So I watched The Phantom Menace…
This isn’t my first viewing of this film so I knew going in that it had its flaws but watching it so close after watching the original trilogy just really drives home how atrocious it is. It really is rather painful to watch.
Okay, basic plot: After the Trade Federation sets up an illegal blockade of the planet Naboo, two Jedi Knights are sent to negotiate a cessation of the blockade. The two Jedi – Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi – discover that the Federation intends to invade the planet. The two Jedi must now save the planet’s Queen and return her to The Senate. It soon becomes clear that the Trade Federation are not working alone and their actions are part of a larger scheme being orchestrated by an unknown Sith lord.
Oh, so many things to criticise about this film but where to start? Let’s begin by classifying the film. The Phantom Menace is a prequel and a prequel is, by definition, an origins story. This also, technically, a remake but we’ll talk about that later. Now, an origins story is, in my mind, very much like a film adaptation of a book; in that, you have a great deal of source material that needs to be condensed. This means that certain things have to be cut while others have to remain. You can’t have every single event and character from a book in the film adaptation. In that same spirit, you can’t have every single event and character from the original film series in the prequel. You have to decide which characters are essential and tell their stories and let the other characters fall away. The way I count it, there were only four characters from the original trilogy that needed to be carried over to the prequels. They are: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, The Emperor and Anakin Skywalker. Everybody else was non-essential.
So characters like R2D2, C-3PO, Chewbacca and Boba Fett had no business making it to the prequels. This a problem that many origin stories have – they want to over-explain every character’s presence and involvement in the progression of the plot. There’s absolutely no need for us to know that Anakin Skywalker aka Darth Vader built C-3PO; or to create a link between Anakin and R2D2. Why would you do this? It doesn’t add anything to the character of Darth Vader or the droids, so why do it? Was it merely so you could shoehorn our favourite characters from the original trilogy into the prequels and manipulate us into liking the movie because of nostalgia? Why not create original characters that we could fall in love with?
I haven’t even began to talk about the ridiculousness of this plot. The first time I watched this film I remember being so confused. I was asking myself who’s the Trade Federation? What tax laws are they opposing? Why is everyone so concerned with someone signing a treaty? This film is called Star Wars. WARS! The original trilogy was about fighting for your life and battling for the galaxy’s freedom, this film is about politics. I understand that The Emperor was behind this and he needed things to unfold this way so he could rise to power but this story belongs in the periphery. There’s always been politics in Star Wars but it’s always remained in the background; contained to a once-off remark or a passing comment. You think with all the things George Lucas brought forward from the originals, he would have remembered to bring the spirit of the story. No, instead he brings the one thing no one cared about and forces it down our throat.
Speaking of things that were forced down our throats, let’s discuss Jar-Jar Binks. I’m not a violent man but throughout the course of this movie, I had multiple fantasies of slitting his throat. I don’t understand what Lucas thought his appeal would be. I don’t mind a character existing to provide comic-relief, that’s what R2D2 and C-3PO were for; but, unlike Jar-Jar, those two droids were actually helpful members of the team. Jar-Jar is just there for fart jokes and to run into things. Plus the way he speaks is infuriating! Only one person is allowed to have bad grammar and a weird speech pattern and that’s Yoda because Yoda is royalty! Jar-Jar is just some idiotic ploy designed to appeal to the immature minds of children. I tolerated this pandering to children with The Ewoks because they proved themselves to be badasses, I refuse to tolerate Jar-Jar.
Another reason I hate Jar-Jar is because he’s a soulless character created on a computer screen. Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate CGI and the visuals it allows filmmakers to create. But CGI, especially in films like this, is often not used or understood properly. When I say ‘films like this’ I mean remakes. The prequel trilogy is a remake, in that, George Lucas waited to make these films because the technology wasn’t at the level he wanted to tell the story. Like many people who develop remakes because of better technology, he overused the technology available. In my view, CGI is a tool, an aid to fill in the gaps where practicality stops you from creating a shot. CGI is not a total replacement. So just because you can create entire characters and settings on a computer, doesn’t mean you should. Lucas flooded this film with CGI and it stands out like an eyesore because the original trilogy was founded on practical effects.
That being said, the practical effects (by that I mean the actors) don’t do much better. It feels like everyone is trying to portray their character in the dullest, most insufferable way possible. The only acting I enjoyed in this film was Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Normally I’d blame the individual actors for their performances but the quality of this cast is too high for that. Names like Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Terrence Stamp; they can’t all have been having a bad day. If one part of a machine functions poorly you blame that individual part; but when every part functions poorly, you have to blame the craftsman – in this case, George Lucas.
The one thing I did really enjoy about this film was the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul. Albeit rather short, it’s wonderfully choreographed and the song John Williams composed for it complements it beautifully. I wanted to see much more of that in the film. Not necessarily lightsaber duels but Jedi doing Jedi things like battling Sith lords. The original trilogy promised us a time where the Jedi where abundant and kept the peace in the galaxy but this film offers us nothing more than the odd council meeting. The Jedi were truly marginalised in this film and I don’t think they ever get the coverage that we were promised. Obi-Wan, in particular, was pushed into the background in an extremely disrespectful way. This is a man who had an incredible influence over Luke and the outcome of The Rebellion but he’s treated like a superfluous side-character in this film with little to contribute.
Overall, there are so many other flaws I could point out with this film but this review is already running a bit long. Oh my goodness I didn’t even talk about midi-chlorians. Once again, over-explaining things. Why can’t The Force just be this mystical power, why does it need science? My head’s going to explode if I keep talking about this. The only parts of this movie that need to be seen are from the 1hr45 minute mark to the 1hr59 minute mark – that’s the part with the lightsaber duel, everything else can be skipped. 2/10