Star Wars – The Phantom Menace: A Weak Link in the Force

December 18th is an eagerly anticipated day, for that is the day that Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens will hit theaters. There is plenty of excitement for the film, the latest installment in what is one of the most beloved film franchises in history. There is more than just excitement for the sheer existence of a new Star Wars movie, however. There is hope among the fans, hope that this film will be better than the last three films that came out. The last batch of Star Wars films were Episodes I, II, and III, a prequel trilogy that centered around the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into the legendary villain known as Darth Vader. Though these films had opened up to mixed reviews when they originally came out, time has not been kind to them and they have been the target of furious anger from the fanbase. Most maligned of all of them is Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well, in anticipation for the big release, I had a thought: why not revisit The Phantom Menace? It has been a long time since I had seen it, and perhaps it might be worth seeing if the film truly deserves the hate that it has received. In fact, it might be worth considering if the prequel trilogy as a whole should be worth such scorn. However, let us begin with the most reviled of the prequels, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, the Trade Federation has put a stranglehold on the planet Naboo in response to taxation placed on the Galactic Republic. In a desperate bid to gain the aid of the Senate, two Jedi warriors named Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi lead a mission to transport Queen Amidala to Coruscant and gain their support. Along the way, they are temporarily grounded on the desert planet of Tattooine, where they meet Anakin Skywalker. Though Anakin serves as a slave, Qui-Gon finds that he possesses an acute sensitivity to a mystical power known as the Force. Believing that he may serve a grand purpose, Qui-Gon finds a way to bring Anakin on their journey, while encountering a Sith Lord known as Darth Maul who seeks to kill them. Once they are finally on their way, they seek to solve the numerous problem before them. For Queen Amidala, she seeks to find a way to save her planet while contending with the corruption that has rooted itself within the Senate. For Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, they seek not only to realize what destiny is waiting for Anakin, but also to find who is the mastermind behind Darth Maul’s attacks.

When it comes to the prequel films, I do feel that The Phantom Menace is the weakest of the films. The performances feel a touch wooden, with actors working from material that’s written in a rather blunt and flat manner. The attempts at inserting humor, such as with the bumbling antics of Jar Jar Binks, come off as too broad and obnoxious in comparison to the charming bits of comic relief in the original Star Wars trilogy. Most of all, the film ultimately feels like it lacks any real stakes to it. There is talk about how the people of Naboo are suffering or dying at the hands of the Trade Federation, but any time the audience is shown the planet things look fine. Anakin and his mother are said to be slaves struggling in Tattooine, but they appear about the same as any of the other occupants of Mos Eisley and not in particularly bad shape. It is as if all of these supposed hardships are simply talked about, rather than actually shown. In turn, these descriptions of hardship are met with characters simply stating how they feel, instead of showing any real anguish or emotion. It is as if they lack any real stake in the situation. This lack of any emotional resonance or impact results in the film ultimately feeling like a long sequence of padding until the next action sequence. To me, it feels like it forgets one of the classic rules for when a story has a scene or moment which should leave some kind of impact: show, don’t tell.

Now, I feel I wouldn’t be totally right if I neglected any good from this movie, so I feel it’s worth at least noting a few things. Though the script has this blunt manner in its writing, Liam Neeson (who plays Qui-Gon Jinn) and Ian McDiarmid (who plays the scheming Senator Palpatine) both manage to make the best of the material and offer performances with a bit more personality to them. The film makes some good use of intermixing real sets with CG, in comparison to Episodes II and III over-relying on digitally-created sets at the expense of true physical locations. This movie is also the first Star Wars film to feature “Duel of the Fates”, a piece of the score made by John Williams. With its temple-like chanting providing a core backbone behind the frantic beat and rhythm of the instruments, it provides a feel that offers a spiritual core to fast combat. It’s no wonder that the piece is one that’s quickly become one of the signature tunes in the Star Wars franchise. Still, these few pluses do not outweigh the many minuses that bring this movie down.

In short, I feel that The Phantom Menace is not only a weak movie. It is a deeply flawed movie (to put it politely), one that forgets actually showing the stakes in its galactic adventure and instead simply relying on saying that things are bad. So, is it worth hating? Is it worth releasing so much rage over how this film works, how it fits into the Star Wars franchise? Well, I’d like to consider the prequel trilogy as a whole, before I lay down my verdict.

I feel like this entry may go on a tad too long if I start talking about that now, so tune in to Friday’s entry to see my thoughts on the prequel trilogy and whether or not they deserve the hatred they are frequently dealt.

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