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30th May 1999

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The much talked about Star Wars has finally made its appearance. So was the wait worthwhile?

The War is on

By the Culture Vulture

Finally, after all the hype, after all the teaser-trailers on the Internet, after all the anticipation, it's here at last. Star Wars Episode I:The Phantom Menace. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Samuel L. Jackson, written and directed by George Lucas, it is surely the biggest science fiction movie of the century (possibly even the millennium) and has been a long time coming - 16 years in fact.

The box office record smashing question, then; is it worth the wait, the excitement, the media blitz, the hope, the fears and the pantswetting impatience that every devotee has been subject to since the news got out two years ago that the film was in production?

Two answers really. One is the subjective one and the other the objective.

The subjective opinion

It was fantastic, amazing, breathtaking. I was riveted to my seat throughout most of it and I have to say that it was utterly worth the months of hair-rending agony.

Well what did you expect? The Vulture is, after all, a card-carrying spacecadet when it comes to all things Star Wars or Star Trek. But what does the critic have to say?

The objective review

Let's start with the plot. Lucas had everyone perplexed when he released his ground breaking film Star Wars in the 70's by opening the movie with a narrative that read "Episode IV". Further confusion ensued when The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were labelled episodes V and VI. What happened to episodes I, II and III we all wondered at the time. Now we know. Lucas had intended as long as 20 years ago to give us the latter half of the story first and the prequel later. A unique idea to say the least and one which is sure to be a huge hit.

The first three Star Wars movies - or should they be the last three? - concentrated on the tyranny of the intergalactic Empire and the brutality of its viceroy, Darth Vader, a Jedi knight turned to the dark side of the force. As we found out in Return of the Jedi, Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, the protege of Obi Wan Kenobi (whom he kills in Star Wars) and father of the hero of episodes IV - VI, Luke Skywalker.

The three prequels will focus on Anakin Skywalker, from his origins through his mastery of the ways of the Jedi, to his conversion to the Dark Side; the movies also chronicle the rise of the Empire from its beginnings as an unscrupulous trade federation to the overlords of the universe.

Episode I begins with a simmering tension in the vast united body known as the Republic. Two Jedi knights - a young apprentice (McGregor) called Obi Wan Kenobi and his master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) are dispatched to meet with the viceroys of the trade federation to discuss a treaty to end the impending hostilities. The viceroys, acting on the instructions of a mysterious third party (the future "Emperor"), attempt to kill the ambassadors and then proceed to invade the Naboo in order to coerce its youthful queen Amidala (Portman) to ratify an alternative treaty which would grant the federation more power.

The Jedis rescue Amidala and flee (in the company of a humorous amphibian sidekick) to the desert planet Tatooine where the Jedi master comes across the young Anakin Skywalker bound in slavery. Recognising the strength of the Force in Skywalker, Jinn engineers the boy's freedom with the intention of training him as a Jedi. As they escape Tatooine, the Jedis are ambushed by the Emperor's own apprentice, Darth Maul, a remnant Lord of the extinct Sith and a Jedi master of phenomenal prowess.

Amidala unsuccessfully petitions the senate of the Republic to intercede and eventually, frustrated by their lack of action, returns to Naboo with the Jedis in a bid to drive out the viceroys and free her people. In the meantime, Jinn brings Skywalker before the Jedi council but they reject him as a prospect because of his age and because of his emotion. Jinn undertakes to train Skywalker against the wishes of the council and takes the boy along to Naboo.

The rest of the story is straightforward and not unpredictable, but that's all right. Star Wars is not supposed to be a convoluted tale and is better served by sticking to its simplistic formula of good vs evil, spiced up by amazing effects and dressed with enough weird and wonderful alien cultures to make it a cult classic on that score alone.

To be absolutely objective, though much of the film was a disappointment. The first half hour was slow moving and almost tedious and the next hour or so, while better, was not quite what one had expected either. The film truly takes off one hour and forty six minutes into it, when the Jedis and Darth Maul face off whilst Amidala infiltrates her palace and Skywalker unwittingly gets drawn into an assault on a star cruiser. This was the stuff that Star Wars acquired its following for. Excellent animatronics, made even better with the advent of CGI, laser fire everywhere, a spunky female royal, high energy space combat and a visually stunning fight scene combining technology and tradition.

The battle between Darth Maul and the Jedis is the stuff that Star Wars dreams are made of. The combination of Japanese martial arts and the enervating hum and glow of the light sabres produced a beautifully choreographed sequence; at times the characters moved like ballet artistes, at other times like ancient Samurai resurrected to do battle once more. This scene alone made the movie worth waiting for, queuing for and palpitating over. This scene had this reviewer mesmerised and without hyperbole, it almost seemed spiritual at times.

The rest of the film was not wonderful. The effects weren't somehow as magical as expected; perhaps this is because we are so used to computer animation these days that it is nothing new whereas the original films broke the mould in terms of special effects at the time. Some of the characters too, seemed to be a bit too commercial and PC - the nerdy, awkward amphibian sidekick that ends up uniting his people with the Naboo and leading an attack on the federation droid army is a case in point. C3PO was a cybernetic geek all right, but not in as nauseating a manner as this - too Disney like for my blood.

Even the creatures, whilst far superior to the previous ones in terms of animatronics, were not as fresh or as interesting as they used to be. Skywalker's arch rival pod racer on Tatooine, for example, resembled a little too closely the gremlin Stripe, whilst Skywalker's flying slave-boss looked to have been copied from A Bug's Life. The old favourites were still the most interesting; C3PO and R2D2's origins are documented here as is an early glimpse at Jabba the Hutt and Yoda.

The characterisation of Obi Wan Kenobi was good; here he is portrayed as a headstrong tempestuous young man, while his master is far more the austere Jedi that Kenobi later becomes. The queen was pretty much a carbon copy of Princess Leia (much better looking though), albeit with less arrogance and more diplomatic skill. I had expected Anakin Skywalker to be the typically puke-inducing young wise-cracking hero of modern Hollywood and I was refreshingly surprised. He is essentially a spunky kid who has all the fears and dreams of someone so young and even his saving-the-day-bit at the end (inevitable) is executed more with humour than in the so-typical gung ho style.

It has to be said, in the end, that this was a pretty entertaining film. It is a shame that one walks away with the feeling that one has been let down somehow, and this is a result of the excessive hyping this movie received in the lead up to its release. Had it been a little more low key, expectations would not have been for something of messianic proportions and the experience would have been far more enjoyable.

Having said all that, I will sit through the film at least five or six more times before the next one comes out and I will still sit there salivating like a mental patient during the Jedi/Maul fight scene. If that is any sort of a benchmark to go by, this film is going to be huge.

May the Force (as they say) be with you.

Subjective Rating: 10/5
Objective Rating: 4/5

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