The Phantom Menace is a movie that has long held many different positions in my heart. As a kid I loved it, as a teenager I hated it and as an adult I thought it was so bad it was good. Then, just the other day, about two-three years since my last viewing, I got a strange urge. An urge to do what? I did not know. But that night, as I lay in bed, it presented itself to me. My phone lit up. My Spotify opened and there it was… “Duel of the Fates, John Williams, London Symphony Orchestra”. And as I allowed John Williams to make love to my ears, I realised what that urge was. It was some alien feeling that I, Alex, wanted and needed to watch The Phantom Menace again.
Released in 1999, The Phantom Menace was the first of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy to the Star Wars saga. In retrospect, however, The Phantom Menace feels less like a prequel to A New Hope and more long a prequel to Attack of the Clones. Seriously, if you skip The Phantom Menace and instead watch Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith without it, you’ll still perfectly understand the prequel story, will not miss any information, and will be ready to go into the original trilogy. Thusly, this movie feels more like a largely irrelevant spin off that exists for no other reason than to contextualise Attack of the Clones. And what a hilarious spin off it is.
Hearing Obi Wan Kenobi outwardly refer to a small ten year old boy, Anakin Skywalker, as a “pathetic lifeform” who is also “dangerous” made me laugh out loud, especially when Anakin does nothing but show politeness and fondness towards him when they meet. Some of the CGI is also hilarious, such as Jar Jar Binks’ eyes spontaneously inflating like balloons whenever he’s stressed – but at least that was intentionally funny (probably). And who can forget the scene where two Jedi Knights intimidate an alien into returning to a city he was lawfully banished from to further their own needs? The truth is, I’m not sure how much this film wants me to take it seriously, given that it’s hyper serious political dispute/Chosen One hybrid plot relies on Liam Neeson tackling an alien who’s literally too stupid to run in the opposite direction of tanks the size of buildings mowing down an entire forest.
The thing is that this film was obviously made for children, so I should reasonably be a little easier on it. But the other thing is that it simultaneously has a plot revolving around trade disputes, legislation and votes of no confidence in a galactic-wide government. It is abundantly clear that film has no idea what it’s main priority should be, and is conflicted as to how much it should target it’s child and adult audiences. The result is that neither Obi Wan or Liam Neeson, who are presented as the film’s main characters, get any real character defining moments, and the whole political plot goes out the window in the third act anyway when everyone decides to say “screw the system and the laws we have been abiding by this whole movie, let’s just go have a fight on our planet.” You might say that was the point, given how it is overtly stated that the government in this movie doesn’t work, and that the characters were forced to act on their own. To which I say, if Palpatine wanted the Queen of Naboo to return to the government so he could be elected Chancellor, why did he simultaneously send his Sith apprentice to go and kill her and the Jedi? Did he know his apprentice would fail? Did he have a back up plan in case she didn’t make it at all? Look, all I’m saying is that if you analyse this plot too hard, for all the bits that work (like saying screw the government) you’ll find two more that don’t (Palpatine’s contradictory plan and the plot relying on Liam Neeson tackling some random alien). I firmly believe the only way to enjoy this film is to shut your brain off.
That said, I didn’t hate this movie. I was entertained and thought Anakin was a better character than I remembered him being. The only issue was that I think they cast too young an actor to play him. After listening to his dialogue and seeing his role in the plot again, I think he really should have been a teenager instead of a child. And that’s not a slight to Jake Lloyd, who received far too much hate for simply doing his job (seriously, Star Wars has one of the most toxic fandoms), just a note that I think the character was written to be played by someone a little older.
Then there’s Ewan McGregor who… Well, literally does nothing for the whole film. He clearly didn’t come into is own with Obi Wan until the time of Attack and the Clones and Revenge of the Sith due to the fact he’s side-lined for 90% of this film. But at least Liam Neeson is quite good. While I stand by the fact he’s never given a chance to make his character shine, he still brings some amount of on-screen presence to a mostly stoic and quiet character, which this film desperately needed. Natalie Portman is also okay in the film, and the twist involving her being the Queen on Naboo the whole time is quite good and well executed. But I’m not a fan of the weird accent she has in this movie that never carries over into the rest of the prequels.
Over all this film is 85% crap and a solid 15% really cool stuff. If you like really cool stuff you might still be entertained by this film despite its shortcomings, but if you go in expecting literally anything else then you will be disappointed, especially as it’s largely meaningless in the grand scheme of the trilogy it initiated. After thinking it over, no, I cannot recommend Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace despite the fact that it’s flaws, while abundant, weren’t as severe as I remembered them being from past viewings.