Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ★★★½

700th Review

“Now this is pod racing!”

I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the prequels. And it’s no secret that I grew up with these films, so I carry a lot of nostalgia towards them; which is likely a good thing, as if it wasn’t for that I think I’d have a hard time liking them as I carry such a strong love and devotion for the original trilogy that I find the flaws of the prequels to be even more blatantly obvious. And every time I rewatch these films, I find something new that I either hate or have grown to love. They’re not perfect, but I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is superior to Attack of the Clones, with Revenge of the Sith absolutely surpassing both; I always remember the fight between Lenny and Carl in The Simpsons when they’re both dueling over which of the first two prequel films is worse. It’s just a funny poke from back in the day, but there is some truth to that sequence. Both movies have their issues, but if it wasn’t for Revenge of the Sith, I’d argue that the prequel trilogy wouldn’t have nearly as much weight to it as it does; and it really does suck that you have to sit through two relatively mediocre franchise movies to get to the “good” part. But at the very least - it feels as though Lucas poured his heart and soul into these movies, and that’s what matters most of all. 

The general “beginning” of the Star Wars saga takes place here as the Trade Federation plots to take over the peaceful planet of Naboo, leading Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to embark on an amazing adventure to save the planet. With them on their journey is the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie), who all travel to the faraway planets of Tatooine and Coruscant in a futile attempt to save their world from the clutches of the Trade Federation and the mysterious Sith Lord, Darth Maul. Along their travels, they discover a gifted young man in Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) - the so-called chosen one. 

The cast is brimming with so many stars, more so than the original trilogy (which was mostly made up of unknowns at the time), that it’s difficult to really acknowledge everybody’s part in such a condensed review as this. First and foremost - you have Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’ve never been a big fan of Neeson’s work, but as all actors should, he successfully hides behind his role and becomes the legendary Jedi Master, that we know so little about, aside from what this film shows us. McGregor does a fine job as a young Obi-Wan, although I think when most rave about his depiction of the character, they are mostly referring to the way he handled his performance in Episode II and III. Obi-Wan isn’t exactly a key drive for much of The Phantom Menace, as the focus is expectedly on the growth of a young Anakin Skywalker, as well as his relationship with Qui-Gon and the council. But knowing of Obi-Wan’s direction and development within the next two films, I do find myself watching his path within this first episode much more closely each time. Then there’s Jake Lloyd’s performance as a very young Anakin, which is the central focus of the story and saga. With Darth Vader being such a prominent character in pop culture history, I do take some of the angles of his growth within the prequels with a pinch of salt. Lloyd’s depiction is okay, as I’m sure like most actors, he did what he could with Lucas’ material; there is a lot of awkward delivery of corny dialogue, but that’s something I could reflect on even throughout my reviews of the next two films. Overall, I feel like child actors appear to be a lot more natural in their craft in modern day, as I can’t recall one recent performance that didn’t seem genuine; Lloyd doesn’t fall into this standard unfortunately. Lastly, Natalie Portman has always been a terrific actress, and it’s no secret that these movies didn’t at all shine her abilities in the best light. Still, Padme is a memorable part of the prequels, and this first performance is on par with her peers.

I suppose in the same way the ignited handle of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber spread both excitement and concern when the trailer for The Force Awakens first dropped, Darth Maul’s weapon of choice was the original source for controversy as he wielded his now iconic, double-bladed lightsaber. And he himself has become somewhat of a fan favorite as so little about him was known for so many year, aside from his mysterious presence in this film, donning all black and red/black tattooed chops. He’s the first real look at a dark Sith Lord, with his red and yellow Palpatine eyes and passion for destruction. He’s also the source for our first choreographed lightsaber duel of a new generation, which restyles and sharpens the combat and brings it into the new; it also doesn’t exactly go his way. And as a guy who has never watched The Clone Wars, for me, Maul meets his end here for good; that’s what I was brought up believing anyway. Just as Palpatine met his own end (for good) in Return of the Jedi

In terms of both the storyline and the use of both practical and digital effects, The Phantom Menace is a much stronger film than Attack of the Clones; yet it is crippled by the character of Jar Jar Binks, whom the last two prequel entries did a great job in almost completely abandoning him, or at least limiting the screen time of. It’s a character that’s been ripped apart over the years, so much so that the actor himself (Ahmed Best) has suffered for it tremendously. And that’s a huge tragedy in itself that audiences and fans can be so mean, so I personally don’t feel the need to dissect that part of this movie as it’d just be a lot of writing that repeats what’s already been said time and time again for the past two decades; all you need to know is that I don’t like it - pretty much for the same reasons as most people. What I am going to touch upon however, is the CGI that was implemented throughout this first film; Best’s performance aside, the actual blend of Jar Jar with live-action settings has not aged well at all, and is especially blaring during the introduction of the character. This is something that continues throughout the duration of the film, and it does unfortunately pull me out of the experience - more so these days than ever before. On a lighter note - I don’t usually tend to agree on directors implementing “changes” to films that were released years ago, but the decision to replace the Yoda puppet with his CGI counterpart was a wise one; unlike a lot of fans, I don’t think the puppet looked “terrible” as it was much more reminiscent of the original incarnation. But Yoda having two different appearances within the same trilogy was a messy aesthetic to begin with, and was likely due to a failure to foresee the upcoming challenges of having him wield a lightsaber. 

Unfortunately, as would continue with the next two prequels, Lucas fails to retain the magic and the energy that seemed to come so easily to the three original films. That’s not to say it doesn’t feel inspired - because it greatly does, it’s just in a completely different (much lower) league. It’s still wildly imaginative and endlessly rewatchable and quotable, but as I’ve already said, I always find myself hating on or at the very least accepting something new about it. It hasn’t aged very well at all, and nostalgia has no hold over it whatsoever for me, apart from the general urge the return to it every now and then. Aside from the very clear and passionate storyline that Lucas had mapped out for these three films, it’s John Williams’ epic score that gives not only each Episode its own unique feeling, but also each planet and location that we are greeted with throughout; Williams’ work on these films cannot be overstated, as the iconic Duel of Fates, whilst not my all time personal favorite, is undoubtedly his most revered score from this particular film. When it ultimately comes down to it, for The Phantom Menace to be the very first Star Wars movie since the original trilogy, it had a whole existing universe to live up to, and was likely never going to manage it regardless of the angle Lucas took. At the very least, this first prequel entry returns to the beloved planet of Tatooine, which certainly would’ve evoked certain feelings and memories for fans upon release. But it’s the vast new additions and creations (all possible with the introduction of the then latest computer techniques) with the introduction of the Jedi Council and the “explanation” for the force with the midichlorians, that adapts a whole different feeling altogether that I question - is this even Star Wars as it was recognized in the decades prior? Personally, I’ve always struggled to see these films having any connection to the original trilogy, as for one, my brain just can’t accept Natalie Portman being the mother to Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, etc. But as disconnected films that “take on” the backstory to our original heroes, it does work to an extent.

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