Reviews: The Phantom Menace
George Lucas proves he needs a leash, and a firm hand.
Star Wars has been a favourite movie series of mine since I was a kid; I was born in 1981, I still have Ewoks: the Battle for Endor on VHS, as well as the pre-Special Edition episodes, and I've read a fair amount of the EU. So believe me, I was as excited as anyone when a new movie was announced, although it was tempered a little bit by what Lucas had already done to his originals. I remember sitting in the theatre in 1999, a few months shy of 18, and just graduated from high school, and thinking this is so awesome...until some Jedi named Qui-Gon was introduced as Obi-Wan's master. And it just went downhill from there. Trade negotiations? ARE YOU KIDDING ME, LUCAS? And who is this Qui-Gon guy? And why is Anakin a kid?! Most of the problems I have with this movie are canonical; Lucas seemed to have clearly either forgotten or not given a crap that he had already discussed the barebones of this new trilogy: Obi-Wan met Anakin when he was a pilot in the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan's teacher was Yoda, and, uh, the entire movie doesn't fit into already-established continuity. It's just an egregious issue, even more so when looking at what is a ponderous, dull-as-dirt plot about trade negotiations that's laughable when you hear Lucas arguing that "it's a kid's movie." What kid cares about politics? This entire thing could have been summed up in twenty minutes of back story in what should have been the actual first movie, which should have been during the Clone Wars. And when you get past that, you get the walking racist caricatures of the Trade Federation, Jar Jar Binks and his group, and Watto. And when you watch the entire sextant of movies, you realize the Jedi are composed of the biggest morons in the universe, Tatooine is apparently Ground Zero for everything, and Darth Vader is not a good man who went wrong, he was a snot-nosed brat who never matured and consequently threw a twenty-year temper tantrum.
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.
Rwatching This Make Me Happy, Flaws and All!
Hereís my brief history with the Star Wars movies. Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, it was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw. It made me love Star Wars. I thought it was a very good story. Jar Jar made me laugh (unlike most of the fandom that gives both Jar Jar and George Lucas excessive hate and vitriol, I enjoyed Jar Jar. Though I do see why many donít.) Keep in mind, I also went into this movie back in 1999 and I had no expectations. And I loved it. What I took away from a rewatch is that it's a good movie that is hampered by it's dialogue, which runs throughout the Prequel Trilogy. Natalie Portman does sound restrained in her role as Padme, she does get better by the end of the movie. Ewan Mc Gregor is fine as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Jake Lloyd did the best he could, he did seem to try too hard to shout. He did not deserve all the hate and the bullying over this movie. Liam Neeson carried this movie for me as Qui-Gon Jinn, I just love his character and he did the best acting with the dialogue. Amhed Best gave an emotional, excellent performance in movie full of wooden dialogue, but it's overshadowed by the fact that his character is controversial. The actors cast in the movie are good choices, but the dialogue needed some rewrites here and there, not that every line is cringe-worthy, but let's be honest, Gungan Basic and "Are you an angel?" are not the best things to say. The visual effects hold up for the most part, but some of the CGI looks really ugly now. John William's music is amazing and "Duel of the Fates" is my favorite piece from him for any Star Wars movie. I also noticed, rewatching in chronological order, that the ending of Episode I is the only truly happy ending until Episode IV. All in all, itís not as good as I remember it being, and I donít look at it with the childlike awe and wonder that I had when I was 12. I see all its writing flaws in the dialogue, but I still like the movie. And Iíll always be fond of it (if not just for the fact that it showed me that Liam Neeson is awesome). I will always be grateful to it for opening my eyes to science fiction and letting me follow both Liam Neeson and Natalie Portmanís careers. For me, the movie still holds up, as imperfect as it is, and I have fun, and thatís whatís most important to me when watching a Star Wars movie.
A layman reviews...
I have never been a SW fan, outside of the movies. I find it ponderous and full of itself, a mish-mash of sorcery and deep canon of the kind that never appealed to me. Even to a twelve-year-old (my friends were all big into Star Wars merch and the EU), the plot of the EU was running on fumes, recycling old plots and images decades after the events of Jedi. Aside from a few comics I liked (Shadows of the Empire, and Dark Empire was actually not too bad ^_^) it seemed to be repeating the same Anakin/Luke arc ad nauseum. The video games don't help, reusing the same old Cloud City textures.... Basically, I think the EU did a disservice to the variety 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! Blegh! 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...nothing. Build-up for better things in the future. The first chapter of a miniseries. 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 relatable and even tragic—but Lucas is queasy about inserting slaves into a family film, so the Skywalkers look like they're on siesta at Disneyland. In fact it's so inoffensive I find it oddly offensive. There is very little camaraderie or charm to these prequel characters. Secondly, I think Lucas missed a trick with Anakin's age. I always envisioned Obi-Wan and Anakin as near-contemporaries. Instead of a good man, a family man who turned bad, Anakin is a spoiled kid who couldn't handle a taste of power. 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.
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.
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 Padmť'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, Padmť, and Anakin), but it is Padmť 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).