Movie Reviews

Movie Review – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Episode I


Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.

While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….

To this day, I remember what it was like to see those words scrolling across the movie screen. For the first time in sixteen years, I was seeing Star Wars on a large screen. I wanted to love it and I did at first, then not so much, then accepted it for what it was.

Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the trade dispute that has resulted in the blockade of the planet Naboo. However, there is more behind the Trade Federation’s actions than meets the eye. They survive an attempt to murder them only to end up traveling through rural and aquatic Naboo as the Trade Federation is preparing to invade. They pick up a Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks along the way. His species lives in the waters of Naboo and while the Jedi are prepared to ask them for their help, they are not very receptive.

They manage to contact Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and help her escape the Trade Federation’s invasion. The intention is she will argue before the Senate that they must come help the planet in the face of the blockade. Unfortunately, the ship is damaged and must land on an outlying planet of Tatooine to make repairs. While there, they encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).

The idea of the “prequels” (as they are known) is to set up the story of how Darth Vader came to be and to tell the story of why Luke and Leia were separated and kept hidden from him. George Lucas wrote and directed this first entry in the series. The faults are numerous. My feeling is he had a lot of “fun” special effects he wanted to use that were breakthrough in 1999 and wrote a lot of the story around that.

The podracing scene is a prime example. It’s a scene that demonstrates Anakin’s Jedi-like reflexes, but it’s also a great use of special effects. The vehicles look real against the desert backdrop of the planet of Tatooine.

The droid Army the Trade Federation uses against Naboo is another incredible special effect that holds up for the most part. What is supposed to be a lush, green Naboo field beneath them looks very flat against newer CGI. The Gungan Army looks a little better, but the landscape still looks more like it’s from a computer game. The underwater Gungan cities are beautifully done, however.

The story is a mixed bag. Lucas went for far too many “coincidences” in a universe this large. C3PO and R2D2 being in the presence of not only each other, but Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi who denies any knowledge of the droids in A New Hope is a huge storyline conflict. This story makes more sense from R2D2’s perspective when he is seeking him out, as he knows then who he is looking for and what he means to the Republic. However, it’s Ben’s reaction that is way off base.

There are many story points that just don’t make sense as well. The Jedi go swimming with their robes on. Wouldn’t they take them off? And they have handy-dandy breathing apparatus right there in a spare pocket or up a sleeve. Is that hanging right with the lightsaber? And how is it that they are completely dry whenever they come out of the water?

On Tatooine, they are supposed to be protecting the Queen from those seeking to capture her and force her to sign a treaty. They also need to keep her safe from the Hutts that pretty much run the planet. Yet, it’s as if they say: We need money! Let’s tell all of our secrets to this 9-year-old kid we just met, then send him off to do something really dangerous and bet on him.

Finally, there’s the issue of the midi-chlorians. Of anything ever brought into the Star Wars universe, I hate that the most. I hate it more than Jar-Jar Binks who was considered to be the most annoying character in the Star Wars universe. Lucas did a great job creating a mystical “Force” that was something of complete faith that some people could harness for power, and now suddenly it’s not about faith and belief but about tiny creatures names midi-chlorians that appear in the bodies of those who are Force-sensitive.

Over the years as I watched it, I liked this less and less. Then, in the last few years, I began to appreciate it for what it is. With the exception of Jake Lloyd, the acting is good. I think he did a good job in a tough situation. As a 9-year-old acting with a green screen and opposite people who weren’t really there in many cases, he likely did the best he could. There are a few times he overacts, and I fault Lucas for not pulling him back and reshooting those scenes. One, in particular, is when Qui-Gon tells him he’s free. His reaction of “I’m gonna travel with you in your starship?” feels so forced and overdone. I would have asked him to put more awe in his reaction and I think that would have tempered it. He just needed to be a bit softer.

Natalie Portman is great as the strong Queen Amidala/Padme. She’s a great forerunner to Leia. These women are strong and will do what is necessary and Portman displays that. Her affection for Anakin feels a little strange. I get that she’s supposed to be about 16 and he’s supposed to be 9, but it still feels strange. Ewan McGregor really gives a terrific performance as young Obi-Wan. He’s got a lot of the features down that can lead to Alec Guinness down the line. The only other comment I have is that Tatooine must be really hard to live on.

Fun fact that you might not have known, both Sofia Coppola and Kiera Knightly portray two of the Queen’s handmaidens.

The score is magnificent, particularly in the scene where the two Jedi fight Sith apprentice Darth Maul. Time and time again it evokes the emotion of the scene. John Williams seems to outdo himself with every film.

There’s Yoda and the Jedi Council with Samuel Jackson. There are sweeping views of beautiful planets. There are some great action scenes; a magnificent score, and excellent special effects. All of that holds up a film that is a bit uneven at times. I’ve grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace for what it is, and I no longer look at it as a bad film. Hopefully, you can get to that point too.

12 replies »

  1. I’ve always been more forgiving of “Star Wars” films – including the Prequels – than a large number of fellow fans. I’m not sure why; I’ve been reviewing films since I was in high school, and last year I added the word “screenwriter” into my list of job titles, so it’s not like I am a film illiterate. Every Star Wars film has its imperfect aspects; The Phantom Menace certainly has its fair share, and you’ve addressed a few of the ones I’ve noticed, too.

    My feeling is that if you’re going to make a film with a child actor in a key role, you need to have a director who is not only good at the technological and “visionary” aspects, but feels comfortable directing actors. George Lucas is good at innovating filmmaking tools and above average in storytelling, but (if you watch any of the behind-the-scenes docs that come with DVDs and Blu-rays) you know that he doesn’t relish writing and – although he likes people – isn’t comfortable with the directing-actors part of moviemaking.

    Now, none of the official behind-the-scenes docs will say this, but as I understand it, George Lucas ended up directing the Prequel Trilogy because everyone that he asked – Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg, especially – felt the responsibility of following on the steps of Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand was too big for them In my view, Spielberg would have been perfect for The Phantom Menace and might have gotten a better performance out of Jake Lloyd as Anakin. Ron Howard might have made the Anakin-Padme romance in Episode II bit less awkward by making some diplomatically-worded suggestions for the shooting script, and Lucas could have simply taken Revenge of the Sith as “his” chapter…a reverse of how he did the Original Trilogy.

    That said…even if The Phantom Menace did not have its cringe-worthy moments…there still would have been a lot of fan backlash, especially from people who had crafted in their heads their own visions of how the Prequel Trilogy went down. In a fandom as huge as Star Wars (and Star Trek…and Harry Potter), there are always folks who are gonna say, “Lucas shoulda done this…Berman and Piller shoulda done that…Rowling should have had Hermione and Harry end up together, etc. etc,”

    Fine review, as always!

    In an

  2. Thanks. This was a completely new review. Didn’t even keep notes from my original review on Epinions. For the most part, Jake Lloyd does a good job, when you look at this objectively, especially with the material he’s been given. There are really just a few cringe-worthy moments, and I agree a better director would have worked with him better. Having taken the tour in London about the Harry Potter films, the first film is where they had the issues. There’s a lot of one-like takes where you can see the cuts because the kids were still learning. Still, they managed to get a good film out of them. I think Lucas was his own worst enemy with the prequels, although some people never would have been happy regardless, as you said.

    And Ron Howard did terrific pulling Solo together, but that’s another review…..

  3. I honestly think that the age issue regarding whether or not Anakin Skywalker was to be trained should have been seen as irrelevant. Based on what research I have done, some Jedi characters were allegedly too old to be trained, however, some technicality was found to circumvent that issue. Obi-Wan Kenobi’s only problem was that he was too rigid in his view that Anakin Skywalker was dangerous. “The boy is dangerous. They all sense it. Why can’t you”? That was the very thing that Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Qui-Gon Jinn.

    During the duel with Darth Maul on Tatooine, I wish that Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi had confronted Darth Maul together there. Both Jedi used Form IV before Qui-Gon Jinn’s defeat and death, which was caused by his lightsaber style’s lack of adequate defense and the disadvantage of the confined space that screwed up the opportunity for Ataru to be used to its full capacity. If the duel took place in a more open environment with both Jedi present, Darth Maul could have been defeated and captured or killed.

    • I just finished reading the novelization of all three prequel films. I think the usual course of action is to free the Jedi from attachments, which of course is ridiculous because even if they had pulled Anakin away as a baby, they still get attached to their friends in the Temple and each other. Anakin and Obi-Wan had that attachment and I think Yoda acknowledges the mistake in the end – that the Jedi order has stagnated while the Sith, lying in wait, changed with the circumstances. Yoda was reluctant to train Luke too, saying he was “too old”. It’s harder to clear their minds at that age, but that was also the Jedi Order’s mistake.

      Two of them together would have definitely killed Darth Maul – that was the point. In the novel it talks about how Qui-Gon wasn’t as strong as he had been in his youth. Yet we see Dooku, Yoda, and the Emperor all manage to hold their own despite their age.

      And I still want to know how Darth Maul survived being cut in half. At least Anakin had his torso, so all his major organs were there.

      • It seems to me that Darth Maul’s survival was part of the script, however, the Jedi seemed to believe that he was defeated. After he was cut in half, Darth Sidious seemed to have no interest in trying to find him at all.

      • I think it had to be Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan at that point. But the idea was to separate them so Maul had a fighting chance. I was lamenting the fact that there appears to have been an age factor in Qui-Gon losing to him that didn’t appear to factor in other Jedi battles.

      • Patti Aliventi, if not the 2 Jedi I mentioned, I would not have objected to Count Dooku and Mace Windu confronting Darth Maul. Count Dooku had a style of dueling that was conservative in terms of energy usage and Mace Windu had a style that was aggressive.

      • The novelization of Revenge of the Sith discusses the different styles the Jedi were trained in more than any other novel. That was why the duel between Anakin and Obi Wan went the way it did – Anakin had learned from him. Yoda and the Emperor battling had the Emperor in a style where he used more outside things to toss at and distract his opponent while Yoda was more a master of movement.

        Now, you would have thought that 20-ish years later when they met again Darth Vader would have figured in a few different styles of combat to counteract this.

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