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Layman perspective
I have never been a Star Wars fan. Actually, it was kind of a turn-off growing up to see my friends collecting every comic book, novelization and special edition release. Even to a twelve-year-old, the plot of the EU was clearly running on fumes, recycling old plots and images (decades after the events of Jedi) rather than rolling the dice on new stuff. The video games don't help, reusing the same old Cloud City textures. Basically, the EU does a disservice to the variety and color of the original trilogy.

Which is why everyone looks so fondly on Episode One. For all the script's faults, at least we get to see something different. Some places are familiar, like the Trade Federation warship (intentionally patterned on a future Star Destroyer) and Tattooine, but overall this is the riskiest of the prequels. The later movies were an endless parade of caverns for some reason.

Unfortunately, if Episode One has a leg up on scenery, Episodes 2 & 3 had better characterization. I'm a plot guy, and I can tell you that The Phantom Menace is constant foreshadowing. Sure, a lot of stuff happens, but if we have no connection to the characters, who cares? Chancellor Velorum ends up being the most sympathetic character in the movie, and he's just a pencil-pusher! You might say Shmee and Anakin are tragic figures, but Lucas is queasy about inserting miserable-looking slaves into a family film, so the mother-son act like they're on siesta at Disneyland. I had always envisioned Obi-Wan and Anakin as contemporaries. While I'm sure a lot of kids loved putting themselves in Anakin's shoes, I'm sure the same could be done with an adult character. This movie got off to a bad start with making Anakin and Obi-Wan into naive adolescents for the whole trilogy —and THUD goes the drama.

As a film in its own right, Episode One is fun but unmemorable. As a Star Wars movie, the whole story could probably be consolidated into Episode Two and not lose much.
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Not Deserved of the Reputation It Has Received
This was the first Star Wars film that I saw in theaters. My father and his family, growing up in the seventies and eighties, were huge Star Wars geeks and throughout my childhood I had fallen in love with the action figures and Original Trilogy films. I don't remember much of my first viewing of Star Wars but, looking at the film now, it is still one of my favorite Star Wars film to watch. It is by no means the best; A New Hope was iconic and Empire was just superb in its plot but Episode I still grips me by its nostalgia factor, despite the fact it is only a decade or so old. Darth Maul is awesomeness and pure evil wrapped up in one terrifying Sith bundle, while Qui-Gon is, in my honest opinion, the epitome of what a Jedi should be; wise, compassionate, and willing to go against the rules to do what is right. The fights are spot on and the Podrace sequence is quite breath taking.

The only drawback is, of course, Jar Jar Binks. Honestly, the first few times I watched this movie as a kid, I actually thought Jar Jar was pretty funny. It was only after hearing some people's opinions about him that I began to realize that he was the most racistly sterotyped alien character in the whole franchise. Maybe "character" is too strong a word because he was little more than comic relief and idiocy. Still, I can forgive Lucas for that if, for nothing else; Maul and Otoh Gunga, the beautiful underwater city.

Well, that's my opinion of the film. Great locations and scenery. Great (and one not so great) characters. Great action sequences. Just a good, fun movie. This is what a Star Wars film should be. Sorry if I am gushing over it here but I think it is justifiable when most other people bash it. Let's only hope that Disney can equal this film with Episode VII.
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The Phantom Menace - My First Star Wars Film
The Phantom Menace is an interesting film in that the primary reasons I enjoyed it during my first viewing are no longer my favorite features of the film. My first viewing was really dominated by the spectacle — the environments (like Theed, Otoh Gunga, and Coruscant), the podrace, the duels, and the music. As I've gotten older, though, my interest has shifted to the quieter character-driven scenes, such as Anakin's goodbye to his mother, Shmi and Qui-Gon's interactions, and the friction between Qui-Gon and the Council. And Palpatine - he's a highlight. Not knowing his true identity the first time I saw the film, I dismissed him as a largely innocuous secondary character. Rewatching, though, is a treat, especially after realizing just how much of a slimy, manipulative snake he is. And there's Qui-Gon, one of my favorite Star Wars characters of all time. Not only is he played by the exceptional Liam Neeson, but he's also one of the greatest Jedi of the Old Order. Here's a man who really stands in strong contrast to the dogmatism and elitism that plagues the Jedi Council, which isolates itself in a literal ivory tower. His interactions with little Anakin were a joy to watch and his death really hit me hard, hurting all the more after viewing Revenge of the Sith and wondering what could have been. The movie itself is a nice set-up for the following films, establishing a lot of the underlying difficulties that will plague our characters — Anakin's difficulties with the Jedi, the Jedi's detachment from the lives of common people, and the Republic's inability to act (even for those facing a crisis), and so on. On its own merits, though, the film's plot, centered around the liberation of Naboo, is well-done and gives us some great insight into Padmé's character. Qui-Gon is the protagonist of this film, but it is really her story. He serves to bring the three central characters together (Obi-Wan, Padmé, and Anakin), but it is Padmé who is at her most powerful here — who proves her mettle whereas in the following films, she will increasingly have both her personal and political power torn from her. Anyway, The Phantom Menace was a wonderful introduction to the Star Wars universe. Full of life and warmth, it nonetheless has its own undercurrent of darkness. Highly recommended (through a highly subjective review).
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All can be forgiven, except for one thing
I liked the Phantom Menace as a little kid, and I still like it today. That dies not mean that I don't see the huge problems: quite a few of the plot details, the lack of anything for Darth Maul to do, some painful acting here and there, Jar Jar, ect. I see them very clearly. I am just able to forgive them because the overall plot is still good, the new music is just as good as it ever is in a Star Wars movie, and the action is exciting.

There is one thing, though, that I cannot and will not overlook. When our heroes arrive on Tattooine, a barran, desert planet populated by criminals and run by the mafia-like huts, Jar Jar Binks for some reason goes with the party that scouts the nearby settlement for a new hyperdrive. No one even questioned whether it was a good idea to take the amphibious swamp alien with a talent for getting into trouble into a desert environment where keeping a low profile is key. BS. Pure BS.

It is an asinine stuation, but it is one of many in the movie. So why can I forgive the others and not this one one? Because this is just Lucas shoving the most hated character in his franchise down our throats even when it makes absolutely no sense. Jar Jar has nothing to contribute plotwise on Tatooine (Anakin did not have to save him from the Dug for them to end up at his house) and no purpose being there, yet there he is, chewing scenery and distracting us from the important stuff going on.

While I can forgive every other flaw, this one thing is enough to make me question whether Lucas actually thought anything through when it came to the Phantom Menace.
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