Spoilers abound for the Star Wars saga. Tread lightly.
Everything that can be said about The Phantom Menace has been said. The commentary on this film from Star Wars lovers has been visceral and vitriolic since the turn of the century. Even to most prequel apologists, this was a disappointing film at best.
The main component that I try to achieve with these reviews is to highlight the good that is so often overlooked by modern film critics. It doesn't mean I'll call every film great, it just means that I try to appreciate the minute intricacies, the slivers of light that the cast and crew actually went the extra mile to make a reality.
However, I wouldn't be much of a reviewer if I wasn't completely honest. I don't like The Phantom Menace.
I re-watched the blu-ray special edition (this is a rant for another day, George Lucas) in preparation for Star Wars: Episode VII and for writing this review. I hadn't watched it in about 4 years and was honestly hoping it had gotten better with age. I went in with the goal of finding more things to praise than the criticize, just as I do with every film, because I love movies.
But when the credits rolled, I felt the same sense of disappointment as every other time I've sat down and watched this film. I intently looked for the good in this film, while already knowing its flaws, and still came out let down. Regardless, since we all know the plot, I'm just going to dive in and detail what exactly works and doesn't work about The Phantom Menace.
As always, I promise to stray from negativity simply for negativity's sake. I truly did try to find the best in this film, and I hope that shows. Also, I want to be clear that I don't fault George Lucas too much. Without him, I'd have no Star Wars or Indiana Jones to nerd over, and while that doesn't excuse poor filmmaking, it makes it more forgivable. Now, let's dive in with what's good about The Phantom Menace.
I gotta bad feeling about this.
John Williams' Score
Not enough praise can be given to John Williams, who is always excellent, for his music that saves much of this film from falling into comically horrible territory. His blend of lighthearted melodies and pounding action soundscapes give this disjointed film the illusion of some type of flow. This film most notably showcases his prequel magnum opus, Dual of the Fates, which I will discuss further in just a tick.
This sequence isn't perfect by any means and is riddled with childish humor and fart jokes (ahem, "poo-doo,") but the podrace is just too fun to ignore. In a film that thus far is bogged down with pointless trade negotiations and lifeless droids, the excitement and whimsy surrounding the podrace came as a fresh oasis to my senses.
Not only is the drama and suspense actually authentic in the podrace, we also get to minimize our Jar-Jar time to its lowest point in the film. Thank God.
Beyond the film, my brother and I spent countless hours competing in Star Wars Episode I: Racer on Nintendo 64, so this sequence holds a special nostalgic place in my heart.
What is it that makes Darth Maul so awesome? The prevailing theory is that in a film so plagued with terrible dialogue, this character is allowed to keep his mouth shut and, well, be awesome. The mystery surrounding Darth Maul is something so dearly missed in much of the prequels and viewers yearn to delve into his background every time he sinisterly walks alongside Darth Sidious. Most of all, he delivers one of the greatest fights in the entire saga, which I will detail next.
Sadly, he is one the best characters in the film, with one the coolest lightsaber of all time, only to be chopped in half and never explored in the saga again.
Duel of the Fates lightsaber fight
Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi face off against the mysterious Sith Darth Maul in one of the most epic fights of not only the prequels, but the entire Star Wars saga. Paired with John Williams' haunting Dual of the Fates composition, this fight has kept me on the edge of my seat every single viewing.
Even the drama between blows, including the brilliant force field device, heightens the suspense to levels not seen again until Luke confronts Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Everything about this fight proves that Lucas can still deliver on the classic Star Wars tension and it makes me wonder, with something this awesome in the movie, what exactly went wrong with the rest of the film?
Original trilogy pieces
This feels almost like a backhanded compliment. "Yeah George, your movie was only good when it reminded me of your old movies," but unfortunately, it's kind of true.
For example, the portion of the film that takes place of Tatooine looks immeasurably better than all of the Naboo and Coruscant sequences. Yes, part of that is nostalgia, but it's mostly because they filmed on location as opposed to a blue screen.
The two standout performances, by a long shot, also happen to be from the original trilogy. Anthony Daniels returns to give another stellar and skittish performance as the protocol droid, C3PO.
Ian McDiarmid also returns to franchise as Senator Palpatine, or Darth Sidious, who is secretly orchestrating the fall of the Republic. His slithery commands and sinister presence is just as chilling as it was in Return of the Jedi, a true testament to a great actor.
There's simply no nice way to put this: Jar-Jar Binks is a blight on the Star Wars saga.
I don't know what happened here. Never in the history of cinema has a character so effortlessly ruined every scene they're in. Even during important character moments, bumbling Jar-Jar is almost always doing something distracting in the background. Every single time the camera cut to Jar-Jar, I audibly groaned.
I was actually rooting for the droids in the big fight on the Naboo field. Sorry, meesa not sorry.
Speaking of strange-speaking aliens, what happened to Yoda in this movie? How did the jokey, whimsical Dagobah Jedi become such a lifeless sourpuss? He literally doesn't smile once in the film. Originally I thought this was because of the terrible puppet that was supposed to make the 900 year old Jedi master look "younger." But even in the blu-ray special edition, which replaced the puppet with a CG Yoda, he just frowns and stares at Samuel L. Jackson the whole time.
Blue screens and CG
Remember the magical and timeless feel of the original trilogy, which were filmed on practical locations with miniatures and real sets? Yeah, there's hardly any of that here, and frankly, it already looks dated. Also, there was more than one occasion where the actor's eye-line was completely off of the CG character.
Jake Lloyd and the character of Anakin
I could really rant on this one, from the terrible acting to the creepy age difference between him and Padme, but I'll sum it up one a sentence I jotted down in my notes: "I'm having a really hard time buying that this kid becomes Darth Vader."
The dialogue, oh the dialogue
This section pretty much writes itself, and writes itself much better than George Lucas wrote these characters. There are some truly cringeworthy lines, mostly coming from Anakin Skywalker himself. My personal least favorite: "Now this is podracing!" Sigh.
No real conflict
Whether we're discussing the all-droid army or the apparent lack of fear on every protagonist's face, this film has little concept of real conflict, minus the podrace and lightsaber duel. While this helps it feel more lighthearted, it simply doesn't blend with the original stories, all of which were riddled with high-stakes situations and real-life villains. Even the aiming-impaired Stormtroopers added more to the conflict because it was a real, live person as opposed to a CG droid controlled from a distant space ship.
It's hard to get invested in a film where the characters themselves don't seem overly concerned with the danger around them.
Gone are the days of the mystical force. Instead of a supernatural belief and a spiritual guide, the force is apparently made up of little organisms that speak to you instead. Sigh, let's just...not talk about this anymore. Please?
I have truly put my positivity to the test with The Phantom Menace. From the time I first saw this film at the age of 6, I knew it was missing some magic. However, that doesn't mean there aren't some great parts to enjoy along the way. In the end it is still a Star Wars film, which means a fun ride for the entire family to enjoy.
In my opinion, this is the weakest of the six films, mostly thanks to the cringeworthy dialogue and the inclusion of Jar-Jar Binks. Ultimately, I don't think George Lucas knew exactly which audience he was targeting with this film and was unsure his own vision, and as Yoda would say:
- Jar-Jar Binks says "how rude" more times that Stephanie Tanner did in the entire run of Full House.
- Who's the main character in this film? Is it Qui-Gon? Because that's very strange.
- I don't like the whole idea of the Trade Federation as villains, but I respect that the Viceroy and his cohorts were actors in a costume and not CG, although the did sport some really terrible and distracting accents. So, kudos I guess?
- I shouted "shut up Jar-Jar" at least 3 times.
- "Jar-Jar don't do ___" and he does it. Oh that Jar-Jar and his antics!
- I actually think the look of the Gungan city was unique and inventive.
- I love Samuel L. Jackson, just not as a Jedi master.
- I literally couldn't care less about the Gungans v. Droids fight.
- The sound design of the podrace is amazing. I especially love the sound of Sebulba's podracer.
- Qui-Gon's death and funeral are actually handled excellently in this film. Would have loved for it to cut to black after his funeral.