After a 16-year hiatus, George Lucas's much-heralded return to "Star Wars" came with no shortage of rampant expectation.
Set 32 years before the events of the original, Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (a stoic Neeson) and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (subdued MacGregor) are despatched to protect Queen Amidala (Portman). They escape to the remote planet Tatooine, meeting young Anakin Skywalker, whose potency with The Force promises a cloudy future.
By no means the feared anti-climactic disappointment, "Episode I" vitally succeeds in holding its own against the legions of blockbusters "Star Wars" was responsible for. It's an often deliriously exciting adventure, hitting the target audience of 10-year olds and satisfying long-time fans, providing the pop culture analysis is discarded.
Certainly, Lucas' faults remain: the dialogue is stilted and, never an actor's director, his cast are subservient to the effects, with Jake Lloyd's Anakin a little too Spielberg. The plot (hinging on a tax dispute!) lacks the original's good vs evil charm, and making The Force into a biological anomaly dilutes the mysticism. The much-vilified CGI creation Jar Jar Binks remains a technical success, but still clumsy and pointless.
Of course, none of that fatally detracts from "The Phantom Menace" 's teeming epic spectacle. The alien locales are breathtaking, the pod race a ludicrously enjoyable set-piece, and the lightsabre duels are masterfully choreographed with urgency and grace, with Darth Maul a superbly hissable (if underused) villain.
To be fair, it's a set up film, and as such a proficient one. If 2002's "Episode II" capitalises on the dramas hinted here, the glory days could easily return. So, better than "Return of the Jedi", not as good as "Star Wars" and nowhere near as great as "Empire", but "Episode I" certainly has the force to grow in stature.
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