Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
I grew up on Star Wars. Being born a matter of months before the theatrical release of The Empire Strikes Back made that inevitable. The first of the films I saw theatrically was Return of the Jedi, and I have vague recollections of the experience with loud noises and the unsettling image of the unmasked Darth Vader (for a three year old, it was like A Nightmare on Elm Street to me). These films have been part of who I am for as long as I can remember, and I feel it’s about time I share my thorough thoughts on the entire saga. With the 3D theatrical re-releases on the horizon, it seems timely. I don’t plan on seeing them in 3D, and I do not own the Blu Rays at this point. When reviewing the prequels, it will be their original DVD versions. When reviewing the original trilogy, it will be the original theatrical versions. I have many editions of the original trilogy on VHS & DVD, but this is about what I grew up on.
For The Phantom Menace, I was part of the madness in 1999. I stood in line with a lawn chair, a brand new CD Walkman, and a sunburn to get advance tickets for opening night. I ended up sitting next to a guy dressed as Darth Maul that first night, and I did see the film multiple times in theatres. However, with time comes perspective and maturity. I know everything that needs to be said about this film has been said, but this is a forum to share my thoughts. It also an opportunity to express what these films mean to me. So, this is not me trying to add to a worn out battle cry against this film. I’m just here to offer my point of view. All eight pages worth.
Two ambassadors from the Jedi Order, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nesson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to the planet of Naboo to resolve a trade taxation dispute. The politically powerful Trade Federation has setup a blockade of battleships around the planet to force their position, but they are actually working with someone of ulterior motives named Darth Sidious. Viceroy Nute Gunray works on his behalf to manipulate the young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to give into their treaty, but the Jedi soon learn of the Federation’s invasion army. After surviving a battle droid attack, Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan escape to the planet’s surface where they are joined by the bumbling Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and rescue the Queen and her contingent to escape the planet. With their ship damaged, they land on the outer rim desert planet of Tatoonie where they try to barter for replacement parts, but they are soon hunted by Sidious’ apprentice Darth Maul. On this planet, Qui-Gon discovers Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave of the junk dealer Watto who has unusually strong Force abilities. Qui-Gon believes Anakin could be the one prophesized to “bring balance to the Force,” and later champions him to be trained as a Jedi. However, the Jedi Council is apprehensive about the boy’s future sensing danger and fear in him. Meanwhile, Naboo Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tries to coach the young Queen in the political matters of the Senate, and manipulates her into forcing Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) from the head of the Galactic Senate. Eventually, all things converge back on Naboo where Queen Padmé Amidala attempts an assault to end the invasion and captivity of her people, and for the Jedi to learn the truth of whether or not the Dark Lords of the Sith have returned from a millennia of extinction.
What really strikes me about this story, beyond plot holes born out of illogical actions, is that there is no central main character. With the original Star Wars, it was crystal clear that Luke Skywalker was our hero that would guide us on this journey through a galaxy far, far away. It was his arc that was mainly at play as he goes through emotional trials that would forge him into a heroic figure. I have never seen any character arcs in The Phantom Menace. No one ends up any differently from when the film began to when it ended. They don’t evolve and grow into something more than they were before. The film has no prominent focus on any one character. Looking at the saga as a whole, perhaps it should have been Obi-Wan Kenobi’s arc. The film would show an eager, young Padawan who matures from student to mentor, truly earning his stature as a Jedi by the end by facing the breadth of this adventure alone. Unfortunately, he’s left out of the meat of the story and action so much that he ultimately has little to say for himself. Ewan McGregor is an exceptional actor with a wide range of talent who could’ve carried this film quite well, as he demonstrated in the following two films. He does have flourishes of endearing charm that create some bright moments, but his potential is sadly suppressed to a minor supporting character. Earlier drafts had it where Obi-Wan actually was the one mainly involved in the story on Tatoonie, and he forms a bond with Anakin championing his path to becoming trained. That would actually follow what was stated in Return of the Jedi¸ but for whatever reason, George Lucas decided to overhaul continuity in the prequels. It is clear that the way Lucas potentially envisioned the prequels in the early 1980s was very different from how he saw them in the late 1990s.
Anakin is an even less likely main character since he doesn’t enter the story until forty minutes in, and once they’ve left Tatoonie, he becomes mostly a background character. Jake Lloyd certainly didn’t have the spark of great talent that Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg is usually able to find in his child actors. Lloyd makes Anakin almost a nuisance in the film. He can become quite annoying acting like some kid on a rollercoaster ride instead of someone of mythic potential. I would’ve anticipated a slightly more matured Anakin, despite his youth. Someone that showed not just strength with the Force, but someone with the character traits to be the “great Jedi” Obi-Wan speaks of in the original trilogy. Ultimately, Anakin never stops being the whiny annoyance he started out as until he is voiced by James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Here, not having Obi-Wan or Anakin as a main character works to the detriment of the prequels since their relationship is the linchpin of the saga.
This leads us over to Qui-Gon Jinn. I really have a generous amount of respect for Liam Neeson. He always does admirable work, and I have enjoyed his wave of action thriller successes in recent years. With Qui-Gon, it’s hard to say much about him. He’s stoic and little else. There are brief, light touches of heart, but they lack substantial depth to be impactful. Knowing Lucas’ direction style, I would definitely have to say that Neeson wasn’t given the proper direction to breathe appropriate life into the character. Given the right context and perspective on Qui-Gon, I believe Neeson could have brought more depth to him. Qui-Gon is the mentor, and I suppose he is meant to act as some form of main protagonist, but there’s not enough bold dimension in the characterization for him to standout amongst the blandness of the film.
Another amazing actor that occasionally comes off like a dull wooden board is Natalie Portman. Anyone who has seen Léon (aka The Professional) knows that Natalie has had a wealth of stunning acting ability from an early age, and that talent has continued to flourish to this day. She is one of the finest actresses around, and has been so for a long time. She could’ve done so many impressive things with Amidala had she just been given something of substance to work with. Instead, it’s all dry political ramblings that never give Portman an opportunity to break out and show some character depth. There’s a little of that in her scenes with Anakin where the humanity of the character surfaces, but that’s not in the forefront of the picture. It’s definitely there to lay the groundwork for the following two films where Anakin and Padmé develop a relationship, but outside of that, she seems almost robotic. As the Queen, her line deliveries are entirely monotone, reflecting no humanity, concern, worry, or urgency. I believe some of her dialogue was overdubbed by another actress due to Lucas’ intention to maintain the ruse of the bodyguard decoy scenario. As Padmé, Portman does have more natural warmth, but I know she’s capable of much more than what I saw here.
George Lucas is not an actor’s director, and that tends to be his biggest failing. I think he’s a great producer. He manages all aspects of production with confidence, decisiveness, and skill, but he just doesn’t know how to bring greatness out his actors. An actor brings their own talent to the table, but it is the director’s job to focus and filter that talent into a unique performance. Without that, an actor has no guidance to know what to put into their character. George’s writing also leaves something to be desired. Sometimes, you get a Harrison Ford who just gets it right from the start because the character practically wrote itself, but for potentially more complex roles, it needs more on the page. You can’t expect every actor to simply see more than what’s written. It requires the director’s input to make it more than that, but Lucas simply doesn’t know how to approach those interactions.
However, the one actor who really shows something of substance and nuance is Ian McDiarmid. While the story follows no reason or logic with the schemes of Palpatine / Sidious, McDiarmid captures a subtle subversive quality that makes him intriguing. While the film never blatantly states it, the two are one in the same, and McDiarmid clearly integrates that into how he plays Palpatine. He’s a man with sinister motives playing out in the back of his mind while keeping up the friendly personae of Senator, observing and manipulating people and events to achieve his goals. McDiarmid brings Palpatine’s ominous perspective into his performance adding the right touches of restraint and foreboding malevolence to draw in an audience’s attention. You can see in McDiarmid’s subtle expressions the moments where Palpatine’s plan is coming together, and he relishes it with silent restraint. Conversely, as Darth Sidious, McDiarmid captures a straight up villainous and intelligent performance that is quite unsettling. As the prequels went on, Ian surely delved wholly into the character playing up the feigned sincerity nicely, and having a broader canvas to work with than others were given latitude to do.
Now, the original trilogy were groundbreaking films in special effects that revolutionized the industry. That’s a big reputation to live up to, and the success here is a little mixed. This was 1999, the same year The Matrix was released, and while I’m no major fan of that film, it’s achievements in digital effects were more consistent and eye opening than The Phantom Menace. It’s difficult to be entirely fair since the DVD transfer of Episode I is not the best. The film comes off a little too grainy to grasp the clarity of the visual effects, and it has this odd pinkish hue. Generally, the visual effects are quite good for 1999, but the leaps and bounds taken in CGI evolution would allow the following two prequels to be vastly superior in that area. So, in comparison, The Phantom Menace looks a little undercooked in the visual effects realm. It’s not a constant, but as I said, it is a mixed bag. Most stuff is great, but some things just lack detail and depth. Many of the hover tanks in the Gungan-Droid battle often look like an animatic or something from an old video game. I would hope that these issues would be resolved with the Blu Ray and 3D releases, but Lucas doesn’t always fix what you think he will. On the positive side, many of the computer generated characters are impressively detailed, creating very finely textured creations. While Jar Jar is an insufferable character that grates on my nerves incessantly, visually, he is an amazing achievement. If he had been as good of a character as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, maybe people could give more credit to the CGI work put into him.
Production design here is quite impressive. Naboo is certainly a world with a lot of culture and sophistication, and that comes out in the architecture and their design of technology. The capital city of Theed is exceptionally picturesque partly due to the location shooting in Caserta, Italy. Coruscant entirely captures the intended scope and scale that Lucas always wanted for Star Wars. There is an inevitable Blade Runner influence here, but instead of smog, rain, and industrialism bearing down upon the environment, Coruscant is a perfectly wondrous planet that stands as a beacon for the entire Republic. However, I can’t say I care much for anything surrounding the Gungans. Every element of them just seems to pander to the child audience. It is sufficiently alien, but there’s just too much of a cartoonish element to all of it to accept it as anything but child oriented. There is nothing about them that I can take seriously in their culture, characterizations, or dialogue.
Focusing more on the story itself, I find it quite dull and illogical. I could probably write, at least, ten pages worth of criticism about the plot holes in this film, but let me dig into what’s most annoying to my intellect. The actions that different characters take have no sense to them. Darth Sidious orders his minions along a certain course of action that should lead to the opposite outcome for himself, but because all the characters apparently just read the script so that they can follow along an illogical course of action, it all works out right in the end. Sidious wants the Trade Federation to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty making their blockade legal to the point of invading the planet, but if they had succeeded in doing so, Palpatine could not have achieved placing himself as the head of the Galactic Senate. Palpatine could not have foreseen all these plans going awry where the Jedi Ambassadors survive the Federation’s assassination attempt, escape to the planet, run into Jar Jar, make a deal with the Gungans for passage through the planet core to arrive in Theed just in time to rescue the Queen, and escape the planet through the blockade of battleships so that Amidala could reach Coruscant to ask for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. That is an impossible series of events to foresee or predict when your plan is clearly setup to kill the Jedi and keep Amidala locked up in a prison camp while keeping the Senate blind to what’s really happening on Naboo. My only conclusion that allows this to make any sense is that Palpatine and Sidious are split personalities with conflicting motives intent on screwing each other over like a pair of warring siblings. Obviously, that’s not the truth of the matter, but I can’t find a rational stream of consciousness to resolve this issue. If Palpatine was playing both sides, pretending to help the Trade Federation as Sidious while actually focusing his success on Queen Amidala’s side so that he can ultimately seize control of the Senate, that would’ve worked brilliantly. He would really use the Trade Federation as ignorant pawns who were always meant to fail for Palpatine’s further success. He would get them to setup the blockade, but then, sabotage their plans from the inside out so that Amidala can easily escape to Coruscant and set the political stage for Palpatine to ascend to Supreme Chancellor. Instead, every action Palpatine initiates is towards the ends of supporting the success of the blockade. Sending Darth Maul to hunt down and attempt to kill the Jedi and drag the Queen back to Naboo to get the treaty signed is entirely counteractive to Palpatine’s endgame. And this is the entire plot of the movie!
Other plot holes arise from the need of Lucas to make the characters dumb as a post so they make moronic decisions that move the so-called plot forward. A single vote of no confidence from one representative of one planet out of thousands of governments, star systems, and planets immediately usurps Chancellor Valorum from office, and forces a new Supreme Chancellor to be voted into service. I always say that the system works, it’s just the people within it that make it suck. Here, the system sucks, and the people within it are stupid. I can’t imagine how a government body like this could actually function if all it takes is for one person to voice their loss of confidence in its leadership. You’d be voting in a new Chancellor every week. Worse yet, this is not the last time this ridiculous plot device will rear its ugly head.
Further ridiculousness comes on Tatoonie as Qui-Gon goes to one dealer to find the parts they need, and then, since that dealer, Watto, won’t accept Republic currency, Qui-Gon simply gives up trying to locate the parts elsewhere. Just because Watto says no one else would have these parts doesn’t make it true. I wouldn’t trust Watto to be an honest businessman for a nanosecond, especially when he has a young boy and his mother as slaves with explosive devices implanted in them. He’s clearly not moral or ethical. So, why trust him to be an altruistic salesman? Qui-Gon could’ve attempted to charter passage off Tatoonie like the elder Obi-Wan and Luke did in the original Star Wars, but again, the script requires the characters to be intellectually stunted so that the incoherent plotline can be furthered. Because of this, all cunning and ingenuity that could’ve been injected into these characters to make them smart and innovative in tight situations is discarded. These brain dead moments happen again and again and again in nearly every scene. I have seen hundreds of films, and many bad, horrible piles of cinematic trash. However, I can’t recall experiencing a film with such a shoddy script with dozens upon dozens of plot holes that mutilate all common sense from its pages. It’s not like the plot is that interesting to really sacrifice intelligence for it.
I also have to say that Anakin Skywalker being the creator of C-3PO was ridiculous. It adds nothing to anything in the saga, and is a pure fan service addition that, again, has no intelligent thought behind it. A protocol droid is good for language translation and little else. Shmi Skywalker has no practical use for such a droid, and I don’t know how anyone could believe otherwise. And the fact that he builds the exact same droid that is mass produced throughout the galaxy seems stupid. A real world allegory is that when people build their own custom personal computers, they don’t go constructing exact replicas of something they could’ve bought at Best Buy. They customize it to their needs so it is a optimal tool for the work they need to do. If Anakin had any ingenuity, he would’ve built something entirely original that could assist his mother with daily chores. A protocol droid is not designed for manual labor.
Of course, I also have to address the sad attempt at humor in this film. You see, in the original trilogy, the humor really arose from conflicting personalities and witty banter in heightened situations. It could be a little immature, but Han Solo was a little immature at times and Luke was on a journey to maturity. So, it fit the personalities of the characters. Here, the supposed humor is so blatant and in your face, it’s not funny. It’s like a bad stand-up comic trying too hard for a laugh through cheap physical comedy. Jar Jar is here only for stupid comedic antics. Yes, he is a conduit for certain plot developments, but this film already demonstrated that logic holds no substance here, so, I’m a little surprised he has any plot related function at all. Everything he does is clumsy slapstick humor which couldn’t be more out of place for this saga. Star Wars was originally created with the idea of bringing mythology into the modern era as adventurous films for the whole family. I’m sure poop and fart jokes were not part of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, a book of mythological archetypes that heavily inspired Lucas. It really is sad how far George had degraded his standards for entertainment here. He went from creating a fantastical world of colorful, iconic characters and thematic mythology-inspired stories to a world of flat, dull, lifeless characters that are devoid of intelligence and humanity in ass-backwards stories that follow no reason or logic.
Despite all this, people still thought there was something cool and awesome to be had in this movie in the form of Darth Maul. I respect Ray Park’s athletic talents immensely, but it is only that mixed with a very stunning character design that makes Maul cool. He has no character. He’s a plot device to make a few action sequences dynamic. He’s a henchmen with nothing to say for himself, and nothing of substance to add to the story. Maul exists because Sidious needs a competent ally to go out into the field and do his dirty work him. Yes, he makes himself intriguing through an air of mystique, but frankly, as soon as he departs the film, none of it matters. He’s a disposable villain whose loss makes no impact on the story because he never added anything to it. This is different from Boba Fett who had a cunning role in The Empire Strikes Back by outsmarting Captain Solo’s escape plan, and actually had something to say for himself that reflected a sense of character, personality, and attitude.
The action sequences are a little mixed, but mostly excellent. All the lightsaber battles are amazing! The choreography of these segments show what fully trained Jedi could do, and what a fully capable Dark Lord of the Sith could accomplish. They are dynamic and exciting, but they can seem a little too choreographed at times. I see many behind the scenes featurettes on action movies where they strive to maintain a spontaneity to their fight choreography. While it is all well rehearsed, the choreographers, stunt performers, and actors focus on keeping it real in the moment. They inject character and emotion into those moments so it never looks to be so ‘by the numbers.’ The lightsaber battles can tend to come off like a dance instead of a physically intense series of actions and counteractions where a single error could cause doom. It lacks emotion and danger. It also lacks a psychological aspect due to the absence of dialogue. Before, there would be Darth Vader or later Dooku trying to play mind games through cunning dialogue and strategic intimidation. They would try to put their Jedi opponents off-guard this way, and it made for a more multi-dimensional fight.
Meanwhile, the space battles are okay. There are very few of them, and none of them really capture that urgent speed and suspense that most others in the saga have offered. The climax ultimately gets sliced up too thin between four interconnected action sequences to really give enough coherent importance to more than one. That being the Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel, and it’s the least consequential fight of the film since there’s nothing at stake between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul. Regardless, its speed and physical intensity give it the rousing action sensation that was needed in more abundance here. The film starts so slowly and flatly laying out plot elements and briefly introducing a few characters while pouring out redundant dialogue that there’s not enough momentum to keep the film going. It has a consistent pace, but that pace is a bit too sluggish here without anything of importance happening. A methodical pace is workable when, like in The Empire Strikes Back, you are getting character development. The Phantom Menace has no substantive character development. Anything you learn of them is really surface stuff, very one dimensional insights.
The Gungan-Droid battle is uninteresting to me since I don’t care about the Gungans or the Droid Army. It also comes off highly cartoonish and pathetically unfunny. I wish like hell there was a way to excise this from the film, but Lucas himself realized that plot elements were too interwoven to do such a thing. Another frivolous action sequence is the pod race. It’s gratuitous in my eyes. Theatrical or DVD cut, it’s far too long for such a minor element in the story. This is not some sports movie where the entire film builds up to this critical sequence where everything is laid on the line, and all character, story, and emotional threads tie into it to make it pivotal and crucial. Yes, it determines whether Anakin goes free or not, but Qui-Gon had already well demonstrated how much he was willing to cheat and manipulate events to get what he wanted. I have no doubt that he would’ve done something unethical to free Anakin even if he had lost the race. Simply said, the pod race overstays its welcome, and once it is done, it has no further relevance to the film. Never has such a fast paced sequence slowed down a film so much.
On the brighter side, as is always a highlight that elevates the quality of any movie is John Williams’ score. “Duel of the Fates” still is a brilliant, operatic piece that gives the climax a sweeping, epic majesty. It was a perfect composition that has always marked what I call, “where the movie really begins.” The only thing the score lacks is due to the lack of it in the picture is rousing adventure. The action sequences are few and far between, and so, it requires the score to be more in the background instead of crashing into the surround sound with heart soaring excitement. Regardless, I own two versions of the CD soundtrack including the two disc ultimate edition, and it is a fantastic listen. So, I give it high marks all around.
The only other thing to address are the midichlorians. You see, the Force used to be something entirely spiritual where it required great commitment and discipline to master. It’s a power anyone can tap into it if they are willing to open their minds and trust in it fully. Yoda spoke to this perfectly in The Empire Strikes Back in that the Force doesn’t rely on the physical. It’s all about the character of the person which determines how great of a Jedi they could become. Now, George Lucas tells us that everyone’s ability to use the Force is based on how many of these microscopic organisms are present in your bloodstream. This means you are biologically limited to how potent of a Force user you can be, and you can never become anything greater than that. No amount of spiritual strength or Jedi training you go through will make you as good as someone with more midichlorians in their body. That entirely crushes the sensibility the Force was originally built upon, and that is another terrible idea injected into a film already ripe with terrible ideas. Before, it was an inspiring idea and philosophy that added a fantastical quality to Star Wars that captured and enthralled peoples’ imaginations. Now, it’s cold science. Just like how I don’t need to know where immortals came from in Highlander, I don’t need to know the clinical origins of the Force. Magic is magic, and that’s all I need to know. And the fact that Lucas uses these midichlorians to say that Anakin Skywalker is the result of a virgin birth created by the midichlorians themselves is just a smack in the face to me. There was never any need to inject such an idea into the saga, and it has extremely little relevance to anything. It is only ever mentioned again in Revenge of the Sith by Palpatine, and it’s practically glossed over entirely by Anakin in that same scene. I suppose it’s meant to give Anakin a more mythic or prophetic aura around him that neither Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christiansen ever remotely live up to. While I’ve never had an overt issue with the whole “prophecy” aspect, it is another idea that Lucas developed exclusively for the prequels. This revisionist mentality is no surprise to anyone now, but frankly, it gets to being a bit aggravating in the prequels as George keeps altering the original trilogy to accommodate it.
That’s really the perils of making prequels. How do you introduce something new to the story that hasn’t already been said without betraying what has already been established? It is not impossible, especially considering Ben Kenobi’s line about “a certain point of view.” There are many things Lucas could’ve altered that could still be true if looked at from a different perspective, but nothing about prophecies, midichlorians, Qui-Gon (not Obi-Wan) discovering Anakin, or anything else can be taken in that way.
As I said, I could go on and on about the flaws and failures of this film that bother me, but this has already been an obscenely long review as it is. Still, it feels like I’ve only barely scratched the surface of it all. There are people who think we just don’t “get” the prequels as if we’re unable to accept them for what they are, and that’s why we rag on them. The truth is that we are fans who just expect a product with a little thought, care, and integrity be put into it. A plot that makes sense with smart, entertaining characters. Frankly, that is not difficult to deliver, but somehow, George Lucas failed on all fronts. Again, I enjoyed the film upon release in 1999 because I was just in awe of the spectacle, but as I have matured, I can see beyond that to focus on how poorly conceived this film was at its most base level. I’ve said for a while now that if this was the original first Star Wars movie, it would not have sparked the same phenomena that we have enjoyed for the last 35 years. It just doesn’t have the rousing adventure aspect or lively, iconic character qualities that made Star Wars so successful in the first place. I don’t enjoy watching this movie, and I don’t believe seeing it in 3D would give it any more actual dimension or entertainment value. My reviews on the entire saga will continue as the prequels do improve beyond this point, but flaws still exist. In one case, my fondness for one prequel film will allow for some forgiveness. In the least, I believe my following reviews will be no more than half as long as this one, thankfully.