Stranded on the desert planet Tatooine
after rescuing young Queen Amidala from the impending invasion of Naboo,
Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi Master discover
nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker, a young slave unusually strong in the
Force. Anakin wins a thrilling Podrace and with it his freedom as he
leaves his home to be trained as a Jedi. The heroes return to Naboo
where Anakin and the Queen face massive invasion forces while the two
Jedi contend with a deadly foe named Darth Maul. Only then do they
realise the invasion is merely the first step in a sinister scheme by
the re-emergent forces of darkness known as the Sith.



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Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace opens with the memorable introduction, A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far Far Away – and then one of those title crawls explains, rather perfunctorily, that the Federation is heavying the planet Naboo over, of all things, tax. This is all a little disconcerting – I thought we were getting the beginning of the story, but the film's constructed as if we've still missed the first episode and have come in late on the action. And as it goes on, with two Jedi Knights despatched to Naboo to help the Queen, the sense of dislocation continues. The characters are arbitary, and Lucas' skills as a storyteller seem to have failed him. But, still, there are the breathtaking sets, creatures, robots and spacecraft, as well as the fascination of meeting the ancestors of the characters we know so well a generation earlier.

Like most people who loved the first Star Wars films, I was disappointed with Episode I. It's visually exciting, but often only on the level of a video game (like the Ben Hur-inspired pod race). The human characters lack depth and empathy – Liam Neeson looks positively bored as the Jedi Master. There's still some excitement, but not nearly the level of Saturday Matinee fun to be found in the first films. Lucas borrows from just about every film genre – religious epic, western, war film – even the famous music score by John Williams is derivative. But somehow the sense of exuberance, the sheer fun of the first Star Wars, is missing.

Margaret's Comments:
George Lucas seems to have made the mistake that is common these days, believing that special effects by themselves are entertainment. There's no substitute for great characters and good dialogue and unfortunately this film has neither. A shame when we can remember how charmed we were by Han Solo and Chewbacca and even the naivete of Luke Skywalker in the original.

The latest in the series, which is actually where the story is meant to begin, starts with such a convoluted story scroll that really young audience members will be at a loss from the start and seems to thrust us into the middle of a story that is already well on its way. Everyone takes themselves so seriously, or at least the humans do, that the film has a coldness about it that is quite alienating. Contrasting with the humans are the computer-generated cartoon characters with a humour that is childish, a hit with the young ones perhaps but not so entertaining for a wider age group.

Liam Neeson brings a nice weight to his character, and Natalie Portman is beautiful and graceful in her role but Ewan McGregor seems uncomfortable as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Occasionally actually boring – the trip to the planet for spare parts goes on forever – vastly overdesigned and ultimately not in keeping with the spirit of the 'force' in the final sword fight, this Episode I of Star Wars is ultimately a disappointment. However for just one moment it is wonderful – when the music starts up and the title appears right at the beginning, it's a terrific moment. A pity the exhilaration couldn't last.