Film Review No.62: Star Wars – Episode I – The Phantom Menace


Well it’s time to kick off Star Wars week and what better way to start than with easily the poorest of the six films! Honestly, after I saw this film I spent ages trying to convince myself it wasn’t that bad. Gradually denial led to anger, anger led to hate and hate led back to anger when I got things back in perspective. I mean, who actually hates a film? Like, genuinely hates a film. To hate a film so much you would want it to be materialised as a living thing just so you could kill it? Nah, not something a normal person would feel for a film for too long. Unless that film was Batman & Robin. Fuck dat shit. … Oh yeah, review…

I was born in the Earth year of 1982 which was a long long time after the events of Star Wars take place and about a year before the original trilogy of films finished. I may not have been old enough to have seen the films on their original release but I was just the right age to grow up with them. They were on tv all the time and getting a VHS copy of any of the 3 films was a doddle. Even up until 1990 the Star Wars films were still oddly popular. There had always been rumblings of a trilogy of prequels ever since George Lucas typed the words “Episode IV” on the first page of the script of A New Hope. Well, the script he would later ret-con to eb called A New Hope. The first details of what these prequels could be really started appearing in the early 90s around the time that the original trilogy was given a digital remastering. The hype train had started.

A few years later instead of the prequels we got the Special Editions. They were met with mixed reactions. Personally I have no issue with giving a film a bit of a make over when it is beneficial and provided the original versions are still available. As long as nothing fundamental to the film was changed for the worse I see them as exactly what they’re described as, special editions. I’ll get to those later in the week though. I went to see all 3 of the special editions in the cinema and it was a great movie experience. Star Wars was always a series made to be seen up on the big screen and these special editions got me hyped up for the prequels.

The news kept coming. We were gonna see Obi-Wan’s master Qui-Gon Jinn. Meet a young Anakin Skywalker and watch his journey from a young powerful Jedi to his fall into the Dark Side of the force. We were gonna see Pod Racing! Wait, what the hell is a pod race? What’s racing things got to do with Star Wars? Ahh who cares? Prequel trilogy is incoming.

This was the sort of lightsabre battles I was waiting to see.

So roll on 1999 and I’m at the cinema for a day one showing of The Phantom Menace. It was packed. Really packed. Closest I had come to this was a day one showing of The Fifth Element a few years earlier. The film started. There’s the John Williams trademark theme. There’s the text crawl. The text crawl is talking about trade disputes and taxation? What? Here comes a ship. And there it goes. That must be the blockade the crawl mentions. The ship lands safely. Two blatant Jedis get out and have a cup of tea. Where the hell is my space battles and laser fights?

Phantom Menace starts of with a whimper. It has to be one of the dullest openings to a film of it’s type ever. Lots of talking. Nonsensical events such as gassing the Jedis for all of 10 seconds instead of just leaving them in there to make sure. Enemies that pose no threat at all because the Jedis just knock them over with a similar amount of effort to that required to lick the back of a stamp. From there on the film just trundles along. We know who these two Jedis are (Ewan Mcgregor is Obi-Wan and Liam Neeson is Qui-Gon Jinn) but we don’t know anything about them. What their goals are beyond negotiating a trade dispute that they never get to do. What makes them tick. What makes up their characters. They’re just there and as the film is framed around them we just end up feeling no connection. To add to this we are “treated” to a semi-racist stereotype in the form of Jar Jar Binks. The less said about him the better. Suffice to say, he serves no purpose at all. He’s certainly not comic relief.

I really dislike this guy. More than Ewoks.

Things don’t get much better as we get to Tatooine, home of the young Anakin Skywalker. He should really be the focus of this story but he’s played by an inexperienced actor (Jake Lloyd) who wouldn’t be able to carry a film on the Disney channel, let alone a cinema screen. He has an actual goal, he wants to free the slaves. He doesn’t do that though because he’s too young to be an actual proactive character in a film of this scale. Anakin is a slave to a Jewish stereotype called Watto and he’s actually treated fairly well for a slave. His home is about standard for a Tatooine. Watto lets him go home on time and he even seems to appreciate the boys skills as a mechanic and a pilot. As such Anakins plight doesn’t seem as desperate as it should. I feel as though if George Lucas had actually framed the film around a slightly older Anakin, from his perspective, with a story of his encounter with some Jedi and where that encounter led him we’d have a much better film.

One ineffective and often pointless action sequence leads to the next with a load of exposition used to pad things out. If people aren’t sitting around talking about trade disputes and taxation (This is a kid’s film remember) they’re explaining random elements of the films universe that really shouldn’t need explaining. Midichlorians being a prime example of that. George Lucas took The Force which was an excellent fantasy/semi-religious idea to give reason to the Jedi’s powers and decided to attempt to go all Star Trek on us and give us a scientific explanation for it’s existence. See, according to this film, Midichlorians are microscopic biological creatures that live within our blood that allow us to connect with The Force. So there goes the fantasy element and in comes the notion that Jedis are literally better genetically than everyone else because they have lots of friendly bacteria in them. Ugh.

The film smacks of lazy screenwriting, direction, production and performance. Basically everything except John Williams’ score feels like it was half assed. I’ve got a copy of the script and it really reads like a first draft. Nothing ties together well. There’s line after line of bad poorly implemented dialogue. A personal favourite being an exchange between Yoda and Mace Windu that goes a little something like this.

YODA: “Always two Sith there are. A master and an apprentice”
MACE WINDU: “But which did we defeat, the master or the apprentice?”

That is pure sloppy. It’s the repetition of that “master and apprentice” that causes it to feel like Lucas literally just wrote it down and called it a day. Either that or he thinks that the more times the words “master” and “Apprentice” are used the more mythical things will sound. Other terrible exchanges and scenes include Anakin asking just what are midichlorians like he’s in an infomercial, R2-D2 being congratulated for doing his job when at no point has anyone given a rats arse about any other droids and every single line Queen Amidala says. Her lines are literally delivered in the most boring monotone way imaginable. It’s not just her though. Everyone talks as though they are either bored stiff or incapable of conveying human emotion. She just takes it to a whole other level of boredom.

If I were to find any positives it would be these. Out of the 3 prequel films this has the most actual sets. This added a lot to a location and it’s worrying that George Lucas doesn’t seem to realise just how sterile the CGI environs of the following films hurt their presentation. The lightsaber battle at the end is well put together even if it is ruined by the constant location shifting to other battles going on at the same time. That battle also includes a really well done sequence where a bunch of shield thingies separate our heroes from the enemy Darth Maul (Ray Park). In that scene we see the only signs of character from these three. Obi-Wan looks impatient, Qui-Gon meditates and Darth Maul is all riled up and ready to pounce. It actually manages to create some semblance of tension which is a surprise because there isn’t a single other moment in the film that manages that. Also, as mentioned, John Williams’ score is typical but well done. This new Blu-ray version does also include a new CGI Yoda instead of the puppet that was used originally. Now I’m a big fan of puppets but the one they used in Phantom Menace originally was rubbish. It looked bad in amongst the clinically clean setting it was within and it appeared to move worse than the original puppet. As such the CGI one is an improvement.

Here's a comparison shot of the old and new Yoda. The cloth is very well done.

There’s plenty more that I could go into on this film but it would be pointless. Most of you will have seen Plinketts Star Wars reviews which go into so much detail on plot holes, story and character issues and other such problems that it would be futile for me to bother bringing them up here. His reviews truly are the definitive Star Wars prequel dissections.

When the end credits started to role on this I couldn’t quite place my finger on what was so awful about these films. I hadn’t started really learning about storytelling at that point in my life and so pin pointing my problems then wasn’t so easy. I knew I had seen a bad and thoroughly disappointing film. Oddly everyone else in the audience seemed to be applauding it. I thought at the time maybe I was wrong, hence my initial denial. Seemed critics and other fans all knew it was wrong too though, so I have no idea what was up with my crowd. Maybe they were just happy to see Star Wars back on the screen again. Maybe they were all dribbling morons. Regardless, this film is bad. Really bad. It’s not bottom of the barrel bad but it’s damn close. It only survives because it looks decent enough, if a little fake, and it has a handful of decent moments. Tomorrow I watch and review Attack Of The Clones. Yay!

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About lvl54spacemonkey

Just a dude who likes movies and games and has delusions of working in one of those industries. Write screenplays and work on short films in my spare time. Most of which never get finished. View all posts by lvl54spacemonkey

3 responses to “Film Review No.62: Star Wars – Episode I – The Phantom Menace

  • themoviemontage

    very insightful. i too found TPM dull it only gave me some enthusiasm of course for its origin story of Darth Vader. CGI improvements, good points and of course the patience versus pride battle of Darth Maul and the Jedi Knights :) cool!

    • lvl54spacemonkey

      Cheers. If you haven’t seen Plinketts reviews for the prequels you should. You’ll need a few hours free though. There really isn’t much I can say about these films that hasn’t been gone over a million times before. Gonna try to get through the other 2 prequels today.

  • Paul Acevedo

    Finally started reading your reviews. I haven’t seen this movie since buying the DVD and watching it once many years ago – I would go on to skip purchasing the second and third prequel DVDs even though each one’s better than this one. It just burned me so badly. But I enjoyed your review and I kinda-sorta look forward to watching this train wreck when I get the Blu-Rays sometime.

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