- Written and Directed by George Lucas
- May 16, 1999 (LA) / May 19, 1999 (US)
Two Jedi, after negotiations over a blockade of the planet Naboo end disastrously, find a young child on Tatooine who may bring balance to the Force but also uncover the return of the evil Sith.
Of all the prequel films this is my least favorite but I’m pretty sure most everyone else falls into that category as well. Then again unlike most everyone else I feel that even the worst Star Wars film is better than 99% of anything else out there. And I am including the Ewok movies in that mix! Star Wars as a fictional universe is fun and exciting. It’s last minute saves and epic action with the highest of stakes not only for the characters but quite often the galaxy.
I’m not sure if we need to go this far back and get a complete origin for Darth Vader. We get informed about his immaculate conception too! I personally would’ve preferred it if the first film of this sequel trilogy was Attack of the Clones with the second being Revenge of the Sith and the third would be us fans watching Darth Vader go through the galaxy and slaughter assorted Jedi not killed by Order 66. Imagine a whole movie where Darth Vader goes and kills Jedi? But this is what we got.
Everybody does well in this movie other than Jake Lloyd as a young Anakin Skywalker before his time as Darth Vader. Lloyd has the right look but he’s just too stiff. And each line is delivered like a complaint. He is a whiny brat and not a good kid that eventually goes bad.
Performance aside, one thing that did not do the actor or the character any favors was the finale of the film. There’s plenty of action and plenty of excitement but the destruction of the Trade Federation ship added up to “Oops!” Everything occurred rather by accident. I know there is an implication early on that Anakin was strongly guided by the Force but that did not come through that well. Though he did his first taste of mass murder by destroying it though.
That pod racing scene though was absolutely fantastic. Essentially space NASCAR! Just pure adrenaline and fun science fiction. It was a wild balls to the wall scene with nods to various aspects of Star Wars of the time.
I remember going into this nervous at the recasting of Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s one thing to re-cast a character in a TV show (and sometimes I’ve been cool with that) but it’s a whole other to recast a part in a movie series. That is very dicey. If a character is good enough to be in multiple films played by the same performer, it is difficult to replicate that magic with someone new.
In what is probably an extremely rare moment in casting history, Ewan McGregor not only took over the role but became more identified with it more than Sir Alex Guinness ever did. His Obi-Wan here is not only filled with youthful energy but with hints wisdom as well how the character will be. You can see the character thread from Guinness in the part to McGregor in the part. He made Obi-Wan not only his own but did so in a way that connected to the performance of his predecessor.
And best of all we get to see Ian McDiarmid return as Senator Palpatine. For me that was a real treat as he was so very good in the part in Jedi. He’s all manipulative and political maneuvering which is a bit of a switch from previous Star Wars which was much more space opera and space action. Palpatine is charming and possibly even caring as a politician but not so beyond keeping his personal goals in mind. His caring perhaps is very superficial.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace introduced in this movie The Rule of Two for the Sith-a master and an apprentice. No more no less. Outside material (then canonical and now legendary) would explain this as a way developed by the Sith to keep them from destroying themselves whenever they rose up.
Darth Maul (Ray Park performance/Peter Serafinowicz voice). Quite possibly one of the best one-off Star Wars villains ever. So good that they had to resurrect him for Clone Wars where he was even better. Not only does he look cool, but he is cool. Maul says very little and became much more talkative after this movie. The performance is just evil and menace throughout. He comes on the screen and he is threatening and sinister. And the double-bladed lightsaber is just cool.
Padme Amidala. Natalie Portman did not “Wow!” me in her performance. She certainly looked the part of Luke and Leia’s mom but I was not particularly thrilled with her performance. I didn’t hate her but there was nothing so special about her performance that she was the only actor for it.
And how can you talk about this movie without mentioning Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). He was certainly not my favorite Star Wars character, but the hate generated was nonsensical. People still passionately hate on the character. I dislike him but there is such a thing as taking hate of something fictional too far and that happened here. He definitely was too much comic relief. The way he was portrayed in later media is probably how he should’ve been handled here. Goofy but not bordering on incompetent.
To this day I am a little bothered that C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are in this movie. I’m glad they’re in it but at the same time I would’ve been just fine if we had not seen them here or anywhere else in the prequel film series. Them not commenting on Anakin being Darth Vader or anything really can be explained away with the whole memory wipe concept that was established in the first film. There may be thousands of astromech and protocol droids in the galaxy by two with the same designations as two he had encountered before should have made him ask “Come again?”
For some reason I squeed a little bit with Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. He was great as a wise old sage. Perhaps that’s what made his death here so impactful for me. He was certainly set up to look as if he was going to appear in more films and his death was one big “Holy crap!” moment which I dare say had more impact than the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original.
It was cool to see Yoda (Frank Oz) again. It was nice to see him as an actual Jedi master and not some crazed green hobo living on a swamp planet. He was finally a great teacher and not some dick digging through Luke’s stuff or just yanking Luke’s chain.
We also get a brief appearance by Greedo. You could be forgiven for not knowing that it was him, but we see a very young Greedo interacting with Anakin. Not a significant moment or anything but I bring this up because there is a scene that was cut where Greedo and Anakin get in a fistfight and some dialogue is given that foreshadows Greedo’s death of the hands of Han Solo. It doesn’t really do anything for the story of The Phantom Menace, but I think it would have been a nice element to include in the final film here. It’s also an element that appears to tie into a scene where Qui-Gon Jinn is tending to a wound on Anakin’s arm.
That scene also leads up to the controversial introduction of midi-chlorians in the Star Wars universe. Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that allows people to control the Force. Quite possibly the worst development in Star Wars history. It was one of the most nonsensical things to ever come out of Star Wars and this has evil space wizards. I think all the fans were fine with The Force being space magic and not needing a biological reason.
One thing I like is, intentionally or not, they began explaining a moment from the original Star Wars film where in the cantina at Mos Eisley the bartender insists C-3PO and R2-D2 go outside of the bar because they don’t serve their kind in there. It all stems from what began in this film. After all the Trade Federation does not have a flesh and blood army but rather an army of droids. Memories of war are long-lasting.
The Phantom Menace is just fantastic space opera. It perfectly fits in with the aesthetic established in the original films. And the action is just amazing. It is just as epic feeling and adrenaline pumping and edge of your seat causing as anything in the original three films. I watched this opening day in theaters and that visceral adrenaline pumping feeling that went through me was just something else. I felt like I had when I saw the original movies. And just like the original movies I still get that feeling watching it at home all these years later.
The duel between Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul is just absolutely epic. Quite possibly one of the finest lightsaber scenes in the entire series. We will get to my absolute favorite eventually. It was a perfect example of what a lightsaber battle could be. It was a combination of sword play and Jedi magic with the perfect John Williams music.
The costuming was just fantastic. Then again I would expect nothing less from a Star Wars project. Amidala’s clothing is clearly a highlight of this and I remember it being said that her costumes were designed so that she could step out of them and it wouldn’t be noticed and they are quite impressive.
And the ships. The Trade Federation vessels in particular I must note. While they do not look like the ships featured in Empire or any of the original films you can kind of see the visual thread from them to Empire. There are just enough elements you can see the connection. This movie does a fantastic job of being visually original yet able to convey the connections here with what came later. These are new designs that are steeped in previous aesthetics.
Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace is probably the least popular of the prequel films but it’s still a strong movie. It’s entertaining and exciting and just adrenaline fueled fun from start to stop. I certainly highly suggest you check this one out!