Despite flaws The Phantom Menace sets up prequels well
Try to introduce a newbie to the Star Wars saga by starting with The Phantom Menace and you may be out of luck in getting them to invest in future installments of a franchise set in a galaxy far, far away.
The Phantom Menace is definitely the major reason most fans, even prequel apologists like myself, don’t watch the Star Wars saga in chronological order.
Of all the films in the saga, Phantom Menace definitely benefits most from its status as an vital cog in a larger and better story. On its own, Menace’s weaknesses are apparent — too much exposition, too few characters to capture viewers’ attention and imagination, too many callbacks to the original trilogy and too little of anything truly noteworthy occurring … at least on the surface.
Taken as the extended setup for the other five films, Menace takes on a greater sense of importance. This is our introduction to the prequel’s main hero and the series’ ultimate villain.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the prequels is watching that villain’s master plan play out to perfection and the heroes completely oblivious until it’s too late to stop him. Essentially the villain wins the ultimate victory in this installment and it’s all thanks to a seemingly insignificant squabble over trade routes.
Getting there in this case, isn’t necessarily half the fun as the first hour proves a challenging and frustrating affair. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), find themselves in the middle of a larger scheme of the Tax Federation and their mysterious ally Lord Sidious as they attempt to assume control over Naboo, a seemingly random peace-loving planet.
Attempting to aid Queen Amidala, the Jedi encounter Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a member of the more primitive Gungan species. Hopefully, with this new run of films there won’t be a character that comes close to equally the highly annoying and most grating waste of screen time that is Jar Jar Binks. Beyond his mostly nonsensical babble, Jar Jar is the embodiment of every one of Lucas’ misguided attempts at humor catering to the youngest audience members. And even they are likely to find him just as irritating.
Managing to escape the Trade Federation, the Jedi, Amidala and her court travel to Tatooine where they meet slaves Shimmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) and her son, Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Anakin is especially taken with Amidala’s handmaiden Padme (Natalie Portman) while Qui-Gon quickly realizes Anakin is particularly skilled in the Force.
It’d been 16 years since Lucas wrote a full screenplay — for Return of the Jedi — and the long hiatus was reflected with some cringe-worthy dialogue.
August does her best, but has some of the worst lines in the film while Lloyd lacked the experience to be in a position to overcome the weak material. His performance doesn’t help mind you, but the kid was facing an uphill battle.
Beyond showing Anakin as an squeaky clean, caring child, setting the film with Anakin so young made little sense especially considering the very noticeable age difference between Lloyd and Portman. Eight years in case you were wondering.
For some, the pod racing sequence was a highlight, but I found it overly long and repetitive. With the exception of slave owner Watto, who is resistance to Jedi mind tricks and establishing Anakin’s bond with his mother, the entire Tatooine sequence is really boring. Lucas tries to make it slightly more bearable with the first meeting of R2-D2 and C-3P0.
The film gets a much-needed boost when the gang travels to Coruscant, the centerpiece of the galaxy. Amidala gets some questionable political advice from Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) while Anakin meets Yoda, Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) and the rest of the Jedi Council to determine if he can be trained as a Jedi.
Although the acting is largely inconsistent in this installment, Lucas gets reliably terrific performances from Neeson and McDiarmid. Without their efforts the film would be far more frustrating.
When the film was made in 1999, filmmakers were still exploring the depths of CGI technology. Lucas was highly enamored with CGI to the detriment of the film so many scenes featuring the created characters and backgrounds look overly soft, plastic and fake.
Beyond the confusion of the past seemingly having better technology than what Luke, Han and company enjoyed, this CGI-dominated realm felt too artificial for the lived-in universe of the Original Trilogy. It’s telling that in many cases Phantom Menace looks worse in many scenes than Empire Strikes Back, a film made 19 years earlier.
In the original trilogy, each final act had the same amount of fights for its corresponding film. Star Wars had one fight, Empire had two and Jedi had three fights. Lucas continued that trend here throwing in four fights for Menace. It was largely disjointed especially since there was only one fight anyone actually cared about.
No one will argue the best — of the film and one of the strongest in the series — is the lightsaber duel, which pits Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan against the Sith apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park/voiced by Peter Serafinowicz).
John L. Williams’ ‘Duel of the Fates’ score adds another level of importance to this battle framing it as the film’s signature moment.
Like Boba Fett before him, Maul is a certifiable bad a$$ in the Star Wars universe that doesn’t have nearly enough screen time. This battle feels like a hard-earned reward for enduring all of those moments with Jar Jar.
In the end, the film accomplishes Lucas’ goal of establishing — albeit very clumsily — the Star Wars universe and the principal characters.
Fortunately from here, the prequels significantly improve as the villain’s machinations continue to unfold and the Jedi enter the fray leading to the prequels’ shining moment. But that’s a review for a later time.
While deserving its status as the worst of George Lucas’ six-film epic, the underlined importance to the overall saga make Phantom Menace intriguing. It’s messy and works a bit more than half the time, but the highs ultimately triumph over its weaker moments.
Rating: 7 out of 10