Despite his youth, he’s a very talented pilot – AS BEN TOLD US IN THE FIRST STAR WARS FILM! – and knows his technology. He offers to take part in a dangerous ‘pod race’ – Formula 1, Star Wars-style – in order to raise the cash Qui-Gon needs to fix Amidala’s ship. Even though a competitor sabotages Anakin’s pod, the lad still wins. As part of Qui-Gon’s bet with Anakin’s boss, Anakin is now freed from his slavery; having spotted his potential, Qui-Gon plans to train him as a Jedi. Anakin meets Obi-Wan, then helps to free Naboo – he ends up in a star fighter and actually destroys the Trade Federation mother ship. Sadly, Jake Lloyd is pretty terrible in the role. He was young, granted, but his acting is barely to a professional level. Why did they start with Anakin aged nine – couldn’t he have at least been a teenager?

* Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) is Anakin’s mum. She tells Qui-Gon that the boy was conceived immaculately. “I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him; I can’t explain…” she says sheepishly. Yeah, right. That, or a drunken night out in Mos Eisley – you decide. When Anakin is freed of his indentured service, Shmi isn’t. But rather than simply take her with them – why are Jedis caring about the rights of slave owners?! – Anakin has to leave her behind.

* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is a human-sized droid that Anakin has been building in his spare time. He’s not the finished article yet: he has no ‘skin’ and is shaky on his feet. As he’s the same type of droid as one we’ve seen earlier in the film, presumably Anakin is building the equivalent of a kit car. C-3PO meets his future partner-in-bickering, R2-D2, but gets left behind when Anakin leaves Tatooine.

* Wald (Warwick Davis) is a young friend of Anakin’s; he seems to be the same race as Greedo, the heavy from the first Star Wars movie. Davis also cameos as a pod-race spectator (without a mask this time).

* Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) is the leader of the Galactic Republic’s senate. He seems to have executive political power *and* act as the legislature’s presiding officer. Why an actor with Stamp’s ability was needed for such a perfunctory role is hard to imagine.

* Master Yoda (Frank Oz) is the leader of the Jedi council. He’s slightly spryer than he was in the original trilogy, and we even see him walk in a CGI long shot. When Qui-Gon presents Anakin, Yoda is skeptical, saying the boy’s future is uncertain.

* Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackson) is Yoda’s right-hand man (well, he sits to Yoda’s left actually). He tells us that there’s a prophecy about a boy who will “bring balance to the Force,” but doubts that it’s Anakin. (Is the point here that the prophecy is actually about Luke?) I remember seeing Jackson on TFI Friday a couple of years before this film came out, saying he was desperate to be in the new Star Wars. “I’ll play Luke Skywalker’s slave!” he cried.

* Fighter Pilot Bravo 5 (Celia Imrie) is a pilot who takes part in the attack on the Trade Federation fleet. I’ll repeat that: Celia Imrie.

BAD GUYS:

* Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) is the leader of the nasty Trade Federation, who are blockading the planet of Naboo. (The Trade Federation’s representative in the senate, Lott Dod, is voiced by the great Toby Longworth.)

* Lord Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) is a shadowy figure pulling all the strings behind the Trade Federation scenes. He clearly has an agenda: he wants power and he wants rid of the Jedi. When Senator Palpatine – Naboo’s apparently benign politician – shows up, anyone who’s ever a) seen the original trilogy, b) paid attention to Sidious’s face and voice, or c) SEEN A FILM BEFORE, will realise that they’re the same person. Yet like with Amidala and Padmé, it’s played like a Usual Suspects-style plot twist. As Palpatine, the character skillfully engineers a coup in the galactic senate. The president is ousted and Palpatine, seemingly reluctantly, takes his place. As in Return of the Jedi, McDiarmid knows what he’s doing: he’s good fun.

* Darth Maul (voice: Peter Serafinowicz, body: Ray Park) is Sidious’s evil Sith apprentice. A man of few words – and when he has them, they’re voiced by Duane Benzie from Spaced – but much attitude. He’s sent by his boss to wipe out the Jedi; after tracking them, they finally come face-to-face-to-face on Naboo. Darth Maul is revealed in a deliberately arch ‘hero’ shot scored by macabre choral music. He then switches on his double-ended lightsaber. After an epic duel, he cuts Qui-Gon down, but then is killed himself by Obi-Wan.

* Watto (Andy Secombe) is a flying alien with a dodgy Italian-type accent who has Anakin and his mother as slaves. He runs a trading business on Tatooine. Qui-Gon’s Jedi mind tricks won’t work on him because he’s a Toydarian. However, Qui-Gon later manages to con him by blatantly fixing a dice roll…

* Sebulba (Lewis Macleod) is an alien thug on Tatooine who is Anakin’s main competitor in the pod race.

* Jabba the Hutt is spotted during the pod-race sequence. His hangers-on seem to include Bib Fortuna, who’ll still be with him come the time of Return of the Jedi.

BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The pod race was thrilling in 1999 and holds up really well still. It’s dynamic, well edited and exciting. And it sounds great too: each pod makes its own distinctive noise. (Whether we need Greg Proops as a hammy American-TV-style sports commentator is a different matter.)

BEST COMEDY MOMENT: It’s not this film’s strength, humour. Liam Neeson’s generally louche demeanour is quite amusing.

MUSIC: Excellent, of course, especially when quoting themes from the original trilogy. John Williams has written some tremendous new stuff too – the Soviet-sounding Duel of the Fates cue, which scores the Jedis’ fight with Darth Maul, was everywhere for a while. Quite right too: it’s terrific.

PERSONAL CONNECTION: I first saw this film at a UCI cinema in Derby on Friday 16 July 1999. I went to a morning screening with my pal Will Haywood. Despite every negative point made in this review, I did really enjoy experiencing it for the first time. The build-up had been a long time coming. I remember Empire magazine printing the first publicity photos months before the release: they were images of the Naboo fighters in their hangers, and some of Anakin’s home on Tatooine, I think. Then the trailer was a revelation. I’d sat in my university computer room and waited for 23 minutes for it to download. When it played, it juddered and froze – but I was still agog.

REVIEW: Blimey, there’s CGI everywhere! Ships, planets, aliens, robots, even characters. It takes some getting used to after the physical ‘there’-ness of the original series. But on the whole, this both looks and sounds like Star Wars. The Art Deco-influenced stuff on Naboo is really smart, implying a grander, more artful age before the grimy, battered world we saw in the first movies, while Ben Burtt’s sound design is sensationally inventive. However, there are some serious issues with this film. A bland, muddled story that needs spelling out doesn’t help. Neither does the decision to turn the Force (described in such pleasingly vague terms in the original series) into a dull blood disease. But sadly the worst aspect is the cast. The dialogue is dreadful, even by George Lucas standards, but they just can’t find a way to power through it. There are a few actors who know what they’re doing – Liam Neeson, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L Jackson – but too many flounder, presumably directionless. The whole thing is crying out for the energy, charm and wit of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.

Six midi-chlorians out of 10

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