Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is no where near as bad as people claim it is, but it also isn’t the misunderstood masterpiece that its apologists say it is either. There is a fine line between defending a film that is maligned by the majority and refusing to acknowledge the very real flaws that it has.
What the film has in its favour is usage of practical effects such as puppetry and miniatures while not overusing CGI and blue screen photography. Episodes II and III suffer visually from this and Episode I is the last of the original six Star Wars films to contain an aesthetic somewhat similar to that of the originals.
It also contains many tropes familiar to Star Wars fans such as memorable dialogue, 1930’s styled b-movie acting, and new and unique worlds and wildlife. A New Hope had Tatooine, The Empire Strikes Back had Hoth and Dagobah, Return of the Jedi had Endor, and this film has Naboo and Coruscant. Afterward the Star Wars saga seemed to stop feeling special in the new worlds department. The planets in Attack of the Clones are bland and visually unappealing, the planets of Revenge of the Sith are so varied and all over the place that we barely get to see any of them, and The Force Awakens has a desert planet that is not Tatooine, a lush moderate planet that is not Naboo, and a snowy forested world that is neither Hoth nor Endor. The Phantom Menace is the last film to get any sizeable merit points for originality. I am hoping The Last Jedi will save us from the current trend of mundanity.
The Phantom Menace’s weakness lies mostly in its characters. The story is not the chief issue here even though that does have its flaws. Jar Jar Binks is excruciating and he has failed to grow on me in the 18 years since the film’s release. Jake Lloyd’s performance as Anakin Skywalker is nightmarishly bad and it bothers me that George Lucas and Rick McCallum had looked at thousands of young actors before selecting him for the part. Were they all that bad?
Liam Neeson is decent as Qui-Gon Jinn, but the character needed way more development and chemistry, and the lack thereof made his death less impactful than Lucas clearly wanted it to come across. Obi-Wan Kenobi is fairly bland in this movie too and, to be honest, it seems like the majority of the Jedi Council characters share this blandness. Yoda has that one great line about fear leading to anger and that is pretty much all that makes him stand out. Mace Windu’s only memorable characteristic is being arrogant; otherwise he is completely boring. I give kudos to George Lucas for making Samuel L. Jackson boring. That takes a significant level of writing talent to achieve that.
Padme and Senator Palpatine are really the only characters who are wholly interesting. The Phantom Menace is really more Padme’s story than it is Anakin’s or Obi-Wan’s. I am not saying they are not important, but Episode I feels like it is Padme and her quest to save her people that is the main focus of the story while Anakin’s future with the Jedi and Obi-Wan’s growth are only resultant effects of the plot. Palpatine is portrayed as an expert manipulator and Ian McDiarmid’s performance is amazing. He showcases how prior to his rise to Emperor, Palpatine was more than just a cackling over the top Dark Lord. He was once a seductive, smooth, manipulator and strategiser who used people around him to casually and almost unobservedly obtain greater and greater power within the Galactic government.
What The Phantom Menace does right is set things in motion. We see the seeds of Anakin’s eventual fall to the Dark Side planted, we see Obi-Wan mature into a man who will eventually become the old wizened mentor to Luke in the originals, and we get a taste of the subtle machinations that will inevitably birth a tyrannical empire. It’s all laid out here and for the most part it is done well. The real problem lies in their execution in the following films which I cannot fault The Phantom Menace for. Episode I’s chief issues lie in its annoying characters, wooden and banal performances, forgettable main cast, bad pacing, and some rather juvenile scenes. Jar Jar stepping in poop is not funny and Watto and Nute Gunray’s speech patterns come across as more racist than amusing.
All in all The Phantom Menace is more imbalanced rather than bad outright. It has many enjoyable scenes and visuals and it has one of the best soundtracks of the entire saga. Duel of the Fates is amazing and proves that John Williams can make any movie, even mediocre ones, great with his touch. The lightsaber fight with Darth Maul and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is well choreographed and exciting. Its only fatal flaw is the lack of emotional connection between the audience and the characters on screen which renders the drama in this scene and scenes throughout the movie somewhat inert. In fact, there are a ton of scenes like this in which I find action sequencess less interesting in connection to the story because they feature characters and plot points which are not properly invested in emotionally for the viewer. The podrace scene to me is more long and tedious than interesting and the battles in space and on Naboo make for a great visual feast for the first viewing, but lose any interest for me afterward. If the characters didn’t lack the colour of characters like Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, Chewie, etc. than these scenes would lose none of their charm with repeated viewings.
What makes The Phantom Menace less than great is not Jar Jar Binks; it’s not bad dialogue, and it is not midichlorians. Its problem is dullness. Pure, sterile, phoned in dullness. If George Lucas tried less hard at pioneering special effects development and spent more time writing a good script The Phantom Menace would have been just as good as any one of the Original Trilogy. Alas, what we got instead was a weak, but still underrated movie that could have been much more. It had a few enjoyable moments within a not so enjoyable film.
Check tomorrow for a review of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and may the Force be with you.