The first of the Star Wars prequels The Phantom Menace was one of the most anticipated films of 1999. Maybe this is why, at the time, so many Star Wars fans felt so let down by the film. Trust me it’s probably not as bad as most of you remember.
That’s not to say the film does not have its problems. Those of us looking for the 1950’s style boys own adventure feel of the first trilogy found it largely replaced by a political drama involving trade agreements. This might have worked better if the dialogue hadn’t been so weak and poorly directed.
The weak dialogue hampers many of the performances. Even those who had proved themselves to be great actors, both before and since, struggle not to seem wooden and uncomfortable. Only Ian McDiarmid (Senator Palpatine) and Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), despite his ‘Bigger Fish’ joke, seem to be able to rise above the material. The weak dialogue, along with the comedy ‘Battle Droids’, takes quite a bit of the menace and tension from many scenes.
There is also, of course, the start of the romance between the fourteen year old Queen Amidala and nine year old Anakin Skywalker. This could be seen as just a crush of a nine year old on a fourteen year old that just finds him sweet. Unfortunately it is directed more as a blossoming romance which, at times, is a little creepy to watch.
Before we move onto the positive aspects of the film there is one more gripe we must touch on. Jar Jar Binks was seen as many as a miscalculation by Lucas and even a little bit racist. As mentioned in a memorable scene is Spaced he was loved by kids but, hated by older fans of the original trilogy. Unfunny to the point of being annoying he was seen, much like R2-D2 and C3PO in the original trilogy, as a character whose eyes we could see the three films through. Such was the backlash against Jar Jar that Lucas paired down his role in both the follow up films.
As I said before, and despite what I’ve written above, The Phantom Menace is probably not as bad as you remember. Without the hype the positives start to shine through. Plus any film featuring the voice of Brian Blessed can’t be all bad.
There are some genuinely thrilling action sequences. The pod race looked fantastic on the big screen and has loses none of its thrill with repeat viewing. There is also the confrontation between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. Both these sequences, as well as many other action scenes within the film, are well acted, choreographed, shot and directed.
Darth Maul is a fantastic bad guy, although not as menacing a Darth Vader. His part is well written and when he is in the film he is well used. Darth Maul featured heavily in the films promotion. I just wish he had more screen time.
It is also a Star Wars film which, just by proxy, adds a certain level of awesome. There are many of elements we loved from the original trilogy that are still present. There is Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space ships, imaginative aliens, scary bad guys, a strong female lead, I could easily go on. It’s also gone on to gross nearly one and a half billion worldwide.
So as flawed as it first seems The Phantom Menace is actually not too bad a film. I don’t know of any Star Wars fans who hated it so much they have not watched it since the release. By the way I intentionally didn’t mention Midi-chorians, that never happened!