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by: Michael Dequina

There are a couple of angles at which to approach Star Wars: Episode I --The Phantom Menace: in comparison to the three episodes that have been released; or, ideally, as an individual film, in and of itself. In the latter regard, The Phantom Menace is the type of exceptionally well-made, highly imaginative science fiction adventure that one would expect from the mind of series creator George Lucas, who makes an impressive return to the director's chair after a self-imposed 22-year hiatus. It is in the former respect, however, that the film cannot help but fall short.

The shadow of the first three films released in the series--1977's Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV), 1980's The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V), and 1983's Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)--looms large over The Phantom Menace, and it's not just because those landmark films have such an enduring legacy. Rather, it's because Lucas's Phantom Menace script is a hodgepodge of different elements from those three films. To start, the Gungan, an amphibious race on the planet Naboo, are scrappy warriors along the lines of Jedi's Ewoks; a pod racing scene is pretty much Jedi's forest speeder bike chase transplanted onto the desert; dual light saber-wielding villain Darth Maul (Ray Park) is a badass scenestealer in the tradition of Boba Fett, who first appeared in Empire.

The installment that The Phantom Menace most closely resembles, however, is A New Hope. There's a wise elder Jedi Master, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), not unlike A New Hope's Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan is also in this episode, in a younger, wilder incarnation (played by Ewan McGregor) that recalls Luke Skywalker. Other similarities include a lavish celebration scene, the destruction of a space vessel, and the intricate, Princess Leia-to-the-next-level hair design of her future mother, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of Naboo.

Unfortunately, The Phantom Menace also falls into the same narrative rut that A New Hope did in its first act, but to a much larger degree. After an interesting opening section, from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan's rousing slice and dice through squads of battle droids aboard a Trade Federation spaceship to their rescue of Amidala from evil Federation forces on Naboo, the story gets bogged down in exposition once our heroes land on the desert planet of Tatooine. There, Qui-Gon discovers young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader and focal character of this trilogy of Star Wars films. As Qui-Gon and Amidala's handmaiden Padmé get to know "Ani" and his mother (Pernilla August), the film slows to a crawl. Making the proceedings no less tedious is the strained comic agony (as opposed to "relief") of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a chatty Gungan who becomes Qui-Gon's sidekick. Far from lovable, I wanted to strangle the critter by his second scene.

Things pick up with the aforementioned pod race sequence (which, I must say, is every bit the thrill ride the Jedi speeder bike chase is), only to fall into more talky exposition, which only serves to make The Phantom Menace's main story needlessly convoluted and, as such, largely uninvolving. Basically the plot boils down to Amidala being violently strongarmed into a treaty with the evil Trade Federation, which has been working with the mysterious Darth Sidious (the "Phantom Menace" of the title), whose main enforcer is the deadly Darth Maul.

However, this is not to say that the first two-thirds of The Phantom Menace is as dry as a Tatooine summer (or spring... or fall... or winter). Far from it--though the story may not keep one consistently engaged, there are other things that do. Always capturing one's attention--and imagination--are the state-of-the-art visual effects on display. One of the greatest delights of this and the other Star Wars films a


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