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IN SHORT: oog factor of 10. [Rated PG, 130 minutes]
30 years earlier than "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . ."
Cranky's not sure what movie the film student mentality big name press critics were sitting in when they wrote their slams of Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (aka EP1), and posted 'em on their websites. It sure wasn't the same movie I sat at. While it's policy not to compare to Source Material, I will allude to the original Star Wars trilogy from time to time, to make my point clear. No surprises in the story of this part will be revealed, I promise.
Writer/director George Lucas' Episode One is a different animal from 1977's Star Wars (hereafter A New Hope or EP4). The Phantom Menace must achieve different ends, being the opening chapter of what will be a ten-hour long epic when all is said and done. It has to introduce a new set of characters for this trilogy and give us enough reasons to come back to see how it turns out for them ('cuz virtually everybody knows how it turns out for Anakin Skywalker).
Basically: The planet Naboo is under attack from the greedy Galactic Trade Federation due to some kind of dispute over the taxation of trade routes. Naboo's Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), a pacifist, will not give in to the Federation's demands, nor is she willing to wage War. Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a Jedi Master and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to Naboo to mediate the dispute. The Federation, in league with a shadowy villain calling himself Darth Sidious, has no intention of negotiation. Let us say you will see laser swords used in ways previously unimagined, and move on. On the surface of Naboo, the Jedis literally run into a clumsy native of the Gungan race, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). As the situation deteriorates, the Jedis, the Queen and her court, and Jar Jar flee for Coruscant, the planet wide Capital of the Republic, to plead their case before the Senate. Engine troubles force them to land on an obscure planet named Tatooine, where the Trade Federation has no hold, due to competition from a race of mobsters familiar to us all, the Hutts. While searching out replacement parts for his spaceship, Qui-Gon meets a nine year old slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the Jedi feels something...
We all know what that means. As Qui-Gon puts it, "nothing happens by coincidence."
EP1 must set up the background for all that is to follow, in this trilogy and the next. That's a tremendous amount of weight to carry and it is borne admirably. The Phantom Menace features the "return" of Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz); provides origins for the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels). It introduces another Jedi Master, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), sole human on the Jedi Council that sets the standards for Jedi conduct and determines who is to be trained in the Jedi way. We see glimpses of what Imperial society looked like before the Empire. We meet new characters such as Naboo's Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), the shadowy Darth Sidious and his apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park), who is trained in the Jedi way and sports red skin, Satanic horns and a double bladed laser sword. The net result, the duels are even more frenetic. Very cool beans.
EP1's special effects are seamless integrated into live action. The most spectacular of them all is the digital creation of the character Jar Jar Binks who looks and moves so realistically, you could believe he's real. Yes, there are actors in alien masks in this movie, but there are equal numbers of digital creations in almost every scene in the movie. Besides Jar Jar there is, of course, Jabba the Hutt; the entire Gungan race and its leader Boss Nass (Brian Blessed); the mosquito-like Watto (Andrew Secombe), owner of Anakin Skywalker and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August); lots of animals and virtually all the spacecraft. The cityscapes created by ILM far surpass their work on The Mummy. The detail is impressive. The settings, including the underwater city inhabited by the Gungans, the city/planet of Coruscant and the Queen's royal palace are all beautiful and breathtaking. The space battles, underwater action sequences and centerpiece pod race on Tattooine are all impressive pieces of work, even more so considering that at no point do the effects call attention to themselves, thus diminishing the story that is being laid out.
Liam Neeson moves like an aging Zen Master through his role. Ewan McGregor has Alec Guinness' voice patterns down pat. Natalie Portman works twice as hard as everybody else and Jake Lloyd, who was eight years old when this was filmed, doesn't drop the ball. Pernilla August, as Anakin's mother, provides a fine emotional tone that doesn't exist elsewhere in this picture, though her character does spout some nonsense when asked about Anakin's father. I'll leave that to you to discover. Ray Park, as Maul, is just plain scary to look at, though he doesn't radiate evil as Darth Vader will.
The Phantom Menace's is just a shade difficult to grasp. The smallest of kidlets may gape open mouthed at the graphics and effects and action sequences on the screen but at its core, the story of taxation and war will be well over their heads. Could you discuss taxation, and what it means, with a ten year old? I didn't think so. What determines "Evil" in this flick is not as clear as it was in the original Trilogy. Politics will do that. You will need to ignore the premise, at least for this part of the saga. Cranky hasn't even mentioned Clones, the use of which add more layers of intrigue to this story, and the stories to come. Look closely. Clones are everywhere.
If you were expecting the Second Coming, you will be disappointed. If you have a life, what Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace delivers, aside from an incredibly long title, are action sequences that will bring you back to see it again and again, as in EP4: A New Hope. For all the shades of gray that make up this flick, it stands on par with the original Star Wars for action, surpasses it for plot movement and falls a wee bit short in presenting clear cut good and evil.
Gee, Cranky can write an awful lot of words when he tries hard not to give the story away <vbg>.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace, he would have paid...
... waitasec, I've got to catch my breath. That title gets me every time....
For this fan, Empire is still the best, and Episodes One and Four come close behind. No doubt about it, I'll see it more than once. The setup now in place, everything you've (well, we've) been waiting for will start showing up in Episode Two: Empire Rising and Episode Three: Fall of the Jedi (all titles are rumors), to wit:
The Clone Wars
The Clone Wars
Three years and counting...
28 Weeks Later
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