Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Our rating: five lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

The Phantom Menace
"For the last time, Anakin,
R2D2 is not a mini-fridge!"
For us, the road to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was not an easy one. Having decided to go for the full geek experience, we sent our friend Loren to stand in line for tickets at the AMC at Disney's Pleasure Island in Orlando. Eight hours, thirty minutes, and a nasty sunburn later, she emerged victorious with tickets to an evening show.*

We took the entire day off work and arrived in Orlando around noon, planning to get there extra early to be in a good place in line. Unfortunately, a wrong turn took us through parts of Orlando that really could not be described as the happiest place on earth. Once back on track, however, we suffered very little traffic trauma, parked, and trekked across the Pleasure Island landscape to find ourselves behind only sixty or seventy people. For a theater with a thousand seats, this was pretty good.

Of course, it couldn't go that smoothly. As they always do in the summer in Florida around 4 p.m., the clouds opened up and in came the rain. For two hours, we stood in a good downpour that eased off to a steady drizzle before the theater finally let us in. We fought our way through the crowds to find seats, fought our way back out to get popcorn, and actively campaigned to have the ushers chop off the right hand of some idiot using a laser pointer (and being a Star Wars fan, we know he needs that hand), all the while watching as our fellow moviegoers became more and more hyperactive the closer showtime got.

At this point, you might ask us: could any movie possibly be worth all this?

And we would answer: Oh hell yes!

Traffic cops never pull over Darth Maul:
"I'm not the Sith you're looking for..."
We may not be the most hardcore of Star Wars fans, but we know the mythology. The Phantom Menace expanded that mythology, brought up some new mysteries, foreshadowed what has to happen in the next couple of movies, and had a lot of great action scenes.

To actually review the film would be redundant -- so many other people have already vented their opinions, pro or con. The premiere of The Phantom Menace was one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences we've ever had, and the film itself proves that "starving" is not a necessary prefix to the word "artist." Lucas has returned us to that galaxy far, far away in a time even longer ago when the universe was a bit more civilized but no less dangerous. For those two hours, we were five years old again and loving every bit of it. So yes, we're giving it five lava lamps.

Instead of a traditional review, we'd like to talk about some specific points of interest in the film. If you haven't seen it, stop reading now, because the spoilers coming up are as big as a Sando aqua-monster. As propietors of Darth Maul's Fan Page (as far as we know, the first site on the web totally devoted to the character), we have a certain vested interest in the character.

Jar Jar Binks: One part horse, one part frog,
one part Jimmy Carter.
Maul is a great character, even if he doesn't really talk. Lucas and company really outdid themselves coming up with a scary design. And we must also applaud the casting of martial artist Ray Park. He reminds us of Jet Li (Black Mask) in terms of physical presence and ability. Also, like Li, Park is a lot shorter than you'd think, and both of them have their voices dubbed because their real voices belie their ability to kick posterior and collect nomenclature. Probably our favorite scene with Maul was during the last lightsaber duel, when he and Qui-Gon become separated by an electron ray gate, and as Qui-Gon meditates, Darth Maul paces like a caged tiger.

Some people have complained that this Sith apprentice was in too little of the film. Some of those complaints have been good natured, some not. Frankly, we can understand why Lucas would use the character so sparsely. Keep 'em wanting more. Boba Fett was much cooler before Dark Horse Comics printed a zillion comic books featuring the character.

But is there going to be more Darth Maul? He was killed. Obi-Wan cut him in half and dropped him down a bottomless shaft. So he's dead, right?

We find your lack of faith disturbing. You think a little thing like being radially bisected would stop a Dark Lord of the Sith? Here's a list of reasons why this isn't the end of Maul:

Kabuki plays ...of the future!
- "It's just a flesh wound! I've had worse!" This kind of thing didn't stop the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it won't stop Maul.

- Sith medicine is a heck of a lot more advanced than Sith dentistry.

- He's walking it off. Part of him is, anyway.

- Comic book rules apply. If you don't see a body, you never assume the villain is dead.

- He's made of liquid metal.

- He'll be a lot shorter in the next film.

- He's really Boba Fett.

Okay, those are all pretty far-fetched. But we still believe Darth Maul will be back. The one thing we found out about Anakin in Star Wars : Episode IV - A New Hope is that he was a pilot in the Clone Wars. Clone Wars. Who do you think Darth Sidious is going to choose to clone when it come time to throw down? You heard it here first.

Speaking of Darth Sidious, he is the titular Phantom Menace. He's also Senator Palpatine. We had heard the rumors that the two were the same person before the movie came out, but we have to admit that we didn't belive them, partially because we were hoping that the new trilogy would give us the origin of the Emperor. But no, Palpatine (the senator from Naboo!) is quite obviously evil from the get-go, and he shares chin structure with Darth Sidious. We were quite amused to see Palpatine hanging out with the entire Jedi council. Don't you think they might feel a little disturbance in the Force when Palpatine is around? Sure, "the Dark Side is hard to see," but the Dark Side is standing right in front of them! We can only assume that Sidious is very powerful indeed, and that he lost quite a bit of subtlety as he got older.

Apparently the Jedi Code of fair play
doesn't apply when the Sith are around.
Now on to Queen Amidala. Once again, Lucas shows uncanny ability in the casting department -- Natalie Portman is probably the best actress of her age and one of the more talented actresses of any age. Although she has little to do here besides stare serenely and make small talk with Anakin, we expect that the next film will give her a bit more to do and say, and with more emotional range.

Ditto that for Sam Jackson, whose Mace Windu was surprisingly tense and reserved for an actor who has proved his ability to play nearly any role. Well, maybe he'll get to use that lightsaber and kick some Sith butt in the next movie.

Where The Phantom Menace really shines is the special effects, which is to be expected. In this movie, Lucas creates entire characters digitally, which is not new, but unlike earlier movies, Lucas does not shy from showing his creations. They exist and are shot like normal characters, appearing on screen as often as their live actor counterparts. Contrast this to films like Dragonheart, in which the dragon seemed entirely absent from the climatic battle. In Phantom Menace we see entire armies, numbering thousands of individuals of creatures that don't really exist and could never be created physically.

This is the real gift Lucas has given to us (and to himself) -- the technology to create entire worlds on a whim (and a few million smackers, of course) without thought to the real-world mechanics involved. Creating something out of nothing has always been the challenge for those who make movies -- now the challenge is making one's imagination live up to what the technology can achieve. For those like Lucas, it is a blessing. For those who make films like Lost in Space, it may be a curse.

Speaking of curses, here comes the the really hard part: Waiting for Episode II.

Rent or Buy from Reel.

Review date: 5/21/99

This review is © copyright 1999 Chris Holland & Scott Hamilton. Blah blah blah. Please don't claim that it's yours blah blah, but feel free to e-mail it to friends, or better yet, send them the URL. To reproduce this review in another form, please contact us at Blah blah blah blah.

































* Yes, we spent much time in the Ewok kowtow position while praising this woman, who was in a position to score these tickets and sacrificed a day to do so. Thanks again Loren! Go back!