I don’t even know how to start writing this review. Star Wars is my favourite series of films ever made– yes even including these prequels– so I’m quite concerned I won’t be able to do them justice. But I’ll try, so here goes.
When George Lucas announced that he was making a new trilogy of movies based around Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace, I could not have been more happy. I was finally going to get to experience Star Wars in theatres, where it belonged. I was one when Return of the Jedi came out, so I had not been able to experience seeing a new Star Wars film in theatres before. The Phantom Menace was my very first midnight screening, and I ended up seeing this film seven times in theatres. So you could say I liked it.
It’s actually funny to me that The Phantom Menace has such a backlash against it now. When the film was released, it was getting decent reviews and was thought of quite favourably. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it is a worthy addition to the Star Wars universe. Is it as good as the original films? Absolutely not, but I’m not sure any film would have lived up to the expectations that came with being the first new Star Wars film in 15 years. Most of the vitriol for Episode I was aimed squarely at Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), who became a poster child for ruining childhoods. I will admit he is quite annoying, but no more so than C-3PO was in the original films. These films have always been aimed at children, and Jar Jar was the comic relief that would entertain kids and sell lots of toys. I think people’s biggest complaint about the film was that it was still for kids. They look at the original film through rose coloured glasses, not realising that they were also for kids and that they grew up, not the films. I know a few people who were children when Episode I was released, and they adore Jar Jar, just as we all adored C-3PO in the 80s.
Now I’m not going to defend this film the whole time. There are parts I wish were better. Young Anakin (Jake Lloyd) gives a pretty average performance. And I’ve already mentioned that Jar Jar is annoying. There are definitely changes I would make, but the problems don’t overshadow the positives. Phantom Menace gave us one of the most menacing villains of the series in Darth Maul (Ray Park) and his double ended lightsabre. The pod race is like a amped up speederbike chase from Return of the Jedi. The introduction of Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi is the best thing to come out of these prequel films, as is the addition of Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman. The biggest highlight however, is the sabre fight between Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn. It was fast paced and highly choreographed, and man is it exciting to watch. The only time it is ever matched in a Star Wars film is when Obi-Wan and a fallen Anakin eventually throw down two movies later.
One other negative is the plot. When some racist stereotypes, under the direction of a mysterious Sith lord (phantom menace?) decide to blockade the small planet of Naboo, the Republic sends two Jedi knights to negotiate an end to the blockade. When the racist stereotypes decide to attack them instead, the Jedi end up on the surface of Naboo. With the help of an amphibious local (Jar Jar), they need to find the Queen of Naboo (Portman) and get her to Coruscant, where she can report the illegalities that have transpired on her planet. After their escape, the group must land on a barren wasteland called Tatooine to fix their ship. Along the way they meet a young slave called Anakin Skywalker, who is unusually strong in the force. The troupe eventually free Anakin and Qui-Gon decides to train him as a Jedi.
Now I don’t think that many people imagined a Star Wars film being based around a blockade due to taxation, but there is enough action in between to counteract this in my opinion.
I know I’m certainly in the minority when it comes to defending this film, but it feels like a Star Wars film. That is probably the best compliment I can give it.
After several breaks and false starts with the blog, we’ve decided to skip ahead to the Star Wars trilogies-plus in preparation for Episode VIII. And by “we” I really mean Ben, because I was happy to keep plugging away from letter N. But then, we reviewed my favorite movie ages ago. It’s only fair that we delve into his and give his thoughts top billing.
I’ll be up front here: I have very few positive feelings towards Episode I. When it was released I was 15, and it was cool then. My entire family got caught up in the excitement of a new Star Wars film, and I recall really loving it at the time. But this movie hasn’t aged well, due to the combination of racist stereotypes and over-reliance on CGI that inhabit it. It is by far my least favorite in the franchise, and I’m only slogging through it now out of fairness to Ben.
There isn’t anything I can write about the stereotypes that hasn’t already been written about by better critics. All I can say is that it’s a shame that George Lucas felt the need to include them, and maddening to think that this sort of shit still happens in movies today. It feels almost trite to say that this is why there needs to be more diversity behind the camera in Hollywood, but dammit, this is why there needs to be more diversity behind the camera in Hollywood.
As for the CGI… I’ve always been a fan of practical effects. Even knowing how much work, time, and artistry goes into computer graphics, I’m still more impressed by real life sets and props and all that. The most vibrant scenes in Episode I are ones actually shot on set, with little or no CGI enhancement. Others, particularly the animated characters, long ago stopped impressing me. There are definitely still limits to what movie makers are able to do in post, but the technical expertise has come so far in the past 18(!) years that Episode I’s age shows in mostly bad ways.
I’ve not yet spoken about the acting in this movie, which was apparently affected by Lucas’ direction (or lack thereof) and mediocre dialogue. The more seasoned professionals (Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor) seem to overcome this obstacle, and mostly transcend their wooden lines. Natalie Portman struggles at times, but poor Jake Lloyd really got the short end of the stick. This kid probably just needed more guidance and coaching to deliver a good performance. He doesn’t deserve the scorn he’s received, and I refuse to pile onto him anymore here. (Don’t think I’m a saint, though. I’ve definitely made bad child actor jokes about him in the past.)
Episode I is an imperfect movie. But, it did prove that this franchise was still hot, and without it we wouldn’t be getting the new films.