Let us travel back in time, almost sixteen years ago. Fans of Star Wars and its sequels were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the first film in a trilogy of prequels. The trailers looked promising, momentum had been building up for a couple years, and some fans camped out weeks before the showings around the world in order to be among the first to see the new film.
When we all settled into the theaters, there was great anticipation, and cheering filled the darkness as the Lucasfilm logo sparkled on the screen. After the film was over, things were different. Instead the of enthusiastic clapping usually found at the end of the first showings, there was instead only a smattering of applause, and even that seemed half-hearted. After all the hype, was that it? What had gone wrong? What was Lucas thinking?
Before going into the issues, let me say the special effects were pretty awesome. I loved the underwater Gungan city. I thought that sequence was the best in the film. The music was just as good as in the originals, and I still enjoy listening to The Phantom Menace soundtrack on a regular basis. John Williams is an excellent composer, and this music is some of his best work. However, a great (or even good) movie isn’t built on amazing special effects or great music. Those are merely “lipstick and mascara”, and if you use too much, or rely on them too heavily to carry things, the result is an ugly mess.
One of the biggest issues was lack of character development. All of the characters were pretty flat—even Threepio and Artoo were mostly boring here. The main character is supposed to be young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), Luke’s and Leia’s future father, but I never found myself really rooting for him. I suppose part of it was knowing he was going to turn evil and die, but that wasn’t the only thing. The Phantom Menace never gave me a reason to care about him. He barely even cared about leaving his mother forever, and he’s supposed to be eight years old. No kid that age would be so nonchalant about leaving a mother about whom he obviously cares deeply.
Which brings us to the whole immaculate conception idea. A bunch of sub-cellular organisms apparently created Anakin through the force. The whole scene where Shmi (Pernilla August) is explaining it was just weird and awkward. It didn’t flow well, and the idea that he was created from nothing by apparently-intelligent “midichlorians” (which Qui-Gon later says can speak through the Force) just didn’t fit well with the existing mythos of the original films.
Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) was a relatively strong character at first glance, but he didn’t seem terribly consistent in how he acted. Maybe Lucas was trying to portray him as a lovable, slightly-rebellious Jedi master, but he never really nailed the lovable part. Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) seemed there mostly as a sidekick, throwing out the occasional bad one-liner, but really not impacting The Phantom Menace very much. Padme (Natalie Portman) was just there as a decorative ornament to show off the outrageous costumes into which she changed ever 10 minutes. Her best costume was the sensible one used during most of the climax of the film. It looked far better than any of the other fashion statements she wore during most of the rest of the film.
And then there are the Gungans. In general, the Gungans weren’t that bad of characters—even if their language was a weird pidgin mishmash of Caribbean-inspired cadences. The main issue, as many have pointed out over the years, was Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). He was intended as comic relief (much like Threepio in the original trilogy), but he failed miserably. He was obnoxious, got in the way, was a clumsy oaf, and did nothing to move along the plot. (I’d love to see The Phantom Edit some time).
I think my favorite actor in the film was Ian McDiarmid, who was stellar every time he appeared on screen. He was excellent playing both sides, and was perfect as The Phantom Menace, hinting at his role as the series progressed. He did an excellent job here, just as in the original trilogy.
In the end, the film was poorly paced, poorly plotted, and badly directed. I really like a lot of the actors in this film, but they can only do so much with bad direction. I only own this film for completeness’ sake, and it is worth seeing if you want to learn more about Darth Vader’s childhood. Other than that, The Phantom Menace really isn’t worth a lot of time. Kids seem to love it, but they lose interest in it quickly. I really hope the upcoming Star Wars – The Force Awakens takes us back to the glory days of the original trilogy. I have my tickets for it.
Release Date: May 19, 1999 (USA)
MPAA Rating: PG
Language: 1 (a couple minor instances)
Violence: 2 (lightsaber and blaster fights, space battles, war, multiple deaths)