Let’s get this out of the way up front.
What the hell, Episode I?
For all of its failings, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is not a bad film. It is simply a misguided attempt at shoehorning too much nostalgia into a prequel film that didn’t really have a lot of ground to stand on itself. It took too many cues from the woefully disappointing Return of the Jedi in its skewing toward kids while simultaneously attempting to tackle adult topics and issues such as slavery and war. It ends up a muddled, silly mess with at least some redeeming qualities, not the worst of the saga as a whole, but far from its best. In this spirit, rather than a pointed review that places the entire blame for Menace squarely on the shoulders of a clumsy Gungan (though his share of it will come), it deserves a more thorough breakdown of what worked and what didn’t.
Most of this blame has fairly been leveled at writer/director/producer George Lucas, whose dialogue is overly wordy and whose scenes could have benefitted from a director who wasn’t some twenty years removed from the last feature film he’d made. With seasoned actors like Natalie Portman, Ewan MacGregor, Liam Neeson, and Ian McDiarmid (and a litany of others), it is a shame that so much of the film’s dialogue is spat out like a half-chewed chunk of meat. A massive chunk, at that, with characters delivering lines that scream on like a train that never ends. The later prequels benefitted from script polishing to clean up (some of) the excess, a direct result of gems like “Always two there are, no more, no less. A master and an apprentice.” “But which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?” The second line of Windu’s dialogue is repetitive. We’ve already established what they’re talking about, so Windu asking which of the two was destroyed doesn’t need the tacked-on exposition.
Of course, no worse example of tacked-on exposition exists than “midichlorians,” microscopic beings which manifest the force in force-sensitive life forms. In the original trilogy, the Force was simply this mystical energy that could be used and manipulated by Jedi and Sith. It was noted by Yoda as permeating everything, tied indelibly to life. Now comes Lucas to over-explain something which needed nothing, which could essentially have been a tagline on the film’s posters. The script goes back and forth between indulgent over-explanation and an absolute scarcity of it, such as when Lucas drops the “immaculate conception” bomb with Shmi Skywalker, who conceived Anakin via magic because the film needed a Jesus metaphor. Of course, he later implies that this was all part of Darth Palpy’s plan to seize control and destroy the Jedi, but too little attention is given to this plot point in this film for it to carry any real weight and it is decidedly unnecessary, even with the eleventh hour Revenge of the Sith implication. Anakin needed to be conceived by the force to be the “chosen one” in this prophecy but said prophecy could have benefitted from less ridiculous exposition and instead been about a slave boy born in the Outer Rim. That’s to suggest that Sith doesn’t need to use the immaculate conception angle to sway Anakin to the Dark Side, but that’s another matter entirely.
Lucas really finds his genius, in this and the entire prequel trilogy, via Palpatine’s aforementioned plan to take control of the galaxy. It is important to remember- to where it seems most fans forget- that the entire thing is Darth Palpy’s plan to seize control and destroy the Jedi. Many are quick to point out that the plot that kick-starts Menace, involving the Trade Federation’s blockade of Naboo and subsequent invasion thereof, is extremely convoluted. While this is true to a point, one could actually argue that this was Lucas’ intention. Again, the entire prequel trilogy is his plan to take control of the Republic and destroy the Jedi. Phase one? Engineer a political situation on his home planet and bog the Senate down, so much so that the Queen of Naboo moves for a vote of no confidence in General Zod. Palpatine’s mastery of the dark side of the force is such that his influence permeates everything. So he manipulates the relatively weak-minded Trade Federation leaders into setting up a blockade. This prompts the Senate to dispatch two Jedi to mediate the dispute, since apparently A.) the Republic has no military to send to prevent this sort of thing, B.) Independent bodies and systems maintain some sort of autonomy under the Republic’s structure, and C.) Naboo doesn’t have its own military to protect themselves, which makes no real sense given A and B unless the Republic relies on the Jedi to maintain peace and order, which it absolutely does. One of the main plot points of Attack of the Clonesis the creation of an army due to the threat to the Republic. That Palpatine would execute this plan reveals that he knows that the Jedi can’t stop the Trade Federation from invading Naboo. If anything, it reveals how inept and self-involved the Jedi are.
Once Qui-Gon frees young Anakin from bondage and sees the connection he has with his mother, why don’t the Jedi go back to Tatooine and free her themselves, making sure she is safe? It is noted several times, specifically by Yoda, that he feels Anakin is afraid and that training him is dangerous. Not so much so that he doesn’t just say screw it, let’s train him anyway, but what sense does it make to leave his mother enslaved in the Outer Rim? Forget for a moment that the Jedi are the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxyRepublic. You’ve got a renegade Jedi Master who has pledged to train the boy anyway. Despite harboring reservations about the boy the Council eventually agrees he will be trained. So why not go save his mother? What does that say about the Jedi? His future is “clouded.” So knowing this, once you agree to train him, why would you not take every measure possible to protect the boy and assuage his fears? The answer is as murky as Anakin’s future, but it would largely seem that the Jedi have grown complacent and even somewhat disinterested in their own fate.
Take it a step further than that- the council becomes aware of the boy at the same exact moment they are made aware of a resurgent Sith warrior. Once Qui-Gon dies, the Council immediately drops Anakin on a rookie Jedi Knight who hasn’t even completed the “trials” yet, whatever that means. We learn in Clones that Jedi “younglings” are trained by master Yoda from a very young age before moving into an apprenticeship. While Anakin is clearly “too old,” why would he be exempt from the normal training regimen? Given how things end up turning out, it is easy to Monday morning quarterback the Jedi on this, but at the very least they’re short-sighted and self-involved, and at most they brought about their own destruction. Guardians of peace and justice for a thousand years, but what happened to them? They seem tired and archaic. Unable to sense the return of the Sith or the machinations of Palpatine. They are hypocrites, preaching at one moment about the Jedi code, but promptly ignoring it the next. One would think, given the supposed danger Anakin represents, that they wouldn’t want to half-ass his training, but they don’t even do that.
“Meesa called Jar-Jar Binks!” Every bit as terrible a character as the Ewoks that graced the screen sixteen years before him, but Jar-Jar grated so much precisely because he never got off the screen. That the character ever left Naboo in the first place was a huge blow to the film as a whole, bringing the narrative to a grinding halt time and again to play a ridiculously childish gag. It isn’t that Jar-Jar’s brand of clumsy silliness doesn’t have any place in the film, it is that it is littered about it like discarded towels in a locker room. Leave the character on Naboo when the rest of the party leaves, and minimize his appearances upon their return, and he could be a funny and effective addition to the film. Instead, not only is the audience forced to endure endless Jar-Jar buffoonery, but he is then made a general upon his return to his people. Mind you two hours ago the audience learns that he was banished for being clumsy, and has shown time and again that he’s essentially a bumbling idiot. It’s an empty gesture to the narrative and it shows how little Lucas thinks of his audience and the material itself to try to shoehorn Jar Jar into the role. If you want him to be a bumbling idiot, then leave him be, unless he experiences some kind of character growth in the film, which he does not- outside of maybe learning to never piss off a dug again. Yet Jar Jar isn’t the worst aspect of the film by a long shot- his over-exposure is. The pit droids during the pod race, for example, are played for a couple of great laughs during the tense action-packed sequence, but they quickly disappear from the film after that. This is exactly the kind of role that Jar Jar should’ve had. Though his appearance isn’t nearly as abhorrent here as it is in the next two prequels.
The worst aspects of the film, honestly, are C3P0 and the relationship between Anakin and Padme. To the former, he has zero place in this film. He was included purely for nostalgia’s sake, and Lucas ended up having to stick a throw-away line into the end of Sith just to explain why he doesn’t remember anything once Uncle Owen buys him from the Jawas. The same Uncle Owen that owned the same damn droid in Clones. He is as big a waste here as the raptors are in this summer’s Jurassic World; a relic from the prior franchise that serves no real purpose in this story, but Lucas be damned if he doesn’t shoehorn him into the plot somehow. 3P0 should have shown up in Clones at the earliest, but he’d have been better saved for Sith and been introduced as a droid purchased to assist Padme with Senate-y things with her being secret-pregnant and all.
Anakin and Padme was a love that promised to be a beacon amongst the stars before Lucas spent all of his time writing god-awful dialogue that essentially tries to goad the audience into believing these two have feelings for one another when they’ve got zero chemistry. Essentially, this is Twilight in space. No, not even in Attack of the Clones, but in this very film. Flash back to the sequence on the Naboo cruiser, en route to Coruscant. Little Anakin is cold, and Padme brings a blanket to keep him warm. He gives her a memento of their meeting, to which Padme responds that “many things will change when we reach the capital, but my caring for you will remain.” Your caring for this slave boy that you met, at most, a few days ago and whom you doubted right up to the moment he actually won the race and saved your behind? Shut up, Lucas. Just shut up. These two don’t care for each other. They don’t even know each other! Their introduction should also have been saved for Clones, outside of the young Anakin catching a glimpse of the incredibly beautiful queen and having that image locked in his mind through the help of that mystical bacteria that gives Jedi the force-disease.
The criticisms leveled at Jake Lloyd for his performance and for how flat and wooden the young Darth Vader is are somewhat valid, but most of the fault for this lies with Lucas and his script. If he had the talent directing child actors like his buddy Spielberg, this might have been a far different film. It’s fun to imagine what Episode I might have been like, had Spielberg not turned George’s offer to direct the film down. At the very least we’d have gotten some real, genuine performances out of the actors and the dramatic tension would have felt incredibly real. Nevertheless, the young Anakin suffers the same fate here that Jar Jar does: why is he in the film so much? Frankly, he never has to leave Coruscant, since he’s going to begin his training as a Jedi. Sure, they rejected him initially, but Lucas only wrote this contrived nonsense into the script to give Ani a reason for tagging along back to Naboo. As an aside, if Anakin really does have more space mitochondria than Yoda, why on Alderaan would they not want to train him and make sure he stays on the light side? Is it not reasonable to assume someone so gifted with the force would be a target for the Sith? Or, since the Jedi believe them extinct, wonder if maybe Anakin’s clouded future could lead him down this path?
The thing is, the audience already saw Anakin in the excellent pod race and, by now, ought to have deduced that Anakin is a pretty amazing pilot for a human child, even if they have no history with the series. Back at the end battle, Ani winds up in a fighter and out attacking the droid control ship when his engine takes a hit and he… flies right through the barrier and into the main hangar of it. So these shields are impenetrable, but a ship can totally zip right through them and obliterate the central command ship that controls all of the droids on the planet below- though why on Kashyyk the Trade Federation puts all their eggs in this one basket is a complete mystery, given how many ships are part of the blockade. So the boy manages to oops himself into the ship and destroys it, also an oops. Isn’t the audience better served to see the boy operating tactically and realizing that he can totally fly right into the hangar since shields don’t destroy anything but laser blasts? And why don’t any of the other Naboo pilots realize this?
The film is at its most impressive when it feels most like Star Wars, namely during the pod race and the ending lightsaber duel. Aside from the groan-inducing “stall” at the beginning of the race, it is still fantastic and holds up well today, though some of Greg Proops’ narration could probably be cut back. It fits well within the universe and, despite how long it detours the plot, never feels unnecessary. Anakin here doesn’t oops his way to victory, he earns it. Little more can be said about it or the ‘Duel of the Fates’ (John Williams knocked it out of the park in Episode I). They are easily the film’s most exhilarating sequences, to the point that it becomes obvious the amount of energy and time that were devoted to them.
In the sixteen years since Episode I much has been written about the failures of Lucas’ prequels and how much better the original trilogy is. This is a cautionary tale of a man who could not fail who surrounded himself with people who agreed with everything he said. Nevertheless, its place in the prequels as the beginning of Palpatine’s overthrow and some of the moments it captures still feel like Star Wars. It is the weakest of the prequels, but not by much, and it is better than the worst parts of Jedi. Most of all, though, it removes some of the mystique from the Jedi Knights of the OT, who were sold to audiences as a force of peace and justice. It dared to stand up to the astronomical expectations of scrutinous fanboys, and in so doing succeeds in at least getting the ball rolling. 6/10 lightsabers.
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Myself and Epic Film Guy Justin will be releasing reviews of all six episodes of the Star Wars saga in the run-up to Episode VII this December