When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 it had a lot to live up to. After years of speculation, George Lucas’s announcement that three prequel Star Wars films were being made received a mixed reception. Some rejoiced, ecstatic to have the background of their much-loved trilogy expanded upon, others were sceptical as to how the films would play out. Similarly, The Phantom Menace split opinion when it appeared at the box office. Whilst it pleased many cinema-goers the more ardent fans were disappointed and the film soon became a source of much contention.
The storyline itself is engaging enough to please your average film viewer. With the Republic threatened by the Trade Federation, two Jedis are sent to calm the conflict. After encountering a more powerful force than they expected they escape to the planet of Naboo where they meet several natives (notably Gungan Jar Jar Binks and Queen Amidala) who are threatened by the encroaching presence of the Federation. After narrowly escaping they must land on Tattooine after their ship suffers a particularly heavy assault. It is here on this sandy planet where Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) encounters a young slave by the name of Anakin Skywalker…
Surname sound familiar? It should, he will go on to become Darth Vader, serving up the immortal line ‘I am your father’ to his son Luke. The film works well as a first part of a trilogy of origin stories but perhaps suffers from the year it was made. Although only a slight hindrance, the fact that the film was made a decade before the likes of Avatar means some of its effects look slightly dated. The effects employed are nonetheless impressive, a notable example taking place on Tattooine when Anakin (Jake Lloyd) takes part in a breath-taking pod-race on behalf of Qui-Gon Jinn and his fellow stranded friends. Tattoine is, of course, where Anakin meets, and subsequently falls for, Padme (Natalie Portman) and it is this love, as well as the sadness of leaving his mother, that threatens to lure him to the dark side… but that’s for a later film.
At present Anakin is a relatively happy slave who finds his thrills in making gadgets and flying fast machines who just happens to attract Qui-Gon Jinn’s interest. The film is littered with references and asides that will quell most viewer’s intrigue – the overly polite C3PO was built by Anakin! Obi Wan Kenobi (here played by a youthful-looking Ewan McGregor) wasn’t always old and wise! – but it leaves enough open-ended questions to make you want to watch the next instalment. Why, then, is the film so openly derided by Star Wars geeks?
Jar Jar Binks is undoubtedly the source of much of the outrage. Seemingly walking straight out of a kid’s film, he injects an inane and unnecessary burst of comedy into the proceedings and sometimes gives the impression that the producers were afraid the film didn’t have enough wonder to appeal to children. Darth Maul, however, provides the film with a deliciously evil baddie that almost makes up for this oversight. A man of few words, his enigmatic appearance is unfortunately under-used but his sinister facial markings are a memorable addition to the episode.
It may have confused audiences with its character-swapping (is she the Queen now or is she a double?) but it ends with an impressive light sabre-filled finale and a promise of better things to come. It may not have pleased its intended audience but its entertaining storyline catapulted Star Wars into the minds of a new generation and cleared the way for more impressive sequels (or prequels, however you like to think of them).
Best light sabre scene: The finale.
Best line: ‘There’s always a bigger fish’.
Best character: Darth Maul.
Look closer and you might spot a very young Keira Knightly double as Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala.