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:
Oh good lord. The Phantom Menace. 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 franchise, and as a film in general? How, I wonder, can I review The Phantom Menace?
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 clear 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 board a space station that belongs to the “Trade Federation”, which has some sort of blockade around a planet called 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 called Sidious (subtle), so the battle droids aboard the space station turn on the Jedi knights, prompting them to flee to Planet Naboo. Here rules Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), whom Sidious and the Trade Federation want their hands on.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan encounter an annoying cartoon elephant-rabbit/hopefully unintentional black stereotype with a whiny voice and a 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 Jedis get to the royal palace so that they can rescue the queen and her followers 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, and his slave boy, an aspiring podracer named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).
Yep, this is what us 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 a 9-year-old kid. 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 Star Wars up any more after this?
Qui-Gon, short on money, senses that the Force is unusually strong with 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 this, and after we also get some of Lucas’ legendarily contrived fanservice in the form of 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 has a lightsaber duel with a mysterious, cloaked 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 involved characters are interesting and nothing about the plot has made us give a damn so it’s basically just a bunch of noise and images. Oh, and it’s 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 bacteria in your cells that give you cool powers. Again, this was not a happy year for Star Wars fans.
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 was none other than 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 was kind of a badass. 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.
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):