REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”

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It’s the 20th anniversary of the first film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It landed in theaters on May 19, 1999 and fans still debate them today. What better time than now to rewatch and finally review these three fascinating movies.

There is perhaps no better monument to geekdom than the Star Wars franchise. Sure, Marvel’s MCU may have something to say about that, but it was George Lucas’ sprawling epic and personal cash cow that first leapt outside the bounds of movies and into television, novels, comic book series, and tons more. That doesn’t even count the loads of money brought in through toys and other merchandise. You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to appreciated Lucas’ monumental accomplishment starting back in 1977. “A New Hope” was ground-breaking in regards to its visual style and special effects. The film spawned two intensely popular sequels, “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. But you already know that.

A jolt hit the Star Wars community in 1993 when Lucas announced he would be making a new trilogy, a prequel to the original three films. They would connect directly to the original trilogy and complete Lucas’ vision for the saga. In 1999, “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released and I’m not sure any movie has ever released featuring more hype and scrutiny. Fanboys and critics alike looked for cracks and flaws in characterizations and continuity. And rarely did it escape comparisons to the original trilogy. This made judging Episode 1 on its own merits nearly impossible. But Episode 1 had a lot on its plate and while it may be among the weaker Star Wars pictures, after revisiting it yet again I found myself once again caught up in this universe I have always loved.

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Since Lucas’ intent was to connect the two trilogies into one cohesive saga, I was always curious to see how he would begin his tale. In Episode I, Lucas sets everything in motion by focusing on (of all things) politics as the biggest weapon of manipulation. It’s politics that is first used to kickstart the tragic events that we all know will unfold. Lucas also showcases the Jedi in their prime. We spend most of the time with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they go from political negotiators to planet liberators. A young Natalie Portman plays a Naboo queen who has a major impact on future events. Another key part of the film is the introduction to Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd), a young child slave on Tatooine who we know later becomes Darth Vader. Lucas’ focus on Anakin in the first three films ends up reshaping the actual focus of the overall saga, and for my money in a good way.

As a whole, the structure of “The Phantom Menace” is pretty impressive. It was a daunting task to make three films that could directly connect to the beloved original trilogy and do so in a way that’s cohesive and that survives the mythological scrutiny from fans. Episode I does a nice job of putting its key characters in place while only occasionally getting bogged down in its first half table-setting. Rewatching it I was surprised by the narrative layers and interesting world-building. I like the political unpinning and see it as often undervalued and underappreciated.

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To no surprise several new characters are introduced. Some of them work really well while others, not so much. The dislike of Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) has been well documented and understandable. Lucas overplays his hand by making the character nothing more than comic relief. Every scene and every line of dialogue seems aimed at nothing more than generating silly laughs. The result is an annoying and often distracting presence. On the flip side is the sinister Darth Maul, physically played by Ray Park and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz. Not only is he one of the coolest and most fercious looking Star Wars characters ever but his lightsaber fight with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon remains a highlight for the entire franchise.

With “The Phantom Menace” Lucas clearly wanted to show off the benefits of the new technology available to him. In many ways it’s a good thing but in other ways it works against the film. There are instances where the movie becomes a barrage of “watch this” CGI moments. There are several scenes that could have easily been left out and the film would have been better for it. But there are also scenes where the special effects present Star Wars in a dazzling new light. The pod race on Tatooine is breath-taking and the space sequences are amazing. Most of the CGI characters share the space well with human actors and fit flawlessly into their environments. It’s certainly a visual step up in many regards but at times a bit overkill (something that becomes clearer in the next film).

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And you can’t talk Episode I without mentioning the return of composer John Williams. He delivers yet another incredible score full of call-backs to the original trilogy and with new music that blends beautifully with the old.

“The Phantom Menace” has always been a satisfying Star Wars installment for me and nothing changed during my rewatch. It opens itself up to criticism through some shaky creative choices while other popular gripes don’t hold water (sorry, but I still don’t find Jake Lloyd insufferable). Most importantly it lays some intriguing groundwork, sparks more conversation between the Star Wars faithful, and offers a return to the magical universe I’ve loved since childhood. It may be flawed but it does what’s most important – it looks, sounds, and feels like a Star Wars picture.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

15 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”

  1. I’ve re-watched this one a few times but you like this one far more than I . Although I do not hate it or dislike it , I just think Lucas often shot himself in the foot at times with the clunky dialogue , the introduction of the of the concept of midichlorians which contradicts Obi-Wan in the originals movies and a few other issues that I wont go on about .
    Even Jar Jar doesn’t bother me as much as I first remembered . As to Jake Lloyd , I really didn’t like him at all and have not changed my mind . Nothing against the young man personally but he can’t act , Lucas should have called Spielberg and got his help in casting because in general Spielberg finds amazing child actors . Plus I always thought he should have been older as well .
    The fight scenes were excellent and Darth Maul was under used in my view . I liked Ewan Mcgregor and Neeson as well . I also did like the political intrigued to a point but found it was a bit much at times .
    Bottom line this was a huge disappointment at the time for me .While I can watch them now with a bit more of a relaxed attitude , I just always think they could have been so much better . For me this one is a 5.5 .

    • A lot of people share your feelings. I think where I disagree the strongest with most is on Lloyd. I found him to be very convincing, cute but not to the point of obnoxious. I think it’s the dialogue that does him in during a few scenes.

      Jar-Jar’s major annoyance is in the fact that he is NEVER serious. Not even accidentally. Lucas never pumped the breaks with the character (as he did in his few scenes in Ep.2, but that comes tomorrow). While I can tolerate him, he was an eye-rolling presence.

      The midichlorians were confusing then and remain so now. I don’t put much into them simply because the explanation for them is so vague.

  2. The star wars toys were really such a joy. As for Phantom Menace, it was definitely another type of Star Wars movie because it’s story was more political instead of adventurous. But looking back, am beginning to realize that the P menace CGI is its most unfavorable factor. it looks too much like a computer illusion. nevertheless I enjoyed the movie but not like Empire or Return.

    • It definitely lacks the allure of the original trilogy for me too. But I’m amazed at how well the entire franchise works for me especially after going through every film again so close together.

      As for the toys…oooooh let me tell you. I had (almost) everything growing up in the 80s. So many action figures, Han’s Blaster, a huge At-AT walker, a tie-fighter, the Vader carrying case, etc. etc. etc. And thats not counting the PJs, books, battery-powered lightsaber. and so on.

      • yeah this franchise is still the best I think. at least among the blockbusters. a close second would be Nolans Batmans. What franchise do you think is the most entertaining?

        Some of the bigger toys were a bit expensive to afford, at least where im from, but I was fortunate to have an AT AT, snow speeder and a Ton Ton(unsure of the spelling) . I also had that Vader case and really enjoyed placing the name labels on each characters space.

      • I will always be a Star Wars guy. I love Nolan’s Batman films but it’s hard to really compare it. Personally I adore Star Wars.

  3. I’ll re-watch it though the stuff with Jar-Jar is still awful and the fact that the film’s opening text starts off over a tax dispute. You lose your audience immediately over that. Some of the visual effects I think don’t hold up and it also felt dumb at times. Yet, I’ll take it over Attack of the Clones which I think was much worse due to Hayden Christensen’s performance and the over-reliance of CGI.

    • I really like the political flavor to the whole thing. As I wrote, the fact that politics was the key method of manipulation was interesting. And to be honest I didn’t expect the special effects to hold up as well as they do especially considering it’s twenty years old. Definitely made a huge impact on how visual effects are done today.

  4. I personally liked Episode I. Of course, like many out there, I didn’t like Jar Jar Binks and felt that the movie was a bit slow (though not as slow as Episode II). Still, I like the political intrigue about the film, the score was great, and the duel with Darth Maul was excellent.

    • Yes! Great to hear. For me there is so much to like about Episode I and the prequels in general that it’s pretty easy for me to recognize but forgive the missteps. That’s mainly because they still feel so much like Star Wars movies (if that makes sense).

  5. Wow, you’ve been very generous! I never liked this movie, I must admit, but above all I hated the 100% CGI effects. I prefer the practical special effects of the original trilogy without a doubt!

    • For sure. I am a practical effects guy myself. I think now I have just grown so accustomed to CGI. I think there are times here where it looks absolutely amazing. But there is definitely overkill, which I talk about more in my review of episode II

  6. The disappointment with this film was one of the few times in a cinema I’ve felt an entire audience seethe; by the time the podrace kicked in most people had given up on Phantom Menace’s bewildering trade disputes and acutely dire “young Anakin” plot – poor Jake Lloyd could be forgiven a lot, but George Lucas roundly ruined that poor kid’s life as a result of his inept handling of the script. Frankly, Lucas is a masterful visualist, but a director of character and/or development he is oblivious to subtlety and nuance. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor hold this whole thing together, and the relationship between a prepubescent Anakin and Natalie Portman’s aggrieved Amidala is icky in every possible sense. These two are supposed to fall in love with each other?

    On the plus side: we get John Williams’ score (brilliant) and some quite cool visual effects (the podrace remains a demo-worthy scene to this day) but the plot and story could have been covered in about three minutes of exposition in Attack Of The Clones or something. There’s no way such a flimsy story could flesh out an entire feature.

    • It’s funny, our points of view on the story couldn’t be more different. I never had a problem with the trade disputes and actually love how they lead into Palpatine’s greatest manipulative weapon – politics. I also knew it was the first film of a trilogy so checking out that early just didn’t make sense to me. And after seeing them all together, I love the political through-line.

      And I sure wouldn’t blame Lucas’ script for ruining a kid’s life even if I did think it was terrible. I’m a die-hard SW guy but I would put far more blame on the actions of some of the “fans”. They were pretty terrible to the kid which is something we’ve seen elsewhere. They did the same thing with Ahmed Best and Kelly Tran.

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