We love Star Wars because of the concept, the energy, the outstanding visuals, and their colorful depictions of character. “The Phantom Menace” provides most of that, and really is not such a terrible Star Wars movie when viewed without prejudice.
“Episode I” is the first of the prequels and amongst fans is generally considered the most disappointing of all Star Wars movies. Now I am not saying this film is without its flaws, but I do continue to find it enjoyable to this day. Perhaps part of this is because it’s the first Star Wars film I remember watching, and it is the first Star Wars film of my generation. I disregard any nostalgic bias I may have while writing this review. “The Phantom Menace” is imaginative and exhilarating. We discover new worlds, new and old characters, and still have that sense of familiarity that tells us we are watching a Star Wars film. While some of the characters in this one aren’t nearly as compelling as those in the original trilogy, that is inevitable. We know who these characters will become over time, and this was not meant to be the chapter that discloses their true personas.
The dialogue is flat and formal, which is unfortunate, as I wish the characters had spoken with more wit and elegance. Much of the dialogue revolves around the discussions of trade embargoes and blockades, which really weighs down portions of the film. But beyond all of that, we have a story about a young boy whom we know will be seduced by the Dark Side. The key development in the film is Qui-Gon meeting Anakin and ensuring that Anakin will be trained as a Jedi, with or without the Jedi Council’s approval. Qui-Gon has great confidence in Anakin, as is proved when he finds himself backing the boy in a high-speed Podrace. The race is one of the film’s greatest achievements, as ships whiz by the camera and race through high-wall canyons of rock and dust. The film holds back viscerally though, as is evident when Anakin doesn’t shed a single tear upon leaving his mother. Their mutual resignation towards their feelings feels restrained. The discovery and testing of Anakin provides the main backbone of the story, but the action also plays its part in captivating our attention.
“The Phantom Menace” provides a glimpse into what Obi-Wan described as a “more civilized age” in “A New Hope.” From the get-go, we see the fine, sleek look of the starships, as well as the monk-like robes worn by the Jedi. Other costumes are gloriously over the top and give us the impression of an elite and content society unexpecting of the dark ages to come. We have two new antagonists (one of which is clearly on his way to transforming into a character we have previously met). The highlight of the film is, of course, the duel between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon, and Obi-Wan. The sheer scope of the duel is enough to cement it as one of the greatest and most exhilarating duels in the Star Wars universe. The sequence is choreographed brilliantly, and the background that our Jedi battle the Sith against is awe-striking. As the lightsaber duel takes place, it is intercut with two other battles going on. One is led by Padme against the droids and the Viceroy, and the other led by Anakin takes place in space against the blockade. All three battles are captivating and hold surprises that make us celebrate and mourn for our heroes.
Many fans argue about the overuse of ex machinas to advance the plot (i.e. “There’s always a bigger fish”) and enjoy slamming Jake Lloyd’s performance as child Anakin. While the ex machinas do have clear credibility, they don’t feel overly abundant or forced in a way that would ruin the entire movie. And my goodness, Lloyd was a child actor; one can’t expect to receive a performance on par with Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman. Star Wars has never been known for its acting chops anyway. Lloyd does a fine job establishing Anakin’s persona as a child and considering the kind of Anakin we got in the next two installments, I almost miss Lloyd’s innocence in the part. As for the character of Jar-Jar Binks, nothing I say will change the minds of fanboys regarding the necessity of his character, nor will I be able to defer the perennial hatred of his overabundant childlike humor.
John Williams provides a fantastic score as usual, and his “Duel of the Fates” will no doubt go down as one of the greatest pieces of music in Star Wars history, perhaps even film history. Despite all its flaws, “Episode I” stands as a creative and imaginative piece of filmmaking. Nothing feels like it has been done before, and the small reminiscent themes and surroundings only solidify how “The Phantom Menace” succeeds on more than one level. Audiences were disappointed in it because they thought they knew what to expect. When Lucas delivered something completely different, people were aghast. This film was meant to set up a very different looking universe in another time, not just look back on one character. Though it does showcase bland dialogue and apathetic characters, there is a sense of discovery in every scene.