In anticipation of the brand new Star Wars films, I will finally be expressing my thoughts on the original trilogy plus its prequels. And I’m afraid we’ve gotten to this point:

This one works as punishment.

This one works as punishment.

I got nothing.

I got nothing.

Oh Star Wars: Episode I. What do I even say to this? What can I possibly add to its infamous reputation that hasn’t been covered in parody, online reviews or RedLetterMedia’s 90-minute long video about everything the film gets so utterly and completely wrong, both as an entry in the Star Wars catalogue and as a film in general? How, I wonder, can I review The Phantom Menace?

This is why computers were invented.

This is why computers were invented.

I suppose I could tell you this: when I was a kid watching it, I actually liked it. Yeah, apparently George Lucas‘ trick worked. When he brought Star Wars back in 1999, with the first entry in the saga since ’82, he obviously geared it towards a much younger demographic and I guess the franchise’s newly acquired childishness, coupled with the infamously puke-inducing amounts of digital effects, must have appealed to me in spite of all the dull council scenes and political technobabble. It’s not like I understood enough about writing, pacing, character development, or lazy retconning of already established backstories to acknowledge anything else the film did poorly.

We meet a multitude of characters, and the film never makes it explicit who’s supposed to be the main one. We first join Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, a much younger Obi-Wan Kenobi (a well-cast Ewan McGregor), signifying that this is before the Jedi Order went extinct. Neither of them particularly engaging as protagonists, they visit a space station that belongs to the “Trade Federation”, which has some sort of blockade around Planet Naboo. We learn that the seemingly Asian stereotype who runs the place, Viceroy Gunray (Silas Carson) is in cuhoots with a Dark Lord of The Sith named Sidious (subtle), thus the battle droids aboard the space station turn on the two Jedi, prompting them to flee to Naboo. Here rules Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), whom Sidious and the Trade Federation want their hands on.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan also encounter a cartoon elephant-rabbit/hopefully unintentional stereotype with a whiny voice and long tongue named Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). This guy, whom we’ve all come to know as by far the most hated Star Wars character of all time, helps the two Jedi get to the royal palace so that they can rescue the queen and fly with her to Coruscant – the capitol of the “Galactic Republic”. But oh golly no, their ship gets damaged and they have to make a stop on desert planet Tatooine, and seek the help of yet another stereotype, a Jewish one named Watto, as well as his slave boy, an aspiring podracer named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).

Yep, this is what Star Wars fans got back in ’99. The first on-screen appearance of Darth fucking Vader in over 20 years and he’s played by an unconvincing 9-year-old. And he’s from Tatooine, which is exactly where Obi-Wan later takes his son Luke to “hide” from him. Are you starting to see why J.J. Abrams can’t possibly mess up any harder after this?

I won't comment so much on the fighting in this scene since, yet again, there's a great video on it.

I won’t comment so much on the actual fighting in this scene since, yet again, there’s a great video on it.

Qui-Gon, short on money, senses great power within this slave boy and makes some sort of convoluted deal with Watto, which will end both Anakin and repairment parts for the ship up in his possession if Anakin wins a podrace that’s essentially a drawn-out homage to Pinchcliffe Grand Prix. After we also get some of Lucas’ legendarily contrived fanservice in the form of Queen Amidala’s guard robot R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) meeting Anakin’s homemade protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) for the first time, the gang get a move on to Coruscant; but not before Qui-Gon duels a mysterious warrior named Darth Maul (voice by Peter Serafinowicz, body by Ray Park). The heroes escape in one piece and Anakin starts to find girls interesting after looking at a servant girl named Padmé (really Amidala in disguise) for too long. Soon we finally see Coruscant and meet such characters as Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who’s totally not evil or the same person as Lord Sidious, oh no.

Then there’s talk of an election, Anakin gets referred to as the “chosen one” repeatedly, we glimpse Jedi master Yoda (still voiced by Frank Oz but now a worse puppet than in the original trilogy) plus Samuel L. Jackson for three or so scenes, and then we get a climax with four battles happening at once but nobody cares because none of the characters involved are interesting and nothing about the plot has made us give a damn, so it’s basically just a bunch of noise and images. It is also tacitly told that the mystical Force we’ve heard so much about isn’t actually a “mystical Force” at all but rather a bunch of microscopic organisms in your cells that give you cool powers. Again, this was not a happy year for Star Wars fans.

Samuel L. Jackson as total bore Mace Windu, next to a Yoda puppet that only makes the old one look greater.

Samuel L. Jackson as total bore Mace Windu, next to a Yoda puppet that only makes the old one look that much greater.

The film is not very good on its own either. The plot is simultaneously stupid and overly complicated for its seemingly young target audience, the characters are either stoic or annoying, and the acting is miserable – mostly due to Lucas’ direction as opposed to the actors themselves. Worst of all are the Swedish gal who plays Anakin’s mom, Ani himself and, sadly, Natalie Portman. Oh, and here’s a fun fact: the “real” Amidala is played by Portman, but the decoy queen used when she poses as Padmé is none other than pre-fame Keira Knightley. And I don’t know who’s the more bland of the two.

One thing Lucas has carried over from the original movies, to be fair, is the expansive universe in which the movie is set. Almost every object, background character, and name-dropped world has some sort of backstory, most of them more interesting than anything occurring in the film itself. I also liked that he managed to get one character trait right – that of Jabba the Hutt, who makes a brief appearance during the podracing scene and starts killing random animals when he gets bored. That’s our Jabba.

None of these things are enough to save the movie, though. There are more good things here and there such as John Williams‘ music, especially during the climax (which gave us the sinfully overused-by-fans “Duel of the Fates”), and the fact that Darth Maul is memorably designed. It’s just that these parts can’t fix the damage at the film’s heart; it’s still missing the mainframe that made the original Star Wars machine what it was, and most of the surrounding components as well.

I can’t bring myself to care emotionally about the characters in The Phantom Menace and it doesn’t feel like I’m meant to. It’s as if I’m just supposed to forget that I wanna care about what’s happening to the people in this fantasy world and accept the film for what it has to give when it isn’t being all political and wannabe-important, which is a bunch of crazy fight choreography, soulless CGI action, a few childish jokes, and a handful of fanservice moments that are apparently meant to make the film better by sheer virtue of the fact that they remind us of the Star Wars movies we’d rather be watching.

Natalie Portman as Amidala. Or was it Knightley?

Natalie Portman as Amidala. Or was it Knightley?

It’s clear that what Lucas cared most about the entire time was the visual effects and CGI, not only because the effects (many done by ILM) are indeed well-made, even if it never looks as real or “alive” as any singular practical effect from the old films, but also because one of the big changes for the film’s Blu-ray release was to replace the mediocre puppet Yoda with the CG model we’d see in the later prequel chapters. Sadly, no one told him to also go ahead and erase Jar-Jar Binks from the movie. In fact, no one told Lucas much of anything when this film was being made.

That’s really the best summary I can think of as to what truly went wrong here: Lucas got too much creative freedom with the prequels when it was never due to him that Star Wars became Star Wars in the first place, but the advice and help of people around him. The way I’ve come to view the film has changed drastically over the years, and yet, when I look back on those days of childhood, I still remember being able to more easily think of quotes and memorable character moments from the classic Star Wars flicks than naming one great line of dialogue from The Phantom Menace. All I know is this: thanks to all the aforementioned retconning, what we do need is a line of dialogue from Darth Vader that goes along the lines of “3PO, I am your father”.

I was gonna post a trailer down below and you know what – I won’t. I’ll just post the Red Letter Media review since that’s where my ability to look at the prequels more critically began to take its form way back when. It’s also what we all deserve to cleanse our minds with until Abrams comes along this Christmas. I present to you, Mister Plinkett’s extensive analysis of, ahem, “Episode I” of the beloved space opera saga (NSFT – Not Safe For Tumblr):

1/5 whatever