Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Phantom Menace (1999) Review

The Phantom Menace is okay. It's definitely not great, but there are those moments when the imagination surpasses the horrid characterisation.

For example, the whole final act: the lightsaber duel, the space battle and the ground battle show just how great the movie was in the mind of its creator. People who only see Jar Jar Binks completely overlook the wonderful story at heart here.

The best thing The Phantom Menace offers is its plot. It doesn't feel like any movie I've ever seen before and in this day and age, that says a lot. In the final act, I was almost cheering along the heroes as they implemented Queen Amidala's brilliant plan to capture the Palace. Likewise, the concept of making traders the main villain of the episode(and having them not even be harmed at the conclusion) is a new concept to me. It's such a shame that the rest of the movie is... well...

The pacing of the film is probably the worst part of it(patience, Jar Jar will get his own paragraph). There's an irritating lack of any interesting action scenes throughout the film, giving it a sort of slow, sleepy feel. They talk and they talk and while I'm actually quite intrigued by the politics(when it's not being explained with the subtlety of a sledgehammer), it grinds the film to a halt.
But there is nothing worser than that pod race sequence. It just goes on forever! I used to enjoy it as a kid and again, I like the story that leads us to the race(the business deal between Watto and Qui-Gon), but the race itself is just boring and far too long. We didn't have to see all three laps, for heaven's sake.

The Phantom Menace is a very thoughtful film. Apart from the infamous taxation issues in the Senate, there's the relationship between the Naboo and the Gungans that develops once they establish their respect for one another, Qui-Gon has a very interesting character arc wherein he develops a religious faith in Anakin's destiny to bring balance to the Force(similar to Morpheus from The Matrix, which came out at the same time) which Obi-Wan is suddenly forced to inherit when his master is killed. Let us also not forget about the continuing mythologising of the Jedi that the originals referenced in A New Hope. People hate on the midichlorians(which I never understood: they make it clear that the midichlorians are not the Force, but what connects life to the Force), but they forget how the children on Tatooine view the Jedi as fairytale heroes.

It's this attention to story and of course, the special effects that is both the film's saving grace and doom. With his mind occupied, George Lucas had little time for the actors and it shows through their clumsy, unsure deliveries and general awkwardness. He's also writing dialogue like he's just trying to get it out of his way. It's only there to translate the points he wants to make, nothing else. It's very fortunate, that what he wants to translate isn't bad at all.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi proved that the best Star Wars film is one that Lucas produces and co-writes and someone else directs. That's when he's truly in his element. He's a storyteller and filmMAKER, not a director or writer.


Liam Neeson is the film's shining gem as he gives a reserved, peaceful, yet determined performance as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, the most layered character in the whole film. Though he has achieved the rank of Master and obviously has the wisdom needed for the position, Qui-Gon is still rather idealistic(several altercations with the Council are mentioned) and is smart enough to be aware of his flaws, though incapable of changing himself. This leads to one of the nicest moments in the film as Qui-Gon praises his headstrong, pragmatic Padawan and predicts he will become a great Jedi.

Ewan McGregor's first showing as Obi-Wan Kenobi leaves me surprisingly cold. It's not that he's bad, but he doesn't generate much emotion and his supposedly headstrong nature is contrasted by the shyness McGregor seems to exude.

Jake Lloyd's Anakin Skywalker is entirely a product of poor direction. The thing is, Lloyd actually manages to act well. He can show off a variety of emotions and seems to enjoy being around the other actors. But it's the dialogue and delivery that makes him out to be annoying and over-the-top childish. If someone had told him to tone down and given him better lines, he would've been great.

As a villain, I think that Darth Maul isn't bad. He's certainly intriguing in a proto-Darth Vader kind of way and since he doesn't have many scenes and almost no lines of dialogue, he comes across as an effective bad guy.

I haved mixed feelings about Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks. As I've grown up, I have begun to notice that yes, he is annoying. The character was designed as the Star Wars equivalent to Disney's Goofy, which isn't necessarily a bad idea. Except that Goofy never stepped into turds or spaz out. In his quieter moments(like when he discusses the suffering of the Naboo people with the Queen), I don't have a problem with him and I don't think he would've received nearly as much hate as he has if they'd kept it that way. It's just that the humor goes way over-the-top at times, ruining what could've been an actually funny character.

One new character that I legitimately love is Watto, played by Andy Secombe, a charmingly grumpy gambler and slave-owner(which isn't as bad as it sounds) whom Qui-Gon has to outwit in order to escape Tatooine and take Anakin with him.

I am not overly fond of either Keira Knightley or Natalie Portman as Padme, since the character was really weak(the Queen constantly speaks in a haughty, unlikable tone and Padme just never does anything cool beyond getting close to the 10-year old, which is creepy).

I'd just like to point out for the sake of pointing it out... I saw the prequels first as a kid, and I had no idea that the Chancellor was the Sith Lord. Like, it blew my mind.


The Phantom Menace is practically notorious for its over-abundance of CGI(particularly in Jar Jar's case) and quite right too. The film has a horribly dated PS1-graphics video game look, even more so than the two films that followed it. They at least were consistent in how fake their world looked, whereas Episode I still clinged onto some obvious location filming and puppet work, which doesn't mesh with the digital creations in this case at all.

On the other hand, John Williams is let loose to deliver one of his most iconic scores and it's really his ever-operatic presence that elevates the film, particularly during the brilliant "Duel Of The Fates" section.

Speaking of that, the choreography is stellar. It's not yet the unrealistic whirly dancing that we see in some later duels, but it's also not the rough "mano a mano" from the original trilogy either. It feels like a proper lightsaber duel between fighters in their prime(and in Obi-Wan's case, their youth). Whilst I would rank the more emotionally charged lightsaber battles above this, it's clearly the best one.


Despite the haphazard execution, and George being wrong about when to film this(he should've waited until CGI was refined a little), The Phantom Menace is an imaginative and even fun film at times that successfully expanded the Star Wars universe. Hate it all you want, but consider everything that it gave us.

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