In fact, to say that they were hyped would be the understatement of the century. Details of the film were kept under heavy lock and key, major news outlets covered every inch of the film leading up to its unveiling, and films showing the prequel’s trailers had fans buy tickets solely to see said trailers. Said fans also lined up for the premiere weeks in advance. The film was already becoming a cultural explosion, and ever since then, there’s never been anything like it.
Unfortunately, that’s not for all the right reasons. Receiving a mixed critical reception at the time, the film was held under extreme scrutiny by many die-hard fans of Star Wars, although there were just as many that were forgiving of the film despite its objective faults. Its reception has more or less improved as time goes on, so to kick off my retrospective, let’s take a look at both the good, and the bad, in The Phantom Menace.
Set over thirty years before the events of A New Hope, Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, respectively) are sent to investigate a Trade Federation blockade around the peaceful planet of Naboo. When it becomes apparent that the federation intends to invade the planet, the knights and the planet’s queen (Natalie Portman) travel to appeal to the Republic senate. Along the way, they come across a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who has an unusual connection with the Force, and also discover that they are hunted down by Darth Maul (Ray Park), a Sith lord bent on destroying them.
It’s a tricky task to be reviewing this movie, and to even know where to begin. The Phantom Menace has been deconstructed and analyzed from head to toe so many times that to talk about it proves fruitless. YouTube producers of RedLetterMedia even made an hour long comedic video review breaking the film down, which I highly recommend everyone watch. I’m perhaps a bit more positive on the film, but still acknowledge there is much about it that doesn’t hold up.
What was perhaps the most underwhelming element of the film was its treatment of its characters and pre-established Star Wars lore. The Phantom Menace is a peculiar case as it doesn’t have any definitive protagonists, becoming more of an ensemble piece than any Star Wars film before it. Gaining the most screentime of the cast are Neeson and McGregor, who I will admit are quite engaging to watch as a well-matched double act. Qui-Gon doesn’t have much of any real character, with Lucas perhaps having nothing on paper to define him with other than the words wise and stern. However, through Neeson’s performance, Qui-Gon becomes arguably one of the franchise’s most underrated characters. Neeson plays the role with a tender fatherly presence, establishing a reliably wise and no-nonsense internal command, but is also not without his own vices of pure stubbornness to achieve specific goals. McGregor, despite the fact that the following sequels would give him better material, does embody what a young Alec Guinness would probably act like. The character hasn’t quite evolved into the classic wise sage he’s known for, but does possess much of the classy grace and knowledgeable sophistication of the older incarnation, as well as the spry sense of humor.
The rest of them I could take or leave. As both Queen Amidala and Padme, Natalie Portman is relentlessly monotonous and perhaps even miscast, not that the screenplay gives her anything of value to work with. She particularly highlights George Lucas’ weakness as a director; in that he can get the most out of his visuals, but when it comes to performances, he isn’t much of an actor’s director, meaning that they often come across as bored or overcompensating. The latter of which is embodied by Jake Lloyd, whose excitable Anakin doesn’t feel like the child that would eventually become Darth Vader, and whose leaden delivery of the poor dialogue makes his inexperience all too apparent. There are some scene stealers like Pernilla August and Ian McDiarmid who actually give some conviction to their performances, but these qualities are too few and far between.
The most infamous of all the characters comes in the form of the notorious Jar Jar Binks, voiced and performed on set by Ahmed Best. Since before the film was even released, this character has been the subject of intense scrutiny for his pandering childish antics, cringe-inducing dialogue and speaking patterns, his uselessness in the grand scheme of things, and particularly for his racial insensitivity, with ears resembling Rastafarian-esque dreadlocks and his character feeling like a bumbling stereotype. It truly says something about how unpopular a character is that even Borat, a character intentionally designed to offend and shock, was less controversial. That even extends into a running theme with The Phantom Menace, in that it features several notable racial stereotypes, with the winged junkyard dealer Watto featuring Jewish undertones, and the figures of the Trade Federation fitted with thick Middle-Eastern and Asian accents. Such a thing alienates much of the audiences you wish to attract, and while I will say that the Jar Jar character and the other stereotypes don’t irritate me as much as others, the poor way that they are misused is inexcusable.
With that kind of weak slate, it’s Darth Maul who becomes the unsung hero of the film. Given very little dialogue by Lucas, the character often shows up stalking the Jedi taking the queen to the senate, and even without much of a character being established on paper, is thoroughly intimidating by the obvious torturous trials he’s been subjected to, and especially because of his fear-inducing presence, as well as Ray Park’s fabulous way with his trademark double-sided lightsaber. It’s just a shame that the film often sidelines him for long stretches, and that the character’s tenure in the prequels is cut short... pun intended.
Story-wise, Lucas doesn’t fare any better. Lucas’s script is full of painful exposition and cheesy dialogue, and the delivery of said dialogue is very hit or miss depending on the actor quoting them. Exchanges like Anakin’s “Are You an Angel” speech as well as most anything that come out of Jar Jar’s mouth are of specific note, and the examples of poor dialogue go far beyond that. I could spend all day noting examples of it, but for brevity purposes, I’ll just move on.
The actual layout that Lucas has established is something I could see working under more competent hands fleshing out his concepts and characterization, but all of it is wasted on very bare bones disinterest, and the political angle of the film, with Lucas essentially subjecting us to faux-CNN debates once we reach the planet Coruscant, overbear the adventure and excitement that we should be feeling from a Star Wars movie. Lucas also has trouble in continuing the spirituality nature of the Force, for In another controversial decision, Lucas establishes that the Force works on microscopic life-forms populating the air called Midi-Chlorians, which help Force sensitive individuals understand the will and power of the Force. It seems like an attempt by Lucas to retain the spirituality and philosophical nature of the Force, but also needlessly tries to give it a feeling of scientific grounding. Much of the writing has too much going on for him to handle, with the newly introduced Jedi council – including Frank Oz reprising his role as Yoda – shoehorned in for quick cameos sitting around and twiddling their thumbs, a short-lived conflict between the surface dwellers and undersea Gungans of Naboo, and the film never achieving a proper balance between the grandiose and the small scale. By the time the climax begins, with the film cross-cutting between four separate battles with four wildly different tones (this was Battle of the Five Armies before Battle of the Five Armies), one can’t help but feel exhausted by the sensory overload on display. I can only imagine the hoops poor Ben Burtt had to jump through when he was piecing this movie together.
Even Lucas’ visuals have hit or miss qualities. Photographically, this doesn’t feel like a Star Wars movie in any way, shape, or form. Because of the exposition heavy screenplay, DP David Tattersall (who’d contributed sublime work to The Green Mile that same year) is forced to resort to very basic and very flavorless framing and camera movements, often static and lacking anything in energy. Also, despite Lucas’ otherwise seamless integration of CGI, several sequences such as the battle between the gungans and the droids of the Trade Federation look much too cartoonish and clean. Such things prove a misguided turnaround from the masterclass practicality of A New Hope, with the enamored Lucas going a bit too crazy with the digital tools at his command.
However, let it not be understated that the effects artistry of the film is superb. Despite his reliance on CGI, Lucas integrates most of it with fabulous attention to detail, and it also helps that Lucas retains on-set practicality and miniature effects for some added realism, making the enhancements feel more natural. Even Jar Jar Binks, despite several shots looking out of place, still feels natural thanks to Ahmed Best actually interacting with cast members to give them something to react to.
These visuals are at their flashiest in the several epic set-pieces, where Lucas seems to be at his most playful and high energy, such as sequences like the pod-race midway through the film, which showcases plenty of high-speed intensity, a genuinely good sense of humor, nail-biting stakes, and some of Ben Burtt’s greatest sound work in the saga thus far. In fact, the film actually becomes stronger ear candy than eye candy, with Burtt retooling and reintegrating the iconic Star Wars sound effects while continually expanding its library, but even better is the score by John Williams. Even if Lucas lost his footing in the years between trilogies, Williams suffered no such stumbles, continually developing and expanding his legendary collection of symphonies with more experimentation and new majestic melodies, including the powerful Duel of the Fates that drives Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s climactic confrontation with Darth Maul.
Simply put, The Phantom Menace is a wildly misguided mess of intentions. Lucas’ fascination with computer generated artistry comes at the heavy expense of character and coherent storytelling, muddled in convoluted politics and even directly contradicting the lore of Star Wars. That said, do I think it’s as bad as it was built up to be?
Yes and no. The movie isn’t irredeemable, as Lucas’ technical proficiency is on useful display, and he manages to get some genuinely fun set-pieces and solid performances on display, but wasting the talent he had at his fingertips on storytelling this unbalanced and characters that weak is criminal. The film is at least entertaining in areas, but it’s an objectively, wildly uneven and mediocre movie, and oddly enough sees Lucas becoming no different from the over-controlling studios that he hated for years.
Then again, The Phantom Menace still has enough in its favor that it can’t really be the worst the saga has to offer us. For more on that, join me in the next review…
**1/2 / *****