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It's easy to see what George Lucas was trying to accomplish: an epic Heroic Fantasy, more akin to John Carter of Mars than to the original trilogy. It could have been a clean break, a chance to tread new ground.
Thus, it's unfortunate that the film was a failure on almost all counts.
In A New Hope, we are introduced to the Star Wars universe through the naive eyes of our clueless everyman Luke Skywalker. By contrast, in The Phantom Menace, we follow two experienced Jedi Knights through most of the film, so there is no Audience Surrogate to ease us into a complex story of sorcerers and political maneuvering.
Without a firm grasp on the architecture of the universe, the audience can’t get invested. In A New Hope, the stakes are simple but high. In The Phantom Menace, they are complicated but low.
The intention of the prequel trilogy was to show Anakin Skywalker’s tragic fall to the dark side. So it’s a major problem that Anakin is not introduced until the second act and that there is not so much as a hint of the anger building within him, nor his dark fate.
Lucas was likely uncomfortable depicting a child doing ambiguous or evil things, so instead chose to portray a young Anakin as unrealistically angelic. This early oversight causes problems down the road in the trilogy. We should have been introduced to an older, darker, Anakin much sooner. Qui-Gon Jinn should have been cut in order to devote more focus to the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
There is little to no dramatic tension because our heroes are rarely allowed to fail, and our villains are rarely allowed to succeed (with one major exception in the climax). Interminable sequences of Jedi slicing through waves of scrawny, reedy-voiced droids tax on the viewer’s patience. In A New Hope, Lucas and crew found creative ways to put our heroes in danger without making the escape feel contrived: the trash compactor scene is a perfect example.
The mechanics of the film aren’t working either. The emphasis on CGI over practical effects results in all the environments feeling too sanitary and polished. Lucas built a beautiful, computer-generated mansion, but forgot to put people in it. Jar Jar Binks and many of the comic relief-oriented side characters produce more groans than laughs and draw on uncomfortable racial stereotypes.
The cinematography amounts to little more than pointing the camera at the person who’s talking and adds little to the film’s style and visual storytelling. And perhaps most infamously, flat directing leads to bland performances from extremely talented actors like Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, and Samuel L. Jackson.
Star Wars' triumphant return after a sixteen-year absence from the big screen failed to recapture the franchise’s glory days. The only bright spots are the design of Darth Maul, and the best score the franchise has ever had courtesy of John Williams.
This is well-trod ground, but it\'s smart, well-written, doesn\'t get bogged down, and I appreciate it.
I agree that this review is well-written, even if I don\'t always agree with it.
One disagreement, I have, though, is about Anakin. His portrayal as a child effectively makes you ask, \"This kid becomes Darth Vader?\" but in hindsight, you can see a red flag in his attachment to his mother, which leads to him flying into a murderous rage when she\'s killed, and leads to him becoming desperate to save Padme. Anakin\'s character arc in the prequels was far from perfect, but I could see what Lucas wanted to accomplish with it.
I agree that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat unnecessary, and ended up contradicting Obi-Wan\'s claim that Yoda was a teacher (unless he was referring to when he was a youngling). That said, his death results in Anakin ending up training under a relatively new Jedi Knight who hadn\'t originally planned on teaching him. Again, it\'s a less than optimal decision that nevertheless fits into the story that Lucas wanted to tell.
In short, Episode I is deeply flawed, and arguably unnecessary to the series as a whole, but it\'s still better than Episode IX.
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