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Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

#633 - Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
George Lucas, 1999

Two Jedi knights are brought in to solve a trade dispute that soon escalates into a major military conflict.

Yep, I'm running the series and in chronological order. The saga begins with The Phantom Menace, which I'm not entirely sure I could truly bring myself to hate purely on the basis of nostalgia value. I was nine when this came out in theatres and naturally in the middle of the target audience, so of course I really liked it. Of course, I aged out of that before too long (but not before seeing it a lot, and not always of my own accord) but of course I'm still willing to re-watch it just to see how it holds up even now. Unfortunately, nostalgia and fond memories only go so far when it comes to this film. Everything that I was willing to overlook back in the day has now come roaring back in full force as I re-entered a galaxy far, far away. The tale starts off with the introduction of Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) who start the film trying to resolve a trade dispute between the small planet of Naboo and an opportunistic corporation. Action breaks out before too long, with Neeson and McGregor being forced to rescue the planet's queen and attempt an escape to the galaxy's capital city-planet Coruscant, but circumstances maroon them on a desert planet called Tatooine where they encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) whose gifts as both a pilot and mechanic prove to be quite advantageous.

To be fair, there are some qualities that I do like about The Phantom Menace. Some good actors are assembled here and they are able to elevate some of the material on display, especially Neeson and McGregor as the calmly confident master and his fresh-faced but capable apprentice respectively. Lucas' tendency towards visual perfectionism is shown off frequently, resulting in some decently-crafted production design and practical effects. Though the computer-generated effects are naturally more pronounced, they are handled with competence more often than not (even if they are a bit too obvious in some instances). This extends to a fair bit of the action as a lot of the usual Star Wars action set-pieces are indulged, whether it's high-speed pursuits or lightsaber duels. Some moments are handled well, whether it's an underwater chase that sees the Jedi heroes attempting to escape from a series of dangerous deep-sea creatures or the climax involving their two-against-one duel against malevolent Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park). There's also something to be said for series composer John Williams' score, which evokes all the original trilogy's leitmotifs while also providing solid additions of his own (most notably during the aforementioned climatic duel).

Of course, these moments are all but cancelled out by a lot of the less impressive things on display. The film's pacing is alternately quick and slow, either pushing through a story quickly (especially during the first act) or getting bogged down in seemingly extraneous matters (most notoriously during the sections on the city-planet Coruscant, which mainly consist of political diatribes and various council meetings, though the entire Tatooine sequence is pretty sluggish as well). The attempt to set up a climax that has four separate sections is ambitious but doesn't exactly pay off when at least one or two of them aren't too interesting anyway (and that whole ten-minute pod-racing segment used to be so amazing but now it does feel unnecessarily long). The character of Jar Jar Binks naturally becomes less tolerable with each viewing, especially once I realise how forced his presence is in some cases (this was the viewing where I finally realised how little sense it made for an amphibious creature to be out and about on Tatooine, but hey, this movie needs to feature its comic-relief character somehow). The same goes for Portman and Lloyd as the youngest heroes, who do their best but just aren't that good. Solid actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Brian Blessed aren't put to the best use as they are relegated to small roles. These are just a few of the factors that lead to me realising that, while I don't really hate The Phantom Menace, I definitely feel like I've seen it more than enough times. It's visually decent, but there really isn't anything here to make me want to revisit it...until the lead-up to the next film or trilogy, that is.