Star Wars Retrospective: The Phantom Menace

star wars the phantom menace review logo episode i george lucas prequel trilogy

So, The Force Awakens is coming out in about a week’s time. I am rather excited, I must admit. It looks to be very promising, and I’m confident that it can deliver on that promise. I’m somewhat apprehensive, admittedly, but for the most part, I am in fact rather confident with regards to the whole affair. You could say I’ve got a good feeling about this.

I thought that now, then, would be a good time to rewatch all the previous Star Wars movies. Obviously, they’re films I love, but… it’s been a very long time since I’ve actually seen them all. I think it probably is about a decade since I have actually seen them – I was a huge fan around the age of 7, but then, also around the age of 7, Doctor Who returned to television. And so my allegiance shifted, from one sci-fi fantasy great to another.

There was actually some debate, internally, as to whether or not I should be watching the movies in their chronological order (Originals, then Prequels), or the story order (Prequels, then Originals), or perhaps even the Machete Order. Ultimately, I elected to follow the story order – the prequels have been around more or less my entire life, and I’ve always thought of them as following this order. It didn’t seem entirely accurate, in terms of my own personal Star Wars experience, to watch them out of order. (Though in hindsight I probably did watch the Originals first.)

As I was watching this movie (and I imagine this will be particularly true of all the prequels) I was particularly conscious of the reputation of this movie; The Phantom Menace is the most loathed of all the prequels, after all. But the thing is, I’ve always enjoyed it – at least, I enjoyed it ten years ago. (I didn’t even have a problem with Jar Jar!) So, I was interested to see whether or not, watching it now, as a much more critically minded individual, it would reach my lofty standards for different forms of media and whatnot.

Honestly? I actually thought it was alright.

star wars the phantom menace review retrospective darth maul ray park sam witwer solo rebels clone wars naboo

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I certainly had issues with it. (And I have ideas for how it could have been improved, which will soon form the basis of their own post, so follow me and check back in a few days for that.) It’s just that… none of my issues really aligned with the ones people typically point out?

The dialogue wasn’t awful – there were definitely clunky lines, and the script probably would have benefitted from an extra comb through during pre-production. I still don’t mind Jar-Jar, although having rewatched this movie I’m a lot less convinced of the Darth Darth Binks theory.  Lack of a protagonist isn’t an issue I really saw here (it’s an ensemble film, duh), and nor was an over reliance on the lore from the original trilogy – I quite liked Jabba the Hutt being in it, for example. (Also, rather hilariously, Jabba the Hutt is credited as playing himself in the movie. That made me laugh. I wonder if he has an IMDB page?)

In fact, you know, there was a lot to like and appreciate. The movie has a great design to it – it genuinely does look really impressive, and they do a wonderful job of making each of the three planets (Naboo, Tatooine, and Coruscant) all appear very distinct from one another, and imply very different cultures within each different planet. Even the CGI didn’t look awful to me, to be honest – certain bits had definitely aged poorly, but on the whole, it’s not actually particularly intrusive or anything. Physical models would likely have looked better, but they almost always do. Regardless, I think Lucas certainly deserves credit for pioneering this style of CGI use in movies.

The overarching story was actually rather impressive as well – or at least, I thought it was. Political machinations are a very different style of story to the precedent established by the Original Trilogy, but… well, duh? This is about the Republic, before it fell and became the Empire. By necessity, something like that will take a very different turn to the story of the rebellion. There were certainly aspects of the basic plot which were lacking, and at times the execution lead something to be desired, but honestly, I liked the general set up of the movie.

star wars the phantom menace review retrosepctive prequels Queen Amidala natalie portman kiera knightley

Now, sure, on the flip side, there was stuff I didn’t like.

The Padme/Sabe “plot twist” was entirely superfluous at best, and verging on incomprehensible at worst. In case you’ve forgotten – which you may well have – there was a large chunk of the movie where they had Kiera Knightley pretend to be Natalie Portman, while Natalie Portman pretended to be Kiera Knightley. (Also, Natalie Portman dubbed over Kiera Knightley’s dialogue.) It’s a very weird little subplot, and as far as I can tell, it really doesn’t actually add anything to the story. You could definitely have taken that out, honestly.

(Plus… look, I know it’s cruel, but honestly, I can sort of understand why everyone thought Natalie Portman couldn’t act after this movie. I’m thinking the only reason Kiera Knightley wasn’t tarred with the same brush is because no one understood the whole nonsense surrounding her character. The pair of them are, rather obviously, the weak links in this cast, which is a huge shame.)

Similarly, I wasn’t so fond of child Anakin blowing up the Trade Federation spaceship in the end. Throughout the movie as a whole? Sure, no problem. Towards the end, though, the set of circumstances required to get him in the spaceship and flying around in space were completely contrived, and just not particularly effective. The sequence wasn’t exactly necessary either – with the pod race, we’d already established Anakin was an impressive pilot – and served only to make the other characters look stupid. (What exactly was Anakin even doing there? Why didn’t you just leave him on Coruscant, Qui-Gon?)

Really, though, the largest and most glaring problem with the film was it’s run time. It’s about 2 and a half hours long, and frankly, it’s about an hour too long. It could definitely be about 45 minutes shorter, at a minimum. It’s just far too slow paced (which has the added problem of making the instances where the pace picks up feel very disjointed from the rest of the movie) and the movie can’t sustain the runtime. Well, actually, that’s maybe a bit unfair. They do a reasonable job of having discrete phases to the movie, with different things happening in each… but it’s still way too long.

star wars the phantom menace review duel of the fates gif darth maul obi wan kenobi qui gonn jinn

Even then, though, there is a lot to like. The Duel of the Fates is a genuinely impressive lightsabre battle, which is really well scored by John Williams – it’s absolutely a stand out scene, however you look at it. And, you know, it works because it’s got three impressive characters in it – Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson both gave great performances throughout the film, which added a lot of weight to the final confrontation. And, of course, Darth Maul is a genuinely imposing figure throughout the movie – you can understand why he’s the one thing everyone always remembers of the movie. (Interestingly, Maul actually talks a lot more than I recalled. To be honest, I don’t like it. He should have been silent the whole time.)

So… yeah. Honestly, as a film, it’s not that bad. It’s alright. Bordering on good. Not great, sure. But it’s nowhere near as awful as people suggest. I think in part that’s the danger of overhyping these things. So many of the people watching The Phantom Menace for the first time had been building it up in their heads for… what, about twenty years? A huge, ridiculous length of time. Such a body of expectations had been placed upon the movie that it could never, ever have hoped to live up to those expectations, and that was the cause for the level of outcry at the movie.

Hopefully, with The Force Awakens, people will bear that in mind a little more. Expectations should be tempered somewhat, and maybe we’ll have a little more of a… rational response, I suppose. Let’s hope no one starts calling for J.J. Abrams’ head on a stick or anything. (Once, when I was 9 or 10, I read a news article about a Star Wars “superfan” who got a tattoo of Darth Vader holding George Lucas’ severed head, “for everything he’d done to the franchise”. Which seemed pretty weird to me: “What did he do to the franchise? He invented the damn thing!”, thought I. I would still maintain that fellow was slightly nuts.)

In the end, though, I’d give The Phantom Menace a 6/10. It’s an enjoyable movie, but not one I’d be in a hurry to rewatch. (Mind you, if they knocked an hour or so off of it, I’d bump it up to a 7/10)

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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