Ahhhh, The Phantom Menace… almost everyone you know will be aware of the public despair that was the result of this film. Even if they’ve never seen Star Wars, they’ve probably been the victim of a fan’s rant about the sad state of affairs that were the prequels.
But, is it really THAT bad?
One of my earliest memories is of my cousin and I going to see The Phantom Menace at the age of four, and we bloody loved it. Granted, the only thing I clearly remember from that viewing is the final duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Maul (which is definitely the best bit), but I didn’t come to realise that it wasn’t a good film until a good while after that. Which makes sense, because kids are a hell of a lot more forgiving about that sort of thing than adults tend to be.
And you know what? There are actually some parts of The Phantom Menace that I can watch without throwing up in my mouth… even if there are a lot of times when I end up doing just that.
Nah I’m kidding, I don’t really throw up in my mouth, more like die a little inside.
And it’s all George-Bloody-Lucas’ fault.
Anyway, let’s cut the rambling and crack this list out. I’m going to structure this more like what I like to call a compliment cracker than a compliment sandwich; 5 bad things, and then 5 good things to top it off and turn the dry, bitter taste of the cracker into something we can stomach.
- First off, the script. Seriously, who read this fucking thing, and gave it the ok? “Well it seems a bit shit to me, but he made three fan-bloody-tastic movies last time, so he must know what he’s doing”. No, he doesn’t, he clearly doesn’t. One of the main reasons why Star Wars finally became this fairly stripped down, fast-paced (for the time), fun adventure movie is because George allowed people to give criticism, cut bits out, question his ideas. This time, he was surrounded by yes-men who were either too focussed on the merchandise-machine that is Star Wars to care, or were paid to essentially just help Lucas bring this movie to life rather than offer ideas or criticism. The dialogue is awful, the plot is way too complicated, and the characters are so underdeveloped that Jar-Jar Binks is the only guy who actually grows as a Jamaican-Stereotyped-Frog-Bunny *cough* I mean… grows as a Gungan.
- The racial stereotypes in this film are incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Seriously, how did these characters get past the people who check films for these sorts of things? From Nute Gunray and his fishy friends to Watto the “Toydarian” (or is that spelt “Jewish-stereotype-so-horrific-it-could-be-from-a-nazi-propaganda-film”? I can’t remember…). I just can’t believe they let this happen, and in a kids film no less. I mean, yes, even in the original films there were some character designs that toed that fine line, but they were never as blatantly offensive as these.
- As well as these two fairly major flaws, this movie also suffers from several cases of great character concepts that are badly wasted. You’ll always hear people say “Darth Maul was such a cool character”, well no. He wasn’t. He was a cool IDEA, because he wasn’t really a character at all. He definitely could’ve been something worth talking about had he been written in even a semi-effective way. The same goes for Qui-Gon Jinn, and even Obi-Wan (a character who is arguably the best thing about the prequels) seriously lacks a good character treatment. It’s just incredibly frustrating to watch a film where such good ideas are left undeveloped in order to throw in some more Goddamn poop jokes.
- The Gungans- cut them out. You don’t need them, they’re just filler. The amount of filler is too damn high!
- Aaaaannnd speaking of Gungans… Mr Jar-Jar Binks himself. He’s a pretty bad part of this film, but, to be fair, the poor, brain-dead guy gets a bit of a bad-rap compared to the other flaws in this movie. I think that people can’t be bothered to really think about why this film isn’t very good, and it’s far simpler to just shout “JAR-JAR BINKS” whenever someone tries to defend The Phantom Menace, rather than trying to construct a logical argument. The only reason why Jar-Jar is the scapegoat in this situation is due to the poor writing of Lucas and the army of yes-men telling him that Jar-Jar is the funniest thing they’ve ever seen, and that kids will love him. Even when I was four I didn’t like that stupid idiot, and I’m damn glad he was the one who essentially allowed Palpatine to gain power. I hope he had to live with that guilt for a long time. I know I’m being a bit harsh here, but this is the bad section and I can’t help you Jar-Jar; I just can’t.
Alright, now that’s out of the way, let’s move onto the “good” stuff. Oh boy…
- In terms of the aesthetics, the look and feel, of this film, it’s definitely my favourite of the prequels. It feels the most like Star Wars out of the three, while the other two become more of an extravagant, almost anime-like version of the story. That kind of style does work (in the case of Revenge of the Sith), but it’s not really the style of the original films. The Phantom Menace, overall, just feels more grounded (as grounded as Star Wars can be, anyway).
- It has a hell of a lot more practical effects than people give it credit for, and all the sets and props are pretty tangible, something that is lost in the next two films of the trilogy. Many people make generalisations about the prequels (me included), and one thing that is picked upon is the over-abundance of CGI. However, honestly, this only becomes an issue in Attack of the Clones. Most of the CGI here looks pretty good, which I think comes down to the fact that it was used to enhance practical sets and characters, not to create them. The Gungans and Droid army only look bad because they were purely made from CGI. Another aspect of this that I think is due praise is the motion capture of Jar-Jar Binks. This was very new technology, and the ways they used it in this film paved the way for many films since. A lot of this film’s technological aspects were new and bold, and I respect the people who were behind these innovative ideas.
- The cast is very solid and, apart from some iffy-acting from Jake Lloyd (which in my opinion can be easily forgiven since he’s a kid), they all do a bloody good job despite the poor script. As Harrison Ford said “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as hell can’t say it”. The obvious stand-out is Ewan McGregor, who does pretty well, as does Liam Neeson.
- John Williams is just too damn talented. Why don’t you share some of the love, John? I mean, how do you even write music like this? It’s almost on a par with your work on the original trilogy’s soundtrack, and that really is saying something. If I ever end up watching the prequel trilogy, John Williams’ incredible score is 50% of the reason for it. Duel of the Fates? Amazing. I’ve never heard a better track for an epic battle, which is probably why it crops up every now and then throughout this trilogy, and every time it does it sounds as good as it ever did.
- Lastly, because it really is the highlight, I suppose I’ll top off this list with the final duel. After trudging through the molasses that is this film, we are rewarded by possibly the best duel of the prequel trilogy. Forget that glowstick, twirly shit of the next two movies, this is how a lightsaber duel should be done. It isn’t as good as any of the original fights because of the severe lack of emotional weight, but it’s pretty damn fun to watch. Like I said at the beginning, this is the only part of the film I can remember from going to see it, and it’s almost worth sitting through the rest in order to watch this bit. Sure it’s over-choreographed, but it sits somewhere halfway between the Luke v Vader fights and the other duels in this trilogy, so it’s pretty damn good.
Well, there you have it, my Phantom Menace “compliment cracker”. I hope I’ve been fairly reasonable about all this, because, you know, I do still kind of like it despite all its faults. It might just be a case of nostalgia blinding me, and I’m sure that it is in part, but there’s something about it that just feels like my childhood.
I can’t, however, say the same about Attack of the Clones… so let’s look forward to that tomorrow, shall we?