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Movie Review | Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace


Darth Maul (Ray Park) prepares for battle in The Phantom Menace
 

Why this order? In the build-up to The Last Jedi, I'll be working my through the films in what I believe is the best order to experience them: namely, Machete Order. There are two differences: 1) Rogue One has to fit in there, and 2) I'll also include The Phantom Menace for completeness.


With this jump back to finally start the prequel trilogy, Machete Order finally shows why it is the best order to watch the Star Wars films. The reveal of Darth Vader's identity is preserved for Empire Strikes Back, then we essentially have an extended flashback across this film and its two sequels showing exactly how he ended up how we see him in Rogue One and the original trilogy.


There's also a tinge of dramatic irony as we already know the fate of several characters from the prequel films, but get to enjoy seeing them in their prime or, at least, something close to it. Unfortunately, that enjoyment is tempered by the fact that these next three Episodes are the low points of the saga as a whole, with The Phantom Menace not getting things off to a great start.

 

Movie Summary: Two Jedi Knights escape a hostile blockade to find allies and come across a young boy who may bring balance to the Force, but the long dormant Sith resurface to claim their old glory. (IMDb)


I think The Phantom Menace has picked up the type of reputation that comes about for disliked things on the internet and is generally regarded as being a terrible film. I’m not about to argue that it’s a good film, by any means – but I would say that it isn’t awful, just boring.


To be fair, that’s almost as big a sin for piece of media packaged as entertainment, and the film does have some serious issues that any viewer will pick up on, but it’s by no means a truly terrible film and isn’t even the worst in the Star Wars saga.

Pod-racing in The Phantom Menace

We’ll start with the bad though, and the single worst thing about this particular film: Jar Jar Binks. I understand and accept that Star Wars films are supposed to be relatively child-friendly and that’s mainly why he’s here, but the execution is just terrible.


It doesn’t help that he’s a CGI character before the technology was really there to do the idea justice, but even if it had been, the annoying voice and terrible personality would have still ruined things. A total disaster from start to finish and rightfully relegated to a bit-part for the rest of the trilogy.


The thing is, that is pretty much the single truly awful thing about this film dealt with. There are plenty of other irritations or annoyances, but they drag the film down through how many of them there are rather than a number of them being outright dreadful.


Jake Lloyd was poorly cast as the young Anakin Skywalker and simply unable to do the role justice, although Natalie Portman isn’t much better – whether you want to blame her, the material, or the direction from Lucas is up to you, but Queen Amidala is an underwhelming character regardless.


There must also be some criticism for Liam Neeson here, who switches between looking like he’s trying his hardest to bring more to the character of Qui-Gon Jinn than is on the page and other times looking he’s as bored as the audience and just wanting it all to be over.


The only actor who gives a truly good performance is Ewan McGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. There are moments when the sub-par dialogue affect him too, but at least he seems to be enjoying himself and acting like he wants to be there – compared to the others, his enthusiasm is welcome.


One final piece of criticism has to go the visual effects and George Lucas’ already-evident love of CGI. As with Jar Jar, the technology simply wasn’t up to the task and looked pretty poor even by the standards of the time. If It had been used a little more sparingly, the issues might not have been so obviously bad, but there is so much use of computer animation that it’s impossible to avoid.

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) in The Phantom Menace

The score isn’t perfect either, but I will clarify that there is nothing wrong with any of the pieces composed by John Williams, rather how poorly cut into the film they seemed to be. It’s an issue that continues into Attack of the Clones, where one piece of music abruptly jumps to another simply because the scenes require it, despite the two separate compositions being great pieces of music on their own.


I will concede that the score still isn’t Williams’ best work, although he did still conjure up the epic Duel of the Fates which has become as synonymous with the franchise as anything from the original trilogy. It may have proved as enduring too, acting as the theme for the visually-interesting Darth Maul, but the Sith was dispatched a little too quickly.


Duel of the Fates would be heard again, but it would never have the same impact as when you hear the first notes of it when Darth Maul confronts the two Jedi Knights in the film’s climactic battle.


The Phantom Menace is not a good film, but not a truly terrible one either. I haven’t mentioned the pod racing, or Qui-Gon’s initial duel with Darth Maul – which are both great little sequences – but there are simply too many frustrations and let-downs throughout the film for Episode One to be considered anything other than a resounding disappointment.

[4/10]

 
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