Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

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

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I decided it was time to revisit and reevaluate the prequel trilogy, all of which I previously rated ½ (which I think marks the first time I've voluntarily rewatched any ½ films), for three reasons.

One, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the first couple episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I wanted to see if I might like the prequels now, decades later. (Andor had the same effect, but for Rogue One.)

Two, I've based some of my identity as a Star Wars fan on hating the prequels. I wanted to try to appreciate them on their own terms rather than, when they clash with my expectations, simply assuming my expectations are perfect and therefore the films are the problem.

And three, 20+ years later I'm a different person, I love the Star Wars universe even more than I did back when these films came out, and my appreciation for the Old Republic, Galactic Republic, and Clone Wars Eras has grown. I've spent dozens of hours playing Star Wars: The Old Republic and engaging with prequel content in other media, and I've enjoyed it.

(Here's the rest of this three-part project: part two, part three.)

So: The Phantom Menace. It's a good movie.

Lots of things that annoyed me just...don't, anymore, or at least not as much -- notably the Trade Federation storyline, the whole Padme/handmaiden thing, and Jar Jar. The plot of The Phantom Menace feels insigifnicant compared to episodes IV, V, and VI because it's supposed to feel insignificant: That's how Palpatine comes to power, unnoticed, by leveraging seemingly unimportant things.

In 1999 I found it jarring how crisp and clean and hyper-real everything looks, especially compared to the wonderully lived-in feel of IV-VI. This now reads better as worldbuilding, and I get it. The galaxy was a prettier, more polished place during this long golden age. The contrast is intentional.

Setting aside how poorly 1999 CGI has aged, there's some great stuff in here. Seeing Coruscant is awesome, as are many of the ship designs. The over-reliance on CGI hurts the film, though -- especially as an entry in a series previously known for its amazing practical effects. (I'm still baffled how they could spend more money to make a less-convincing Tattooine.)

The Phantom Menace is still Lucas at his most unfettered and self-indulgent, and it could still have used a steadying influence to rein it in a bit. The script isn't great, and the wooden dialogue and delivery don't help -- but that's also where things start to get complicated.

Like A New Hope, the first in its trilogy, The Phantom Menace is more kid-oriented in some ways than the darker entries that follow. Elements like Jar Jar fit just fine in that context. There's a real exuberance here, too, a sense that Lucas is just excited to be building out the prehistory of IV-VI, and to be pushing the special effects envelope in a new way; I like that about it.

Similarly, some things that feel like weak sauce while watching The Phantom Menace make more sense in the context of the second and third films. So while The Phantom Menace is the weakest Star Wars film to date, it's soft in part because it doesn't stand as well on its own; it needs to be considered alongside II and III.

All of the time and energy it expends -- even on things that don't always work, like some of the CGI -- pays off in terms of worldbuilding, in establishing the look and feel of the Republic Era, and in giving future films and shows a tremendous foundation on which to build. A lot of neat stuff has been built on the best parts of The Phantom Menace, and the prequel trilogy as a whole. Without this sometimes-rough clay, that stuff wouldn't exist.

I've put actual energy into hating the prequels. In hindsight...why? This isn't an amazing movie, but it's not cinematic diarrhea, either. And hey, hate is the path to the Dark Side of the Force. It's more fun to like things.

Making peace with The Phantom Menace and enjoying it on its own terms was fun, and also surprisingly rewarding.

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