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Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace

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The geeks were out in force.  In the line outside, I saw at least two TVs hooked up to Playstations or Nintendos, a couple Star Wars trivia and Monopoly games, and a few laptops.  Only one guy dressed up, as a Storm Trooper.  Andy scored a ticket for me at 12:30am for the second showing at the LBJ/Webbs Chapel Cinemark.  I also saw it the next day at the Galaxy 9.  The sound was much clearer at Galaxy 9.  Update: Just saw it at Keystone.  The sound there lacked punch.

Overall, I liked the movie.  It felt like a Star Wars movie.  The tone was right, and the effects were outstanding.  You don't get the Wow! effect that you did from the first one, but there is a lot of great CGI work in there.

Picking nits:

I had heard that there was quite a bit if kid humor.  And the previews showed Jar Jar as the main comic relief.  It wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been.   But there was too much of him.  Fortunately, you learned to mostly ignore him after the first ten minutes.

Probably the biggest mistake was the pseudo-science nonsense to describe the source of the Force.  That was completely unnecessary.  It both contradicts and detracts from what is said in the earlier films.  In a fairy tale, we don't need to know where the Force comes from.  I guess they threw it in to explain the Jesus Christ references.  Though they don't explain where the prophecy of "...the one who will bring balance to the force" (mentioned in the previews) came from.

The Darth Maul character was completely wasted.  They mention his training, but give zero details.  He was mearly a plot device and not really a character at all.   Jean thinks the energy barrier during the climactic fight scene was simply an excuse to get a good look at the character.  Apparently, this guy is the fight choreographer, so maybe he can't act at all.

I really would have liked to see more back story on Liam Neeson's character, and all of the Jedi for that matter.  Liam played the part well, but his main role appeared to be a as source of exposition.  As for the rest of the Jedi, the structure of the council is never made clear.  Are they all equals, or is there a leader?  If so, it looked like it might have been Yoda or Samuel L. Jackson.  Nor are we given any idea how many Jedi there are altogether.  I guess they just couldn't fit that info into this piece of the story and we'll have to wait for the next movie.

The Viceroy and his staff were also used extensively for exposition.  They had incredibly stilted dialogue, mostly to fill in the brain-dead in the audience on plot points.  "Why are we doing this?"  "To reveal a bit more motivation."  The kid's dialogue also came across flat fairly often.   A lot of his dialogue consisted of, "I'm going to try this" sort of thing.

There were several very minor "problems" thrown at characters that seemed really contrived.    I'll use the underwater craft as an example.  I won't be giving too much away in saying that they survive their encounters.  The entire sequence lasts probably three or four minutes.  A few seconds after they start they're attacked by a giant fish, the one shown in the previews.  Immediately after, another fish eats that one.  Then they go into some underwater tunnels and they lose power.  Obi-Wan opens a panel on the dash and moves some wires around for a few seconds and miraculously the problem is fixed.  They're immediately chased by another moster that is in turn eaten by a bigger one and they escape.  Basically, three little meaningless non-obstacles to interrupt their trip from point A to point B.   They do the same thing in the pod race and in the space fighter scenes.  It indicates a serious lapse in the writer's story-telling craft.

The combat droids, while very well rendered, were a bit annoying.  Too human-like.  The fact that they talked to each other in english is just silly.  They should have used beeps like the probe droids from Empire.  In fact, it would probably have sounded cool to have thousands of these thing conversing with each other in the battle scenes.  And of course there's a bottleneck in the control of the droids that lets a single ship win the entire war for the good guys.

The floating platform in the Senate chamber was also annoying.  It moved and swooped constantly.  I really wanted it to lock into a position and just sit still.

I see a lot of nits up there.  Despite all of that, the movie was fun.  It's easy to look past them and enjoy the good parts.

They managed to make the pod race an integral part of the story, though the kid did catch up too readily.  He had a couple of non-obstacles that succumbed to magic solutions.  But the race was fun, and they made excellent use of sound.  The bad guy's pod had a very distinctive 4 Hz pounding sound that added character to his machine.   There were also a couple of non-Jar Jar comic relief bits that worked well.

The light saber fights were all fast, dynamic and exciting.   Much better choreographed and edited than in the original movies.  They did a great job showing Darth Maul fend off two simultaneous attackers.  Though they did have Obi-Wan win a little too easily in the end.

The standard Star Wars "Backwards Good Guy Army vs Evil Machine Army" worked fairly well.  They had huge armies on both sides, which gave them a lot to do onscreen.  Once again, less Jar Jar would have been nice.  Seeing him get lucky over and over again gets old real fast.

Natalie Portman is growing up to be a babe.  Her part was a little stilted at times, but then her character was supposed to be that way.  Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson did good jobs.  I hear the critics are tearing into the acting in this movie.   Except for some of the stilted dialogue, I think it was done fairly well.

They had a lot of ground to cover in this first movie to set up the next two and lead seamlessly into the original trilogy.  Let's hope they can take advantage of it in the next movies.

And finally, what's the deal with Star Wars and putting the women in very silly hairdos?

Trivia:
There's a group of ETs in the movie
The star of Willow has a teeny part
I think the pilot of the SR-71 transport was an actor in the previous movies

It was fun and captured the Star Wars feel.  About on par with the first movie, minus the jaw-dropping Wow! response.  On my brother's Total Movie Value Scale, Matinee.

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Last modified: June 14, 2004
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