I can pretend there has been no hype, raising expectations to a level that cannot possibly be fulfilled – because I have tried to ignore it all. But I can’t pretend this isn’t the prequel to a film that just blew me away 22 years ago. So, given that context – is The Phantom Menace any good?
It’s okay. It’s not as good as Star Wars itself, naturally. And it should certainly be seen after Star Wars – else all the delicious foreshadowing is lost “No! Don’t do that! It will all end in tears! Nooooo!” (But can there be anyone on the planet who doesn’t know who Anakin Skywalker becomes? or who the evil Emperor-to-be is here?) It has a slightly shaky start, but there is a semblance of a plot, and good special effects, and no let up in the flow, even during quieter scenes.
Of course it has the obligatory “small craft travelling at high speed through twisty little passages” scene, and of course it has the “space battle with lots of little fighters zooming about” scene. (And did they really have to reprise [or is it pre-prise?] that dreadfully cheesy award finale?) But there are new battle scenes with bazillions of creatures milling about, or marching in formation, there are lots of new alien species and new droid types, there are scenes of people running through staggeringly large marble halls being shot at, and there are crowd scenes of people packing large streets and full stadia. I get the feeling that there are about five or six real actors, and no sets, and that everything else is computer generated. This isn’t entirely true: I discovered afterwards that one of the creatures I thought was animatronic was Brian Blessed in heavy disguise! – and I know some of the Tattooine scenes were filmed in the real desert – but there is a lot of effects work here – most of it non-intrusively contributing to the plot, rather than in-your-face look-how-clever-I-am stuff.
I feel a bit of an apologist for TPM, given some of the flak it has been getting. So, what don’t I like? Well, I feel Ewan McGregor isn’t really into his Obi-Wan Kenobi part: his character has no personality other than that gained from knowing he’s going to grow up to be Alec Guiness, and he has difficulty delivering some of the more ridiculous lines with a straight face. (Liam Neeson, who plays the other Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn, is very good, however.) Also, I could have done without the comic relief of Jar Jar Binks. (I like the odd well-done comic scene in a film, but I never seem to like the comic relief, or the cute kid – I don’t find Anakin too cute; but that may be the foreshadowing having an effect here.) Another note for the “When I am the Hero” list: I will not mass all my troops in an open grassy valley, to be surrounded by the enemy on high ground, especially when this is only a ploy to divert attention from the real attack elsewhere. The merchandising opportunities are a bit blatant (Darth Maul and Queen Amadala look like dolls, and Anakin’s race looks like a computer game…) And I really wish script writers could tell the difference between “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness”.
But on the whole, I think the flak is about the film the hype was suggesting, not the film we got. Although I wasn’t blown away again, I didn’t expect to be. It is good mindless fun, classy mind candy.
reviewed 25 July 1999
Well, that’s better. A decent plot, oodles of flashy special effects, and some excellent foreshadowing. The bearded Ewan McGregor seems a lot happier in his Obi-Wan Kenobi role this time around. And the ever-annoying Jar-Jar gets a suitably minuscule part.
Essentially all that happens is Palpatine advances his plot for Galactic Domination by whipping up a war between the Republic and some traders, helped by Count Dooku [Christopher Lee] while the Jedi flail around, either uselessly, or inadvertently helping Palpatine’s plot along, thinking they are protecting the Republic.
But there are lots of neat little sub-plots. Although one of them is frankly unbelievable: Anakin Skywalker [Hayden Christensen], grown up into a sulky teenage Jedi surrounded by Dark Side temptations, woos Senator Padme [Natalie Portman], previously seen as Queen Amadala, who has since stepped down after her two terms of office (terms of office as Queen? excuse me? I think we are having a little cultural confusion here). After all – Anakin is a sulky teenager – and Padme is a decade older, and a high-ranking politician to boot (itself an unbelievable detail) – what does she see in him?
No matter. Ignore the painful teenage puppy love scenes, and sit back and enjoy watching the plot unfold. And especially enjoy the effects: the races through city skies, the light sabre duels, the Roman Amphitheatre Execution by Improbable Large Animals, and the final no-holds-barred battle of the Clone Army.
reviewed 18 May 2002
— Winston Churchill, 1942
There is no perhaps. The beginning trilogy is ended, at last.
The conclusion charts the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the path that leads him to becoming Darth Vader and the Emperor’s new apprentice. This path is accompanied by some stunning special effects, that make one temporarily ignore the shallowness of the accompanying plot. Anakin’s fall is disappointingly plotted: it isn’t so much a plummet as a sullen shuffle down a not very slippery slope. Given Lucas’s penchant for classic myth structures, it should have been high tragedy, with him struggling uselessly against overwhelming fate. But it’s more an inconsistent mishmash as he seems more upset about about things not being fair than about losing his wife. There is a little bit of necessary irony, as the future he turns to the dark side to avoid is, of course, caused by that very turn. He makes a better Dark Lord than a sulky love-sick Jedi, at any rate.
And yet another note for the “When I am the Hero” list: when I have the villain dying in agony at my feet, I will not turn and walk away, but will put him out of his misery (but then, the “real” trilogy would be missing its most iconic villain, so maybe not…)
Back to those effects: they are stunning. Although they do seem to be proclaiming their cleverness a bit too loudly. At least this film doesn’t suffer from the longeurs of the previous two, being a constant roller-coaster ride to that tragic climax, and all the plot elements are in place to end this in the right place for episode IV to begin (even if, for some reason, only Yoda remembers that “there is another”).
Despite this connecting of plotlines, the correct watching order, to appreciate the various revelations, is the same as the release order: 4,5,6,1,2,3. And that means 1,2,3 are always going to be a bit of a let-down…
reviewed 28 May 2005
Now, that’s what a prequel should be like!
As a young girl, Jyn Erso sees her mother shot and her engineer father taken by Imperial troopers. A decade later she is an embittered young criminal, on the run from everyone. The Empire wants her to put pressure on her father. The Rebellion wants her to stop the Empire getting her. Then a pilot defects from the Empire with news that could mean a new hope for the Rebellion. Jyn Erso, along with a motley crew of rebels, finds herself engaged in a desperate race against time.
This is written for, and by, Star Wars original trilogy fans. There are lots of little call outs to events in those films, and a couple of space battles in the original style. The plot explains two big questions from the original: How did Leia get hold of the Death Star plans? Why did the Death Star have such a ridiculous weakness? And it manages this without introducing too many new questions, although it does introduce a new series of gloomy muddy planets. Nowadays it is a bit harder to fully engage with an armed insurrection quite as whole-heartedly as in the more innocent days of 1977, though.
One great piece of continuity is Peter Cushing reprising his role as Grand Moff Tarkin from the 40-year old original. Not a bad trick given that Peter Cushing died in 1994. That’s what CGI can do nowadays: take one actor, and plaster the face of another over the top. The face worked brilliantly, but the eyes seemed a bit glassy. They played the same trick at the end with Leia, but that was more uncanny valley territory: a grizzled old face in the gloom is easier to fake that a young unlined face in full light, it seems. Mom Mothma also recurs, recast with a good look-alike. Darth Vader was a bit easier to recast behind that black mask, but still has his great James Earl Jones voice.
Speaking of Leia and Mom Mothma, does this film, with its female lead, pass the Bechdel test? Opinion is divided: the young Jyn does briefly talk with her mother at the beginning, but they are talking about her hiding from the men coming for them. Later, Jyn addresses the Rebellion council headed by Mom Mothma. Are they talking to each other, or is Jyn just addressing the assembled, overwhelmingly male, crowd? Even if it can be argued a technical pass, it does needs to be argued. The crew Jyn flies with is all male. About the only other women are another council member, and a couple of fighter pilots, who get a few lines. Would it have killed them to have had another woman in the crew? Or even to have had Jyn’s mother be the abducted engineer? Ah well. Baby steps.
Technically, and plot-wise, the film is great. Not as good as the original (but what is?), but much superior to the prequel trilogy. (We probably should have watched it in the cinema to better appreciate the space battles and mushroom clouds, though.) The plot of Rogue One finishes just before that of Star Wars starts. It’s a very satisfying prequel that adds to the canon.
reviewed 26 December 2017
I was blown away by George Lucas’ Star Wars sensation when it came out in 1977: the special effects, the music, even the plot. Twenty years later, how does the 1997 Special Edition fare?
Very well indeed. The extra scenes (Han and Jabba; Luke and Biggs; other minor additions) only enhance the picture; the cleaned up special effects (especially the new Mos Eisley scenes) bring the standard up to our 1990’s expectations; the plot survives the passage of time. (And the ‘Storm Trooper Hitting Head on Door’ hasn’t been edited out!)
I have a few quibbles – some new (watch the actors twitch as their light sabres switch on; the Death Star in close-up does look a bit like a model) – some old (that dreadfully cheesy medal ceremony finale). But on the whole, this is near-perfection.
reviewed 6 April 1997
Star Wars was the unexpeced smash hit of 1977, and so George Lucas got to extend it into a trilogy. 20 years later, we get the fun all over again, spruced up as ‘Special Editions’ for our more sophisticated 1990’s palettes. There are far fewer obvious changes to Empire Strikes Back Special Edition than to Star Wars. What I spotted here was mainly just sharpening the special effects and cleaning up the sound. There seemed to be a few more ships flying around, too. But the lack of changes isn’t a problem, given how good the original was.
The darkest episode of the trilogy, this forms the perfect dramatic setback between the first hint of victory in Star Wars, and the final triumph in Return of the Jedi. Our heros are constantly on the run: chased, defeated and scattered by Darth Vader. Wonderful stuff.
reviewed 26 April 1997
The spruced-up trilogy is concluded. Noticable extra Special Edtion scenes include Sy Snootles singing in Jabba the Hutt’s lair, and the scenes of rejoicing around the galaxy after the final victory. And there’s lots more ships flying around, again.
RotJ falls in two main parts: the first half is the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt; the entire second half is taken up with the final show-down against the Emperor. Judged stand-alone, this is probably not that wonderful a film, but in context it acts as a stunning conclusion to the trilogy.
reviewed 4 May 1997 – “May the 4th be with you!”