I can’t think of many movies that carried the amount of hype that this movie did upon its release. Off the top of my head, the movie that comes closest is the 1989 Batman. Like Batman 1989, “The Phantom Menace” was ubiquitous in pop culture. If you were present in society at all in 1999 you were aware of it. The movie transcended cinema, it was everywhere. it was all over TV, newspapers, magazines, even soda cans. I remember logging on to AOL (remember that?) every day to watch a daily show that counted down to the release of Episode 1.
The hype came from it being the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Over those 16 years, Star Wars became an iconic franchise spanning generations, so by the time the new movie was on the way, you had multiple generations all anticipating the same movie. What’s more, the new trilogy filled the promise that the OT made when they labeled themselves Episodes IV V and VI. We were going to see the things that were only hinted in the original trilogy, particularly how Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader.
The problems with this movie start early. The opening crawl, setting the stage for the movie to follow contains the phrase, “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Even if you think the movie is going to be the best movie of all time, that must set off some alarm bells. In a galaxy that we have seen filled with conflict, betrayal and sacrifice we are dealing with…a trade dispute? A big problem with this movie, and the prequel trilogy in general, is introduced early. The movie is just too complex for its own good, especially as it simultaneously is also really childish, even in comparison to the original trilogy. Defenders of the movie would say, “it’s a movie for kids!” To them I would say, “How many kids movies are there about trade disputes?”
I would be hard pressed to come out with a plot summary of this movie, as it doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s more of a succession of events than a story. There is some urgency early on, but then the movie bogs down on Tatooine for a half hour that is separated from the main plot. Even though it contains a visually spectacular podrace, it does seem like a waste of time for a predestined outcome. Are we supposed to believe that Anakin really going to remain a slave? Everything on Tatooine is marking time until they leave the planet and rejoin the main “plot.”
Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn is essentially the main character of the movie, and he does a good job. But the effect of him being the main character leads to Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi being a more background character. During the middle portion set on Tatooine, Obi-Wan is left behind to remain on spaceship while the other characters go out to visit the planet. If the Obi-Wan and Anakin relationship is going to be the central relationship to the prequel trilogy, why not have Obi-Wan play a central role in finding and rescuing Anakin, rather them meeting in a throwaway moment when they are leaving the planet? It is a shame, because I think Ewan McGregor does a great job throughout the trilogy, but he is frustratingly minimalized in this movie.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room – Jar Jar Binks. As far as Jar Jar goes, what more can be said about him that hasn’t already been said over the past two decades? He is an annoying character that does nothing but actually annoy the other characters in the movie. I mean, most scenes with Jar Jar in the movie are the same, with characters interacting, being interrupted by Jar Jar doing something stupid, reacting, and then continuing from where they were interrupted. Jar Jar serves no real purpose in this movie other than “comic relief,” his only contribution to this movie is getting the Gungan army to contribute to the final battle, but that could’ve been achieved by other means. When even the characters in the movie don’t like the character, what are the odds of the audience liking him either?
Even with Jar Jar, I would say the biggest problem with the movie is Jake Lloyd as Anakin. You could screw up supporting characters like Jar Jar, or have weird Trade Federation aliens, but the one thing you can’t do is screw up is what will end up being the most important character, but here they do. The problem partly is that Jake Lloyd is not a good actor. His line delivery is so flat that the dialogue just lays there. That said I don’t know if anyone can say “Yippie!” and sound believable. The other problem is that Anakin is too young in this movie. I always thought it would have made more sense if he were five years older, around the same age as Padme is supposed to be. That way, their relationship would make more sense. As it is, Anakin is just another 90s style annoying kid character for a role that deserved better.
I have listed a lot of things I consider problems with the movie, but I have to say after watching this movie for the first time in a long time, I didn’t hate it. I wouldn’t say it was a great, or even good movie, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve ever seen, either. The production design and costumes were excellent. The visual effects were great, and hadn’t reached the overkill level that the next movie would hit. John William’s score is great as usual. Even though Darth Maul doesn’t have any meat on his bones as a character, he is interesting to look at, and the final lightsaber fight is fun to watch although there is no emotion behind it unlike the battles in the original trilogy.
The main problem with the movie is that it is hard to care about anything in it. The effort is there, but the emotion isn’t. The original trilogy has great characters that we cared about, and we understood what they were up against. With “The Phantom Menace,” we are just thrown into a confusing story without compelling characters to follow along the way. All the investment you could carry in the movie primarily lies with your feelings from the original trilogy. You have to do the heavy lifting for this movie, because the movie itself sure doesn’t. I remember getting a sinking feeling early on in the theater when I first saw it. It just feels off right from the beginning. You can have all the money in the world for the best visual effects, costumes, or production design, but the foundation has to be there, or all you have is a hollow shell.
One thought on “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Lucasfilm, 1999)”
Travis and I saw this movie together in May of ’99 at the end of our freshman year of high school. I remember the hype train for this film starting around the time the Special Edition trilogy was released in theatres. Although it would be difficult for any film to live up to such monumental expectations, the film you compared this to, Batman ’89, surpassed expectations which proves that it can be done.
Twenty years later my memories of this film are mostly confusion and disappointment. I recall thinking that the revelation that Anakin built C-3P0 was stupid, that the midichlorian concept was awful, and that Jar Jar was unintelligible. After every line of Jar Jar dialogue I remember turning to Travis and asking “what did he say?”
After leaving the theatre, I wasn’t quite sure what I had just seen. The title said Star Wars. The sounds and visual effects sounded and looked like Star Wars. But that movie sure as hell wasn’t Star Wars. Not MY Star Wars.
If you were to summarize Star Wars ’77 (retroactively named A New Hope, although I continue to simply refer to it as “Star Wars”), you could do so in a nutshell. The Empire has built a space station capable of destroying a planet, and a group of rebels mainly led by Princess Leia are trying to steal the schematics to ultimately destroy it. Like every good story, other things happen along the way but they all lead towards that ultimate goal.
How do you summarize The Phantom Menace? I couldn’t then, and I still can’t. It’s less a story and more a series of events that happen in a linear fashion. In a word, it sucks.
Prior to this film, Star Wars was an untouchable franchise with very few hiccups. Beginning with this film, Star Wars has been on a continuous downwards trajectory for the last 20 years. It’s less frustrating to simply pretend that all things Star Wars ended in 1983 and ignore everything afterwards.
I’ll end with a few more tidbits I recall from seeing this 20 years ago but couldn’t fit into my rant above. I remember wondering why Qui-Gon would use a women’s razor to test Anakin’s blood. I remember thinking Darth Maul sucked and that the hype surrounding him was ridiculous since he did very little in the film besides die. I remember being so confused by the awful story that by the end, I wasn’t even sure who Queen Amidalla was and who the decoy was. I remember thinking that the technology looked a little too advanced when compared to the original trilogy, which was supposed to take place after these films in the time line. It wasn’t long before Phantom Menace toys would go on clearance at retailers worldwide.