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Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
written and directed by George Lucas
131 minutes
Phantom Menace logo
Phantom Menace poster
Phantom Menace poster
 
Principal Cast
Liam Neeson
Qui-Gon Jinn
Ewan McGregor
Obi-Wan Kenobi
Natalie Portman
Queen Amidala
Jake Lloyd
Anakin Skywalker
Pernilla August
Shmi Skywalker
Frank Oz
Yoda
Ian McDiarmid
Senator Palpatine
Oliver Ford Davies
Sio Bibble
Hugh Quarshie
Captain Panaka
Ahmed Best
Jar Jar Binks
Samuel L. Jackson
Mace Windu
Ray Park
Darth Maul
Peter Serafinowicz
Darth Maul
Ralph Brown
Ric Olié
Terence Stamp
Chancellor Valorum
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rick Norwood

In The Phantom Menace you will see wonders you have never seen before.

The original Star Wars forever raised our expectations where special effects are concerned. After seeing The Phantom Menace you will have some idea, for the first time, what special effects will be like in the 21st Century. The film is beautiful. The undersea city, not hinted at in the previews or publicity stills, is a marvelous conception. But to that is added, even in the interior views, fish swimming in both the foreground and the background, giving a sense of three dimensional reality to wonderland. This same depth of field is used to great advantage as a huge spaceship lands on a forest planet. We see its shadow on the trees below, and, far in the distance, a flock of birds, disturbed by its passage, takes flight. I could rave for a long time: the planet-spanning city at sunset, the slave quarters on Tatooine at night -- but you will see all this for yourself, unless the invidious reviews talk you out of seeing this treat of a movie.

The syndicated movie review in my local newspaper gave The Phantom Menace two stars. In other words, the reviewer, after seeing the film, is telling his readers that The Phantom Menace is no more entertaining than, to pick a couple of two star movies at random, Cop Land or The First Wives Club. Two stars suggests ordinary, run of the mill, nothing special. But even if the reviewer honestly hated The Phantom Menace, he knows that it is not an ordinary film. Why, then, are bad reviews of this marvelous science fantasy the rule rather than the exception.

Many reviewers complain about the hype, the marketing, as if that were somehow relevant to enjoyment of the movie. I have never bought a Phantom Menace toy, and probably never will. Does that qualify me to enjoy the movie for itself?

But I think what is really going on is that film reviewers are mostly old. My desk reference to films gives the 1939 Gunga Din four stars, its highest rating. Every fault that critics find in The Phantom Menace is found ten times over in Gunga Din. It is all action. The characterization, what there is of it, is sentimental, the plot unbelievable. And, even though I am a fan of period film, I find Gunga Din creaky and slow. My kids find it unwatchable.

The achievement of George Lucas in The Phantom Menace is to deliver information, both visual and verbal, with a speed and clarity that keeps kids raised on the art form of video games from being bored. Critics, most of whom look down on video games the way my parents looked down on science fiction, just can't take it in.

One critic complained that the cuts are too fast, another that there is no human interest. There is plenty of human interest, but you've got to be paying attention. I'll mention two great moments, each lasting only a few seconds.

Ani is told by Qui-Gon Jinn to hide until the fighting is over and it is safe to come out, but Ani, naturally, hides in the cockpit of a star fighter. He starts the ship to take out some robots about to kill Queen Amindala, and on auto-pilot, the ship takes off. Soon Ani finds himself in the middle of a space battle. As he prepares to take control of the ship and join the fray, he explains to R2D2, "Qui-Gon told me to stay in the cockpit."

Another special moment. Qui-Gon is fighting Darth Maul. A force screen separates them briefly. Darth Maul glares through the screen at Qui-Gon. And Qui-Gon kneels, turns off his light saber, and uses the few seconds to rest, to center himself, to find calm.

Most action movies have very little plot, the stretches between one set piece and another are dull, and the various car, train, and helicopter chases have very little to do with what is happening. For example, if you took the car chase from The Rock, and the boat chase from Face/Off, and exchanged them, neither movie would be one whit different.

In The Phantom Menace, as in all the Star Wars films, every moment has the look and feel of Star Wars. You could not put one frame into another film without attracting attention, nor could you put one frame of another film into Star Wars without it standing out like a sore thumb. George Lucas has given us a great gift, and deserves better than the carping of small minded critics. I love movies. But often I have rented a film on the four star recommendation of a reviewer only to find that it is slow paced, in black and white, about ordinary characters to whom nothing happens.

Ah, well. I need to rest, center myself, find calm. Don't let the critics get you down, George.

Is The Phantom Empire perfect? Of course not. I would have preferred a more realistic look to some of the aliens, who appear to have been born in a Warner Brother's cartoon. And I don't find the deliberate scientific blunders amusing. Not once, but several times, the characters say that a submarine is going to take them through the core of the planet.

But these are minor quibbles. I saw The Phantom Menace opening day (and I didn't wait in line). I loved it. I saw it again the next day and enjoyed it even more the second time around.

At the climax of the film, George Lucas does something I would have thought impossible. A common device of action films is to cut back and forth between two plot threads, occurring in different places at the same time. In The Phantom Menace there are four plot threads. The intercutting among them is rapid, and yet every moment is crystal clear, and the action is original: amusing, exciting, and moving by turns.

George Lucas, thank you, for the most fun I've had at the movies so far this year.

Copyright © 1999 by Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.


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