[I have gone on record numerous times in my Film Dispenser columns and podcasts saying that there are only three Star Wars films. My dislike (maybe even disdain) of the prequel trilogy is well-known among my film-blogging colleagues. So, it was surprising to say the least when I was asked to review each of the six Star Wars films leading up to the release of J.J. Abrams’ addition to this hallowed canon when The Force Awakens hits theaters on December 18, 2015 and likely shatters every box office record ever established. My reviews will appear once a month, meaning that my thoughts on Return of the Jedi will post a few weeks before the eagerly-anticipated seventh installment. Has time changed my opinion on these films? Are the prequels better than I originally gave them credit for? Will the original trilogy hold up to scrutiny 38 years after I first felt The Force? Follow along and find out.]
The first two minutes of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace still give me chills — the John Williams’ theme music, the yellow print scrolling into infinity as it sets the stage for the action to come, the camera lingering on a field of stars and slowly descending into a shot of a passing starship. It’s no coincidence that Lucas’ return to the franchise he created immediately pays homage to the film that started it all. But the difference in the two openings is palpable.
As Christopher Nolan proved in Interstellar, the use of models and miniatures gives special effects a weightiness that CGI rarely reproduces. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, we sat in awe of this massive, rumbling starship that blots out the universe itself. In The Phantom Menace, we are given yet another little animated spaceship approaching yet another CGI world, something that has become commonplace since this film series was launched. It’s a pale imitation of the iconic beginning of our favorite space trilogy and generates no sense of wonder. Part of the blame lies with the ensuing years of special effects that have rendered audiences immune to anything that isn’t a quantum leap forward in technology. But, the opening of The Phantom Menace also makes one wonder how this is the best beginning Lucas could come up with after sixteen years of brain-storming?
Almost every filmic aspect of The Phantom Menace is plagued with mediocrity. The pacing is astonishingly slow. Our band of heroes (Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Padme/Queen Amidala) land on Tatooine in search of a part to fix their ship. It’s a full 41 minutes later that little Anakin flies away with our protagonists after winning the much-needed parts in a podrace that feels far longer than its 12 minutes of screen time. The script also illustrates just how tone-deaf Lucas can be when it comes to dialogue. Every few minutes there’s a total groaner like: “If we can’t get the shields back up, we’ll be sitting ducks.”
The screen is populated by an endless sea of dour looking humans. It’s the worst kind of British costume drama where everyone needs to keep a stiff upper lip to the point of blandness. Nearly every character is interchangeable with the others. No personality allowed. Liam Neeson valiantly fights to create a memorable character only to succumb to the endless drab dialogue. His death at the hands of Darth Maul probably felt like relief. Only Ewan McGregor is incapable of hiding his delight at being in a Star Wars movie though he does his best not to grin giddily while onscreen. When R2D2 and Yoda are the most memorable members of your ensemble, you need to take a look at what’s wrong with your casting and your direction.
In the years since I first saw The Phantom Menace, I had forgotten the overall silly tone of the film. We’re treated to fart jokes and dialogue that includes “You in big doo-doo” and “Ex-squeeze-me”. There’s no need to add Jar-Jar Binks for comedic relief when the film is so light-hearted to begin with. It plays like Scooby-Doo in Space. All we’re missing is the occasional “Zoinks!”, but then again, we do have Jake Lloyd’s “Yippees” as young Anakin Skywalker to fill that void. Where the original trilogy feels like a sweeping adventure, The Phantom Menace feels like a Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood. The film is a strange combination of animation, puppetry and live action that reminds me of The Dark Crystal, Willow and Farscape. Maybe Lucas could digitally add David Bowie into the next iteration of this film to give it a little pizzazz.
Ultimately, film-making is an endless series of choices that must be made by the director at the helm of the film, and The Phantom Menace is a succession of poor decisions by Lucas. Does Viceroy Nute Gunray really need to speak in some pidgin English dialect? Given his muppet exterior, his mouth is continually out-of-sync with his dialogue, creating the appearance of a Godzilla or kung fu movie. Some would consider it outright racist. I simply scratch my head and wonder what Lucas was thinking. Was Jake Lloyd really the best actor they could find to play one of the most iconic characters in film history as a child? Pick up the phone and call your pal Steven Spielberg and grab one of his endless supply of quality young actors. Natalie Portman is no great shakes as Amidala, but she seems to get a pass because she became a legit actor. And why is such short shrift given to moments of historic significance? R2D2 and C3PO meet one another with all the fanfare of exchanging a “Wuz up?”
The one thing I cannot speak to is the effect of The Phantom Menace on the eight-year-olds in the audience. Does it hold them in thrall for 120+ minutes? I can’t imagine it does. It commits the gravest sin that a film in this franchise can commit. It’s outright boring. With talks of trade federations, taxes and blockades, Episode I has none of the story-telling magic of the original Star Wars films. A New Hope offers the most archetypal of all narratives: a hero’s efforts to rescue a princess. It’s a storyline with which all audience members can identify. It has a universality that transcends language and history. Every culture and every nationality has such stories and myths. A New Hope offers a futuristic epic, a true space opera. The Phantom Menace offers tepid political debate and large-scale mayhem with all the emotional stakes of a videogame. Even the final showdown between Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul is nothing more than an extrapolation of what the lightsaber battle between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi would have looked like if Ben Kenobi hadn’t sacrificed himself for the greater good.
At the end of The Phantom Menace, you have to ask yourself if George Lucas is a one-hit Star Wars wonder. The success of The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi are due in large part to the writing of Lawrence Kasdan and the direction of Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand (respectively). Perhaps the best interpreter of George Lucas’ world-building isn’t George Lucas. But, by 1999, Lucas had built a cinematic empire (sorry), and no one was going to truly criticize his script or his directorial approach to his own material. Much like Stephen King’s big bloated doorstopper novels of the late ’80s and early ’90s, no editor was going to tell Lucas that his comeback visual extravaganza was a snooze. It’s a Hollywood tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Bad script? Poor direction? No worries. We’re going to make billions. However, there is one shred of good news for the franchise. If third parties produce better Star Wars films than Lucas, we should feel encouraged that the next original installment rests on the shoulders of J.J. Abrams.
Don’t miss our previous Star Wars coverage:
- Logan’s defense of The Phantom Menace.
- Star Wars: Rebels Season 2 Premiere (spoiler and non-spoiler reviews)
- Rebellious Scum, our Star Wars Rebels podcast
- Our full-length commentary for The Phantom Menace
- A discussion about the official canon of the Star Wars Saga
- The kick-off podcast for our year of The Wars
- Our favorite Star Wars moments
- What Star Wars Means to Me, from Adam
- And so much more!
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.