*Caution: This review contains spoilers for both the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. But if you honestly don’t know the story of Star Wars by this point, well, I don’t know what to tell you.*
Rewind the clock back to 1999. It had been sixteen years since Return of the Jedi wrapped up the original Star Wars trilogy, a series that had an unparalleled impact on film and popular culture. The Star Wars universe had expanded to video games, comic books, novels, and other media in that time (remember those made-for-TV Ewoks movies?), building on the overall mythology of the Galaxy far, far away. Of course, fans longed for a return to the film series which started it all, which George Lucas had indeed promised would happen after he retroactively christened the original Star Wars film as “Episode IV,” indicating that a second trilogy, which served as prequels to the originals, had become an inevitability.
After the original trilogy saw theatrical re-releases through their “special editions” in 1997, George Lucas finally began work on his long-promised prequel trilogy, taking on the role of director for the first time since the original Star Wars film. Anticipation for Episode 1’s release in 1999 was unrivaled at the time. Audiences were camped out at movie theaters weeks ahead of release (keep in mind this was still before securing your ticket online was a thing), and fans speculated on how the story would unfold. Obviously, with the fact that this was a prequel series, we all knew where it would eventually end up, but that didn’t stop the excitement of guessing how it would all play out to get there. We all had glimpses of the new and returning characters through the obscene amount of merchandise that preceded the film’s release, and couldn’t help but get excited. How did R2-D2 and C3-P0 meet? How did Palpatine turn Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side of the Force? Was that badass Darth Maul dude going to be this trilogy’s answer to Darth Vader?
Then, in May of 1999, what was surely going to be the biggest movie ever finally happened in the form of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.
And it was a bit underwhelming.
In its day, the disappointment associated with The Phantom Menace was unheard of, and it reverberated to the subsequent prequel entries. While the negative reception back in 1999 may have been a tad extreme, it wasn’t undeserved, either. While the prequel trilogy may not have been the “worst movies ever” that many fans liked to paint them as, they are nonetheless incredibly flawed and clunky films that even create some glaring plot holes for the original trilogy.
Normally, I’m the kind of person who can look past a plot hole, as I understand the immense undertakings required of storytelling and filmmaking mean that mistakes are bound to happen somewhere. But the plot holes created in these Star Wars prequels are so monumentally contradictory to what the original films established, it seems as though George Lucas himself hadn’t seen his own movies to attempt to tie the stories together.
In The Phantom Menace, we are introduced to a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), a Jedi ‘Padawan’ under the tutelage of Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), a Jedi knight whose independence from Jedi traditions leads him to often butt heads with the Jedi council. Although Qui-Gon Jinn is one of the best characters introduced in the prequels, his very existence already creates a plot hole in regards to the original films. In The Empire Strikes Back, we are informed that Yoda was Obi-Wan’s mentor, and that Obi-Wan took on the ill-fated Anakin Skywalker as his apprentice, believing “he could teach Anakin as well as Yoda taught him.” But apparently Yoda didn’t teach Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon did. This could have been rectified in the subsequent prequels, but George Lucas seemingly forgot his own story, and failed to make the established connection between Obi-Wan and Yoda, making their reflections in Empire retroactively seem like the senile ramblings of forgetful old men.
Sorry, am I getting sidetracked? No more than George Lucas did when writing The Phantom Menace, I’d say.
The story here is that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan have been sent by the Galactic Republic to negotiate with the Trade Federation, who have blockaded the planet of Naboo as they prepare for a full-scale invasion of the planet. But the Trade Federation is under the influence of the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Sidious, who commands the Trade Federation to kill the Jedi and begin their invasion of Naboo.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan narrowly escape the Federation’s battle droids, and return to Naboo to warn the planet of the impending invasion. They end up saving a local “Gungan” called Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who manages to sneak the Jedi into the capital city of the planet, where they rescue Queen Amidala, her handmaidens and her royal guard before the Federation’s battle droids completely occupy the city.
The groups’ ship is heavily damaged during the escape from Naboo, and would have been destroyed if not for the efforts of a little astrodroid named R2-D2. Unable to complete their journey to the capital planet of the Republic, Coruscant, the group make an emergency landing on the desert planet of Tatooine to find spare parts and repair their ship. Qui-Gon, Jar-Jar, R2 and Padmé (Natalie Portman) – one of the queen’s handmaidens – investigate the surrounding areas of the planet to find repairs, when they stumble across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).
Anakin and his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) are slaves owned by the greedy Watto (voiced by Andy Sacombe), who has the parts Qui-Gon is looking for. But Qui-Gon senses there is more to Anakin than meets the eye, detecting an unheard of strength in the Force in the young boy. When Qui-Gon learns that Anakin is an expert ‘Podracer,’ he makes a wager with Watto. If Anakin can win an upcoming Podrace, Watto will not only grant him the repairs he needs, but also free Anakin, as Qui-Gon wishes to teach him the ways of the Jedi, believing Anakin to be the fabled ‘Chosen One’ of legend.
As the film goes on we delve deeper into the political aspects of the Republic, including the ascension of a certain Naboo senator named Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), as well as the Jedi council learning of the reemergence of the Sith after Qui-Gon Jinn encounters Darth Maul (Ray Park), Darth Sidious’s mysterious apprentice.
Admittedly, The Phantom Menace has more merits than it gets credit for. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor work well in the leading roles, some of the action scenes – such as the Podrace and the final confrontation with Darth Maul – are exhilarating, the musical score (composed by John Williams, naturally) is one of the best in the series, and even though everyone and their grandma may revile Jar-Jar Binks, the character was actually quite groundbreaking for visual effects. Not since Eddie Valiant butted heads with Roger Rabbit had an animated character worked so seamlessly with live-actors, and Jar-Jar helped open the door for CG characters like Gollum and, subsequently, the likes of Davy Jones, Thanos, and countless others. Not all of the visual effects of The Phantom Menace have held up well (other CG aliens, such as the Podracing ‘Dug’ Sebulba, look glaringly fake today), but the ones that do stand the test of time, do so surprisingly well.
Sadly, there are just too many issues holding The Phantom Menace back. Even though it may feel more like a proper Star Wars film than the subsequent entries in the prequel trilogy, it’s so overstuffed with needless, dare I say ‘stupid’ elements, that it still falls flat. Some atrocious writing and acting also don’t help things.
There’s no way around it, George Lucas is a brilliant filmmaker from a technical perspective, and definitely has one of the most influential imaginations in the medium, but the man can’t write dialogue. With the original trilogy, Lucas had other directors and/or actors bold enough to alter some of what he wrote in the script, and made it better. But here it seems Lucas must’ve been surrounded by yes men behind the cameras, and actors in front of it who had too much faith in the director to speak up.
I remember when I first saw The Phantom Menace in theaters at nine-years old on that May Day of 1999. Even at that young age – when The Phantom Menace was a good movie to me by the simple fact that it was Star Wars – some of the dialogue still seemed, for lack of a better word, “dumb.”
I distinctly remember on that day, when the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, believing to have killed Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan with poisonous gas, informs his battle droids that “they must be dead by now, destroy what’s left of them.” Even at nine-years old, that line was just bad. What, did the Viceroy want the droids to shoot the supposed corpses with a barrage of lasers or something? Surely there were many other, better ways to word what amounts to “take no chances.”
The movie is filled with other such goofy lines. “I’m a person and my name is Anakin!” is another standout for all the wrong reasons. It’s like George Lucas wrote the first draft, filled it with basic, placeholder dialogue, and then forgot to revise it and add more flavor and personality.
Another issue with the film is some of the acting is as stilted as Lucas’s writing. Sure, there are good actors here (Neeson, McGregor, McDiarmid), but Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Padmé has nothing of note to speak of. And while I’m usually a bit easier on child actors for the obvious reason, it unfortunately has to be said that Jake Lloyd was just a bad actor. I feel guilty about saying that, knowing what we do of Lloyd in retrospect, but I’m not gonna lie. There can be legitimately good child actors (see Stranger Things), but Jake Lloyd certainly wasn’t among them, and you have to wonder what George Lucas was thinking when casting the series’ central character.
Perhaps the biggest sin committed by The Phantom Menace is its baffling pacing. There’s just way too many plots going on at any given time. Instead of stopping for a few moments to focus on one story, we continuously switch back and forth between various different character perspectives.
This is especially egregious in the film’s final act, which sees Qui-Gon and Obi-Won dueling Darth Maul at the same time that Padmé is storming the Naboo palace at the same time that Anakin is inadvertently thrown into a space battle with the Trade Federation’s command ship at the same time that Jar-Jar is leading a Gungan army into war with the battle droids.
The epic duel of Jedi and Sith and the storming of the palace are attempting legitimate action and a hefty emotional weight, while Anakin and Jar-Jar’s bumbling adventures come across as more comedic. And the film switches between each segment at poorly-timed moments. Some fans argue that the finale of Return of the Jedi does something similar. But in Jedi, all the scenes in question share an emotional connection, they’re all dramatic. Here in The Phantom Menace, we’ll go from Darth Maul fatally stabbing Qui-Gon as Obi-Wan looks on in horror, to Jar-Jar tripping over himself and Anakin spinning during a dogfight because “That’s a neat trick.” What are we supposed to be feeling here?
Then of course we have two big questionable character decisions: giving Jar-Jar Binks far too much screen time, and giving Darth Maul far too little.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t innately hate the idea of Jar-Jar. As much as the fanboys would never admit to it, Star Wars is first and foremost a children’s franchise. Having a comical, bumbling sidekick character isn’t exactly out-of-place. The problem is that Jar-Jar is the kind of comic relief that talks down to his target audience. He’s annoying and loud and is involved with a few bathroom gags (now that actually is out-of-place in Star Wars). He was designed with the purpose of appealing to children, but under the belief that children need a loud, obnoxious character to be entertained. It seems strange coming from the same series that brought us the lovable likes of R2-D2 and Chewbacca.
As for Darth Maul, he’s arguably the most underutilized villain in cinema history. I mentioned how, ahead of release, Darth Maul was a particular point of interest. With his red and black tattooed face and horned scalp, Darth Maul certainly looked like a terrific villain. Maul was the right combination of menacing and cool to be a memorable foe, and different enough from Darth Vader to stand as his own character.
Too bad in the film he gets only a handful of minutes onscreen before being unceremoniously sliced in two. Sure, the “expanded universe” would later retcon Darth Maul’s death, shoehorning him back into the fold in the worst way imaginable (he’s gots robot legs now!). But that only cheapens the character further. Much like Boba Fett before him, it was an example of too little, too late. Sometimes, fans just have to accept that a character’s potential was wasted, and bringing them back through such cheap means is a bone not worth being thrown. The simple fact is Darth Maul should have been the Darth Vader of the prequel trilogy. Instead, he was just the villain of the week. Yeah, he looks cool, but that’s literally all he does.
Jar-Jar and Darth Maul’s misgivings are creative decisions I could potential separate from the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the creative choices that create blatant continuity errors with the original trilogy.
I already mentioned how Qui-Gon’s very existence creates a bit of a plot hole with Empire Strikes Back. But at least we got a good character (and Liam Neeson) out of that. Less forgivable is the ludicrous decision that Anakin Skywalker built C3-P0 (Anthony Daniels). Again, this was something that seemed like a stretch back when I was nine. Now that I’m thirty, it just seems all the more ridiculous. Isn’t Star Wars supposed to take place in a vast galaxy? Then why does it seem so incredibly small that it’s centered around such a small group of people who all just happen to know each other? I get that having C3-P0 and R2-D2 be the one consistency throughout the entire saga was George Lucas’s plan from the start. But surely, surely there were better ways to introduce C3-P0 into the fold than having Darth Vader himself be the one to have created him. It just makes the Star Wars galaxy feel so… small. Not to mention it creates the most massive plot hole in the entire series come Attack of the Clones.
Another point of contention with fans is the existence of Midichlorians. As The Phantom Menace quite needlessly tells us, Midichlorians are microscopic organisms that determine whether someone is or isn’t attuned to the Force. Much like Star Wars being a series primarily aimed at kids, another aspect of the series that’s hard for some fans to swallow is that it’s far more rooted in fantasy and fairy tales than it is science-fiction. Although Star Wars has science-fiction elements, this is also a series primarily about space wizards fighting each other with laser katanas.
Trying to give a logical explanation for the Force seems unnecessary, and robs the essence of the series of some of its mystique. It isn’t one of the bigger issues with The Phantom Menace, but Medichlorians are an example of one of the big issues of the prequel trilogy: over-explaining things that really don’t benefit the story or characters! The same goes for most of the political narratives going on in the sidelines. There’s just way too much of it, considering Star Wars was always an action-adventure series. How many people really wanted the fantasy action to pause for the sake of political exposition at every other turn? If I wanted to be bored with science fiction, I’d be watching Star Trek, not Star Wars.
Despite the many, many, many misgivings I have with The Phantom Menace, I do have to reiterate that it can be a fun movie, and unlike the other prequels, it at least feels like a Star Wars movie (just not a particularly good one). I admit that I myself still have a nostalgic soft spot for it. But for all the fun The Phantom Menace can provide, it’s riddled in far too many janky elements – in plot, pacing, writing and acting – and seems so gleefully ignorant and unwilling to maintain continuity with the original series, that it ultimately becomes a mediocre movie. It’s certainly not the vile, “childhood ruining” disasterpiece that fans made it out to be in 1999, but The Phantom Menace – despite some merit – still isn’t a very good Star Wars movie.