Disclaimer: This isn’t a typical review that begins with a short blurb of the movie and then delves deeper into the elements of the film. The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 and you had 18 years to watch it. There will be spoilers.
In light of the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the mixed reception from the audience, or at least Star Wars fans, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit the prequel trilogy and assess its merits since a faction of moviegoers is comparing The Last Jedi to the prequels. The first of the prequels was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, in case you repressed it and needed a reminder.
Phantom explored the origins of some of the most beloved and iconic characters of the original trilogy, most importantly Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi Knight who would eventually become Darth Vader. The film has a 55% score on Rotten Tomatoes because critics were peeved about the level of exposition and stock characters peppered in the film. Remember Jar Jar Binks?
These are valid criticisms, and watching the film today, the CGI and cinematography can be very underwhelming, appearing incongruous and disjointed to create a jarring movie experience. The animation doesn’t blend in with the live action set pieces in most instances, especially when the Gungans are on screen, and the choice of shots and camera angles don’t match the epic proportions that could have been set with some sequences. As an example, Anakin’s leaving Tatooine and his mom could have used at least a twin Suns shot in the background. But leaving the nit-picking/mud-raking aside, what works for the first prequel?
While characterization, writing, and plot (or everything) were concerns for most with Phantom, the plot has some strong departures from the originals that do help paint a better picture of the Star Wars universe, and this is to do with the politics. Politics were largely brushed aside in the original trilogy or painted in broad strokes rather, so understanding the galactic political structure and the machinations taking place was more than welcome. The entire movie is premised on the Trade Federation’s blockade of Naboo at the behest of Darth Sidious and it’s two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) who are dispatched to resolve the dispute diplomatically. The strain of politics runs straight through, as we witness the struggles of Naboo laid evident by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and the growing ambitions of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). The original trilogy was largely a story of good vs. evil, the Rebels taking on the Empire. But the prequels do attempt to show a more complicated state of affairs. This is most evident in Palpatine’s search for power as he pushes Chancellor Valorum aside, and even with the Jedi Council, as they debate the future of a young Anakin who they deem to be a potential threat. The seeds for the debate among the Jedi, between being just peacekeepers or an army of the Republic, are planted here.
This is all unchartered territory for Star Wars after the original trilogy, and some may say that a nuanced approach to the Star Wars world required sharper dialogue with much less exposition. But when was political dialogue ever subtle? Subtlety was never a Star Wars strength. If it was, Darth Vader would have found a better way to tell Luke that he was his father. And there weren’t any cringe-worthy lines in this installment at least. Qui-Gon’s words of wisdom to Obi-Wan are particularly well delivered, words that you can one day pass on to your child. The same applies to Master Yoda. If you’re complaining about Young Anakin’s choice of words here and there, remember that he’s nine years old. He’s doing alright for a nine-year-old.
Besides the world building, the prequels do a decent job with its origin stories. Human curiosity always helps propel interest in an origin story. Episodes IV to VI talked about the Jedi as if they were a myth. What were the Jedi like? How did they function as a whole within the political dynamics of the galaxy? Who was Anakin Skywalker? How did he become Darth Vader? Phantom lays the groundwork to answer these questions by illuminating the stories of the characters that shaped the future within which the original trilogy takes place. After watching the film, you’ll get a sense of who is likely to succeed and who will fail, and now it boils down to “how.”
Moreover, it’s always wonderful to see cherished characters once again on screen, especially our favorite robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Finding how they came into the picture and how they ran into other beloved figures is always intriguing. This is especially true with the droids and Anakin. In the originals, the droids are on the other side of the picture with Luke and not with Anakin (Vader). But we see that the droids were closer to the Sith Lord than we thought, at least before he turned to the Dark Side. He made C-3PO! And he flew with R2-D2, just like Luke. Amazing! It’s like passing on a family heirloom, but in this case, it’s a fully-functional robot.
By drawing these connections of parallels and contrasts using familiar characters, George Lucas is banking in on nostalgia quite freely. And doing so allows him to service the existing fan base while serving up more for the newer generation with the aforementioned differences. Lucas’ efforts to open up the Star Wars world are also valiant. His world building is much appreciated but could have been better served had he not made the Gungans, a somewhat comical looking species, a centerpiece of this film. Focusing on an alien species from the Mos Eisley Cantina would have gone down better.
Finally, Phantom offers some jaw-dropping sequences, showing how Star Wars can be better than it was before. The pod-racing sequence featuring Anakin was mostly well done and it did manage to show young Anakin’s piloting prowess immeasurably, and the encore at the end was also welcome. But the real scene stealers were the lightsaber battles. The first and second acts were peppered with some lively droid chopping, but the real treat was right at the end with Darth Maul taking on Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. They make Luke and Vader look like children in a playground. The film heralded a new era of lightsaber duels, not only for the movies but also for the animated series that followed, and that’s an element of the film that should definitely be applauded.
Without a doubt, The Phantom Menace was a shaky start for the prequels, made quite difficult since the film focuses on a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker. Lucas was definitely trying to lighten the material not just for adults, but an even younger age group, hence the Gungans. A similar issue arose with the Mad Max franchise when Beyond Thunderdome was released. But casting that aside, Phantom does just enough to peak our interest in what’s to come, focusing on the politics of Star Wars and character origins, while offering some novel treats in the department of action sequences.
- Phantom is an interesting world-building experiment, especially with the introduction of politics and the Jedi at-large.
- Character roots of those in the original trilogy and the deeper connections that existed between them.
- Newer, livelier, shinier actions sequences. Pod-racing. Lightsabers!
- Liam Neeson. Wise words. Long hair. And the one time he dies on screen.
Now that you know why you should watch The Phantom Menace, look at why Attack of the Clones is not that bad.
Movie Info (From IMDb)
Production companies: Lucasfilm
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Ray Park, Samuel L. Jackson, Pernilla August, Anthony Daniels, Terence Stamp
Screenwriters: George Lucas
Producers: George Lucas, Rick McCallum,
Executive Producers: George Lucas
Director of Photography: David Tattersall
Production Designer: Gavin Bocquet
Costume Designer: Trisha Biggar
Editors: Ben Burt, Paul Martin Smith
Music: John Williams
Casting: Robin Gurland
Rated PG, 131 minutes