Film Review: Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace (1999)

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It’s shiny and exciting to look at, a gorgeous smorgasbord of fantastic sets, wardrobe, make-up, and visual effects.  But it’s terribly over-produced, turning these assets into something garish and distracting.  It’s a shame the considerable talents of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman couldn’t be put to better use.  All three appear insufferably constrained in their roles.  Jake Lloyd as young Anakin is just plain bad, and to a great degree, the movie rides on his incapable shoulders.

But the biggest problem is the script.  Lucas knows story structure and mythology like nobody else, but he’s terrified of injecting the least bit of drama into these movies, insisting the genre can’t handle it.  Irvin Kershner had to struggle with Lucas to give The Empire Strikes Back the emotional depth that sets it apart from all other chapters.  I wish someone were there antagonizing Lucas during the making of this movie, because The Phantom Menace is an emotional void.  There’s a lot of dramatic potential in Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace, but it’s all curiously saved for the last half of Episode III.  Instead of drama, we get a tedious amount of puerile jokes, thanks in large part to one mister Jar Jar Binks.

On the plus side, there’s amazing craftsmanship on display, especially from sound designer and editor Ben Burtt.  The highlight of the whole movie is the Pod Race through the dunes and valleys of Tatooine, thanks primarily to Burtt’s amazing work recording, creating, and layering sounds — this is his show if you ask me.  John Williams is also in peak performance, delivering a score on par with the originals.  Trisha Biggar’s costumes, Doug Chiang’s conceptual designs, and ILM’s visual effects are also pretty frickin’ cool.

There’s enormous talent behind the scenes of this movie, but the whole simply does not equal the sum of the parts.

Rating: 2.5/5 ★★½☆☆ 

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About Scott_S

Scott studied film and sociology at Indiana University and is currently the video producer for a large publishing company. He is the director of several independent films, including "House of Hope," "Off the Beaten Path," "The Day Joe Left," and "Found." For more about Scott, visit www.scottschirmer.com. Scott is also one of the principal organizers of the Dark Carnival Film Festival. (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com)

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