With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on the horizon I felt it was time to head back and watch the entire saga again. Of course I wondered to myself where do I start? Normally I watch the films in order of release to see the evolution of the series. This time however I have decided to watch it all in continuity. That means all movies, and TV shows will be watched, and reviewed in order. Of course that means we start off with perhaps the most controversial entry in the series “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”.
This means watching it now, instead of seeing it with all the hype of 1999, we can look at the film less with our fanboy hopes and dreams and more so of what it actually is. This is no doubt, a weaker entry in the “Star Wars” universe but “The Phantom Menace” upon my latest viewing does hold many redeeming and fun qualities. While this is certainly flawed and has it’s issues (as many others have pointed out over the years) “Menace” might have been met with better acclaim had this been the first film released of the series.
It’s hard to view “The Phantom Menace” without acknowledging what came after it. Characters are only prototypes of what they will become (with a few exceptions) and the galaxy is not plunged into a war of good and evil but instead corruption and political discontent. Politics (for better or worse) plays a much bigger part in the world of the “Star Wars” prequels. The plot of the movie feels relatively small for a “Star Wars” film. After a taxation of trade routes, the Trade Federation blockades the peaceful planet of Naboo. When two Jedi Night are sent to negotiate a settlement between the planet and the Federation, the Jedi’s are to be assassinated, and an invasion of the planet begins. The Jedi make it to the planet freeing the queen and fleeing the planet to seek help with the Republic senate. In their escape they come across a young boy whose seems unusually powerful in the force; a young Anakin Skywalker.
Why does this film feel small even though our heroes globe trot throughout the universe? Perhaps it’s because a small matter of blockades and taxation seems ordinary and mundane for a universe where we’ve seen the Death Star destroy an entire planet. Of course this is a new starting point, a new feel, and a new trilogy. Too often we get caught up on how different it can feel then recognizing the story point we are at in the “Star Wars” universe.
The story of “Phantom Menace” though does have a tendency to over complicate itself and also drag itself down. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson, a very underappreciated character in the “Star Wars” lore) hatches a needlessly convoluted scheme to free themselves from being trapped on Tatooine (just so George Lucas could show off his albeit thrilling pod racing sequences). Towards the middle the film drags to a halt in the planet of Coruscant where bureaucrats bicker about politics. While I do actually agree with Lucas’s decision to have politics play a heavier hand in the prequel trilogy, his sometimes clunky dialogue becomes a bit tiresome and uninteresting. While “Star Wars” in general always had moments of some questionable dialogue, “Phantom Menace” seems to have a lot more of it.
One of things Lucas clearly didn’t lose step on was his knack for the visual flare. Industrial Light and Magic packs “The Phantom Menace” with stunning visuals effects; especially for the times. Watching it today the special effects have aged a bit here or there. But, many effects shots look great even now. This was before the series went completely digital and green screened. There is still a solid amount of makeup, and practical effects on screen. Some of the visual flare is Lucas and his gifted team of production designers are at their best here in “Phantom Menace”. With imaginative creature designs and a wide expansive look into different alien cultures that wasn’t present in previous entries.
Lucas also didn’t lose his knack for excitement. With plenty of thrilling moments on screen throughout the 136 minute long picture. The film opens up with a brilliant introduction to Jedi in their prime, the pod racing, and incredible lightsaber duels. This does get some criticism for being overly choreographed and I can understand some of it. However I can’t help but get lost in the exciting and finely directed shots of two Jedi, and a Sith in their prime battling it out.
Lucas does however pack a bit too much into the finale of the film with four separate battles going on at the same time. It’s not so much that there is four separate battles that is inherently the problem. Instead it is the fact that the scenes have four different tones and don’t always lead into the other properly. Also having certain characters too heavily involved with some scenes make them harder to watch. Jar Jar Binks (who I don’t need to go into much detail about as the Internet has done that for me) along with the rest of the Gungans fight against the droid army in a very slap stick manner instead of a great battle. Instead of making Binks continue to be a silly character at the end what if he developed and at the end he becomes a fierce leader? You could still have him (try) to be funny and goofy at the beginning but have an arc where by the end he grows in confidence and contributes; and learns to be serious.
I digress though. The space battle involving Anakin also becomes increasingly taxing to watch because of Jake Lloyd’s acting ability. I almost feel bad about picking on him because he has faced so much criticism from this movie. However I can’t help it, Lloyd was a poor choice for the role of a young Anakin Skywalker. First of all, why wouldn’t you have him be 18 or 19 like Luke instead of a young child and second why is he even needed at the end? The film’s story doesn’t give a legit story plot point to why Anakin is needed to be in the action at the end.
However while Lloyd and Binks annoy, actors like Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, and an McDiarmid excel. Ewan is the biggest stand out playing the perfect young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ray Park doesn’t say much but is excellent as the villain Darth Maul. The biggest sin of this movie is (spoilers) killing Maul off. Of course he was resurrected in “The Clones Wars” so perhaps we win either way. Liam Neeson is also perfect as a wise, stern and confident Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.
Of course I can’t forget to mention John Williams outstanding musical score. If there is one thing that even prequel bashers can’t hate, is William’s unforgettable score. While he stills has his classical cues and themes, he overlays them with new ones and of course his master work “Duel of the Fates”.
“Star Wars Episodes I: The Phantom Menace” is not a perfect film, it is in fact quite flawed. However this isn’t unwatchable. While the script is a bit all over the place and the finale is too ambitious, the visual feast, thrilling action, and expansion of the “Star Wars” mythos makes it an easily watchable and fun film. As an opening act of a saga it does lay the groundwork down for what is to come even if the story it’s telling sometimes feels too small for its own good.