Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Personally I think Lucas’ reinstituted series opener is zippy, gaudy, lightweight fun, obviously just a place-holder designed to keep the kids happy before moving onto more serious things, but try telling that to the people who felt personally betrayed by Lucas’ acknowledgement that, by and large, this was a film for juveniles, whereas our current pop culture prefers juvenilia passed off as great art. Yes, Jar-Jar Binks is the lamest, least funny comic relief since the heyday of Willie Best, and Jake Lloyd is dim in his gee-whiz glory, anticipating Hayden Christensen only in his complete lack of any suggestion of nascent Byronic shadow. And Lucas, who hadn’t actually made a film in twenty-two years at the time, was definitely stiff in the directorial joints. The film is littered with witless edits, dead frames, and dud lines – the old problem Faulkner identified of not knowing how a Pharoah talked dogs sci-fi filmmakers and Lucas in particular like a hellhound on his tail.
All bow to the awesomeness of Ian McDiarmid
It takes nearly half the film before it finds anything like its groove, finally importing a variation on Ben-Hur’s chariot race to pep it up. But it works – the pod race is arguably the best-filmed action scene of the ‘90s, a cinema master-class where Lucas’ sense of detail finally awakens, the entire sequence alive not just with a sense of coherent motion but also lightning-sketch touches of vivid satirical detail in the gawking crowd of multifarious aliens that resemble those doodles in the margins of MAD Magazine.

Pod racing in probably the best-constructed action sequence of the '90s

The movie finally gains some real spirit, and the finale presents a pretty kick-ass light sabre duel that is the film's only truly gritty sequence, and seems deliberately pitched that way, as an entree to darker delights to come..

It’s amusing to observe how effortlessly old pros like Ian McDiarmid and Sam Jackson adjust themselves to the right level of knowing ham appropriate to the material, whilst the young ‘uns Nat Portman and Ewan MacGregor struggle to find their pitch, and Liam Neeson settles for being duly competent. Otherwise it’s candy-coloured fairy-tale stuff, made with an amusing level of goofy tackiness in the costuming and sets, making it clear that Lucas isn’t really expecting anyone to take this seriously – it does, in this fashion, capture the spirit of the old Nathan Juran/Ray Harryhausen fantasy films, a major influence on Lucas’ sense of fun. And, some day, this film might be appreciated for the same qualities.

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