When Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 1977, it was hailed as an instant science fiction classic. Commercially and critically successful, it was part of the reason for the sudden popularity of sci-fi films in the late 1970s. After two sequels and a gap of 16 years, George Lucas released the first of three prequels to the saga. Shrouded in the biggest hype seen for a film in decades, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace became the biggest selling film of the year.
Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to negotiate a treaty with the Trade Federation over the blockade of the planet Naboo and its regent Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). After escaping a betrayal by the Federation, the Jedis and the Queen travel to the nearby planet of Tatooine, where they meet precociously talented child Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) whom Qui-Gon sees as a potential future Jedi.
Unfortunately, constant comparison to the original films proved a huge handicap for the new ones. Almost no film could have lived up to the hype and expectation. The Phantom Menace not only fails to reach these levels, but actually sinks lower than many science fiction films released around the same time.
Fears over Lucas’ inability to write dialogue proved well founded, with the fantastic cast assembled reading exposition-heavy lines in an unconvincing manner – especially Lloyd, who really struggles to make a mark as the future Darth Vader. Whoever decided fans wanted a plot revolving around trade blockades and negotiations clearly lost sight of what made the originals so popular.
After promising a return to the grand space opera of the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace took the franchise in an unexpected direction. Gone was the enigmatic nature of the Jedi, with hundreds of them still alive in the galaxy and the ‘midichlorians’ explaining how they get their powers. With the sheer amount of CG used, everything also has an unnerving cleanliness, which sets it apart from the unique ‘dirty’ appeal of the original films. The Phantom Menace’s computer-generated effects have not aged well and do not measure up to the now-classic Jim Henson puppets of the originals. The film is almost animated rather than real-action, which is a disappointment.
There are nods to famous locals from the originals just to reinforce that, despite the difference in appearance, this is still the same universe made famous by Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. Unfortunately this is a Star Wars film with the soul ripped out. The final act at least injects some incredible action scenes, and the revelation about Darth Maul’s (Ray Park) specialized lightsabre is the best moment in the film. As always with Star Wars, there are enough fringe characters to keep the stories from the expanded universe going for decades, but as a film, the fans demand more.
So with a dull premise, woeful dialogue and a very non-Star Wars glossy sheen to proceedings, The Phantom Menace stands as one of the biggest disappointments in film history. The fight scenes are incredibly well-choreographed and the John Williams soundtrack is as wonderfully bombastic as expected.
- Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
There just isn't enough heart or character and it is this that really hurts for fans of the series. George Lucas should be ashamed of calling this a Star Wars film.