It was supposed to mark the grand return of Star Wars, premiering close to 20 years after “Return of the Jedi.” Instead, “The Phantom Menace” — the first film in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy — is often criticized as the worst of the Star Wars films and did not seem to live up to the hopes fans had for it. I think the last time I watched this movie was back in early 2012, when they re-released “The Phantom Menace” in theaters in 3D. I went to see it because I really wanted to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen, and at the time, I wasn’t sure if we would get anymore new Star Wars movies. Now that I’ve seen “The Force Awakens,” will my thoughts on “The Phantom Menace” be the same?
Last week, I bravely popped in the DVD and rewatched this movie, and I found that my thoughts on this movie have remained pretty much the same. It’s still my least favorite Star Wars movie, but I also do feel there are some positive features that are sometimes overlooked. Despite the criticism it has received, it’s definitely not the worst movie ever made. Instead of doing a regular review, I’ve divided up my thoughts on this movie into two sections: what works and what doesn’t.
- Obi-Wan Kenobi. Although some of the acting in the prequels is not Oscar-worthy, I think Ewan McGregor does deserve praise for his work in these movies. I’d even argue that he pretty much carries the trilogy on his shoulders. He gives a convincing portrayal of the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, capturing the spirit of Alec Guinness’ older Obi-Wan but also bringing his own touches to the role. I also like some of the new Jedi, such as Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu.
- Lightsaber battles. In the prequel trilogy, we get to see the Jedi Order in its prime, and the lightsaber battles in these films are slick, polished, and exhilarating. My favorite lightsaber fight in the whole saga may actually be the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul duel in Episode I. It’s super intense, and it foreshadows the great Jedi Obi-Wan will become.
- Darth Maul. Speaking of Darth Maul… Although he has only a few lines of dialogue, Darth Maul is one of the most intriguing villains in the prequel trilogy. Enigmatic and deadly, Darth Maul demonstrates the terrifying power of the Sith. While I do like the fact Darth Maul doesn’t say much, because I think it heightens the air of mystery surrounding his character and the Sith, I think he could have been given way more screen time, and I would have liked to see him play a larger role in the plot. On another note, it’s also really creepy and interesting to see the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) back when he was a seemingly innocent Senator, subtly manipulating events behind the scenes.
- Podracing. Although the wacky commentators and attempts at humor during this scene are distracting, the podrace itself is a great action set piece that shows off the rugged terrain of Tatooine.
- Music. John Williams is one of the best film score composers of our time, and “The Phantom Menace” is no exception. His music brings the Star Wars saga to life, and he introduces some fantastic new themes here. “Anakin’s Theme” is both hopeful and sad, hinting at the character’s promise and ultimately tragic destiny. Then there’s the epic choral piece “Duel of the Fates,” which plays during the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Darth Maul lightsaber battle. It’s a great soundtrack, regardless of your feelings on the rest of the movie.
What doesn’t work
- Acting/dialogue. Even though George Lucas is given a lot of flak for the prequel trilogy, I do think he’s great at big picture ideas: coming up with the Star Wars universe and the characters who live in it. Unfortunately, when serving as both the creator and director, he doesn’t seem to be as skilled in pulling convincing performances from his actors. A lot of the characters introduced in “The Phantom Menace” are actually pretty interesting; however, too many of the performances are flat, and they’re not helped by the wooden dialogue.
- Too much focus on politics/economics. I actually think Star Wars politics are pretty interesting (no joke — a friend and I once spent about an hour on a train ride during our trip to the U.K. discussing Star Wars politics in depth). 😉 Still, I think Star Wars politics and government are a topic better served in the Expanded Universe novels, where there’s more time and space to explore them. In the movie, they just end up bogging down and confusing the plot. I’m a Star Wars super fan, and even I have trouble explaining the trade dispute and the invasion of Naboo and how these are connected to the Sith’s overarching plot.
- Young Anakin. I don’t have anything against Jake Lloyd, who played the young Anakin Skywalker. However, I think the story would have worked better if Anakin was a young teenager instead of a child in this movie. He’d be the same age as Padmé, making their future romance a little less creepy, and his skills might be a little more believable.
- Jar Jar Binks. I feel like poor Jar Jar has received enough flak over the years, so I’m hesitant to pick on him again. 😉 I actually don’t think he single-handedly ruins the movie. Yes, he’s annoying, but little kids really do like him. I don’t believe you have to take him completely out of the movie, either, just (significantly) reduce his screen time. There really isn’t a compelling reason for him to follow the Jedi off Naboo; they could have gone on their Tatooine adventure without him, and this would have given more screen time to Ewan McGregor, who’s actually absent for a lot of the action on Tatooine.
Up next, “Attack of the Clones”! I’m planning to keep using the “what works/what doesn’t” format for these blogs on the prequels, then sum up my thoughts on the trilogy with a post at the end. Let me know your thoughts on “The Phantom Menace,” and thanks for following along on the blog-a-thon! Also, be sure to check out Bradscribe on WordPress, who is also participating in the prequel blog-a-thon.