With a new Star Wars film just around the corner, it recently came of significance to me that there are now seven Star Wars films: one for every day of the week. So I have taken it upon myself to start what I like to call the Seven Days of Star Wars, where I will watch and post a review of every Star Wars film every day for the next week.
But before I jump into this challenge with a rather, ahem, contentious first entry, I must make this disclaimer: I firmly believe that the trilogies should be watched in release order, but my decision to watch the prequel trilogy first was made purely because, when I attempted to watch all six films last year before The Force Awakens, I only made it through the original three. Because of this, I am using the original trilogy as motivation to get through what I find to be a rather laborious prequel trilogy. And so we begin!
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a mildly successful film director named George Lucas had an idea for a film that would end up changing the nature of cinema forever. Star Wars. And after three beloved, successful space operas that captured the hearts of billions, some twenty years later a second trilogy was conceived, to tell the story of the most intriguing villain ever realised on screen: Darth Vader.
Yep, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace had some big shoes to fill.
Growing up in my family, Star Wars was a constant. It was putting on the VHS on a Saturday with my grandpa; it was running around with guns made from textas (because the lightsabers were too unstable); it was huddling around the TV to watch the end of The Empire Strikes Back with my cousins. I was three when the Phantom Menace was released, and though I watched the original trilogy countless times, the Phantom Menace and the other prequels were what I grew up knowing. Despite varying levels of quality, they will always hold a place in my heart. But perspective and hindsight are always a positive experience, and you should always grow and change your opinions and ideas, even when it comes to your precious childhood memories…
So even from the iconic opening crawl, there were already problems to spot. The Phantom Menace focuses on two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) young Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi, who, after tensions arise over the taxation agreements between the Federation and the Republic, find allies and face foes from across the galaxy as they fight to restore peace to the planet Naboo. Yet as the mysterious Sith resurface once again, a young boy is found who could bring balance to the Force.
Already, the film’s first major problem is evident: the taxation plot which the film revolves around is both confusing and boring, and instead of acting as a gateway for the start of Anakin’s journey with the Force, it overshadows it, focusing too heavily of the machinations between planets and governments that lack depth and consequence.The first films were about family drama, epic battles to destroy villains, tense battles between oppressive empires and rebellious fighters, and learning about the power within each of us to face up to our foes. The Phantom Menace is about taxation disputes. It boils down the wonder and complex relationships of the original films to bland political tactic and science, and even the Force isn’t immune, with a biological explanation for the spiritual essence of the story, stripping away its magic.
However there are a few redeeming qualities that echo the depth of the originals and remind me why I fell for it as a child. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin is brilliant, wise and skilled, and Neeson and McGregor give amazing performances and have a real connection that serves to highlight their differences in age and experience, which even extends to their distinct fighting styles. Master Jin is measured, thoughtful and powerful; Padawan Kenobi is emotional, reactive and instinctive, and together their partnership has fought some of the greatest lightsaber battles of all the Star Wars films – of course I’m talking about the final showdown with Darth Maul, combining awesome action and heartbreak.
Though fleeting, Maul is one of the series most interesting villains, his unknown history and immense power intriguing. Throughout the film we even come to love the precocious Padme, who develops from the seemingly annoying handmaiden to become a more worldly, mature queen, and Natalie Portman carries this transformation well. Her secret-identity reveal also feels like the Star Wars we love, and the return of Yoda and introduction of Mace Windu bring interesting conflict to the film’s Force subplot (which, as we know, develops).
However, these smaller characters can’t redeem the film’s greater focus on two of the series’s worst characters: Jar Jar Binks and young Anakin. Capped off by a bad performance, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin is arrogantly precocious, neither charming nor alarming as a future Sith Lord ought to be. He’s just annoying and bratty, no sympathy to redeem him or tension created to give us a glimpse of what’s to come. And annoying, awfully rendered and borderline racist, Jar Jar Binks is downright unwatchable and the worst part of the film – hell, the franchise.
It’s almost universally panned by the Star Wars fandom, and left bitter disappointment in the hearts of such a dedicated fan base, unable to live up to the impossible hype. And honestly, they have every right to feel that way: the Phantom Menace takes a sometimes melodramatic space opera phenomenon and makes it kind of boring, with some terrible performances, CGI and characters that lack the heart of the original franchise. But the Phantom Menace has elements that even the movie’s biggest critics can get behind: great mentor-student relationships, some fantastic performances too, and a great villain that reminds us of the power of the Dark Side. I’m in for one hell of a Star Wars Week to come.
Do you harbor a secret love for the Phantom Menace? Or it is literally the worst film ever made? The comments below are yours to rage in!
Photos taken from IMDb.com: