Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace Review

Star Wars Phantom Menace poster.jpg

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, SamuelL. Jackson, Frank Oz, and Ian McDiarmid

Written and Directed by: George Lucas

The Phantom Menace. The most reviled film in quite a long time. A victim of unconquerable hype and some very poor choices, I wondered if after all this time, what would Episode I look like with a fresh set of eyes. I feel it is only right for me to preface this by saying I was never a basher of Episode I, nor was I staunch defender.  I was somewhere in the middle leaning towards defense if only because there was so much backlash.

After the unbearable long wait, most fans went in expecting the second coming in a way no film could truly accomplish.  A major reason is that most of the time the discovery of such a second coming is accidental.  You don’t come in expecting to be overwhelmed and when you are it’s magical.  When you come in expecting to be overwhelmed, well you can only go down from there.

First off, to view this properly, Episode I is truly the beginning of a saga.  Every beginning has to take time to establish itself.  Yes the Star Wars universe is already established, but Episode I is still the overall beginning in which most things start out with a simple idea or exposition.  Like Frodo in the Shire for example, we are in a simple time — or so we think.

Unfortunately the decision to forego a more straight forward adventure story such as Luke and a band of rebels attacking the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin’s Death Star and instead introduce a much more subtle story of political machinations and behind the scenes trickery turned off a ton of viewers who were expecting that pure unadulterated fun, that despite the complaints, was still there, if not as consistently.

To me though I welcomed the change.  We all knew that this would be the story of the introduction and subsequently the fall of Anakin Skywalker.  However that is only half the story.  We also see the ascension of Palpatine from Senator to Emperor.  When Lucas did Episode IV, he HAD to make it self contained because he didn’t know if he’d get to go on.  With Episode I, he KNEW it was just the first act of a three act play so to speak.  Thus the meat, the climax that everyone is waiting for was at the time still years away.   But I think Lucas actually made a wise decision and to placate that feeling, he ended Episode I with the most slam bang of lightsaber duels ever put on film.  Even the film’s detractors come away saying, Damn that was beautiful.

Palpatine’s slow ascension then needs to have the slow subtle machinations that bring it up and that is what Episode I needs to be!

And we are lucky it does, given the choice Lucas made to play Anakin so young.  In hindsight it was definitely a mistake.  This is nothing against Jake Lloyd, who was just a kid and it is seriously hit or miss with child actors.  I understand that Lucas wanted to showcase his innocence and inherent goodness.  However it made his fall that much harder to believe by Episode III.  Perhaps if they had chosen a young brooding teenager Anakin from the beginning we could have seen the inherent goodness coupled with the shadows that were plaguing him even from the beginning.

Performances have NEVER been a strong suit in the saga, but in no way is Phantom Menace any worse than the original saga.  What we get are strong iconic characters.  Liam Neeson’s maverick Jedi Qui-Gon fits in well with anyone from the first trilogy.  McDiarmid’s Palpatine is actually expanded well, and even though McGregor’s Obi-Wan was criminally underused, he showcased a very adept handling of the character made famous by Alec Guiness.  Finally Ray Park’s Darth Maul which had very little screen time, was still quite iconic and well received.

Special effects were extraordinary if not groundbreaking as the original trilogy was.  It fit the universe well and we were able to see more of what Lucas originally intended.

John Williams Score from Phantom Menace was simply a tour de force and easily amongst the best of all time, let alone the Star Wars saga.  Incorporating previous themes in new and inventive ways, such as the quiet hint of the Imperial March that ends Anakin’s theme, and the cute nod of quoting Zod’s theme when introduced to Chancellor Valorum (played by General Zod himself, Terence Stamp), to the bombastic and moving Duel of the Fates, it is worth the price of admission alone.

The seeming scapegoat and target of why the film is bad to many fans everywhere lie in the character of Jar Jar Binks.  Whether it be accusations of racism, or just plain anger at the idiocy, Jar Jar is almost universally hated.  And I can see why.

I also think it is unfortunate.  Jar Jar could have been the most memorable character of the first film for better reasons.  He was a brilliant CGI creature who was created as the comic sidekick.  Unfortuantely they chose to go with childlike humor and it hurt the character.  In reality it is the first ten minutes after he is introduced that kill people.  In reality after that, he becomes a normal, even decent character.  But there are far too many “How wudes” and stepping in Camel poo that really defeat the character.  It was a poor choice that led to overkill.

Another criticism centered around the introduction of midi-chlorians which gave a biological twist to what had been a purely spiritual/metaphysical ideal.  To me, I didn’t get the big deal.  So Jedi are basically mutants.  That doesn’t mean that their spiritual side is nonexistant.  Perhaps they are chosen to receive that mutation.  The spirituality is being able to harness your own inner powers.

Basically it was much ado over nothing in my mind.

So am I defending too much?  I don’t think so.  I agree wholeheartedly that Lucas should not be allowed to write dialogue.  I agree that Lucas needs good actors because while he is great at shooting, editing, and even storytelling, he is not an actor’s director.  And with young actors like Portman and Lloyd, you need a people’s director to evoke the good performance out of them.

I agree that some expository scenes were far too long and the long podrace sequence could have been cut short.  In short there was a lot wrong with the film…but overall too much of the negatives were extrapoloated on and focused on that many lost sight of the fact that overall it was a good story, and it certainly fit in well in the Star Wars universe.  After seeing the complete saga, I’d still rate it overall above Return of the Jedi, just as I did back in the day. However the film lacks the one big moment that Jedi has. Thus…


- Paul Talon

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