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The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

What He said:


Ok, here comes the hard part folks. Reviewing the original trilogy is easy. Even with their flaws, they are some of the most beloved movies of all time. They created a franchise that – to this day – is still extremely popular. But the virtual universal admiration for the franchise faded away with the release of The Phantom Menace.  The prequels are a very divisive topic. Some fans blindly support them. Others hate them because of…well there are a variety of reasons (many of which are valid). But this movie reviewer – and Star Wars fan – is going to do his best to bring an honest opinion to the controversial topic of the prequel trilogy.

The Phantom Menace is about two things. First, it is about how the man later known as Emperor Palpatine began to make his play for power. The other important plot point of this movie is the discovery of Anakin Skywalker, the boy who would grow up to become Darth Vader.

The Phantom Menace

The movie opens up with a looming political disaster. The evil Trade Federation has surrounded the planet Naboo. They are upset about some new taxes that will affect their business, and as a sign of protest, they are preventing anyone from coming to or leaving the planet. Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) dispatches two Jedi to sort the situation out. Little do they know that the Trade Federation is taking orders from the mysterious Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid).

Qui Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and Obi Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor this time around) are sent to try and bring an end to the standoff before war breaks out. The Galactic Republic has apparently been struggling for quite some time. The alliance between all the different planets and organizations that are in the group is on the decline. The last thing the Republic needs is a war. The Trade Federation appears to have no intentions of standing down, despite the front they’re putting on of playing nice, because they attempt to kill the Jedi almost immediately after boarding their ship.

Because they are Jedi, and Jedi are tough hombres, they are able to escape the assassination attempts. They flee to Naboo where they meet an extremely “curious” creature named Jar Jar Binks(Ahmed Best). They also meet up with and free members of the local government. The two jedi, Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman), and a few others flee the planet in an attempt to go to senate and tell the other members of the Republic that the situation is graver than they realize.

They are able to successfully escape, but their ship is damaged. They are forced to land on a planet called Tatooine. It is here where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Anakin is just a boy at this time, but us Star Wars fans know he will later grow up and become Darth Vader; one of the most iconic movie villains of all-time.

Qui-Gon Jinn

I would like to start my evaluation of the movie by saying I openly admit the prequels are of a much lower quality than the original Star Wars trilogy.  I love Star Wars, but am not some blindly loyal defender of anything that bears the name. Lucas definitely made some mistakes that resulted in a failure to captivate the audience in the same way the original trilogy still does to this day. There is no single prequel that is better than any of the original three as far as I am concerned. They’re simply not as good. The critical reaction and divided fan base are proof of that. The original trilogy suffered from neither. 

As far as I’m concerned, there are a few major problems with this movie. The acting is so flat at times. It is some of the most wooden, bland, and vanilla acting I’ve ever seen. That’s not to say everyone was bad, just that a lot of the characters lacked charisma. It is as if they were intentionally being as robotic as possible.

I will go to bat for Jake Lloyd a little though. Many fans simply trashed this kid’s performance. Some even accused him with “ruining Star Wars”. I think that is totally insane. The guy has gotten a bum rap in that sense. I feel bad just how much grief he’s gotten over the years. I am not going to sit here and tell you he was great, because he wasn’t. I will point out though that he was very new to acting and (imo) was given bad direction by George Lucas. When I take all of that into account, his performance is virtually a non-factor for me. Hell, I think you can attribute just about any awkward performance in the prequels up to bad writing and direction. There are some respectable actors who seem like cardboard cutouts in the prequel trilogy. The other thing is that he was a kid and child actors don’t normally bug me that much, even when they aren’t so great. They’re kids, it’s new to them, cut them some slack.

The other major criticism I had with the film was some really unbelievable – if not stupid – parts of the plot. Mind you, I’m talking about Star Wars. I know this is a fantasy series, but some of it was downright insulting.

Take the character of Jar-Jar Binks for example. Meesa didn't like him so much. In fact, not many did. He is easily one of the most disliked characters in movie history. And I don’t mean disliked because the actor did a great job at making you hate a character you’re supposed to hate. I’m talking about a performance that can only be described as annoying. It was so bad, I actually feel bad for the guy who was forced to try and do something with the crap Lucas gave him. He is a complete and utter failure at the comedic sidekick type. The decision to portray this character the way they did was so painful to watch.

Another thing that always bothered me was how Anakan Skywalker “accidentally” destroys the villain’s main base of operations. It was particularly stupid, because in A New Hope (review here) we are told what a good pilot he was when Obi Wan met him. He was a kid in this movie, not an experienced pilot at all. Sure, he won the pod race in this movie, but that hardly qualifies him as one of the “best” pilots Obi Wan (from A New Hope) had ever seen. There was no need to turn such a vital part of the character’s past – and a critical battle in this movie no less – into such a (bad) joke.

Yoda’s now infamous quote at the end of the movie also kills me. Always two? Wait a minute here. Think back to the Empire Strikes Back. Vader and Palpatine openly discuss recruiting Luke as an ally.
If there is only allowed to be two of them, why are they talking with one another about converting him to the Dark Side? Stuff like this just wasn’t thought through, which is a big problem with the prequels.

Outside of that, there are some elements of the movie I enjoy.

Darth Maul

Darth Maul is one of the coolest villains to hit the big screen in recent memory. He’s not a particularly deep character, but he didn’t have to be. He is what Boba Fett was to The Empire Strikes Back; a dark, mysterious, and menacing presence whose very appearance strikes fear into you. However, this time around we actually get to see the mystery man in action! The result was easily the best lightsaber fight of the prequels and arguably a candidate for the entire series. My only disappointment with this character is that he didn’t stick around longer. I would have loved to have seen Maul last the entire prequel trilogy.

Maul is led by the man who will later be known as Emperor Palpatine. Not yet the powerful dictator he was in the original series, Senator Palpatine has two identities. His public identity is that of a senator from the planet Naboo, but his true nature is revealed by his alias Darth Sidious. Sidious is all the evil Emperor Palpatine was in the original series, but because he hasn’t risen to power yet we see him rely much more on stealth. Ian McDiarmid is once again back in this role and looks like he never missed a beat. Despite 16 years in between his portrayal of the character, he looked and acted very much like the evil Emperor I remember as a child.

Two other performances I enjoyed were that of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor.

Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) is the kind of character I can really identify with. There is no doubt Qui-Gon is one of the good guys, but he refuses to do something simply because he is told. I am not a dogmatic guy at all, so personally enjoyed seeing this veteran Jedi who refused to take order simply for the sake of it. He wasn’t insubordinate to the point of causing the Jedi council any major grief, but did not hesitate to let his opinion be known.

The other reason I really enjoyed the character is that you can see shades of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in him. By the time he’s an old man in A New Hope, Obi-Wan was a clever, witty old man who marches to the beat of his own drum. You see this more and more in episodes 2 and 3 (where you can almost see Ewan McGregor channeling Alec Guiness), but in this movie Obi-Wan is not the character we are familiar with.

You can see the transformation of the character take place before your very eyes. For most of the movie, Obi-Wan is a vastly different character than what Alec Guiness portrayed him as. He is young, still learning, etc. By the end of the movie though, you can see where McGregor begins to transform the character into something that very much resembles the character we know and love from the original trilogy. You can see Obi-Wan's mentor rub off on him. It helped shaped who he later became. The two of them worked very well together.

There are also several action scenes throughout the movie that I definitely enjoyed. The pod-race scenes and Battle of Naboo at the end of the film (minus the Jar-Jar factor and the silliness I mentioned about Anikan above) are typical Star Wars. The Battle of Naboo in particular, screams vintage Star Wars battle imo. It took the formula from Return of the Jedi (multiple fights going on at the same time), but manages to make its own mark on the franchise.

This movie also had the least amount of CGI and most amount of real sets in the entire trilogy. There are parts from the next two movies that look extremely fake and this movie did not suffer from that stuff for the most part.

It’s funny, when this movie came out it was pegged as a major disappointment. At the time, I agreed. It still is a disappointment, I don't disagree. However, after seeing the next two entries in the series, I ended up liking this one a lot more. It has really kind of grown on me. Outside a few awkward moments, there are several things about this movie I actually enjoy.

Rating: Thumbs half up.

This movie review was brought to you by the He on May 3, 2011. It was updated July 15, 2013.