The good, the bad, and the Force: Re-evaluating Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace
WE ALL WEIGH in on Star Wars. Like it or loathe it, the series has achieved such bloated cinematic significance it would be remiss not to talk about it endlessly, boring friends and loved ones with titbits and factoids, arguing about the symbolism of the colour of Mace Windu’s lightsaber (it’s because Sam L. Jackson is a BAMF), etc. We at SCM have our own opinions on the franchise; with the buzz building up around J.J. Abram’s Episode VII, we thought it would be a good time to give a retrospective on the series that has enlivened and infuriated generations. Kicking us off on our schizophrenic galactic tour is a sideways glance at Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Andrew Noel: I should probably clear up a few things before I embark on this difficult task. Number 1: Yes, of course, Jar Jar Binks was a terrible mistake. In fact, there is footage on the web of the character being killed off about 1/5 of the way through the film. 2: Yes, I am serious. 3: No, I don’t hate cinema. Now we’ve got that out of the way, I can give my reasons why I like what some people have called one of the worst films of all time.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Phantom Menace. It’s whimsical, it’s fun and, as the first in the prequel trilogy, transports the viewer into a much more colourful world than that seen in the original trilogy. Whereas the original took place under the oppressive rule of the Empire, The Phantom Menace represents the Golden Age of the Jedi. These are the keepers of peace in the galaxy in their prime! And, let’s be honest, nothing captures the intense awesomeness of the Jedi in this film like the battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul, all soundtracked to John William’s exquisite ‘Duel of the Fates’. You can’t not like this scene.
That aside, there are plenty of good points to the film. Firstly, it builds up an excellent view of ‘pre-Empire’ Star Wars. It shows the naive, meek and, alright, a little bit annoying, roots of Darth Vader. We are introduced to the former glory of the Jedi Knights, the system they used, and what Yoda was before he started crawling into Luke’s backpack. Not only are we getting more uber-sick-awesome Jedi stuff, we’re also getting less soppy love scenes. That’s right, no Han and Leia, and very little Anakin and Padme! No awkward “I don’t like sand” scenes.
Of course, some of the best parts of film (and the prequel series in general) are the vast, sprawling CGI landscapes. Naboo, Coruscant and Tatooine all look incredible, the likes of which were not seen beforehand. If you can’t appreciate the film, you can at least appreciate the setting. Finally, while largely exhibiting some very bland performances, there are some gems in the cast. Ewan McGregor is reliably fantastic, and his portrayal of the young Obi-Wan excellently parallels Alec Guinness’ later performance. Shout out to Frank Oz as well for his voice performance of a slightly younger Yoda.
Yes, alright, The Phantom Menace isn’t a patch on The Empire Strikes Back, but it was never meant to be one of the greatest films of all time. I stand by it as a decent film. It contains some excellent graphics, fight scenes and settings, all served with a side order of badassery.
Jozef Raczka: By now, Phantom Menace bashing is an easy job. In fact, it almost feels like too easy a target. The film isn’t necessarily the worst film in history (it’s not even as bad as Attack of the Clones) but it is certainly one of the most disappointing. In order for me to explain what was so disappointing, I want you to cast your mind back to 1999 and, unlike me, you’re not seven. Imagine what it would have been like seeing it if you’d seen the original trilogy on original release; you’d sat through years of video games and merchandising based on the love you felt for those original three. Your reward for this wait is The Phantom Menace.
What you get is Jar Jar Binks and Watto and Pit Droids and Battle Droids and numerous other ‘loveable’ new aliens and robots, all of whom are such soul-drainingly obvious ploys for new action figure fodder that this metaphorical life-long Star Wars fan we’ve invented begins to weep for the heroes he once loved. Chewbacca wasn’t just some kind of labradoodle on steroids; he was a soulful character with each of his monosyllabic moans taking on meaning. The same goes for R2-D2’s beeps and whistles. I mean, hell, even the Ewoks were kind of adorable. There are brief moments of interest: Darth Maul was a visually effective villain, John Williams’ score was as good as ever and it was the last time we got puppet Yoda before he became a CGI Moreau-esque combination of a chipmunk and Slimer from Ghostbusters. I really struggled for plus points. You probably can’t tell.
The Phantom Menace isn’t the worst film of all time but it is a particularly pointless one. I won’t pretend that the seven year old me didn’t love it; it had explosions, and I probably even liked Jar Jar Binks back in the day, but it’s not a sequel to the trilogy that I love. It’s a mediocre piece of fan service that fails to appeal to its fans. It lacks courage, a brain and a heart. Ultimately, the film is rather like the ending to The Wizard of Oz; we’re given a gigantic, booming, effects-laden monstrosity that, in the end, is really just a doddery old man behind a curtain trying to manipulate everyone.