So, it’s come to this. I’ll be honest, I’ve been keeping this review in my back pocket for the last year. I’ve sort of thought of it as an ‘in case of emergency break glass’ kind of backup plan. Something to eventually cover while the restrictions were ongoing, and the longer the lockdowns have continued, the longer I’ve pushed back the thought of covering this film (and the subsequent instalments). I almost did it back in June last year when I started working through the Star Wars films, but eventually, I moved onto other things. But now I’ve been staring at my own four walls for long enough that revisiting the Star Wars prequels seems like a relatively sane idea.
I can only imagine the disappointment that Star Wars fans must have felt back in May 1999. It had been 16 years since a film in their beloved franchise had graced the big screen. Only to have all that anticipation slowly drained from them as they witnessed George Lucas kick his legacy to death over two-and-a-half-hours of utterly turgid dross. Actually, maybe that’s a bit harsh. At least half an hour was okay, but that still leaves two hours of steaming cinematic turd to wade through.
I have covered the prequels before, right back at the start of this website’s existence. Back when I had a different name and significantly less experience writing about film than what I have now. As I said then, and still stand by now, there are some redeemable factors in the prequels. However, these good parts are vastly outweighed by dullness, incomprehensibly awful writing, and Jar Jar Binks. Say what you like about the sequel trilogy, at least stuff happened in it. It was at least entertaining enough to hold your attention; these films, however, were responsible for thinking that trade disputes made for riveting sci-fi entertainment. Gone was the creative flair of the olden days, and in came the era of the soulless and bland.
Thirty years before a relatable character was introduced to the universe, the Galactic Republic is locked in a bitter trade dispute with the Trade Federation. To help broker peace, the Republic sends a pair of Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, respectively), to negotiate a peace deal. Things swiftly go awry, and the Federation launches an invasion of Naboo, whose Queen, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), is rescued by the Jedis. Due to some enormous plot convenience, the crew end up on Tatooine, where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), and so the saga can begin.
Honestly, that synopsis comes nowhere near close to doing the plot, such as it is, justice. It’s so convoluted and dull that it hardly bears thinking about, really. The above is what I’ve managed to water it down to for it to fit in a single paragraph.
Over the years, I’ve watched (or ‘subjected myself to’) Phantom Menace multiple times, almost willing myself to find something else to like about it. After all, it’s Star Wars, and I love Star Wars, but trying to find positive things about this film is like panning for gold in the New York sewer system. You might find the odd gem, but it’s buried under a tidal wave of shit.
There’s so much I want to say about how much I hate this film. I want to talk about so many negative aspects that I simply don’t know where to start, so while I think about where to start on the negative, let’s get the positives out of the way first.
First off, some performances are good. Stilted by a script so inept that it sounds like it was written by someone who’d never heard spoken language before but, nonetheless, they manage to turn out a good representation of themselves. Specifically, Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson carry the heaviest loads in the film. McGregor would only get better in the role as the trilogy wore on. Neeson had the common sense to die in the first film and thus had to get this performance just right. Which he did, imbuing Qui-Gon with just the right amount of mystical wisdom while retaining a little bit of likability.
There are a few decent sequences too. Notably, the pod-racing section (although Lucas tries his best to ruin this scene too with stupid side characters, incredibly convenient happenings, and lazy writing) and the lightsabre duel at the end with Darth Maul (Ray Park), which both stick out from the rest of the pack. The latter is accompanied by ‘Duel of the Fates’, which is in the argument for the best piece of Star Wars music for me. It is also helped along by the most compelling character in the prequels, Darth Maul, so of course, he’s killed off at the end of this film.
That’s about it as far as positives go. No matter how many times I watch it over, I can’t find anything else enjoyable about this movie. I’ve given up trying now, as I don’t quite hate myself enough to re-watch this nonsense any more.
What is it I don’t like about it then? Well, not much really, apart from the script, the characters, the visuals, the (lack of) narrative intrigue, the stilted performances by anyone not named Liam Neeson or Ewan McGregor, the insulting attempts at humour, the even more offensive habit of trying to explain everything that didn’t need an explanation, the casting of ill-prepared children, and the overall wasted potential. So yeah, not much at all.
Let’s start with the script. It’s fair to say that Star War’s dialogue has never been stellar, especially in the first film (unsurprisingly, Lucas’s only script in the original saga). Still, it manages to find new depths in this film. It isn’t so much scraping the bottom of the barrel as it is building a mine-shaft underneath the barrel. The dialogue is insipid, cold, and impossible to convincingly deliver. As can be evidenced any time Natalie Portman (who I remind you is a talented actress) tries to deliver it. It’s almost as if she’s carved from wood, a fact not helped by the fact that George Lucas is to directing what Donald Trump is to diplomacy.
That last line brings us nicely onto the rest of the performances. I feel sorry for the bulk of the actors I’m about to mention, really, I do, because a performer is only as good as the material. That material, as we’ve discussed, is utter horse manure. I feel most sorry for Jake Lloyd, who just wasn’t prepared for something on this scale. Yes, the script and direction don’t help, but the poor kid would look like a deer in the headlights regardless. What was supposed to be the epic introduction of the character around whom the rest of the franchise would revolve becomes almost an after-thought. He only becomes embroiled in the plot because of an incredibly complex set of circumstances. Basically, the only reason Anakin is discovered by the Jedi is because he broke up a fight that involved Jar Jar Binks.
Speaking of our Gungan friend, he really is an easy target for ridicule, I admit, but I’d say with good reason. I reiterate none of this is on the actor. Ahmed Best did his best (no pun intended) with the material. Still, there’s only so much you can do with a character who is so transparent and cynical. Did Lucas really think so little of us that he thought we’d warm to this ridiculous clown? All of this is without mentioning the questionable use of stereotypes ingrained into the character.
In fact, let’s address that, shall we? I am not the person to talk about racial ethics. I will freely admit that but just listen to some of these characters. They’re so transparently stereotypical you’d expect them to be from the 40s or 50s. The Viceroy is a ludicrously offensive Asian stereotype. Jar Jar is a cartoonish, bumbling black character. Then there’s Watto, who might as well be designed to be everything anti-Semites say Jewish people are like. I hasten to add that I don’t think Lucas did this hatefully. I think it’s more born of ignorance than anything else. While this may fly as an excuse for old Disney cartoons, we shouldn’t let it fly from a 90s release.
Everything that made the classic Star Wars film great has been thoroughly sucked out of this film. The use of CG is glaringly obvious and immersion-breaking. Rather than making us by into the magic of this universe through creative effects, it instead distances its audience from that sense of awe by transplanting sterile, lifeless backdrops behind scenes with sterile, lifeless dialogue. There is no lasting joy to be found in The Phantom Menace. Every moment of enjoyment is fleeting. For every lightsabre duel, there are interminable scenes of political ‘intrigue’ and trade disputes. Gone is the epic space opera battle between alien wizards manipulating everything around them, replaced by repeated scenes of people sat in circles pulling stern faces. Easily understandable conflict is replaced by mystical prophecies. Everything that intrigued us is explained away in terribly underwhelming fashion, leaving the franchise with little sense of wonder. The Force, the magical entity that we had spent years wondering about, imagining ourselves wielding, is revealed to be nothing more than the result of your blood. Robbing it of any genuine mysticism and meaning, becoming just another dry aspect of a now lifeless universe.
What really upsets me about this film and its successors, too, is the waste of potential. Of all the things the galaxy far, far, away could have become, it became this. A soul-sucking exercise in blandness that accomplished nothing except massaging the ego of its creator, not to mention beginning the long-running alienation of its own fanbase. All of our hope began disappearing from the first scene, and our good-will is drained long before the credits roll. There may have eventually been worse films in the franchise, but none are more damaging than this. We wanted escapist entertainment, a triumph of good over evil. Instead, we got trade disputes, offensive caricatures, and every interesting character is dead by the end. It’s a miracle this franchise still has a fanbase after this colossal waste of time and space.