After the success of the original Star Wars trilogy, master filmmaker George Lucas takes us back to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) in the first of three prequels that show the discovery and eventual metamorphosis of Anakin Skywalker’s fate as the evil Darth Vader.
Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are asked by Chancellor Vallum of the Galatic Republic to negotiate with the leaders of the Trade Federation to end a blockade of battleships surrounding Planet Naboo. When Sith Lord Darth Sidious attempts to have the Jedi killed, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up in Naboo, run by Queen Amidala. Along the way, they save a Gungan outcast named Jar Jar Binks. When they rescue the Queen as well from the capital city of Theed after it is attacked, a failed attempt at hyperdrive leads the group to the desert planet Tatooine.
On Tatooine, the group, along with droid R2-D2, go to buy parts at a local shop. The shop owner’s slave is a young nine-year old boy named Anakin Skywalker. Anakin is not an ordinary slave, but an able pilot who has his own droid, named C-3PO. A bet on a race leads to Anakin’s freedom thanks to Qui-Gon, who senses that Anakin could be the “chosen one” to bring balance to the Force. When the Jedi Council worry about Anakin to succumb to the Dark Side, Qui-Gon defies the Council and takes Anakin under his wing. Meanwhile, the Trade Federation sends their deadliest assassin, Darth Maul, to track our heroes as a battle is imminent between the factions.
While many feel that the prequels may seem unnecessary, one thing that was marked clear should have been well known that the original Star Wars in 1977 has the screen reading “Episode IV: A New Hope”, which indicates that Lucas had three other episodes in mind to begin one of the greatest sagas in science fiction history. It is here where we are introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, a nine-year old who down the road will find his fate as one of sci-fi’s greatest villainous characters, Darth Vader.
Liam Neeson leads this ensemble cast as Qui-Gon Jinn, the mentor of Obi-Wan Kenobi, played excellently by Ewan McGregor. Many know of Neeson’s action skills lately with films like the Taken films as well as Run All Night and Non-Stop. However, this is perhaps one of his best roles as he delves in playing both a master fighter and a mentor to both Obi-Wan and the young Anakin Skywalker, played with childish smarts by Jingle All the Way‘s Jake Lloyd. Natalie Portman pulls off some interesting tricks as Queen Amidala, who has quite the destiny of her own awaiting in the wings. However, it must be noted that Jar Jar Binks still ranks in this reviewer as one of the most annoying characters of the Star Wars universe. His attempts to add some comic relief to the film, but it’s more of a “nails against the chalkboard” kind of thing while it is great to see the classic characters of C-3PO and R2-D2.
Once again, the action scenes deliver. While there aren’t laser guns going, the lightsaber fights are quite a delight. Hands down, seeing Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor wielding their weapons in the vein of samurai is quite an exciting feel. However, the breakout in terms of action is clearly the character of Darth Maul, the Trade Federation’s Sith assassin. British wushu champion Ray Park unleashes his awesome skills in a climactic battle that ranks as one of the best of the lightsabers in any of the installments here. It is clear that they made good use of Darth Maul using a lightsaber that doubles as a “lightstaff” with Park using his acrobatic skills on occasion to good effect.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is a worthy installment that stands as the first of three prequels to the original trilogy. The film makes good use of its ensemble cast and some nicely done action scenes with one of the best climactic fights in the saga’s history.
WFG RATING: B+
20th Century Fox presents a LucasFilm Ltd. production. Director: George Lucas. Producer: Rick McCallum. Writer: George Lucas. Cinematography: David Tattersall. Editing: Ben Burtt.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Ray Park.