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Empire List #449: Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace

A long time ago, in a studio far, far away, a director named George Lucas created one of the most successful franchises of all time. It was a space opera featuring Jedi knights, dashing heroes, a princess in peril, funny sidekicks, and a classic battle of good vs. evil. It changed fantasy films and spawned generations of fans.

But then unfortunately, George Lucas had to make a prequel and piss off a lot of fanboys.

In his defence, there was no way he could meet the expectations of the fans all over the world. In 1999 “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” was one of the most anticipated movies of all times. Even in my middle school in Peru one of my teachers got really excited when he found the trailer online and managed to show it to his students. (Back then it was kind of a big deal to see a movie trailer off a computer.) The whole world was waiting in anticipation to see the next Star Wars movie and the beginning of the most famous saga of all time.

Having seen the original trilogy on VHS, I was excited too when I went to see “The Phantom Menace” on the big screen in Peru. The story opens with the same yellow title crawl setting the scene for the story that is about to be told. We learn that an even longer time ago, a planet called Naboo was the subject of a blockade organized by the greedy Trade Federation. Two Jedi, or knights of the republic, are sent to negotiate.

These Jedi are Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Not long after they land on the Trade Federation’s mother ship, it becomes clear these people are up to no good as the waiting room fills with deadly gas. In the hangar the Jedi see the Trade Federation is preparing an army to invade the planet. Being the heroic knights that they are, they must go down to Naboo, rescue its queen, and eventually save the day.

Once the Jedi rescue Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the invading army, they must settle their ship on the desert planet of Tatooine for repairs. This is where things get complicated. The parts they need belong to a greedy junk-shop owner called Watto (Andy Secombe) who will not accept their credit. Normally Qui-Gon would his powers to brainwash the flying blue creature, but conveniently enough mind tricks don’t work on him.

Fortunately, Watto is a gambler and Qui-Gon bets Watto’s slave, a young boy called Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) will win a deadly pod race in the desert. Because Qui-Gon senses the force is exceptionally strong with this boy, he also plays for the boy’s freedom, believing he is the missing link between the light and the dark side of the force, the mystical power that give Jedi their abilities. Anakin wins the race and he embarks on a life-changing voyage, leaving his mother behind.

Once they finally arrive at Coruscant, the planet that houses the galaxy’s Senate, the action takes a backseat to politics. Queen Amidala moves for the removal of the chancellor (Terence Stamp) in favour of senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who has promised to take a tough stand against the Trade Federation. Once that is accomplished, the queen decides to head back to her home planet to free her people and kick that robot army off her planet.

All of these events take place amid a sea of digital special effects that were not available back when George Lucas made the original trilogy. This allows for everything to be bigger. Coruscant is a massive city covering an entire planet. Queen Amidala receives help from fish-people living beneath her planet’s lakes. The race in the desert between Anakin and other alien racers involve sleds being pulled by what look like giant jet engines. This is all very spectacular and sometimes dramatic, such as when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight a dark Jedi in the Queen’s massive palace.

The movie has two main problems: story and characters. It feels as though George Lucas was trying too hard to cram all of these characters and events in one movie. The way the Jedi meet and free Anakin Skywalker, who the whole world knows will turn into the evil Darth Vader, feels forced. Unfortunately, as a character Anakin is uninteresting as played by Jake Lloyd. For a kid living as a slave, he seems rather unfazed by his life.

These are just problems observed by a casual Star Wars fan. Hard-core fans wanted to crucify George Lucas for details like Anakin being the one who built the droid C3-PO, the cheesy dialogue, and the creation of Jar Jar Binks, the most annoying character in the galaxy. He was supposed to be a funny sidekick. Instead, he became annoying after ten minutes.

Overall, I would say this is an entertaining movie. It works as a stand-alone adventure movie, has great battle scenes, great special effects (for their time), and a rousing score by John Williams. But at the end of the day, the biggest problem is if you have already seen the original trilogy, why bother with the new one?

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