WARNING: Spoilers for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
This piece accompanies the first episode of Brett's Flix available on our YouTube channel here.
The name “Star Wars” brings many things with it: adventure, excitement, childhood, lightsabers, etc. The original trilogy is obviously extremely important to the history of cinema and pop culture in general. But the prequels were met with very mixed reviews. Even more polarizing than the newest set of films. So, let’s take a look. Has time been kind to the first film in the prequel saga?
I remember when I was a kid seeing this movie in theaters and just being completely blown away. This was my first Star Wars theatrical experience. It will always stick with me. But over the years, that changed. I saw the many flaws in the film and grew to dislike it. Yes, there were good moments, but the rest was terrible. It grew to become the bastard child of the Star Wars films in my mind. Well it has now been years since I have seen this film, and I am happy to report that it has actually aged fairly well. FAIRLY.
One thing that I finally realized, was who your main character is, or rather, who it is SUPPOSED to be. It’s Qui-Gon. He’s the character you spend the most time with, and he is the one that makes the most active decisions in the film.
That being said, he doesn’t have an emotional journey or change much throughout the film. You could say that him discovering Anakin is his emotional connection and journey, and you would be right, except that George Lucas has directed him to be emotionless and monk-like. You know, like a Jedi. It also is not filmed from Qui-Gon’s point of view, meaning when he dies at the end, there isn’t a shift in viewpoint. Your main character dying at the end of the film should feel bigger than it comes across here.
When it comes to the plot and its machines, and boy are there plenty, this film is actually the most inconsequential of the entire franchise. Odd, because it’s actually the most complicated in terms of plot. But instead of feeling like the beginning of the Skywalker Saga, this film actually feels like a prologue to the real story: Loosely connected, and only existing to put certain pieces in place. The film purely exists for two reasons: Establishing Obi-Wan taking on Anakin as his apprentice and getting Palpatine into the position of Chancellor. The rest is completely inconsequential. This whole film could be erased and those plot points could be integrated into the opening act of Episode II and it wouldn’t hurt the overall Star Wars narrative. Which is kind of odd. It’s a massively over-complicated way to get two people into position so that they can start making a difference in their respective stories. So, as a film on its own, it’s extremely weak. But, when viewed in the overall context of the story at large, it’s… also kind of weak. But at least it’s entertaining. Phantom Menace is actually viewed best when paying attention to Palpatine. Once you know his endgame in the latter films (yes including VII, VIII, and IX) its kind of great seeing him play with everyone and get exactly what he wants. Some scenes end on him and under normal circumstances it would be a big no-no to end so many scenes on such an ancillary character. But once you’re in the know, it’s kind of cool seeing him pull one over on everyone scene after scene.
That’s where certain things come in to save the day. Mainly the action set pieces. But they aren’t perfect by any means. Lucas’ decision to do almost everything digital has NOT aged well. There are certainly some shots that look very good for their age, even halfway decent for now-a-days (the Planet Core sequence in particular is still great). But there are far more shots that look downright terrible. It hurts the overall enjoyment when you’re constantly looking at a digital creation that shines too brightly in the lighting. The Gungans in particular have a hard time. Their skin will slide into itself or their clothing when they move. BUT…
That Podrace sequence - WOW! It’s still the most riveting part of the film, even if it honestly is a little too long. And the decision to have most of it be without music was a stroke of genius. Obviously the other stand-out moment is the Duel of the Fates. It’s still one of the best lightsaber fights in the entire franchise and John Williams’ score is straight fire. Darth Maul is one of the coolest looking villains in any of the movies. And thanks to The Clone Wars, he also became one of the best written villains of the entire franchise. However, I’m trying to judge the films without the inclusion of the shows, and so with Maul being used the way he is here, he is basically all show. He’s got presence and skill… and that’s about it. It’s a shame he wasn’t used more in the films. But at least his fight here is among the best. That being said, even the best duel has some flaws and this time I did notice some cracks in the choreography and moments where you could tell they paused or could have killed the other person.
This film has a lot of good going for it, but it only works in fits and starts. Why, do you ask? That can be answered with two names: Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker. Every single time both of those characters open their mouths I want to hurl myself off my balcony head-first. I will be sitting there enjoying the film, when suddenly, out of nowhere, Jar Jar will come in and ruin it with a terrible poop joke. Or Anakin will give us one of the most horrendous line readings in the history of man-kind. I’m not blaming Jake Lloyd. I’m blaming George for directing him so badly. It’s very frustrating to be enjoying a film, only for something to come in and ruin it. And the sad part is that many of these moments can’t even be cut because they’re embedded in something that is needed. Damnit, George!
The political scenes are slightly less boring now upon this viewing, so that’s a good thing. Now that I know what Palpatine’s plan is and how it all works, these scenes actually make much more sense. The problem is that they didn’t upon first viewing because you didn’t know the whole story. You’re only seeing pieces of it. And not even the best pieces as that. George had the whole overview of this story in his head. So he was like a bird flying above the battlefield looking at everything at once. However, we as the audience members are on the ground and can only see what is in front of us. Now that I have seen Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith and The Clone Wars tv show, I can see how this film fits into old Palpy’s scheme. Once you have seen everything, you understand how this piece fits into the puzzle. It’s just a shame that George didn’t write these scenes in a way that secretly set up Palpatine’s plot, AND kept them entertaining to watch upon first viewing. And it shouldn’t take two follow up movies and a tv show to finally make one film make sense.
I know that David Filoni defends this film, and has talked about what makes them secretly good. His main point with this first film has to do with the soul of Anakin. Filoni makes the argument that the “Duel of Fates” is a duel for the fate of Anakin’s soul. Qui-Gon basically acts at Anakin’s father figure and must fight to save the chosen child from the Dark Side. That’s great! I love it. The problem is that if that was indeed the intent, George did a TERRIBLE job conveying it. Two things really mess with Filoni’s analysis:
1) Anakin isn’t even around when the fight takes place. If the fight if for the soul of a child, the child should be present to fight over. It not only adds dramatic weight to the immediate danger, but also to Anakin’s journey as a whole. Think about how he would have reacted if he was present to see Qui-Gon die? It’s kind of hard to say the Jedi and Sith are fighting over a kid when said kid isn’t even on the planet at the time.
2) Darth Maul (even Palpatine for all we know) aren’t even aware of Anakin at all until he blows up the Trade Federation Command Ship. If two people are fighting over a child, shouldn’t both people be aware of the child? Maul doesn’t want Anakin. He wants to kill Qui-Gon.
But will all that being said, with all of this film’s terrible dialogue (and ohhhh boy is it terrible at times) and bad acting (don’t even get me started on the way Anakin say “yippy”) I still enjoy this film. Like I said, elements of it actually hold up better now that it’s being viewed as a single chapter in a massive story. Still though, why did Jar Jar and the Gungans have to be SOOOOOO annoying? Brian Blessed is an absolute legend and even he struggles to make their dialogue work. And Anakin really brings the cringe. Like, in EVERY line. But, I digress. Overall, I think this film does hold up a little better than I had initially thought. It holds a special place in my heart, and when the film works, it seriously works. It’s just a shame that it can only do that in fits and starts.