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    Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
    Rated:PG
    Stars:Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Yoda,
    and more CGI characters than you can shake a Wookie at
    Score:***
    Is there a limit to how much hype a movie can get? If so, Episode 1 of the ever-popular Star Wars series raised the bar a couple dozen notches. With all the hype, the interviews, the magazines, the toys, the rumors circulating the Net, those annoying KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut commercials, and the legions of fans camping out to get tickets, you would wonder how a movie could live up to it. Does Episode 1 live up to the hype? It depends how you look at it. But from where I'm sitting, you betcha.

    Let's back up a bit before I delve into the film. The Star Wars films that everybody knows and loves are episodes 4, 5, and 6 of the entire story. They kind of pick up in the middle of everything, and many references are made to the times before the Episode 4. Now, with the making of the first three movies (coined "prequals"), we get to see what events led up to the adventures of Luke, Leah, Han Solo, etc.

    With all the publicity going around for Episode 1, all sorts of movie reviewers want to stand out in the crowd and bash this movie. Don't listen to them. They weren't watching it correctly. Okay, so what is the right way to watch it? You need to watch it with a decent knowledge of the classic 3 films, and with the foresight that this movie sets the stage for what is to come. It's not designed to be a stand-alone entity, but the first piece in a galaxy-sized puzzle (you know, that galaxy far, far away).

    There are a few facts taken from 4, 5, and 6 that are almost requisite knowledge here.

    1. You should know what The Force is
    2. Young Anakin Skywalker is destined to become the evil Darth Vader (as well as Luke's father, but you already knew that, right?)
    3. By the time of the original Star Wars, the Jedi Knights are all but extinct and the mysterious Sith lords have turned the Republic into an evil, ruthless Empire.
    4. Senator Palpatine will eventually become Emperor, the ruler of said evil Empire (and will try to kill Luke with lightning bolts from his fingers).
    With those nuggets firmly engrained in your mind, you are ready to experience Episode 1.

    "Experience" is the perfect word here. Episode 1 is a work of unprecedented grandeur. It's friggin' huge. I can't imagine a new, franchise-less movie attempting to pull off what Episode 1 does. It is replete with adrenaline-pumping action, and is a feast for the eyes. And the swordplay choreography, oh, my! You can tell why these noble Jedi Knights are feared by those who would do evil. Far, far more elaborate sordplay than the original trilogy. And much faster, too. I always thought the lightsaber battles in the originals felt slow and lumbering, but not here. Not by a long shot. I must say I like the change.

    Now, if you're expecting the same type of new, fresh-faced swashbuckling adventure that the original Star Wars had, you're going to be disappointed. But why should you expect that? Each Star Wars movie has its own distinct feel to it, and Episode 1 continues the trend. Tell me the truth. Wouldn't you be bored by a string of movies which all feel the same and have the same general plot? Of course you would. Take a look at the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and try not to yawn as you get past the second one. Episode 1 is not like the others, so don't expect a rehash here.

    The plot of Episode 1 is not a complex one, nor does it really matter. It's not designed to win a Best Picture Oscar, it's designed to be fun and provide insight to the classic trilogy. It delivers, without a doubt.

    The Oscar it will definitely win is Best Visual Effects. The computer-generated imagery is mind-boggling, and the characters move with such smooth realism that sometimes it's hard to separate the CGI from the flesh and bone. It's actually an odd sight when you see a human. Simply put, the special effects are the best seen in a movie thus far, hands down.

    One of the things I like about the Star Wars series is that the moviegoers aren't patronized. That is, they don't need to be told absolutely everything that's going on, since they can figure it out for themselves. Nobody mentioned what those blue spheres Jar Jar Bink's people were using as weapons, but we can guess what they are based on the effect they have on the bad guys. Too many movies these days think the audience is composed homogeneously of idiots. Some of the time, that's true (see my Titanic review and search for "big rock"). I prefer a movie where everything isn't spelled out in bright, colorful letters. Let the audience use their noggins a bit. Star Wars has always been good at this, and Episode 1 more than ever.

    I have a few exceptionally minor gripes with Episode 1, though. First, its name The Phantom Menace. I was really hoping Lucas would change his mind about this name, because it seems more suited to a comic book or Saturday morning cartoon than the biggest movie event of the decade. I can see where it fits, though, referring to the dark lords of the Sith who decide the time is right to show themselves and begin to seize control of the Senate and the whole Republic. Another minor annoyance is the comedy-relief Jar Jar Binks character. He can be a little irritating and at times, his method of speech may be difficult to interpret. I was also a little surprised at the amount of contemporary vernacular in the script. For taking place a long time ago, they sometimes sound as if they're from this time in this galaxy.

    A big gripe I had was not with the movie, but with the theater. I can understand hawking 16 oz bottles of pop at $2.25 each for the people in line outside, but there's no more efficient way to piss off 500 fanatical patrons than to screw up the audio in the theater. When the big, triumphant music starts and "Star Wars" appears on the screen, you've got to have a little more volume than a .5-watt Radio Shack project speaker, don't you think? And when you do have the volume at an acceptable level, don't change it! I shouldn't have to be straining to hear the dialogue when I'm sitting in the newest, biggest, most advanced cineplex in town.

    I will have to see this movie again. There's so much going on that it's easy to miss things. A consistent volume level would be nice, too. So, to summarize things here, look at Episode 1 with the right mindset, and you'll love it. If you think this is the be-all and end-all of all movies everywhere (which is what all the hype might lead you to believe), or if you want the same feel as the original Star Wars, you're going to be disappointed. I am certainly not disappointed. I grew up on Star Wars. The first movie came out a year (to the month) after I did, and one of my earliest childhood memories is waiting in line to see The Empire Strikes Back when I was 4. If I'm not disappointed, you shouldn't be either. And remember: there's always a bigger fish.

     
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