Coming out 16 years after the finale to the Star Wars trilogy, The Phantom Menace is a prequel to the other films in the series. If you were like me and wanted to see even more exploration to the universe that was established in the three previous films, this movie is an attempt to satisfy that, while also allowing you to see the beginnings toward how all of the characters you’ve grown to know wind up as they are at the beginning of A New Hope.
It seems like this universe is never happy. There’s always some sort of major conflict going on that works as a backdrop. This time around, it’s about a corporation trying to illegally force its will on a planet, Naboo. Two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), attempt to resolve the issue via negotiation, but because evil corporations don’t want to do that, the two Jedis have to escape and eventually have to save the planet through many action scenes and the recruiting of a 9-year-old boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). If you saw the other movies, you know why that’s important.
Other important characters include Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), who is the leader of Naboo, R2-D2 and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the droids we’ve come to know in previous movies, and Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a CGI creature who serves as some of the least enjoyable comic relief I can think of. Seriously, whoever thought that Jar Jar Binks was a good idea really didn’t have a grasp on what most people would find funny.
There’s a lot of action in this movie, which isn’t a rarity for the series. There are some new things introduced this time around, including an incredibly long race sequence which probably should have been one, not three laps. That would have helped with the pacing. The second act feels really long — not just because of this — and any bit of trimming would have been beneficial. It wasn’t so much that I was ever bored with The Phantom Menace as I was severely uninterested in what was happening.
That’s another one of the problems it has: There is no emotional connection to be had with any of these characters. They’re all so broad and one-dimensional, and they’re rarely put into real danger. The tone is light, but there are no scenes where the possibility exists for them to be put in harm’s way to balance that out. The film is too silly to take seriously. Even when characters are in trouble, it never feels that way. I never felt for any of these characters because they’re too shallow and it never feels like they could be harmed.
They also never seem to do anything on purpose, or of their own volition. Too many of the resolving actions in the film happen by accident, or because someone didn’t know what they were doing. “Oh, that worked!” they often say with great enthusiasm. A great set-piece involving Anakin flying a ship happens because he’s pressing random buttons and some of them wind up working in his favor. Anything Jar Jar Binks does is accidental, even though it’s rarely detrimental to the cause.
There’s a story reveal that’s handled so poorly, and you should see it coming from a mile away, that even attempting it came across as pointless. I’m not sure why it was even included, to be honest. The reveal happens and is so anticlimactic that I can’t even begin to describe it. The film as a whole feels that way, too, especially because you won’t care about anything that happened before its conclusion. The big battle scene that the entire film seems to be building toward is greatly mishandled and just kind of seems to end without reason.
To The Phantom Menace‘s credit, there are some enjoyable action scenes, and it’s never really boring. Getting to see another movie’s worth of this universe makes the experience worthwhile regardless of the quality of the rest of the film. There’s a really fun lightsaber fight, too, this one involving a skilled warrior named Darth Maul (Ray Park) going up against both of our leading Jedi. You can sort of see what’s being built toward here; there is mention that the Sith were supposed to be extinct, but it’s clear that they’re not, and will be the rivals of the Jedi from this point out.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace has a pretty good cast, even if there aren’t a lot of characters worth exploring. The performances from most of the cast members are fine, even if Jake Lloyd, in a pivotal role, is so unbearable to watch. It’s not his fault; he’s very young here and child actors of this age are almost always terrible, but giving him such an important role was a mistake. Still, seeing Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor wielding lightsabers is quite enjoyable.
I had some fun with Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. It wasn’t great, and it had a bunch of problems that kept it from living up to any of the earlier films in the franchise, but some of the action scenes are good and seeing more of this universe was definitely worth sitting through. It’s not a fantastic movie, and it definitely can’t live up to the hype generated from waiting 16 years, but I did enjoy some of it and it was never dull. I suppose I’ll take it.