By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by George Lucas
- Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Welcome to Star Wars Wednesdays! Every Wednesday I’ll be talking about/looking at a new piece of Star Wars media, starting with the movies and going onwards into the shows, games, and maybe even comics and books if people are interested. These will work differently from my normal reviews as they will be also discussing the piece as it works within the canon of Star Wars as a whole.
I think Episode I – The Phantom Menace is a film with one of the most fascinating histories in terms of fan reactions. When it was initially released in 1999, reception was notably, and famously, mixed-to-leaning negative from both critics and fans which considering the level of hype made it go down in the history books. I wasn’t old enough at the time to see it in theaters or to even know the fan reaction as it was happening, but I was told stories as I got older and as the prequels kept coming out I started to see it first hand.
Nowadays though, reception on The Phantom Menace seems to have shifted. It’s not uniformly positive, mind you – there are still vocal detractors and it will likely stay that way permanently – but the general audience reception is more positive then it used to be. Time seems to have a way of healing all wounds, something that fans of the extremely divisive sequel trilogy will likely be happy to hear (your trilogy will be loved soon enough, don’t worry).
Generally, and to this day, I fall onto the middle side of the spectrum in regards to Episode I. I find to be more of a technical achievement then an actually interesting piece of storytelling, more interested in showcasing a bunch of new tech rather then keeping it’s characters and themes more then vague posturing. That’s not to say it doesn’t have characters or themes, it has plenty to go around, but all of it feels mostly secondary to the cool effects work and the action sequences.
Which are, admittedly, still impressive to this day. Not everything holds up (hello Windows XP grass) but the stuff that does really does and the 35mm cinematography (the only one of the prequels that is shot on film) is nothing short of gorgeous. There are some incredible wides here and the framing is consistently engaging in a way that a lot of blockbusters just aren’t. Regardless of what time has said as well, there is a lot of great practical stuff here that just isn’t in the other prequels and the miniature sets, the practical explosions, the on location shooting, it lends an aura of authenticity to the film that otherwise wouldn’t have it.
It’s just a shame the story isn’t up to snuff. The film, set in 32 BBY, is trying to do two separate stories at once to varying degrees of success. On paper, the film is about the origin of Anakin Skywalker and his life as a child and it mostly fails at this. Anakin himself isn’t introduced into the film until around an hour into the picture and by that point the film already (kinda) has a protagonist in Padme. Even that is murky though as the film never really seems to know who it’s central figure should be. When Anakin is introduced he does becoming something of a central character but not THE central character, and even takes a backseat in the climax outside of some fun space stuff. It’s cute to see Anakin as a kid and I appreciate Lucas forcing us to reckon with the idea that all evil people were once kids, but it’s ultimately the lack of focus that hurts that side of the tale.
But that’s only half of the story. The second story is the more effective one in the grand scheme and why Episode I, despite it’s general lackluster quality, is essential viewing in the grand order of the canon. The film sets the stage for the Clone Wars in numerous ways, but it’s also about how Palpatine initially came into power in the first place. One could argue that this is really his movie, and to an extent that’s true. Regardless of the happy ending here, there is a real sense of unease on rewatches when you quickly realize that Palpatine got what he wanted and this is exactly the outcome he was hoping for. It’s on that end that The Phantom Menace starts to morph into an interesting political piece and something actually resembling a solid piece of filmmaking, to the point where it almost turns into it a great one.
Still the problems here are too much to ignore. Beyond the lack of clarity in the cast and themes, the film’s messy pacing and general lack of structure mostly hurts it in the long run. It moves from one setpiece to the next and ends up feeling like a monotonous slog in the end and while there are a couple of great action beats here and there (including the wickedly excellent lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Maul which is one of the best in the series) it just becomes too much. It feels like escalation for the sake of escalation, more interested in one upping prior films in the series instead of giving itself room to breath as it’s own narrative.
But it’s not it’s own narrative but it was never going to be. It’s hard to really say whether or not a Star Wars movie works on it’s own merits cause most of the time it’s impossible to do that. These films are a saga and meant to be viewed as part of a bigger whole and as part of a bigger whole The Phantom Menace works well enough. It succeeds more as a franchise piece then as a standalone film which is it’s own can of worms but that also makes it a must watch in the grand canon of Star Wars stories.