Film Review: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace
In 1999, George Lucas released The Phantom Menace, the fourth film in the Star Wars franchise and the first film of the prequel trilogy. Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Oliver Ford Davies, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Brian Blessed, and Samuel L. Jackson, the film grossed $1.027 billion at the box office. The film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing as well as the Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor (Jake Lloyd), and Worst Supporting Actress. It did win the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor (Ahmed Best).
After the planet Naboo raises its taxes, the Trade Federation blockades the planet in order to make their demands known, causing the senate to send Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi to negotiate an end to the blockade. However the Trade Federation invades the planet and the Jedi must focus their efforts on protecting Queen Amidala. They escape the planet and make their way to Coruscant, but encounter a young boy named Anakin after stopping on Tatooine to make repairs.
Released fifteen years after the final film of the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace was met with quite a lot of hype, only to present audiences with a fantastically flawed film. It seems that nearly everything happens in this film by an extremely contrived coincidence. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan just happened to get on the correct hangars to be taken to the exact same location during the invasion. They just happened to get to the capital just in time for the Queen and her handmaidens to be taken away. They just happened to barely escape the blockade thanks to the efforts of a lone droid who just happens to be R2D2. They just happened to need a new hyperdrive and the nearest planet just happens to be Tatooine where they just happen to run across Anakin Skywalker, who just happens to save Jar Jar from Sebulba. Then Anakin just happens to let them stay in his house during a sandstorm, where he just happens to have been working on C3PO and makes the claim that he just happens to be able to podrace, which they use to free and take him to Coruscant to sit before the Jedi Council. It all comes across as incredibly lucky as it’s all nothing but coincidences and none of it seems natural, such as in the first film where R2D2 escapes to look for Obi-Wan, making it necessary for Luke to go after him, run into the Tusken Raiders and be saved by Obi-Wan. And that’s not just the only meeting that felt natural in the original trilogy. Take Luke meeting Yoda. The latter ran across the former and it seemed coincidental at first, but then the realization comes that Yoda is the Jedi Master Luke is looking for, figured out where he was and then decided to put him through one of many secret tests of character. Nothing that happens in this film even remotely has the same kind of charm or gravitas that anything in the original trilogy had.
And none of that is even going into the pointlessness of everything that takes place in the film apart from the main party finding Anakin and taking him to the Jedi Temple. In a series such as Star Wars, an iconic space opera about the clash between good and evil, light and dark, with epic characters, fantastic space battles, and insurmountable tension, this film decides to begin with two Jedi meeting a Trade Federation to discuss a blockade, taxes and economics. The meeting of Anakin, which is what the film is entirely about, isn’t even until a good third to half of the way through the film. And soon after that, the audience is treated to a podracing sequence that homages Ben-Hur. However, all that matters is that Anakin wins. Showing the entirety of the podrace, what happens to all the other contestants and all the other things that go on during the race is just mindless filler that exists only to pad the movie out and make it much longer than it needs to be.
Then there’s the ending. Or endings. The finale has four separate battles: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan vs. Darth Maul, Queen Amidala and her forces vs. the Trade Federation, the Gungans vs. the battle droid army, and the space battle above the planet. And though Return of the Jedi had three battles, this film suffers because the only one that’s entirely at all memorable is the first battle. And even then it’s a grievous misuse of Darth Maul, who turned from a competent and strategic fighter into a complete moron just minutes before his death.
The thing is, The Phantom Menace, has the groundwork for a decent story detailing the origins of Darth Vader floating around in it. The problem lies entirely with Lucas’ bad writing and his insistence that the entire prequel trilogy has to revolve around Vader’s origins (when one film would have done perfectly) coupled with wooden acting, terrible characters, a tremendous overuse of CGI, and a plot that’s mostly nothing but pointless filler.
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