“I have a bad feeling about this”
So, we come to Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (and the beginning of the prequel trilogy). I made myself re-watch the prequel trilogy to prepare for ‘The Force Awakens.’ I dreaded it. ‘The Phantom Menace’ has to be one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences of my life! Although not the worst of the prequels (Episode II takes that hallowed position!), it is simply a bad film. I watched it back in 1999, and even my 13/14 year old eyes knew I was watching a film that had nothing to do with my beloved Star Wars trilogy. Yes, it had familiar names (C-3P0 and R2-D2! Yes, I know them!), aliens and places. But the spirit, feeling and quality of the original trilogy was sorely lacking, instead replaced by trade negotiations, CGI sprites and backgrounds, wooden acting, and an awful script. And of course, Jar Jar freaking Binks…
Yes, Jar Jar Binks. He was the first fully computer generated character in a movie. For many, he’s the main focus of the hate directed towards ‘The Phantom Menace.’ He’s the comedy relief that we really, really do not need. Especially as he isn’t funny in the slightest. Standing in doo-doo, stealing some food in a market but getting stuck, having his tongue caught by Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, having his head zapped and losing all feeling in his head…these are painfully unfunny moments. He serves no real purpose in the plot, and is forced into scenes that don’t even require his presence! He’s just there, at times, staring at whatever is going on. Is he there simply to ingrain his image on impressionable children’s brains, so they beg their parents for a Jar Jar toy? Our survey says: yes! Due to his CGI nature, scenes where ‘real’ actors interact with him look stiff and contrived (take, for example, our first sight of Jar Jar, when he leaps on to Qui-Gon in the face of danger. It looks awful!). From his first second on the screen, he saps all excitement and energy from the film (in fact, I had more fun on the rewatch for this review looking for evidence of Darth Jar Jar!!!).
Unfortunately, Jar Jar is only a mere facet of the problems with ‘The Phantom Menace.’ It’s easy to point out the over-reliance on CGI, much to the detriment of the film. Take, for instance, the first action scene of the film. Obi-Wan Kenobi and his master Qui-Gon are waiting for negotiators from the Trade Federation to arrive. However, things don’t go to plan, and group of (CG’d droids (from the droid army!) attack Kenobi and Qui-Gon. Seeing two proper Jedi (not the untrained Luke Skywalker!) lightsabring their way into battle should be a pulse-pounding experience. However, it’s clear that the actors don’t know exactly where the CG’d droids are, so look as if they are wildly swinging their lightsabres around like lunatics. It’s a flat and dull action scene. It’s not only the droids that are CG’d, but a whole variety of creatures and characters. Eye contact is impossible with someone you can’t see, and it’s painfully obvious that the actors/actresses have great difficulty interacting with thin air.
“Are you an angel?”
Another problem is the dull-as-dishwater plot and dialogue. Having one of the two would be bad enough, but having both is unforgivable. I was reminded of Harrison Ford’s words when he read the script for Star Wars: “You can sure type this s**t but you can’t say it!” Fortunately, back in the original trilogy, Lucas had help for the script. For most of the prequels, he wrote the script himself. Most scenes are jam-packed with boring exposition. Show, don’t tell, Lucas! Some leap to the defence of ‘The Phantom Menace’ and say that it’s a kids film, thus allowing for a character like Jar Jar Binks and childish comedy moments. What child could possibly stay awake through stale Senate meetings and turgid trade negotiations? I almost fell asleep myself! There are kids films that balance delicately on the line between children and adults. Toy Story is but one example. Toy Story has an easy to follow plot, characters that both children and adults can relate to, but deep themes about loss and love. Adults or children could not give two hoots about trade negotiations!
As for the plot…the ‘evil’ Trade Federation invade the planet Naboo, for some reason to do with trade routes. Queen Amidala (played by Natalie Portman, who went on to much better things!) pleads with the Senate to help her, but the Trade Federation claims she has no proof. Even though the Trade Federation have invaded her planet! However, the plot takes a break to introduce Anakin Skywalker, the main character of the entire saga. He is nine/ten years old (and a terrible child actor!). Everything else is pretty much put on hold to fully introduce him and shove in a pod-race scene, which whilst admittedly fairly exciting, is only put there to corroborate Kenobi’s claim in ‘Episode IV’ that when he met Anakin, Anakin was a great pilot (which still isn’t technically true: he’s a driver, not a pilot!). By the way, the Trade Federation are following the orders of Darth Sidious…who sounds very much like Senator Palpatine…To be honest, there’s not much of a plot to speak of. That’s no bad thing, of course: just look at Mad Max: Fury Road! But Lucas dresses it up with so much useless talk to make it seem like a lot is going on, when really there isn’t.
“Wipe them out. All of them”
People point towards the aforementioned pod-race and the lightsabre duel between Kenobi+Qui-Gon and (the criminally under-used) Darth Maul as two positives of the film. True, the pod-race is fun to watch, but is ultimately pointless. As for the lightsabre battle, it’s technically impressive, and one of the ‘best’ lightsabre battles of the whole saga. But they fighting simply because a Star Wars film demands a final lightsabre battle. We are told nothing about Darth Maul, about who is he or why we should view him as a bad guy (is it just because he has the title ‘Darth’?!?!). There’s nothing personal between either Jedi and the Sith Lord, they just bump into each other and whip their lightsabres out. Not only that, but our focus is pulled between the lightsabre battle, Anakin piloting a Naboo Starfighter during a space battle, and Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans fighting the droid army on Naboo. Only the lightsabre battle is played out seriously. Anakin’s entire piloting is mostly fluke: he presses a few buttons and takes off, flies into the heart of the droid control centre, accidentally fires a missile and blows up the main reactor. Jar Jar, by pure chance, doesn’t get killed and miraculously destroys some droids.
Both Anakin-as-pilot and Jar Jar-as-bumbling-great-warrior dilute the impact of the lightsabre battle. Just like I wrote in my Return of the Jedi review (click here for that review!), our attention is pulled in three directions, so just as we get absorbed in one direction (only the lightsabre battle), we are whisked off to somewhere else. That’s symptomatic of the wider film: it consists of very short scenes that curtail development (both plot-wise and character-wise). Who is Qui-Gon? Who is Kenobi? Who is Jar Jar Binks? Even though we spend lots of time with these characters, it’s hard to pinpoint who they really are. Essentially, they are pieces on Lucas’ CG’d chessboard. Lucas knows how the game will end, but doesn’t really know how he will get there.
Unfortunately, ‘The Phantom Menace’ is far from the worst prequel. ‘Episode II: Attack Of The Clones’ is borderline offensive in its inanity. What is most depressing about ‘The Phantom Menace’ is the level of disappointment that one feels after watching it, even after several re-watches. You keep hoping that it’s not as bad as you remember it. Maybe you didn’t understand some bits of it. Maybe the dialogue will sound better. Maybe Jar Jar wasn’t that irritating. But you’ll always come to the credits deflated, angry and upset. How could the guy who directed ‘Star Wars’ direct this piece of garbage? It may not be the worst film ever, but it’s a pointless exercise is franchise extension. Did we need to see the child Darth Vader? Does Jar Jar Binks contribute anything to the film? Did we need to see Samuel L. Jackson wasted by sitting and talking calmly? There’s so much wrong with this film, and very little right with it. But things do not get better….
(And, as an aside, how does the Yoda puppet look worse than the one from ‘The Empire Strikes Back?!?!?)
VERDICT: 3/10. A soul-sapping enterprise aimed solely at your wallet. There’s almost nothing redeeming about this empty trip back to the Star Wars universe.
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