There are creaky aspects to it, but this remains one of the slickest popcorn movies of the past 15 years.
"An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory... I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?"
À la recherche du temps perdu – Marcel Proust
As an adult, French Modernist author Marcel Proust bit into a madeleine cake and was transported, via a ground-rush of involuntary memories, to a long-forgotten day in his youth when he was given the same confection as a treat while ill. The memory provoked emotion of such power that it informed his best-known work, the seven volume 'Remembrance of Things Past' that consumed him until his death.
But imagine, instead of moving on from madeleines to the alcopops of youth, the red wine and posh cheese of middle age and the milky tea of his dotage, Proust had been gnawing ceaselessly on these stale tea-cakes for 30 years. Had obsessed over their every detail, bemoaned any change in the recipe, evangelised them to anyone who would listen. Imagine, in other words, that Proust had lost a little bit of focus vis-à-vis madeleine cakes.
Now imagine the madeleine mad – madeleine-retentive, if you will – Proust being offered a small, delicately flavoured sponge cake with a distinctive shell design similar in many ways to his favourite tea-time snack. But – brace yourself Marcel, old boy! – just a little bit updated for the changing tastes of the marketplace.
Instead of a whacking great literary masterpiece, this would more likely produce nothing more that an over-excited (and, considering the constant snacking, rather heavyset) man-child frothing about somebody messing with the unhealthy childhood obsession he has carried into what passes for his adult life.
Simon Pegg and the rest of the mewling George Lucas Raped My Childhood brigade, we're looking directly at you...
The Phantom Menace, the first of director George Lucas' three Star Wars prequels, is a film that is almost impossible to judge on its own terms. It arrived steeped in lore. Every frame of the original trilogy had been pulled apart (not least by Lucas himself), every aspect of its production documented to a near-atomic level, every thematic nuance extrapolated to an often dismaying degree.
It could well be the most scrutinised series of motion pictures ever made, which meant any subsequent addition to the canon was going to have its work cut out in pleasing the faithful. You don't just slip a new book into the back of the Bible and hope for the best. Some people were never going to be happy, but to paraphrase John Cleese, some people don't deserve to be happy.
In 1999, big-screen science fiction was in something of a funk. The CGI revolution that many imagined would slash the practical production costs associated with the genre and allow filmmakers to attack "ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion" had not come to pass. Post-Jurassic Park, pre-Phantom Menace highlights ranged from laughable (Space Truckers) to execrable (Event Horizon) and back again (Lost in Space). These were bonehead films. They lacked in scope, subtlety, logic and a cohesive design aesthetic. They didn't even feature Brian Blessed chatting gibberish or any racially insensitive talking kangaroos.
But enough of the negative baggage. This is not intended as a rear-guard defense of The Phantom Menace, but a plucky search for its abundant qualities. So let's put the madeleines down, empty out our bile-sacs and clear our palates before we consider Uncle George's very own spacetacular take on The Baby of Mâcon.
From the opening moments, it's clear that we're in a much-changed universe from the original trilogy: sleeker, darker, more mysterious. The space-fi gee-whiz of A New Hope has been dialed back in favour of steely blue politicking and capable Jedi hardcases doing what we've always wanted to see Jedis doing – namely kicking ass and taking names.
The tone is elevated, the plot more involved than the mere rescuing of pasty-faced princesses (though there's plenty of that too) and the characters are immediately more ambivalent. It's already a welcome and intriguing departure from the blow-dried, Point-A-to-Point-B simplicity of the Hamill triptych.
But it's not all trade treaties and dour religious zealots. The Phantom Menace is also one of the slickest popcorn movies of the past 15 years. The scope, sweep, action and sheer pace of the thing are all finely calibrated to produce the very acme of big-budget action filmmaking. The pod-race, for example, is one of the most thrilling and extended pieces of pure cinema imaginable, marrying state of the art CGI tech with old-school narrative editing techniques to produce a sequence of unmatched tension and nut-grabbing momentum. The space battles, too, are still unrivalled in their elegance and magnitude, far outstripping anything we'd ever seen before.
There are creaky aspects to the film, nobody could argue with that. The core narrative surrounding the young Vader could have been handled with a little more panache and Lucas makes a bit of a blunder by going back to Naboo for the film's last act – action films should never go back, only forward. And that Binks fellow is a bit of a goon, even if the sheer, unalloyed disdain he provokes from Liam Neeson is clearly the reason he/she/it was included in the final cut.
And now it's all back in 3D. One more dimension for the fanboys to get all hot and bothered in. The rest of us might just get the chance to give the film its fair due, unencumbered by the hoopla that surrounded its initial release. Either that or we can all slope off down the pub after the pod-race. It's all good.
Like the prospect of meeting an old friend you parted on bad terms with 13 years ago, you go in hoping the old magic outweighs the simmering bad vibes.
The politest way you can describe the 3D is 'subtly effective', but it won't alter your view of the film for the better or for worse.
Still unsure of the basic mechanics of the plot, drags in places and that Binks chap wasn't just a bad dream, but when it soars, it soars.