An Honest Look at “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”

A long time ago, about 40 years ago, a young filmmaker, George Lucas, premiered his Flash Gordon-like movie to audiences, and the world has never been the same. Fans have been traveling to the far away worlds and galaxies that George Lucas created for decades, but sometimes the ride can be bumpier than the Kessel Run.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the premier or Star Wars, I thought I would take the opportunity to honestly review three of the most criticized Star Wars movies in the canon, and I’m not talking about the 1978 Christmas television special.

Cue the music John Williams, because here we go, to the depths of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

It’s 1999, the world has not had a new Star Wars movie or show since the mid 80’s, and now through years of rumors and speculation, Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace premiered. It looks the same as the original trilogy, the crawl comes up to John Williams’ amazing musical work, but it’s very disappointing. The eighth word in the crawl is taxation, and we learn about a blockade of a planet called Naboo by the Trade Federation. Good god, is this movie about taxes and trade deals?

The Supreme Chancellor has dispatched Jedi Knights to resolve the dispute, and this is where the action starts. The first Star Wars movie since 1983 and the focus is about interstellar trade. For most fans, the wording of the crawl doesn’t matter, but it is a warning about what is to come. Qui-Gon Jin and Obi-Wan Kenobi are our Jedi Knights, and the crawl disappears at their arrival.

For years, the speculation of who would play the younger Obi-Wan dominated all movie magazines with Kenneth Branagh mentioned as a strong contender for his similarity to Alec Guinness. Instead, Ewan MacGregor is partnered with the more veteran Liam Neeson; Obi-Wan is young and still learning from his master Qui-Gon.

The action picks up quick, the evil Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, is in control and manipulating the Trade Federation. Sidious wants the Jedi killed. The Trade Federation tries to gas Kenobi and Gin. Would the Trade Federation really think that would work on Jedi? I mean it seems like they have no knowledge about the skills and abilities of the Jedi. The Trade Federation serve one purpose, and that is to be a distraction for Sidious, who is quietly and quickly taking over the Republic.

The most offsetting part of this first 15 minutes of the movie is how much digital effects are used. The Trade Federation is CGI, the droids that Qui Gon and Obi Wan destroy are CGI, which makes the audience know they are looking at nothing. The reality of this unreal world is lost because so much looks fake.

CGI continues to dominate the movie when the action moves to Naboo where Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon make their way to the Gungan city and seek help in reaching Queen Amidala of Naboo. The Trade Federation is invading Naboo, and for a moment the Jedi are safe in the underwater world of the Gungan’s. They are a simple people and swayed with the power of the Force the Gungan’s offer transport for the desperate Jedi. The Gungan’s are not a problem in the movie. It’s the absolutely ridiculous character of Jar Jar Binks that almost derails the value of this movie. Introduced early, and active in most if not all scenes in the movie, Jar Jar is the bumbling clutz that Qui-Gon saves when landing on Naboo.

Jar Jar from his introduction to bringing the Jedi for help from the Gungan’s to all the way to Coruscant, he is there, falling down, getting in trouble, and constantly being a comic relief that is not funny, is very distracting, and ultimately stupid. I mean Jar Jar even quotes Michelle Tanner from Full House with “How rude!” Full House is not the place I would have went for source material when writing my new Star Wars movie.

Saving Queen Amidala, the Jedi escape with her and fight their way free from the conquering Trade Federation and their droid army. The escape damages their shuttle and forces the Queen and Jedi to set down on the desert planet of Tatooine.

The next act of the movie takes one of the most well-known characters, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and leaves him on the ship, while Qui-Gon, R2 D2, and the Queen’s aide Padme, which everyone knows is Queen Amidala because Natalie Portman was cast as the Queen, to wander into the nearby town to get parts to fix their ship. I think this maligning of Kenobi was a mistake. Ewan McGregor should have got more of a role than just being the other end of a call for Liam Neeson’s Jedi Master.

The planet reveals helpers and scoundrels, and with the help of a slave boy, Anakin Skywalker, the heroes bet their livelihood on a pod race. The pod race is cool. The action of the race and the thrill of this desert world car race is enough to keep anyone on edge as the young boy battles multiple enemies, both competing in the race and on the sidelines trying to disrupt the competition. The only issues that might cloud the judgment of the viewer is Jar Jar Binks’ constant stupidity and the overcrowding of scenes with creatures and animals of the digital kind. Fans got a first taste of what George Lucas could do with computer technology in the 1997 re-release of Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope. Now every scene is crowded, in some cases obscuring the shots of our heroes as they walk through the town.

Anakin Skywalker is not a problem. The fact that his character is first introduced as a young boy is questionable, but his value in the trilogy cannot be measured on one movie. Jake Lloyd has often been attacked or criticized for his portrayal of the young slave boy, but Lloyd has to be given a large amount of credit and thanks for trying to bring a humanity to a character that has been voted one of the greatest villains of movie history. It’s hard to imagine that the merciless Darth Vader, was once a young boy, who seemed so innocent and good. Lloyd brings a sweetness and innocence to a character that we only know of as being a violent killer is worth crediting to Lloyd alone.

The problem that Jake Lloyd has is the script he has been given. Saying lines like “Are you an angel,” while flirting with the young Padme seems wrong because there is such a visible age difference between the two characters. Lloyd is good, he hits his marks, and we get to see a whole different side to a character we have known so well for decades. Fans should wonder how did this sweet kid become Darth Vader? Jake Lloyd is excellent at showing the innocence that Anakin possesses but also subtle hints to the rage we will see in later movies.

Anakin delivers and wins the pod race, gaining his freedom from his owner Watto, but being forced to leave his home and mother. The biggest problem with the time on Tatooine is not that Anakin was born through divine means, but that we learn he has the highest concentration of midi-chlorines. This one word alone would cloud many audience members about how good this movie is. The divine spirituality of the Force was now changed to be a result of some parasite that affects your body.

Midi-chlorines may have almost sunk the Tatooine scenes for most fans, but we also get the best villain reveal in Star Wars history, Darth Maul. He made an ominous entrance in hologram form at a board meeting for the Trade Federation. Yes, we actually sit through a board meeting in this movie. Maul is dispatched to find the Jedi and Queen Amidala by Darth Sidious. Though it’s a short confrontation in the sand, Maul is powerful and something to watch out for. Ray Park made an impact on fans that more than makes up for many failings in the script.

The movie travels to Coruscant. Finally, after dozens of Star Wars books described the capital of the Republic, we get to see what it looks like for ourselves. The scope of the planet is immense, but viewers are overcome with scenes of crowded skies. Ships are constantly in motion. In EVERY scene, the skyline is filled to the max. I know Coruscant is busy but is it really this busy?

Viewers not only get to see the Senate, but we also get to look inside the Jedi Temple. We watch as the planet that never sleeps is bogged down in political turmoil, and the fact that Naboo has been invaded and captured by the Trade Federation, the Senate needs proof and delays a vote of aide for the peaceful planet. This is 1999, and the events that take place in the Republic Senate are no different than meetings of the United Nations General Assembly of 2017. Say what you want about the topic of trade disputes and politics of The Phantom Menace the idiocy of the Senate is a reflection of most political organizations of today.

We also get to see Yoda. One of the greatest Jedi doesn’t trust young Anakin Skywalker and agrees with the rest of the Jedi council, Anakin is too old to become a Jedi. Even though he is so young, Lloyd brings the hostility and frustration of Anakin alive. You start to see how the resentment and emotional scarring of the events of his young life will affect him in the future.

The Phantom Menace is not about midi-chlorines or Obi Wan Kenobi. It’s certainly not about the role of the Jedi, but it is the origin story of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Played by Ian McDiarmid, Senator Palpatine is so perfect in his earnest role of Senator to the invaded Naboo, that when he suggests that the Chancellor be removed because of his inaction on the Naboo crisis, Queen Amidala is only happy to oblige, and doesn’t see the danger in her move. Palpatine is made the new Chancellor of the Senate, and Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Queen Amidala head back to Naboo.

The movie concludes with Padme revealing herself to be the true Queen of Naboo, and an alliance is formed between the people of Naboo, and the Gungans of the underwater kingdom on Naboo. The Viceroy of the Trade Federation, Nute Gunray, is captured by Queen Amidala and her men. Anakin Skywalker, takes over a fighter and ends up joining the Naboo pilots on an attack on the control ship for the Trade Federation droid army.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan spend the last portion of this battle fighting Darth Maul. The audience finally sees some real intense light saber battles. Throughout the movie we saw Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan regularly using their lightsabers, but it always looked planned. As if they, Neeson and McGregor, are going through the motions of the staged martial arts. When they battle with Maul, this is a fight to the finish. The intensity of the combat stands above anything else in the movie, and with John Williams’ amazing score of Duel of the Fates, you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat.

Maul scores a victory in the killing of Qui-Gon, but it’s the elevation of Obi-Wan who defeats Maul, that we finally get an idea of how the sage warrior of A New Hope came to be so powerful and important. For most of this movie, Obi-Wan has been a supporting player. Now elevated to the hero, Obi-Wan is destined for bigger and better things.

Jake Lloyd is a kid, and as a kid, you can only expect so much from the ability to convey feeling and emotion on screen. He is not helped by the script at all. Lloyd does his best and for the whole movie brings an earnest sweetness to Anakin, but when he is given a line like “I’ll trying spinning, that’s a good trick,” during the attack on the droid ship, you can’t help but wonder why the script didn’t get more oversight. What could Lloyd do when he has to say lines like that? The movie ends with a funeral and a parade, and coyly we see a profile shot of Chancellor Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker taking in the festivities that fill the avenues of Naboo.

Final Thoughts

The Phantom Menace is not a terrible movie. It’s not the worst Star Wars production either. That will always be held by 1978 Christmas special. The problem with The Phantom Menace is the script. There are many inconsistencies and just downright puzzling lines of dialogue that should have been cut out from the first draft. The many lines by Queen Amidala and the voice she uses to say her dialogue is terrible. There are points through the movie when you see Ewan McGregor smirking and you just have to believe that it’s from the fact he was delivering dialogue that seems ridiculous. Written by George Lucas, the criticism about the language spoken on Star Wars is not a new critique. Harrison Ford delivered the famous bit of candor that is Star Wars legend in the first trilogy, “You can write this George, but you can’t say this s***.”

The visual clutter is the second biggest problem with the movie. In almost every scene, the audience is inundated with too much to look at. From a million fighters attacking ships, to seeing the most clogged roadway on Tatooine.

For the Jedi to show a shocking lack of common sense or intelligence is hard to stomach. Jedi are supposed to be able to sense when something is not right, but when the servant Padme is sent with Qui-Gon on Tatooine, he couldn’t tell she was really the queen. When Maul makes his appearance, neither Qui-Gon nor Obi-Wan knew if he was a Sith. The Jedi have been around for a thousand years, would they not be able to recognize their mortal enemy? Plus the Trade Federation state at the beginning that they have never encountered a Jedi before. That;s impossible. The final battle of Naboo also makes me wonder, how can the blasts from the droid army be deflected by the Gungan shields, but the droids can easily walk through the shield?

Jar Jar Binks could have worked well in small doses. The problem is that Jar Jar is in the whole movie. From his stupid entrance where Qui-Gon saves him in the forest of Naboo, to his pratfalls and stepping in poop on Tatooine, to his bumbling on the battlefield during the final fight with the droid army on Naboo. Jar Jar Binks is too childish and stupid to be a major character and his presence takes away from the good that is happening in this movie. The ewoks were never this bad. They at least didn’t have any dialogue.

There is good in this movie. The Phantom Menace is the origin story of Anakin Skywalker, and how the young naïve boy could be turned to the dark side by a corrupt and evil force like Palpatine. Viewers know that the new Chancellor is the evil Darth Sidious and that he now has his eye on a young boy the age of Anakin, makes the Sith Lord a more dangerous and evil character than ever. He is recruiting and grooming young Anakin Skywalker for the future. Seeing the cute kid that is portrayed by Jake Lloyd only sets us up more for the tragedy that will fall on Anakin Skywalker.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is a necessary movie that has been lambasted for many valid reasons. This movie is necessary in showing the growth of Anakin Skywalker. Sure the dialogue is bad in many parts, the scenery is filled with too much digital insertions, and Jar Jar Binks is the worst, but The Phantom Menace is a necessary movie. It’s the first act in a long play, and one must disregard the detritus that fills the screen and see it for what it really is. Here is a young idealistic good kid named Anakin Skywalker, now watch how he falls to the Dark Side.