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

Director: George Lucas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 136 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (the fourth flick in the series) is one of the most famous examples of directorial-hubris-gone-wrong in cinema history. Perhaps surrounded by too many yes-men, director George Lucas created one of the most, uh, interesting and revealing films ever made. The somewhat unfocused storytelling revolves two Jedi dispatched to negotiate an end to a blockade of the peaceful planet of Naboo by the Trade Federation. The Phantom Menace obviously can’t reach the heights of the original Star Wars trilogy, but how does it hold up as a standalone movie?

The problems with this picture are numerous, and have probably been better articulated elsewhere. The dialogue and acting are stuffy (Liam Neeson, who plays Qui-Gon Jinn, is visibly embarrassed and practically comatose), the special effects that were computer-generated haven’t held up too well over time, and there are several racially-insensitive characters, including the notorious Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who ends up stepping in shit, getting kicked in the nuts, and getting farted on. One of the most infuriating additions to the Star Wars universe was the explanation that one’s ability to use to Force is dictated by their “midichlorian” count, reducing the mystical energy field of the original trilogy to something that can literally be measured in a blood test. Are you kidding me? Interestingly, the beloved characters from the first three motion pictures that make appearances here perhaps emerge better off than they do in the other two movies of the prequel trilogy, although the decision to turn Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) into “Space Jesus” is a regrettable one.

It’s not all doom and gloom here, though. The imaginative world-building is adventurous and commendable, giving the viewer plenty of eye candy to gawk at. This is especially appreciated after the generally play-it-safe world-building of the sequel trilogy. John Williams is clearly going above and beyond the call of duty here with the musical score. The action scenes, like the Podrace and the lightsaber duels with Darth Maul (Ray Park), are exciting, and the movie, despite occasionally straying too far into the politics of the Star Wars galaxy, is never boring (and that counts for a lot).

As an entry into the Star Wars franchise, this one drops the ball a bit. However, I think it fairs pretty well as a standalone space opera (which is how it will be rated). It’s eccentric to be sure, but, divorced from the series that it belongs to, it’s an engaging watch. This is probably just the childhood nostalgia talking, but it doesn’t bore me like it does some people. In fact, it’s kind of charming in a weird sort of way. If you’re going to introduce somebody to the Star Wars series, don’t start here…go with the original trilogy first.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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