Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake LLoyd, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp, Brian Blessed, Ahmed Best
Written by: George Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 133
Date: 05/19/1999

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

3 Stars (out of 4)

'Menace,' Anyone?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There are a hundred small things wrong with Star Wars: Episode I - ThePhantom Menace, from lack of character development, to bad dialogue, to too manyCGI effects (when real actors in costume and makeup are much more effective). Ittries to overwhelm us with its sound and fury in a vain attempt to cover up thedistinct lack of decent writing. However, it gives us at least three scenes thatare wondrous and thrilling: an underwater trip through a planet's core, a speederrace, and the return of R2-D2. George Lucas acts as director and solescreenwriter for the first time in 22 years and he has swung 180 degrees from theman-over-machine theme of Star Wars. Still, it's good to have Star Wars -- anyStar Wars -- back after such a long time; and it's worth seeing.

DVD Details: Most people felt hoodwinked after seeing this film a couple times in the theater, thanks to bad writing, stiff acting, and the insufferable Jar Jar Binks, an insulting comic relief geared for kids under five.

Yet, the new Phantom Menace 2-DVD set (20th Century Fox, $29.98) looks spectacular, and has all the right bells and whistles as far as picture and sound, commentary track, outtakes, documentaries and whatnot. But the movie itself has not aged well in the two years since its theatrical release. What's worse is Lucas' total failure to follow the themes and the very nature of the first film, which had Luke Skywalker learning to depend less on technology and more on his own free will (or, the Force). The film itself agreed with this notion, showing beat-up, cruddy old spaceships and presenting aliens of all breeds as simply part of the furniture.

Now Lucas seems bent on technology for technology's sake, and his commentary track (shared with a bunch of technicians: producer Rick McCallum, sound designer and co-editor Ben Burtt and effects supervisors Rob Coleman, John Knoll, Dennis Muren and Scott Squires) backs this up. He rarely discusses the Star Wars myth or the characters -- it's mostly all about how the technological wizards dreamed up this gizmo or that effect. It's quite a fall from grace.

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