The internet is the land of hyperbole. Everything is either the greatest event in the history of the world or the worst thing to ever happen. So when it came time to watch The Phantom Menace–arguably the most maligned of the already ill-regarded Star Wars prequels–I approached it with optimism. I didn’t love the film when I saw it at twelve, but I didn’t hate it either. Surely the case against it was overstated. Surely there was a charitable interpretation to be made. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.
And then it was.
Make no mistake — The Phantom Menace is an awful film. It’s not the blight on the soul of cinema that its most ardent detractors would have you believe, but it’s not a good movie. In truth, somewhere past the halfway mark, Episode I manages to settle into a groove of mere okayness. There’s a good portion of the film that, separated from the ardor and expectations that come with the Star Wars appellation, would fall into the voluminous “fine but forgettable sci-fi adventure” category, never to be spoken or thought of again.
Unfortunately, The Phantom Menace does labor under those expectations, and the worst elements of the film are front-loaded. The racial stereotypes, the parliamentary procedure, and the bad child acting are all at the forefront in the early going of Episode I. At some point, the movie stumbles its way into a decent-if-unremarkable story about bucking authority and making peace with longstanding rivals to face a common enemy. But it’s a long slog to get there without nearly enough of a payoff.
While there’s room, however, to defend writer/director George Lucas’s story for Episode I, or the visual style he employs, or even the plot holes and changes to the Star Wars mythos that drove the most devoted fans crazy, what truly dooms The Phantom Menace is its characters.
Audiences are willing to overlook a multitude of flaws in a film if they’re invested in the characters — people whom the viewers can come to know and care about over the course of a story. To wit, for several years, Star Wars admirers have produced parodies that poke gentle fun at The Original Trilogy for quirks and inconsistencies in those films that are as silly or confusing as the ones in The Prequels (if not so great in number). But because the audience was invested in Luke, Leia, Han, and their compatriots on their journey, the clumsier parts of the Star Wars universe were easily overlooked.
To the point, in A New Hope, the main trio are far from flawless. Luke is a bit whiny; Leia can be too pointed, and Han is kind of a jerk. But there’s such an earnest humanity to them, partly because of those qualities, that makes them feel real and worth caring about in the otherwise removed grandiosity of a space opera.
Contrast that with roster of adventurers in The Phantom Menace. Nearly every character in the film who has any semblance of a personality is an uncomfortable racial stereotype, making it difficult, if not impossible, to connect with them. Apart from those misfires, Lucas tries his best to give something of a personality to the young Anakin Skywalker, but the dialogue and the acting from poor, overmatched Jake Lloyd are so bad that the character falls completely flat. Almost everyone else in the film, from Padme, to Obi Wan, to the coterie of dull functionaries who surround them, carry themselves with a charmless detachment that makes them feel like mannequins being moved around a store display rather than engaging characters.
Liam Neeson is practically the only actor in Episode I able to breathe any life into his character. Qui-Gon Jinn is certainly not as endearing as Luke, Leia, or Han, but a pro like Neeson cannot help but imbue some warmth and even a touch of playfulness into an otherwise stoic role. When he puts his hand on Shmi Skywalker’s shoulder, or has a bemused tone while speaking with Anakin, or a subtle half-smile crosses his face, he feels more like a real person than any other character in the film.
Which is a good since, on rewatch, it becomes clearer that The Phantom Menace is really his movie. Mr. Plinkett is right when he points out that there’s no clear protagonist in Episode I, but Qui-Gon is the closest thing the film can muster. While no one in Episode I has much of an arc, Qui-Gon is one of the first characters we’re introduced to; he drives the action, and his motivations and goals are the clearest of anyone’s in the film. He’s wise, if a bit eccentric and rebellious for a Jedi; he wants to see Anakin trained and the trade dispute resolved, and he doesn’t pay much heed to either The Council or decorum in either pursuit.
And while Neeson is the best performer in this film by a wide margin, that fact is a problem for two reasons. The first is obvious — he dies at the end of the film. Whatever we learn about Qui-Gon, whatever his successes or failures within Episode I, his part in these events ends here.
But the second is a much bigger problem — The Prequel Trilogy isn’t Qui-Gon’s story; it’s Anakin’s. But Anakin is essentially a side character in the first installment of his own epic tale. Sure, he takes an active role when he wins the pod race–one of the few sequences in the film that display the verve and flavor of the original films–but for the most part he’s just along for the ride.
Qui-Gon moves the plot forward while Anakin is having awkward interactions with Padme and blowing up the Trade Federation ship more-or-less by accident. The acting talents of a nine-year-old gave Lucas plenty of reasons to keep the young Skywalker’s presence minimal in The Phantom Menace, but it ultimately does a disservice to the larger story he’s trying to tell.
To wit, though there’s plenty of jokes to be made about the Star Wars creator’s statements about how The Prequels and The Original Trilogy “rhyme,” there’s a legitimate attempt to recreate the rhythms of A New Hope here. In Episode IV, the wizened old Obi Wan Kenobi motivates much of the action, and the film doesn’t introduce Luke until nearly a half hour into the film, roughly analogous to Anakin in Episode I. The difference is that Luke gradually comes into his own over the course of A New Hope, to the point that after Obi Wan’s death, he’s distraught, but realizes his potential, rises to the occasion, and saves the day. Anakin, by contrast, is still essentially a passenger in the story told in The Phantom Menace. He ultimately spends little time with Qui-Gon, and we barely see him react to his savior’s death.
Perhaps Lucas meant for the parallel to extend to Obi Wan. Kenobi is on the sidelines for most of the film as well, but like Luke, he sees his mentor killed from afar, while powerless to help, and eventually sets out to avenge his master. But Luke has an entire additional act in A New Hope to persevere and show growth after Obi Wan’s death, while in The Phantom Menace, the battle with Darth Maul is the climax of the Jedi’s story. The scenes where we see Obi Wan promise to train Anakin, are a capper to the story of “How Qui-Gon Jinn Saved and Helped a Young Boy”, more than they are the beginning of the story of “How Anakin Skywalker Became Darth Vader.”
Which is why I’m more and more on board with the so-called “Machete Order” for watching the Star Wars saga, which slots Episodes II and III between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and omits The Phantom Menace entirely. Episode I is essentially a side-story on the margins of a larger story about the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker that unfolds over the rest of the series. There’s little that we learn about Anakin or Obi Wan or even Padme–who arguably has the most to do of any of the continuing characters in the film–that matters to Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. Whatever the film’s other strengths or weaknesses, The Phantom Menace doesn’t really have a place in the rest of the saga.
But treating The Phantom Menace as a standalone film does it no favors. Separating it from the rest of the series makes the repeated, often contrived call and response Episode I invokes in relation to The Original Trilogy feel that much more hollow. Shoehorning R2-D2 and C3PO into the narrative in implausible ways, superficially mirroring scenes from A New Hope, and tossing off lines like “Obi Wan Kenobi, meet Anakin Skywalker” ring all the more false with the realization that this entry doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the story. It becomes easy fanservice instead of true thematic resonance.
But even divorced from that context, The Phantom Menace simply isn’t a compelling film. It’s easy to joke about how boring the film’s devotion to parliamentary procedure is, but the larger sin is that it diminishes the clarity of the film’s central conflict. There’s a worthwhile and interesting story to be told of an isolated world suffering at the hands of an aggressor, while an indifferent bureaucratic system does nothing. It’s haphazardly realized, but there is, again, a parallel between Padme attempting to defend the people of Naboo and Leia attempting to save her countrymen on Alderaan.
But that story is mired in the endless and convoluted political tedium the film spotlights. The point is clearly to depict Senator Palpatine as a chessmaster, and show how his ability to manipulate otherwise well-meaning individuals allowed him to rise to power. Like Neeson, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is one of the few actors in Episode I who’s able to transcend the material and make an impression with his performance. He subtly shows the smarm behind the senator’s unassuming charm, and his presence is a welcome one.
But there’s more streamlined ways to depict these sorts of machinations without derailing the film in a sea of procedural amendments and motions to table the discussion. There’s room in the sci-fi genre for politics in an intergalactic setting, but Star Wars has always been more steeped in the adventure-focused and personal aspects of the genre. Political intrigue has never been the series’s focus or forte.
These kinds of problems point to another significant issue with the film. Just as Episode I fails to offer a true protagonist, it also lacks a clear or compelling antagonist. The Trade Federation leaders are bumbling, uncomfortably-drawn intermediaries, who don’t pose much of a threat.1 The shadowy Sith Lord who growls orders at them is a largely unseen force in the story — the titular phantom menace. And Darth Maul does little beside look scary and wield a nifty lightsaber.
That last part is not necessarily a bad thing. Boba Fett barely had any lines in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, but remains one of the more popular characters in the franchise simply because he looked cool and his actions spoke louder than words. But The Original Trilogy gave the audience a reason to care about him, and never attempted to make him the most significant obstacle in a movie.
Darth Maul, for his part, is a visually impressive character, and the few hints we see of his personality–like his pacing back and forth while he and Qui-Gon are separated in the midst of their lightsaber duel–are intriguing. Yet ultimately he’s just empty calories in a film whose story was desperate for a clear foil or key to the larger conflict.
That’s a recurring theme with The Phantom Menace. There’s a reason the most lauded aspects of the film tend to be that final lightsaber fight and the pod racing sequence. Whatever Lucas’s failings as a writer or devotee of CGI, he still has a flair for the visual that comes across when he’s depicting pure spectacle. The “dense” nature of how he populates the frame is distracting when he’s trying to tell the meatier parts of his story. But that fight–interspersed though it may be with less-interesting developments–is enthralling and tense, and the pod racing sequence is a thrill, featuring more character and lived-in detail than the rest of the film combined. And yet that visual flourish is all they are — cool individual sequences that wow in the moment but ultimately add little to either the story or its characters.
Lucas’s aesthetic choices certainly falter in many places. His overreliance on CGI lends the film a certain unreal quality in many if not most scenes. Even when it comes to spectacle, sequences like the battle between the Gungans and the droid army often look as though they’re taking place on a Windows desktop background image. The Original Trilogy had a certain worn look to it that not only conveyed the humble, underdog circumstances of the Rebels, but also helped bring this grand space opera back down to Earth. It can be hard to connect on an emotional level to aliens, robots, and space wizards, but the computer-generated environments add yet another layer of unreality, making it even more difficult for the film to resonate at a deeper level. It all looks cool enough, albeit a bit weightless, but there’s no emotional response.
And that, ultimately, is the biggest problem with The Phantom Menace. There’s been an effort in recent years to rehabilitate The Prequels in the public consciousness, to see the brighter side of what George Lucas was, at minimum, trying to achieve with them. It’s a noble aim. The film’s much-criticized aesthetic was a very deliberate stylistic choice on Lucas’s part, and while I have my qualms with it, there’s an unquestionable creativity involved. The opaque plot of the film is unintuitive within the confines of the Star Wars universe, but could be called ambitious in its attempt to meld the series’s adventurous spirit with political theater. And the call backs and echoes of the prior films are, if nothing else, a laudable attempt to connect the new trilogy thematically with its predecessor. But the lack of a compelling emotional hook in all of this is an insurmountable flaw.
The only character who shows enough life for the audience to connect with him at a basic level is bathed in flames by the end of the film. The others are so hamstrung by their crudely caricatured personalities, blank-faced delivery, or stilted dialogue, that the best they can hope for is to coast on the goodwill of the original films. Contrary to popular belief, the first Star Wars Trilogy was not perfectly paced or plotted, but fans could forgive that–consciously or unconsciously–because of the rich world Lucas and his collaborators created and, more importantly, the genuine, keenly-felt characters whom the audience could latch onto.
The Phantom Menace can also be forgiven for most of its missteps, even Jar Jar. But it cannot overcome its failure to develop any characters the audience cares about because of this movie. The stolid figures and stilted exchanges the film puts forward take an immense toll. Even amid the technically impressive environments Lucas and his team meticulously crafted for Episode I, the worlds he created and the people within them feel artificial and cold. That runs counter to what’s made so many fall in love with Star Wars for generations — the genuineness and warmth within that galaxy far far away.
- Beyond that issue, the number of characters who stand out as racial stereotypes make the film legitimately difficult to watch at points. The greedy, semitic Watto; the poorly-synched Eastern tones of the Trade Federation leaders; and, of course, the future Representative Binks, are hard to overlook. Even apart from Jar Jar’s unfortunate patois, it’s easy to see why detractors latched onto him as a symbol of what’s wrong with the film. He’s an odd mix of Goofy and Steve Urkel, with some faux-Jamaican flair thrown in for kicks, and he’s almost omnipresent in the first chunk of the movie. It’s tough to lose oneself in the film when Lucas and company lean toward developing the denizens of their universe with tone deaf ethnic stereotypes and strange affectations instead of real character.↵