The Good: General concept, Acting, Effects
The Bad: Overemphasis on effects, Continuity gaffs, Light on character
The Basics: Barely worth the viewer's time, The Phantom Menace weakly establishes the basic story to explain the rise of Anakin Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away.
Every now and then, I discover a glaring hole in the things I have reviewed. When I was reviewing for a website, I was surprised when The Clone Wars was released to discover I had failed to review Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That omission surprised me, especially because the movie has a special significance to me. The first significant thing is something I won't mention because my wife might be reading this very blog. :) The second significant aspect of The Phantom Menace is that the DVD of the movie was the first permanent gift my wife would give me when we started dating in the brief time between when we met and when we were married!
I am not deluding myself into believing I am about to write anything so audacious that will make every other review of The Phantom Menace obsolete. I decided to review the film - after rewatching the film - as something of a "standard's check," much like I did with Pirates Of The Caribbean: Curse Of The Black Pearl right before the third film was released. But as a review now, years later, there is the benefit of perspective. Now that the prequel trilogy is done and George Lucas and team are systematically gutting the backstory in an attempt to shake every possible dime out of the franchise, it is worth returning to the beginning to see how the whole story of Anakin Skywalker began.
When the planet Naboo becomes the subject of a Trade Federation blockade, the Queen of Naboo appeals to the Galactic Senate for help and they dispatch a pair of Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to mediate the dispute. Unfortunately, the Trade Federation is bloated with a droid army that it would rather use than talk, so the Jedi go on the run to Naboo, meet up with a sea-dweller named Jar Jar Binks, take a trip through the planet's core, rescue the Queen and they leave Naboo. In the process of leaving, the ship they are on is damaged.
Desperate to make repairs, Qui-Gon recommends the ship stop at Tatooine to get the parts needed to fix the hyperdrive. There they find a young human slave named Anakin who they watch win a racing event to win his freedom. With the ship repaired, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, the Queen, Jar Jar and Anakin head back to Naboo to fight for the planet while politics runs its course in the Senate. This, alas, puts the group in the path of a dangerous assassin: the Sith Lord Darth Maul, who has all the speed and lightsaber skill of a Jedi, but is versed in the Dark Side of the Force!
Considering how insubstantial the rest of his contribution to the Trilogy was (save, of course, nominating Armageddon in the second film) it now occurs to me that Darth Maul could have been significantly more badass if only he had killed Jar Jar Binks. After all, from a certain point of view, George Lucas jerks the viewer around in a pretty bad way whatwith presenting the most evil force the viewers have seen in the Star Wars universe only to have it kill a single person . . . in a rematch (that's where the certain point of view comes in . . .)! Maul has the look of a vengeful devil and he moves pretty wickedly, but when it comes down to it, here's a lightsaber wielding maniac whose raw power kills . . . one person on screen and that's in his second chance at the guy! Strike one for George Lucas: the lamest army in the galaxy (clone troopers) slaughters the Jedi, but the first Sith Lord we see kills one person. Come to think of it, Tyrannus doesn't off anyone . . . Man the Sith are lame!
To their credit, the Trade Federation may have pretty lame looking Battle Droids, but at least when they shoot, they hit people from time to time (note the dead Gungans in this film, the dead Jedi in "Episode 2"). Of course, the point of The Phantom Menace is not to illustrate that George Lucas was gutting the franchise to make a kid's movie, but rather . . . I have absolutely no way out of that sentence. Yes, I'll admit: I am one of the five people in the world who "got" what George Lucas was trying to do with The Phantom Menace right off the bat. He wanted to illustrate that at one point, Anakin Skywalker was just a kid. He's a pretty normal kid, in fact, slavery notwithstanding. The thing is, it is perfectly possible to make a movie about a kid that is not a kid's movie. Sadly, Lucas did not make that leap when he wrote and directed The Phantom Menace.
We get this idea, of course, from Jar Jar Binks and the lame attempts at humor like Binks stepping in poop at Mos Espa. This sort of ridiculous gag lowers the level of consideration the movie is viewed with because it appeals to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, The Phantom Menace does that more than once, but mostly it makes that appeal using special effects. This is most prevalent in the podrace scene, ten minutes of life the viewer can never get back which is the Star Wars equivalent of Nascar. Lucas takes ten minutes to play out a race sequence that has little to do with the characters and much more to do with illustrating to the audience just what Industrial Light And Magic can do with their computers. The thing is, when the Trade Federation invades Naboo and the Gungan army responds, the viewer gets this and in a way that makes a real difference to the story.
Truth be told, The Phantom Menace is light on character. It is intended to establish the characters, most notably the Jedi - Qui-Gon, Yoda, Mace Windu, Obi-Wan - and the associates, Senator Palpatine, Queen Amidala, and Anakin Skywalker. The characters are mostly breezed through, just enough to establish who they are, most importantly that Qui-Gon is something of a Jedi outsider and Anakin seems to be a spiritual nexus for the Jedi.
The Phantom Menace also dumbs down the concept of the Force, the mythical energy that surrounds and fills everything in the Star Wars universe. I'm a pretty scientific person and I have a general disdain for religious fundamentalism, but George Lucas seems to have a death wish against philosophy even, taking time in this movie to describe the Force as microscopic lifeforms. Wow, that pretty much guts the whole original Trilogy concept of "if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything." Now, I suppose, we'll have a whole generation of young people who just think "If I can marshal enough microscopic beings, I can accomplish most anything."
The Phantom Menace just makes George Lucas seem lost, though. In his attempts to establish the Star Wars universe and lay the framework for the story that has become a cultural institution, Lucas seems to have little idea where to start and he foolishly thought that the die-hard fans who made him a multimillionaire would forget the details worked into the past works. So, starting the story with Anakin as a normal kid works, but the whole point of Anakin's role as a podracer and participating in the climactic battle of this movie seems to be to justify the line in A New Hope when Obi-Wan says, "Your father was already a great star pilot when I met him." Of course, the easy solution to this would have been to not have Obi-Wan and Anakin meet in The Phantom Menace. Instead, Lucas said "screw it," had Obi-Wan be the apprentice of Qui-Gon Jinn (according to The Empire Strikes Back, Kenobi was Yoda's apprentice) and wrote in the whole racing thing.
The thing is, in addition to the blatant contrasts between what was established in the movies (the films are canon as far as I am concerned, at least until Lucas is dead and he and his remaining works in this universe are buried), Lucas seems to have little idea what to do with the story he wrote and he vamps for time. There are repetitive sequences as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar travel underwater through Naboo. They are chased by a big fish, which is eaten, to provide the lesson "there is always a bigger fish." Okay. So what's the point of having a second sequence of big fish?! While the simpleton does what Lucas hopes they will - which is not question this and just enjoy the special effects - I look at the implication as well. Jedi are supposed to have a connection between the environment they are in. How is it two powerful Jedi Knights miss the giant fish brains and the psychic waves they must be sending out. Shouldn't Qui-Gon have been able to just close his eyes and make any of the dumb living things in the depths of the sea not see the little submarine they are in?!
Okay, no more nit-picking - though to be fair, this is not Monday morning quarterbacking, the film has a pretty strong sense of being poorly conceived. What, then, saves it enough to get it up to average territory in my book and a bare "recommend?" First, the effects. I'm not talking the CG effects that run rampant through The Phantom Menace like some video game designer's wet dream. No, the superlative special effect in this movie is actually the make-up and costumes. Darth Maul looks like the supreme killer we never actually see him as and Queen Amidala's outfits are regal and beautiful.
The other aspect that works wonderfully for The Phantom Menace is the acting. Say what you will about the lack of character in the movie, the acting is pretty decent. Liam Neeson plays opposite a slew of digital characters and he is absolutely convincing as Qui-Gon in a way that makes the viewer completely believe that he is seeing people where there are none. Even the child actor Jake Lloyd does a good job at playing Anakin as just a kid (not much of a stretch considering Lloyd's age at the time).
But it is Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor who shine in The Phantom Menace. In fact, their scenes are filled with a little sexual tension that makes one wonder why Lucas didn't have Anakin's descent be much more related to jealousy and some form of love triangle. Portman plays Amidala as a young politician who is resolute and bold in a very teen way that works wonderfully for the character. She has a dynamic and energy that makes the viewer believe she is truly putting her life on the line for her people.
But it is Ewan McGregor who makes The Phantom Menace a real actor's study. McGregor may not look like a young Alec Guinness in this movie, but he sure acts like one. McGregor has a sparkle to the eye that the actor who established Obi-Wan in the original Trilogy had and he plays that beautifully making it seem like he is the perfect incarnation of a young Obi-Wan, which is exactly what he needed to do in the role.
On DVD, The Phantom Menace is packed with deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the movie and special effects sequences (most notably the podrace). The commentary track is adequate but not extraordinary.
Ultimately, there is little superlative about The Phantom Menace, resulting in a shockingly mediocre opening to the story that changed cinema. While many devote a large amount of time to griping about the annoying Jar Jar Binks (and he is an annoying character), they seem to forget that pretty much all C-3P0 did in A New Hope was wander around whining about everything. The problem with The Phantom Menace is that Lucas gut his original work to create this mediocre opening salvo and wastes time with the pointless podrace scene that is nowhere near as cool as he or his kids thought it would be.
For other cinematic works in the Star Wars franchise, please check out my reviews of:
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars - Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
The Star Wars Saga Blu-Ray
For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.