Liam Neeson
Ewan McGregor
Natalie Portman
Jake Lloyd
Samuel L. Jackson
Pernilla August
Ian McDiarmid
Terence Stamp
Anthony Daniels

George Lucas

"The boy is dangerous. They all sense it, why can't you?"
Time: 131 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Official Web Site
Genre: History/Romance/Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects.
I, like everybody else on the planet, have been waiting with bated breath for the prequel to end all trilogies. It's been a long time coming and after all the speculation, I can honestly tell's good. Worth all the hype? For me, yes. A little bit of a letdown? That goes without saying, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, this film is filled with cute, annoying creatures like every other Star Wars film – I never thought Lucas could come up with creatures more irritatingly cloying than the Ewoks, but he did – however, that's not the problem.

I realized as I sat back waiting to be blown away, that nothing Lucas did would bring back the original feeling of awe and wonderment I felt when I saw STAR WARS and its sequels for the first time. Though PHANTOM MENACE is highly-stylized and has great energy, it really isn't anything new or different. A light saber duel is a light saber duel. Different people, better choreography, but basically the same old thing. I was expecting the same high I got from the first films and I can tell you, that didn't happen. Perhaps it's a flaw of the movie. Perhaps it's because I'm not twelve anymore. Most probably it's because I know the mythology of STAR WARS like the back of my hand. It's just too familiar.

That being said, there's some dear old friends, powerful new allies and a new, if somewhat unmenacing bad guy. Darth Maul may look creepier, but he's no Darth Vader when it comes to sheer instant scariness. The story begins with jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) attempting to settle a dispute between the Trade Federation and the planet Naboo. They never get a chance. Discovering that they are Jedi, the leaders of the Federation attempt to kill them and, upon the direct order of Darth Sidous, invade Naboo. With communication cut off, Queen Amidala (Portman) is helpless and if captured will be forced to sign an agreement giving her planet over to the Trade Federation. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan escape to Naboo and meet up with Jar Jar Binks, a Gungun outcast, who helps them reach the Queen's palace just in the nick of time. They manage to get to her ship and evade the Federations' clutches. However, their hyperdrive is damaged in the escape – surprise surprise – and they are forced to land on Tatoinne.

It is here that they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), an 8-year-old slave with a knack for building things. He built his own pod racer, as well as a protocol droid called C-3PO. Qui-Gon Jinn tries to barter with Anakin's owner, Watto for the hyperdrive parts, but he won't budge. No money, no parts. A sandstorm drives Qui-Gon and the undercover Queen Amidala to the Skywalker home where Anakin comes up with a plan. All Qui-Gon has to do is bet Watto on the pod race tomorrow. If Anakin wins, Watto will give Qui-Gon the parts, free Anakin and will win the prize money. If he loses, Watto gets the Queen's ship. It's a dangerous bargain. It could strand the Queen even longer while her people continue to suffer at the hands of the Federation.

Qui-Gon is confident Anakin will win. The force is exceptionally strong with him. The pod race is a down and dirty affair with a massive crowd waiting to see who will win and who will crash their racer into a thousand pieces. Anakin has a tough go of it, but pulls it out in the end. Watto claims that Qui-Gon tricked him and almost refuses to uphold his end of the bargain. But when threatened with action by Jabba the Hut, he acquiesces. Anakin is free to go. Just as they're about to leave, Qui-Gon has a dangerous encounter with a Sith warrior, Darth Maul. The meeting is not a pleasant one.

With the hyperdrive fixed and the fate of Naboo in the balance, they head to the capitol city of Coruscant to meet up with Senator Palpatine (the future Emperor). He is Naboo's representative and advises the Queen to speak directly to the Senate on her planet's behalf. If they refuse to give Naboo immediate aid she should call for the resignation of Chancellor Valorum (Stamp). Unfortunately, she is playing directly into his hands. Palpatine wants to become chancellor of the Senate and with her help, he succeeds. Meanwhile, Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council. Even though the force in him is strong, they believe he is too old to train and to full of fear to be a successful Jedi Knight. Meanwhile, the Queen becomes tired of watching her people suffer. She cannot wait for a resolution from the Senate. She has a plan, enlisting the help of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to make it work.

Once they arrive back on Naboo, the Queen puts her idea to work. With the aid of the Gungun, an underwater race that shares the planet with her people, a great battle ensues between the Gungun and the endless sea of enemy droids. The Jedi's race for the throne room is interrupted by the reappearance of Darth Maul. While they attempt to dispatch this double-sided, light-saber wielding demon, the Queen and her group make their way into the castle. Anakin is told to stay out of danger in the cockpit of a fighter plane. However, in an attempt to help, he starts the ignition and soon finds himself, with the company of R2-D2, headed to the main Federation ship. He manages to stay alive and, as it turns out, fires the winning blow. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi aren't so lucky. It's obvious to anyone who's a major fan of this series, who survives this battle and who doesn't. In the end, the planet is saved...but for how long.

The art direction and special effects are definitely worth the price of admission. Lucas outdid himself. Though this film is much more stylized than the originals, it still has the same basic look and feel. The costumes are familiar and Queen Amidala has one outrageous hairstyle after another. The actors are great when they're actually in the film, which is not as much as you'd think. The fact that Jake Lloyd was more endearing than annoying is a huge accomplishment. McGregor is great as Obi-Wan and I look forward to watching him in the next installment. Portman is a wonderful Queen. She does the film proud, gracing the screen with intensity, class and sweetness. The only character I hated was Jar Jar Binks. Mostly incomprehensible, I found him highly ineffective and annoying. I know his clumsy antics are there to please children, but I think a more effective character could have been created. I wanted more of R2 and C3PO. They're funny without being childish. I never thought I'd say this, but the film was missing a Chewy-type character. Maybe that's what Lucas was going for with Jar Jar, but if that's the case, he's way off the mark.

Other than Jar Jar Binks' presence, I really have no complaints. Darth Maul wasn't the greatest villain, but the allusion to the coming of the Emperor made up for it. The evil is out there and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Even though I know how the story ultimately ends, THE PHANTOM MENACE only whet my appetite to know more, to see the next twist in the road. Isn't that the whole point? If you're a fan of this series, you will only become more entranced in it's spell. I can't believe I'll have to wait another three years to see what happens next. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to watch it again.