Directed by George Lucas. USA. 1999.

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It's not a masterpiece -of course not. You know Steven Spielberg won't be handing the director's award to his pal George at next year's Oscars. Yet Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace is a fine entertainment, a remarkable piece of craftsmanship and certainly the best summer blockbuster in aeons. 

Criticisms first. It's odd to have a 'story so far' opening crawl for what is supposed to be the start of the story. (Episode 1, remember?) Director/writer/demigod George Lucas has a penchant for kicking off in media res, but it would have been more fitting here to have a real sense of beginning. (perhaps Episode 0.5 is in the offing. ..) Ewan McGregor, as young Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, is miscast. Why give the role of such a serious-minded subordinate to such a vibrant, cocksure performer? The accent doesn't help - while occasionally offering an uncanny evocation of Alec Guinness as the OAP Obi-Wan, McGregor more often sounds embarrassed and embarrassing. Which brings us to the dialogue: it's not the worst you'll ever hear, but it's been a lot sparkier in other Star Wars films, most notably the one Lucas didn't have a hand in writing, The Empire Strikes Back. Which rather tells us something. 

The film's midsection might have been tightened a tad, or boosted with a couple more bursts of action. There's a fair amount of chat for the large proportion of under-15s in the audience. The Tatooine podrace, where future tyrant Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) demonstrates abilities somewhat beyond your average ten-year-old, is an astounding technical achievement. However, it doesn't quite feel fully realised; it could have been wackier still, rendered at a more lunatic pace, with a few decent pile-ups and a spot of Jawa roadkill. 

On to what's good. This is Star Wars - it looks and sounds fabulous. The scale, complexity and definition of Lucas' visuals consistently look light years beyond any of the other sci-fi/FX movies that have swamped our screens of late -and that includes The Matrix. You can catch a whiff of other films in some of the set pieces - Ben-Hur in the podrace, Braveheart, Jurassic Park and Triumph of the Will in the epic final showdown between the battle droids and the frog-faced Gungans - but the scent of freshness and originality is stronger, the most salient reference points simply being the original trilogy. John Williams' new score probably won't stand as a definitive work, but it does its job effectively in reinforcing mood, character and action, particularly during the stirring climactic scenes. 

As the film's central figure, 'Master Jedi' (as opposed to Jedi Master) Qui-Gon Jinn, Liam Neeson copes exceedingly well with some of that cumbersome dialogue and strikes a laudable balance between down-to-earth and larger-than-life. Like McGregor, Natalie Portman is saddled (for the most part) with an awkward accent in her role as the extraordinarily fashion conscious Queen Amidala, but makes a convincing teen monarch and will hopefully go some way to matching her performances in Leon and Beautiful Girls in future instalments. It's hard to believe the butter-wouldn't-melt face of Jake Lloyd is one day going to be encased in the monstrous metal visage of Darth Vader. Still, he's fine as the pre-dark side Anakin, taking galactic warfare and intimidating three-foot Jedi Masters in his stride, the way any kid would. 

The Phantom Menace is an apt title, as there's a dearth of clammy, seductive evil in this film. Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) - aka Return of the Jedi's Emperor - perhaps seems more sinister than plain oleaginous because we know what he's really up to. Only Darth Maul (Ray Park), looking as much like a roadie for Kiss as the Devil's spawn, conveys any real threat. He doesn't feature much, but makes a great impression in the ferocious final lightsabre bout -a real heart-pounder, where McGregor also has his best moments. 

In all, it's an unquestionably worthwhile cinematic experience, a thoroughly engrossing two hours in a vividly detailed universe that - like the original Star Wars - expands the boundaries of the possible. There are some lows - if Lucas was as good a director and scriptwriter as he is a producer, then the results would truly be earth - shattering - but enough highs to keep you happy that the Jedi have finally returned. Now, where does the queue for Episode II start? 

Matthew Leyland 
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