Retro Review: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

By: Bryan Montgomery
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_ver2Let’s take a trip back to 1998. Moviegoers filing in and out of theaters merely 15 minutes after a film’s supposed show time, returning to the same theater several times, buying a ticket, then leaving the theater after the previews ran. Was it because they didn’t want to enjoy the Will Smith classic Wild Wild West? Was it due to a last minute errand or chore?

Possibly, but the phenomenon that took over the world in late 1998 to mid-1999 was the premiere of the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. George Lucas’ return to the director chair was one of the most anticipated movies in history, but the end result unfortunately falls far short of expectations, especially as the film nears its 16-year anniversary.

Darth Maul is the star of this film. A vicious, mysterious Sith warrior with one of the coolest weapons in the history of the franchise, Maul is the driving force throughout and rightfully so. A lot of the appeal when first watching this movie was a look inside a world that had never been seen before; the Star Wars universe when the Jedi were actually around to bring peace and order to the galaxy. Throwing in a unique Sith warrior with a unique weapon helped break any

The shortfall of this movie is simple. NOTHING REALLY HAPPENS. The death of Qui-Gon Jinn, granted that’s big, so is the acquisition of Anakin, but besides that, what did you spend two hours watching? Palpatine ascends to the role of Chancellor, an obvious stepping-stone since he eventually becomes the Emperor. Boss Nass and the Naboo find peace and stop the Trade Federation from invading the planet. Guess who is back in AOTC with a vengeance, funding an entire droid army.

So essentially, the rest of the series considered, you can skip the first hour, watch the pod race and Padme’s awkward flirting with a nine year old, skip any scene not involving the lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul and you’re pretty much caught up.

This was bound to happen to the movie 16 years after its original release; the fact that there have been so many gripes about the prequel trilogy, many of which resort to this original film. However, in the defense of Episode I, the anticipation meter was so far off the charts that it was essentially set-up for failure.

For many, the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks and the Trade Federation exemplified the failure of the prequel trilogy. For others, the elongated scenes at the senate and the political undercurrent of the film was the final straw that ruined all fond memories of their childhood.   Another major gripe surrounds the explanation of “The Force”, bringing the otherworldly force down to a scientific explanation did little to return interest to the film that was quickly spinning out of control.

Positive aspects of the film exist, such as Ewan McGregor’s handling of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Star Wars fans knew Obi-Wan as a wise old man and a Jedi pariah in the original trilogy, but in Episode I McGregor adds numerous degrees of depth to the famous character, showing him young, brash, and most importantly, emotional. There are still issues with Obi-Wan’s character, as you will see in “Monty’s Gripes”, but for the most part it was good to see Old Ben in a different light.

This comes through in droves during the final bout between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul, a scene in the film that instantly changed fans’ perceptions towards what a lightsaber fight should look like and is one of few shining moments in The Phantom Menace.

The final battle of Naboo is easily the best act of the Battle of Naboo, and was actually a well-directed piece of action by Lucas. Having essentially four battle scenes going on, all with different components, at the same time was an interesting way to finish the opening installment, a task that not even Return of the Jedi could mimic. The mantra for the prequel trilogy quickly became style over substance, evidenced by this final battle, but seeing mindless and faceless armies slug it out, even with the Jar Jar Binks hijinks, was pretty cool.

Although Hayden Christensen did his best to out-do Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, ultimately succeeding, the charm of Lloyd’s turn as the future Sith lord gets more unbearable to watch during every viewing of The Phantom Menace. This is no fault of Lloyd, of course, the blame is, and rightfully should be, placed on the shoulders of Lucas for writing a half-hearted script and failing to make the Anakin character. With the amount of talent on this cast, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Kiera Knightley, there was a very low possibility that Jake Lloyd would exit the movie in any positive light.

In all, The Phantom Menace lost all luster within five years of its release. Especially once Revenge of the Sith premiered, many fans ranked either The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones at the bottom of the pile, and rightfully so. Trading in the magic from the original trilogy for bureaucracy, special effects and a story without much emphasis holds The Phantom Menace back from being a strong entry into the franchise. There’s a reason why the Star Wars machete order skips over Episode I. Watch for the lightsaber battles with Darth Maul, but that’s about it.

MONTY’S GRIPES

  • Did Lucas try to make Obi-Wan seem like an immature Padawan in order to drive home the imbalance that would occur between Kenobi and Skywalker down the road? Because Kenobi pulls a complete 180 from TPM to AOTC. Watching it yesterday, I realized that Obi-Wan is about eighteen seconds from complaining on his inability to go to Tashi Station.
  • The 90 second-battle between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan is still my favorite lightsaber battle of the prequel trilogy. The Obi-Wan and Anakin duel gets points on the epic scale, but this fight was perfectly choreographed and shot.
  • If Disney re-introduces Gungans in The Force Awakens, I’m walking out of the theater.
  • Anyone that can name all the podracers that either crash or die during the race needs to go outside.
  • The older I get, the creepier Padme’s “I care for you” line gets when directed towards Anakin.
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