Image from Naboo News (The true Dark Lord of the Sith himself according to half the SW fanbase. No really.)
As the title indicates, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is probably the first movie I have ever seen. That is something that I can never remove from my legacy, and I assume many other similarly aged millennials can relate.
It was almost the true first chapter of the Star Wars saga, the original from 1977 now known as A New Hope. I think I was 2 or 3 when my parents first popped the VHS copy in for me in what is certainly a multi-generational tradition of Star Wars fans showing their children the Original Trilogy.
Just look up on YouTube kids reacting to the “I am your Father” scene to prove it’s a tradition that will probably not be dying anytime soon. With Disneyplus all the more reason to keep that candle burning.
So, my parents thought that my first feature length viewing experience (not that I would remember it) should be Star Wars. It was going well until Darth Vader showed up and thus I began crying out fear of him. It wasn’t until 2002 on the cusp of Attack of the Clones’ release that I finally saw all three of the original films on VHS. Wasn’t scared of Vader that time.
In between my experiences with the OT, I saw like the rest of the planet The Phantom Menace in 1999. It was a film that could not be avoided even before people recognized it as at best, not very good. Similarly to what Gandalf once said, I have no memory of seeing it in theaters, only that my parents told me much later that I cried during poor Qui-Gon’s death from Darth Maul.
I certainly remember watching it later both on VHS and DVD and my parents laughing along side me when Jar Jar did a “funny”. I wish my parents could have been honest with how they really felt about Binks back then but it was all for me. The facade of Jar Jar actually being a comic character.
Like everyone else for the most part, the reception of The Phantom Menace has been very negative. Many cite George Lucas not allowing enough dissenting voices to rein him in when it came to the script, acting and pacing issues. No one questioned Lucas as some may have been a little afraid of him due to his pedigree in making one of the twentieth century’s defining pieces of popular culture.
I came to recognize Episode One as being not good or at least not on the same level of quality as the original movies before watching Mr. Plinkett’s legendary series of reviews on Red Letter Media. Another one who helped spell out other problems with TPM was a YouTuber who really doesn’t do much anymore, Confused Matthew.
I was often at odds with a lot of his opinions on film, including his seething hatred for the original Lion King( back when I didn’t have to clarify it’s the original.) His thoughts on the Prequels however remain pretty solid as a way of coming to accept them for the narrative failures they are. He had more vitriol for episodes II and III than I, more or less for Lucas’ terrible writing of Anakin and Padme’s romance, lack of chemistry and how it totally screws up Darth Vader’s origin story.
Nowadays, with people’s blood up over how the “Sequel” trilogy (VII,VIII,IX) has been handled, specifically the despised Last Jedi, people now look somewhat more kindly on the Prequels. There’s even some people, mostly from my generation, who defend and play apologetics for them. Let me get this out of the way: I am not one of them although I do have several things to say in defense of the Prequels.
I do believe, in an alternate brighter timeline, that the prequels could have been good films. They could have been written better, acted better, shot better and generally could have been a still rousing if necessarily darker set of films in the series. Even Mr. Plinkett himself has pointed out when reviewing the films moments that could have made the Prequels ‘ahem’ strong with the force.
As I delve into the movie I will follow suit in saying how, I, one guy among millions of others could’ve made The Phantom Menace perhaps not the film that met or exceeded expectations back in 99′, but at least could’ve been successful or logically thought through new steps into a larger world.
First, the stuff that I think always worked with the Prequels and probably one of the few examples that will have near universal agreement.John Williams. Part of the reason why I think people for a time were in denial about the real state of the Prequels during and after its six year run was Williams musically conveying the emotion, weight, awe and sense of grandeur that Lucas intended but did not pull off.
To this day, all three of Williams’s Prequel scores remain awesome, beautiful and able to in some way let your mind recreate what you wish you could’ve seen unfold with that music. It makes the Trilogy indeed a great tragedy, but not in the way that Lucas and co. intended.
I mean, Duel of the Fates, the track that plays during Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s duel with Darth Maul remains one of the most instantly recognizable Star Wars tracks ever, perhaps in cinema’s history. It is the one piece of prequel music I wouldn’t mind see return in The Rise of Skywalker, assuming Williams does so to help represent the supposed end of the Skywalker Saga and the passage of time for the film series.
The other thing, which really starts to play more of a part in the next two episodes is Ian Mcdiarmid’s portrayal of Palpatine/Darth Sidious/ the once and future Emperor. Ironically, Mcdiarmid’s time and presence in the first movie while important isn’t felt as strongly until Clones, even though the movie is named for him, the phantom menace.
Regardless of who is writing Mcdiarmid’s lines, he finds some way to make Palpatine the most enjoyable and well realized portion of the trilogy. Even noteworthy detractors of the movies like Plinkett and TJ Kirk:The Amazing Athiest admit he is an awesome though not quite redeeming part of the experience. A lot of people, myself included, are looking forward to seeing his reprisal as the Emperor regardless of how good or stupid the logic behind his return turns out to be in TROS.
So, now that we got that out of the way, let me express my thoughts on one of the most picked apart films in human history.
Many note the opening title crawl as the first sign that something was off with Episode One. “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.” Oh boy, that sounds exciting! “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” …….Huh?
“Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.” Okay, the “deadly battleships” part does sound interesting but a blockade of a single planet does what to resolve this problem?
“While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict…” Well, at least the Jedi will be doing something and lightsabers will indeed be involved.
Even now, after twenty years of this film existing, I still have a hard time following the plan that Palpatine set in motion by starting this blockade. Yeah, I know he manufactures the crisis on Naboo to show that the current Chancellor, Valium-something, is not good enough at his job, so he can take his place and gain extra power which will come in handy down the road.
Perhaps it is how Lucas executes the exposition and how the evil plan is put in motion, not helped by many of the actors having the most robotic acting ever( more so than the droids themselves) that I still can’t really explain the A to B other than “Leader’s bad handling of crisis of a senate state leads to the titular phantom menace getting in office”.
Also, I find it funny that the Jedi, Naboo characters, Gungans or anyone else can’t figure out that something is kinda screwy and maybe they are inadvertently helping a dark side user get up in the world. The next movie hand waves how the Jedi, people that could sense and even pin point supernaturally the root of the problem, can’t figure it out.
Oh, it’s because Palpatine used the dark side to cloud the minds of thousands of Jedi including YODA. Sure, Palpatine is powerful, but come on. As the movies go along and the Jedi keep on blindly stumbling each step further into Palpy’s trap, it almost seems as if the Jedi had it coming.
Yes, the Jedi Order having arrogance and being narrow minded is part of the subtext of the story, which is better extrapolated in expanded universe material that Lucas didn’t write. If you read or watch stuff based on the Clone Wars, all of a sudden this whole period of the Star Wars gets a whole lot brighter, at least when it comes to not having to use mental gymnastics to justify what is going on.
What really sinks The Phantom Menace, even in comparison to Clones and Sith, is how boring a watch it is. Out of the three prequels films I watched back in the day when I was younger, more innocent and had weaker critical thinking skills, I often watched II and III more often than I, if I saw I at all. The dialogue, even when not relating to the line of soulless info dumps, is just not good.
The worst part, I don’t think anyone save for Jake Lloyd’s little orphan Annie were bad actors, just bad direction from Uncle George. Even then, I can sort of excuse Lloyd as he was just a child with little experience, though Stranger Things is a strong reminder that child actors can act.
When it comes to anyone not played by Mcdiarmid, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon and Ewan Macgregor’s Obi-Wan are the closest to approaching the main characters and almost have interesting story arcs. Again, a lot of what could’ve worked with these characters can be extrapolated from all the material surrounding this movie which does create a better sense of intrigue.
Qui-Gon being a wise Jedi master who is very skeptical of the Council’s wisdom on anything is decent foreshadowing for Anakin’s adult skepticism, whininess notwithstanding. In another life and time, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan or perhaps a teenage Anakin could’ve been framed as the main protagonist and connective tissue that made not just The Phantom Menace more structurally sound, but maybe the Trilogy.
Yeah, Qui-Gon kinda needs to die because the Master has got to go away to make the apprentice grow up. Some have pondered if Obi-Wan should’ve been the main character of the Trilogy. His perspective involving his master-apprentice connection with Qui-Gon, mentorship turned best of friends with Anakin and being a key witness to the Clone Wars and the Empire’s rise could’ve been the point of view that brought this arc balance.
There is so much to talk about when it comes to The Phantom Menace and how it does not work but could’ve. I didn’t delve much into Jar Jar, the battle strategies, the superfluousness of the podrace, how wasted Darth Maul was in killing him off the bat( At least in film).
I won’t because you have a litany of sources to dissect the dullest, worst Star Wars movie made yet. For the faults of TLJ, it’s a visually arresting misfire. Take something bad but interesting over something bad and boring any day, I say.