Monday, May 3, 2021

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace


Note: This review contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. 

For at least a decade, the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy maintained a mostly negative reception from fans and critics due to a perceived lack of quality compared to the Original Trilogy. We also held this viewpoint once the Prequel Trilogy ended in 2005 with Revenge of the Sith, at least until we saw the truly disastrous results of the Sequel Trilogy. After The Rise of Skywalker failed to address many of the Sequel Trilogy’s mounting flaws and exposed its lack of any solid direction, we decided that although we had skipped the Prequel Trilogy in our initial buildup to The Force Awakens, it might be worth looking back and re-evaluating our opinion.

Naturally, we begin with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though this entry is the most infamous due to the hype surrounding its initial release and pretty much everything that could be said about its low quality has already been said, lack of input from anyone but George Lucas notwithstanding, this won’t stop us from voicing our opinion anyway. As for my own personal history with this film, I distinctly remember watching it in the theater when I was six and liking it, though admittedly I didn’t pay close attention to the plot and a subsequent viewing lowered my opinion. Now, as an adult viewing it with essentially fresh eyes through the 2001 DVD release, which features very minimal changes from the original theatrical cut, I have to agree that the film is indeed bad, but I didn’t find it quite as bad as I had thought.

To quote the opening crawl: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. 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. 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…”

Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to negotiate with Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson). However, negotiations go awry when the Jedi are attacked by Battle Droids and escape to the planet Naboo. There, Qui-Gon saves the life of a Gungan outcast, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), during an invasion and the Jedi speak with the Gungan leader Boss Nass (Brian Blessed). When they reach the city of Theed, the Jedi rescue Queen Padm√© Amidala (Natalie Portman) and head off to Coruscant to put a stop to the Trade Federation’s plans.

The negotiations were short;
Pictured: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Left),
Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, Right)

For a film that’s meant to introduce Anakin Skywalker and set the foundation for his eventual turn to the Dark Side, not to mention establish the universe prior to the Original Trilogy, the main premise isn’t very exciting. There is conflict, sure, but it mostly centers around a trade dispute and the politics surrounding it, especially the involvement of the young Queen Amidala and whether or not she’ll sign an important document. This alone doesn’t make the plot that engaging, but the amount of padding doesn’t help. When Amidala’s ship requires a replacement part, the group lands on the planet Tatootine and stays there for about forty minutes, at least fifteen of which they spend on a podrace, before they finally get the part. Then there’s a lengthy sequence of senate debates, which didn’t really add too much to the story. The most interesting development, that the Sith are returning after a supposed extinction, pops up here and there, but doesn’t make any real progress until the climax of the film, which sets up further development of this thread in Episode II and Episode III.

While the characters themselves were just okay for the most part, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about Qui-Gon Jinn. Liam Neeson turned in a great performance and it’s obvious that Qui-Gon plays a mentor role to Obi-Wan Kenobi, including some good advice on his part, but he’s also not above acting rather unheroic. On Tatooine, he shows that he’s not above cheating if it will help his cause, including an attempt at convincing Watto to accept otherwise useless currency or manipulating a die roll so he’ll win custody over Anakin as part of a bet. That’s also not getting into his near lack of sympathy over Anakin’s separation from his mother should he go with the Jedi for training.

Of course, one of the most well-known and well-hated moments from this film would be the introduction and explanation of midi-chlorians, which seem to boil the Force down to bacteria in a person’s bloodstream. Having viewed this scene again, it’s really more of a conduit for the Force, with a higher midi-chlorian count equating a stronger connection to the Force. While still a dumb idea in the grand scheme of things, as it pivots away from the more spiritual aspect of the Force as presented in the Original Trilogy, the actual explanation isn’t quite as bad as one would be led to believe.

Qui-Gon Jinn takes a blood sample from
Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd, Right) to determine his midi-chlorian count.

Likely as a result of the poor writing and directing, most of the acting came off pretty wooden and sounded like the actors just reciting lines. Natalie Portman sounded especially wooden, at times acting in a near-monotone. Jake Lloyd could have done a better performance as a young Anakin, including an unintentionally sarcastic delivery when he’s saying goodbye to C3-PO, but it’s not necessarily fair to put the blame on him and, frankly, he’s already suffered enough backlash for one lifetime. As for Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best actually wasn’t that bad in his performance, but the character’s voice and speech pattern did get mildly annoying. Fortunately, some good acting slipped through, including Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz as Darth Maul and Frank Oz as Yoda.

At this point, you might wonder if The Phantom Menace did anything right. In some places, yes. The Podracing scene, while obviously filler that’s notably inspired by Ben Hur, is still entertaining filler that never gets tiring to watch, even with the additional footage in the 2001 DVD version. Within the messy climax of the film, which includes Anakin accidentally winning a battle, the fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is actually tense and exciting, with great choreography backed by “Duel of the Fates”. Once the credits have finished rolling, you can hear Darth Vader’s breathing from the Original Trilogy, which is actually pretty clever foreshadowing for Anakin’s eventual turn to the Dark Side.

The climactic lightsaber battle against Darth Maul
(Performed by Ray Park, Voiced by Peter Serafinowicz; Middle)
is actually exciting.

The poorly-written dialogue also has its moments. A handful of lines actually got a chuckle out of me this time, including Qui-Gon telling Jar Jar, “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.” Thanks to memes, some lines also stand out as memorable, including “A surprise, to be sure, but a welcome one,” “We will watch your career with great interest” and “This is getting out of hand. Now there are two of them.”

It’s also undeniable that while special effects have improved considerably after over 20 years, The Phantom Menace still holds up pretty well visually. There’s a healthy mixture of practical and CG effects, the latter of which blend in pretty seamlessly with the live-action all things considered, including the puppet used for Yoda (notably, the 2011 Blu-ray release of the film replaces Yoda with his CG model from Revenge of the Sith). Regardless of how one feels about Jar Jar, the mocap that brought him to life still looks great on a technical level, as the CG gives him a presence without distracting from the live-action actors. I’ll also mention that the planet Coruscant bears a passing resemblance to the planet Cybertron from the Transformers series when viewed from space.

Coruscant bears a passing resemblance to Cybertron.

You also can’t really go wrong with John Williams’ score. It still sounds like classic Star Wars, though “Duel of the Fates” is a memorable highlight.

With all of that said, is The Phantom Menace worth watching? That’s a tough question. It’s a hard sell for newer Star Wars fans, since even though it’s the first film chronologically, it’s written with knowledge of the Original Trilogy in mind, which makes those films more or less a prerequisite for this one. Otherwise, you can go ahead and watch it if you’re curious, but I’d suggest watching a version as close as possible to the original theatrical release.

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