Almost a decade and a half later I’ve finally returned to the movie that turned me off of Star Wars through my adolescence. The infamous Phantom Menace. But this time, I came prepared. Armed with the knowledge of the original trilogy, I felt like even if the movie was as bad as I thought it was going to be, I could maybe immerse myself in the fun and ambiance of the movie. Thankfully, it didn’t have to come to that. Though George Lucas’s direction is messy and dry at times, there’s something beautiful being attempted here and a few great scenes fans of the series can get behind.
Because the movie assumes the viewer has already seen the original trilogy, all the story elements take on a new meaning. We know how a lot of things will end, so the only thing left to find out is how. This is a place where the movie ends up doing well. From the Jedi Council, to the Gungans underwater city, to the screeching pauses in the Senate – we get to see a world in disarray. Capital is the name of the game and experienced players are getting to ready to pounce.
The movie also does a great job exploring the way subjects approach politics. Machiavellian ideologies are contrasted with liberal politics premised on faith and good will. There’s a political leader who literally changes their entire domestic policy based on resolving an incorrect cultural perception. There’s a real sense of frustration in seeing violence happen and watching bureaucracy grind to a screeching halt. The idea that groups would literally sell out other planets for profit hits a chord a little too close to him. Yes, at times it feels boring. There’s a lot of dialogue and its delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Despite that, the criticism still feels resoundingly poignant and I’m excited to see how its explored in Episodes 2 and 3.
The movie looks and sounds great when it wants to. The overabundance of CGI can feel daunting and there were moments that felt like they had been ripped out of PS2 cutscenes. However, this only became really distracting for me in the third act. Outside of that, a lot of the renders and effects look dazzling. The practical effects take a backseat, which is a shame, because they were some of my favorite parts of the original trilogy. There’s still a lot of beautiful effects to be had, but I can’t help but feel that better presentation would have made the movie hit its themes a lot harder. The podracing scene is a ton of fun and the last few moments felt really intense when John Williams score started blasting adrenaline through my veins. I wish that the music had been playing earlier on in the scene, because the shot composition of the race feels similar the whole time. Music would have helped shake up the pacing and make the entire race more dynamic. Thankfully, the light saber fight at the end involving Darth Maul more than makes up for it. Duel of the fates plays loudly and prominently in the background. Combined with great fight choreography, that fight is one I’ll definitely be replaying in my head for years to come.
Now let’s talk about the less than stellar stuff. It’s something that’s been talked about a lot so I won’t get too into it, but the acting in this movie is less than stellar. Most of the performances feel the same and it’s hard to get a true feel for the characters inner thoughts. This is something the original trilogy did really well and is probably what I disliked the most. Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Palpatine was a bright spot in the movie and I loved how he played off his deceptive nature.
The only other performance I wanted to spend time talking about was Jake Lloyd’s as Anakin Skywalker. Yes, the performance isn’t amazing. It feels childish and out of place with the severity of the events at play. However, getting an older or a more experienced actor wouldn’t make the underlying issue with Anakin easier to portray. Anakin is supposed to be a prodigy. The events and proclamations from the original trilogy and this movie are indicative that he’s a child genius. However, underlying all of this talent is an innocent emotional core. Anakin is a child – that’s why his innocence and desire to help others feels more believable. These traits are necessary for Anakin to exist as a tragic villian figure. How could someone so pure and powerful fall so hard?
Casting a much older actor would take away the belief in the childlike innocence of Anakin. Teenagers are symbolically susceptible given that they’re on the precipice of adulthood. A teenage Anakin would’ve made certain story decisions less meaningful and believable. However, expecting a child to convincingly retain their innocence while portraying a inquisitive prodigy is hard. That’s why Anakin is so interesting as a character – it’s almost like diametrically opposed characteristics are being forced to align with each other. But while this makes the character more interesting, it also makes him that much harder to portray.
TLDR: The Phantom Menace is a messy but has rare moments of greatness that are engaging. Yes , there’s a lot to nitpick, but if you take the film for what it is and just give yourself to the experience, there’s a great time to be had.
Final Rating: 7.7/10. I get why the movie has a bad rap, but its aspirations are commendable and I know I’ll return to the movie after finishing all the major movies.
Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!