A menace to fanboys everywhere
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is the first episode of the Star Wars series, although it is the fourth film in the franchise to be created, being released almost 20 years after 1983's Return of the Jedi. Phantom Menace stars Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman.
There are not a lot of films that I know of that people seem to attack so much as the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Regardless of which one of the prequels you think is the worst, anyone who considers themselves even the tiniest bit of a Star Wars fan seems to be on a personal mission to subjugate the prequels, so much so that fans hope that their overall hate tour will be enough to make George Lucas toss and turn every night, consistently losing sleep over having created such ghastly abominations. Why all the hate in the first place? It's because George Lucas makes the prequels too easy to hate. Through the eyes of hardcore fans, nearly everything about them violates what everyone loved so much within the original trilogy, and since Phantom Menace is technically the culprit that started it all, fans will naturally sling most of their rotten fruit at it. Now not every wrongdoing of the prequels is solely confined within Phantom Menace, but it certainly doesn't help with getting your spirits up about the films getting better with each episode.
I add absolutely nothing new by saying that a lot of hate for The Phantom Menace gravitates toward the buffoonish Jar-Jar Binks as well as the wooden Jake Lloyd, the little kid who portrays young Anakin Skywalker. A movie should not be automatically dismissed as bad just because one measly character happens to annoy you. Scarlett O'Hara was sometimes annoying in Gone with the Wind, and who in their right mind concluded that Gone with the Wind was bad solely because of Scarlett? There's much more at work with The Phantom Menace aside from the annoyance factor. Problems with characters, acting, and story are also hiding under the surface.
Let's start with the story. A trade dispute is taking place between the Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo. The Trade Federation has established a blockade around Naboo, which attracts the services of Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape an attempt on their lives and flee towards Naboo, where they meet the Gungan Jar-Jar Binks and rescue the Naboo leader, Queen Amidala. The ship used to escape from Naboo gets damaged, which results in a forced landing on the desert planet, Tatooine. Qui-Gon scouts nearby Tatooine towns for new ship parts and meets the young Anakin Skywalker, who, along with his mother, serves as a slave to the greedy junk dealer, Watto. Qui-Gon senses that Anakin might have a hidden relationship with the Force. Elsewhere lurks a dark presence which signals the return of the Sith, presumed to have been extinct.
The Phantom Menace introduces the wonderful world of politics into the Star Wars universe, which is a drastic change-up from the more family-oriented approach of the original trilogy. Episodes IV through VI have a simplistic plot involving rebels fighting an evil empire, but we all love the original trilogy so much because of how it takes the time to develop its characters, give them reasonable motivations, and present to us sci-fi action sequences that have purpose. It's apparent in the prequels that George Lucas was trying to enhance Star Wars by adding more adult-oriented ideas, so that the parents and older viewers could have something to chew on while the kids marvel at the lightsabers and blaster guns. It's not that addressing politics in a fictional space world is always bad, but in the case of The Phantom Menace, it's highly problematic. Take some messy characters and cardboard acting and add them along with a problematic story, and, well, you've got an even bigger problem on your hands.
- George Lucas didn't hand us a new Star Wars dish without making sure that there were at least a few appetizing treats on the menu. The movie's best sequence is the lightsaber showdown featuring Darth Maul (Ray Park) against Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. The choreography is fluent and crisp, and the accompanying music further enhances the excitement. Ray Park shows off his impressive martial arts background, with Darth Maul performing various flips and spins to make him seem like an elusive ninja Sith. Maul's dialogue is minimal, because he lets his lightsaber do the talking.
- You could write a 50 page thesis on why Jar-Jar Binks is the most annoying character in the film. The only thing that I will say about that is that Jar Jar's clumsiness loses its humorous appeal really fast. He steps into a pile of animal dung, and keeps finding various ways to make himself look like a total clown. It's funny for maybe 3 minutes. After re-watching this film several years later, I have reached the conclusion that indeed Jar Jar is annoying, but the worst issue is that he is borderline unnecessary. Qui-Gon accidentally runs into Jar-Jar while running from droids on Naboo, and about the only form of help that Jar-Jar provides is helping Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan navigate through Naboo and bringing them to the underwater Gungan city. When the movie is not on Naboo, Jar-Jar does not contribute a dang thing to help progress the plot forward or enhance other characters. I am not kidding. I could not locate even one specific thing that Jar-Jar did outside of Naboo that was at least semi-important to the story. This is why I vouch for people to consider Jar-Jar as not strictly annoying (and he is VERY annoying), but that he is mostly disposable. If Jar-Jar only made appearances during the Naboo parts of the film, I would bet on him not getting such a scathing response from Star Wars fans.
- The Phantom Menace really dropped the ball when it came to introducing us to the young boy that would eventually become one of cinema's most famous villains, Darth Vader. Jake Lloyd's wooden performance really does not put us in the right direction when it comes to building up to the menacing Vader. Lloyd's emotions are completely uniform, showing little to no concern when put into dangerous situations that would send any little kid like young Anakin into a crying fit in which they howl for their mothers. I am aware that Anakin has a strong connection with the Force, but Lloyd does not even attempt to make Anakin seem slightly nervous, or, at the very least, noticeably excited. It's actually worse than Jar-Jar's buffoonery because Jar-Jar would slide into the background in the next two films, while Anakin becomes a pivotal character whose decisions affect the remaining course of the franchise.
The Phantom Menace does certainly try to deliver to us the visually-pleasing space candy that Star Wars is known for, and when it is rigid about being entertaining, it hits its mark. The climactic lightsaber fight near the end is one of the better ones in the entire franchise, and we also have some enjoyable space battles, as well as a pod race. Unfortunately, nothing that can pass off as sheer entertainment in the film can be fully appreciated since we also have to struggle with characters like Jar-Jar Binks and young Anakin who drag the film down significantly. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor really do try with what the script gives them, but their performances are nowhere near being career defining moments. Natalie Portman has zero chemistry with Jake Lloyd, which is unfortunate because of how the two's characters get together many years later. The story is a puzzle, because it seems to be going for a more mature approach by incorporating politics. What young-ling in the Star Wars fan-base would ever care about trade issues and Senate meetings? I myself was not one to care. The movie never really gave me a reason to care. Let's just say that, despite some enjoyable moments, The Phantom Menace should not be anyone's first exposure to the world of Star Wars.
Recommend? See the original trilogy first before you think about watching it. If you absolutely loved the original trilogy, then I'd say go ahead and give this one a watch. If the original trilogy wasn't to your liking, then avoid this movie at all costs.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: