RETRO REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Drew Struzan’s Release Poster – 20th Century Fox

The following is a retro review of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, a George Lucas film.

The first return of Star Wars didn’t go as well as planned. Way back in 1999, George Lucas resurrected the greatest movie franchise of all-time with The Phantom Menace. It included politics, fan-service, and a very young Darth Vader. Fans were certain that this franchise reboot was going to work, but, unfortunately, the end result did not live up to most fans’ expectations. To this day, the end result is remembered as one of the worst examples of prequel films, but, while I can’t say that I like the film, I don’t think it is as catastrophic as its sequel.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace follows Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor), as they are to negotiate with the Trade Federation on behalf of the Galactic Republic. But when the Jedi are ambushed by battle droids and the planet of Naboo is invaded, we see the Jedi once again battling the infamous Sith – led by Darth Sidious and his apprentice Darth Maul (played by Ray Park, and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz).

It is often said that the Star Wars-fandom was duped by the prequels, and particularly The Phantom Menace. It by no means lives up to the quality of the films that George Lucas made his name with. It, frankly, is not a good film, even though it may be special for some due to childhood nostalgia. Incidentally, I have to say that there are still certain scenes in the film that make me smile simply because they remind me of my childhood. George Lucas obviously did a phenomenal job of creating the universe of Star Wars, but his talents as a director and as a writer were, rightfully or not, called into question when his so-called prequel trilogy came to an end. The film’s dialogue is stilted and unnatural, its main narrative is sometimes tedious, and, though I disagree, some would say that he even tarnished the reputation of Darth Vader as a villain. Instead, I would say that he almost took the magic — that irresistible, ineffable pull — out of the series with his invention of ‘midichlorians.’

The performances in The Phantom Menace aren’t particularly good. Liam Neeson and Ian McDiarmid are definitely the standouts here. I think it is a shame that we have, thus far, only had a single film with Liam Neeson’s character. Because it is clear that Qui-Gon Jinn is extremely important to George Lucas’ story, and, because Neeson is solid in the film, I wish he could have been the lead of a better Star Wars-film. Ewan McGregor probably, over the course of the entire prequel trilogy, gives the best performance, but I’m not a huge fan of him in The Phantom Menace. But it isn’t really fair to blame the actors when every set looks fake, when they have to stand in front of several blue screens, and when they are hamstrung by a less-than-stellar screenplay. I also don’t think it is fair to criticize Jake Lloyd for his performance as young Anakin Skywalker. But I understand why some people dislike the portrayal. It could have been a lot better, but he does about as well as most other actors in this prequel.

Jar-Jar Binks has always been the bigger crime here, and I still don’t get what George Lucas was going for with him. It pains me to think about how the actors that voice the Star Wars aliens in The Phantom Menace were directed. People have pointed out that a lot of the voices are racist stereotypes, and I’m not going to argue with that argument. It would have been much better, and much more like Star Wars, to subtitle them and give them their own languages.

It’s easy to tear this film apart, but there are things that I really like about The Phantom Menace. Darth Maul is such an exciting and intriguing character. His character design is almost peerless based on sheer coolness, and Ray Park is incredible in his big fight scene with Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson’s characters. Maul’s fate in the film was retconned later, but the fact that they wasted him had always annoyed me. There can be no doubt that Darth Maul is, by far, the coolest thing about The Phantom Menace. However, the best thing about it is its musical score. John Williams hadn’t lost it, and the track ‘Duel of the Fates’ remains one of the best Star Wars-themes of all-time. The track and the fight scene that it is paired with is the single best sequence in the entire prequel trilogy. It is very powerful, and its importance is not lost on me. That is the best thing you can say about this film. That said, I have to admit that while there certainly are some noteworthy strong elements about George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace, it’s flaws are clear and obvious. It is, however, by no means the worst film in the franchise.

5.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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