Every movie website worth its stuff needs a ranking of Star Wars films. As The Force Awakens approaches, I, like many other bloggers across the vast internet, am doing mine.
Today: The Phantom Menace.
What It Gets Right: Darth Maul, Darth Maul, and then more Darth Maul. Rarely has a movie so oft-maligned as The Phantom Menace possessed a character that has become so fixed in popular culture. Face covered in red and black, the design for Darth Maul changed everything we thought about the Sith. In the original trilogy, the Sith seemed like wizards, both cloaked in black. But Darth Maul comes at you looking every bit like a demon warrior. Ray Park played him fantastically, giving his movie-ending duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan a fatal fluidity that still looks great today.
And besides the reinvention of the Sith, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Jedi master and apprentice were an inspired bit of casting. Indeed, by throwing in Natalie Portman, the cast of The Phantom Menace is actually quite strong. The Phantom Menace finally showed Jedi at their height, making them more like superheroes than magic users. Yes, some people would later gripe about this, but the original trilogy always coined the Jedi as warriors and generals, and we finally got to see this in action.
People who complain about the high power level of the Jedi are clearly not paying attention to the film. Early on, droids run McGregor and Neeson into hiding, and the two are later forced to manipulate a race of frog (salamander?) people into helping them out. They rescue Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala, but do so mostly by sneaking around. It isn’t really until Genndy Tartakovsky’s The Clone Wars shorts that Jedi gain truly mythical power levels.
And let me put in a good word for my boy, Jar Jar, for a minute. Yeah, he’s annoying and goofy. Sure, there’s probably something to be said about his racial connotations. But without the droids really providing a lot of the comic relief in this film, Jar Jar can be a welcome presence at times, if not at *all* times. Maybe that’s a knock on George Lucas in a backhanded sort of fashion, but it need not necessarily be.
Where It Went Wrong: I walked out of The Phantom Menace really excited about it. I then went and saw it three more times. The thing that really began to stick out in my mind as troublesome? The podrace sequence. A lot of people like it. It was a huge part of the branding of the movie. But the concept of it is silly. A young boy is going to race – and must win – in order for our heroes to move along? Even Padme thought this was a dumb idea, but George Lucas only gives us a (shrug) “trust me” response from Qui-Gon. If the podrace was meant to show us Anakin’s might with the Force, it does a poor job. Instead, it speaks to perhaps how crafty and constructive young Anakin is, a trait which is not developed in the two sequels in this film. The Force, though, does not show up here the way it does in the Death Star trench.
The entire character of Anakin is mishandled in this film. Showing him at a very young age does nothing to deepen his character. If the idea is to show us his young innocence, well, they ruin that by having him battle an also-young Greedo after the race (and geez is Greedo old then when Han finally shoots him – unless Rodians age slowly). Trying to start a romance between Anakin and Padme is clunky when it feels like we’re watching “To Catch A Predator” in space. This really hinders the series as a whole, also, because Attack of the Clones has to play catch up in the relationship-building department (and does so poorly). As many have said, a teenaged Anakin Skywalker in this film would’ve improved the flow between films immensely and provided better story opportunities. A child Anakin luckily destroying the Trade Federation Droid Control Ship isn’t nearly as riveting as a teenage Anakin flying in, a la Millennium Falcon in the second Death Star, and blowing the thing to hell. A teenage Anakin would have also echoed Luke’s journey when the Jedi Council tells him he’s too old to train and spiced up the implied rivalry between Obi-Wan and Anakin throughout the film.
A boring premise for the conflict in the film and midichlorians also stick out as poor choices (particularly as George Lucas would come out later and see he was worried that Disney might “over-complicate” the Force). But, unlike Attack of the Clones and even Revenge of the Sith, we don’t get too much CGI. There are still a lot of practical effects and sets to feast your eyes upon, a reason that perhaps The Phantom Menace has aged more gracefully than Attack of the Clones.
In Summary: There’s an okay space battle to end the film, but without a major character really involved (I’m not counting you, baby Anakin), it’s not as dramatic. But with a fun underwater creature scene, a take-charge heroine, and a look at new corners of the galaxy, The Phantom Menace is a pretty good Star Wars tale. Its legacy, as well, has grown in the intervening years, particularly as its characters (Darth Maul, Qui-Gon) have become more entrenched in Star Wars lore. It’s a film I don’t make a point to watch regularly, but it’s also not the embarrassment people made it out to be circa 1999.
Our Score: B-
Rotten Tomatoes: 56% | IMDB: 6.5 | Metacritic: 51