Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

I’ve reviewed quite a few things since this blog’s inception. I’ve written about cinematic awesomeness, silver-screen mediocrity and some filmic abominations. I’ve covered sequels, trilogies and more recently, anthologies. One thing I have not done before is an entire saga. I knew this day would come. I’ve decided to review all six Star Wars films* in episodic order, rather than chronological. At least that way, this foolish undertaking has a  happy ending  satisfying conclusion  (is there anyway to write that without sounding like a seedy massage parlour perk?)

Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace (1999)

Very rarely does a series encapsulate both what I love and hate about films this perfectly. The original trilogy has its flaws (which I will discuss in great detail when we get there) but they’re still great films. The prequel trilogy, not so much. I have a small confession. I actually liked The Phantom Menace when it came out. Then again, I was 12 and didn’t really know what a good film was. Thanks to the depressing, constant mortal march to the grave we all have to endure, I’m older, fatter and have a better idea of what constitutes a good film. This certainly isn’t it.

 “The boy is dangerous. They all sense it, why can’t you?”

The “plot” is as follows: there is some sort of blockade around the planet of Naboo and the galactic senate have sent in two Jedi Knights- Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to negotiate. However, a plan to invade Naboo soon becomes apparent and it’s up to the two Jedi, a young boy who is unusually strong with the Force (Jake Lloyd), a fourteen year old queen (Natalie Portman) and some floppy eared, rabbit/frog thing called Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) to save the day. It may seem like I’m being intentionally vague to mock the film, but I’m not. That is genuinely the best I can do to describe the basic story. Sure, I could describe specific scenes, but as for a plot outline, I’m fucked. The story gets bogged down in pseudo-political bullshit from the off, peppering phrases like “trade dispute” throughout. As a kid, I assumed all this political talk was too smart for me and I’d learn about it when I was older. Well,it still doesn’t make any fucking sense. Both Neeson and McGregor do well with their crappy lines, but the main target for my ShitCannon 9000 is Jake Lloyd. Now, I don’t want to make a habit of picking on ickle child actors (ahem), but by shiny MechaChrist is Lloyd awful in this. Practically every intonation is wrong, not to mention fleas-under-the-foreskin irritating. One would think Ahmed Best would also come under fire here, but from what I can gather, he’s just doing exactly what he’s been instructed to do. It just doesn’t help that what he’s been instructed to do is ruin scenes and make the audience embarrassed to the point of physical cringing.

So yeah, 12 years later and it’s still tough to imagine how the creator of such a culturally important series of films could misjudge things this much. Jar Jar is an unfunny joysuck. There are awkward “comedy” bits, plot holes that even Paris Hilton’s gynaecologist would describe as “gaping” and an overabundance of boring nonsensical political waffle. To top it all off, the mysticism of the Force is royally shafted when it’s explained that it’s all to do with microscopic lifeforms known as “midichlorians”. I always thought the point of the Force was the fact that you could become as attuned to it as you wanted, providing you were dedicated enough. Phantom Menace skullfucks this idea and takes away some of the magic by explaining it.

There are some things I like about Phantom Menace, but they’re fleeting. The John Williams score is great throughout, especially during the “Duel of the Fates” three-way smackdown between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. But alas, no pleasure is pure in the Star Wars prequels and the awesome fight is intercut with Natalie Portman and her gang of forgettables shooting ineffectual droids, Jar Jar and the Gungans battling an entire droid army (complete with plenty of Jar Jar shenanigans) and Jake Lloyd being fucking annoying in a space battle. The podrace is also decent, injecting some much-needed life into the film, but it slightly overstays its welcome.

“Why do I get the feeling that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?”

The Phantom Menace is an interesting one. It’s not good or even average, but I can’t bring myself to fully hate it. I like the smarmy Palpatine starting to get his evil plans in place and I love some of the designs and settings. Especially the rolling Droidekas. It’s kind of fun to watch in one way, but that doesn’t excuse the lazy plotting , abhorrent characters and crappy dialogue. The hardest thing to swallow even now, over a decade later, is what a massive missed opportunity this is. Lucas could have told a great story, but instead decided to shift as many toys as he could, writing in characters and situations purely for merchandising reasons.

*Technically there have been 7 Star Wars theatrical releases, my review of the seventh, The Clone Wars, can be found here.

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