My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

It’s impossible to review a film like The Phantom Menace in 2011 without the baggage of the last 12 years coming along for at least part of the ride, but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to do more than the whining haters have done for the last decade plus, and that’s give this film an honest critique.

So here we go.

Reviewing the Past of a Long Time Ago

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace is not a perfect film. It is, however, a structurally sound, brilliantly executed and deeply intriguing imperfect film rooted firmly in thesame post-modern tradition of it predecessors.

If you don’t know or remember, it follows two Jedi Knights as they traverse the galaxy for the sake of preventing war and along the way they discover their own messiah and are dogged by a mysterious set of villains known as the Sith while the Republic rots from governmental abuses of power.

Truth be told, this film owes a larger debt to Akira Kurosawa than Lucas’ previous works. It is to The Hidden Fortress what The Magnificent Seven is to Seven Samurai.

For all of the posturing and regurgitation of Lucas’ influences that the average fanboy can spit out—Kurosawa! Joseph Campbell! Wizard of Oz! Flash Gordon!—all should do themselves a favor and actually study them to understand this film better.

It also shares an amazing resemblence, whether inadvertant or otherwise, to a film known as Iron Monkey. I’d love to pick Lucas’ brain and see what influences, if any, that film may have had on him.

Emotional Notes

The emotional notes Lucas hits in this film are quite deep and the musical score is, in all honesty, one of John Williams’ masterworks.

It’s a shame that it’s largely overlooked as such.

Lucas makes a very bold choice with this film by having a main character, Qui-Gon Jinn, basically refuse to give the audience emotional cues as to how they should be feeling about the story&mdesh;very similar to Kanbê Shimada in Seven Samurai. Liam Neeson plays a perfect Samurai master, serene and peaceful in the extreme, even when certain death is near.

However, just because it’s a bold choice I appreciate, doesn’t mean I think it was wise. In the first set of movies we had very clearly expressed emotions, high adventure and a linear plot (told very quickly). It was easier to relate to the characters and as a result easier to relate to the film. Perhaps if Lucas had made Qui-Gon a bit more “imperfect” the audience would be able to relate a little more.

The Phantom Menace also suffers from the fact that the child character is a bit too young to be completely believable. Had Anakin been a scant 2 or 3 years older, the audience would have been able to believe in his maturity and abilities a little more. As it is, a 10 year old, no matter how gifted with magical powers, is a little hard to buy into.

Of Midichlorians

Another bit of contention arose from midichlorians. I think that they’re a terrific story point. While the Force is all around the galaxy, why are some able to be Jedi and others not? Enter the all-important midichlorian. While maligned, it’s a terrific reconciliation between faith and science. For while there may be a higher power, how would it be expressed? How would some be more attuned to it than others?

I think it’s an elegant solution. It also sets up the important transformation of Anakin through the course of the later films, which leads to a slight weakness here. While midichlorians are explained and they hold specific significance in this story, the true payoff isn’t until Revenge of the Sith. If I’m going to be fair, I have to deduct a point for a story element that isn’t contained completely within the film. It’s a little bit of a cheat, however unavoidable it may be.

Enter the Sith

We all knew before this film that Darth Vader was (the? a?) Dark Lord of the Sith, but only because that title had been bestowed in supplementary materials. It never once comes up in the original films, but we knew it all by rote anyway.

Lucas blows the roof off the Sith in this film with the introduction of the much-beloved Darth Maul. He was a great way to up the ante from Vader and show us what “real” Jedi fighting was like. He was definitely a show-stopper.

He’s a great foreshadowing of what we know is coming for Anakin. One transition in particular, where Qui-Gon says he doesn’t know what his high midichlorian count means, is juxtaposed into Darth Maul’s arrival on Tatooine. Maul, in a sense, exists solely for this transition in the film and it’s done particularly well.

However, it’s one of the editing highlights in a movie that has some real issues with knowing when to cut a scene. The irony is, of course, that Lucas redefined editing for American film with the original Star Wars in 1977 (A New Hope since 1979). I’m not sure exactly where the disconnect was for Lucas, but he needed someone more willing to fight him in the editing booth for this film.

Every issue that there is directly relates to his reluctance to leave anything out. I’ll be interested to see what happens with the Blu Ray edition, because there is about 10 minutes or so of excess baggage that cutting would edge this closer to the perfection it deserves to be.

The editing also kills a lot of the comedy that’s in there by taking too long to tell a joke. For instance, Jar Jar’s jolt at the hands of the energy binders is a great bit of slapstick if it took about half as long to tell it. I still laugh at it, but then the joke just drags on, when it could just be over and done with.

The scene with the kids borders on the execrable. This is especially unfortunate because the rest of the scene that tells us of Anakin’s Immaculate Origin, provides a swelling musical cue as the podracer comes to live and a mother realizes she’s going to be losing her son whether he survives the race or not, gets diminished.

As far as the political procedural drama, I like it. Of course, I’m a student of politics and history, and so the Fall of the Roman Star Wars Republic would naturally appeal to me. If anything, I would have dug even more of it.

Which of Course Brings Us to Jar Jar

I like Jar Jar. I like Boss Nass. I like the Gungans. (Stepping out of the timeline, I love them even more now that I have young kids). But there is too much of them. There are four specific points that, if the editing knife had been exercised a little more judiciously, would have made the character of Jar Jar go over much better, as well as help the sometimes-dogged pace of the movie. It’s also unfortunate that, during a truly stirring moment as the racers’ banners are marched to the field on Tatooine, Lucas spoils it with a fart joke. While I laugh at a good fart or poop joke like any sane man, this one completely blows any seriousness out the window for an important moment in the film.

A little more explanation at the end, as well, that the Jedi Council had seen the Hand of the Force in Anakin’s actions at Naboo (they did) led them to overrule Yoda’s advice and accept him for training (they did). It’s alluded to in a scene with Obi-Wan, but could have stood some more clarification.

The Final Analysis

Usually what I’ve said through the years about this film is that Episode I is just like Book I of The Lord of the Rings. (For the uninitiated, I mean the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring.) The first time you’re reading about Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Wights, you’re tempted to give up on the books. (Little known fact: Tom Bombadil made me give up on reading The Fellowship of the Ring the first two times I tried. Then I tried a third time and slogged through thanks to the encouragement of my buddy Mike. But after I had read the whole series, I was stunned at what I had failed to see the first time around.)

The exposition for an epic story—in this case, Episode I—is a truly fascinating thing to experience if you can simply contextualize it either in the moment or after seeing the whole work completed. Instead of weighting it against expectations, go into it with a clean slate. Of course, you have to wonder if that was ever possible for the public at large with this film. The hype, the years of waiting, the childhood nostalgia—all very powerful to overcome.

The fact that Episode I can also stand as its own independent story makes it even more special. People will eventually look back on this film and see what we missed, which was a new revolution in filmmaking that was more subtle than the first at the hands of a gifted director.

18 thoughts on “My Honest Reviews of the Star Wars Films: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

  1. I liked the Phantom Menace because I appreciated it’s role in the trilogy, but it suffers from the same problem as Star Trek III: It makes no sense *outside* the trilogy. My guess has always been that for many people, they couldn’t handle the fact that they felt they were getting 1/2 of a movie, which I found to be an unfair criticism. Like every TOS Star Trek movie in the series, Star Trek III was intended to be the last TOS film, making the crime with Star Trek even worse. It made no sense unless there was more story to be told. At least TPM assumed there would be more story to tell, and for that I forgave it. After all, I never once thought to myself, “I’m going to watch TPM, but will not watch the next two films.” I knew it was part of a trilogy I’d watch to completion (unless I got hit by a bus before they came out), and it served it’s part fairly well. Also, it was exciting to see the movies return. While that may have resulted in disappointment for some people, my approach was more along the lines of, “I can’t wait for the next movie. I want to see how this unfolds.”

    Just my 2 cents.

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  2. Excellent and thoughtful review.

    Like you, the political aspects in the film were among my favorite scenes. Before the prequels were made, and all we had to watch was the OT, there were many mysteries to the saga that I always wondered about. One such mystery was how Palpatine managed to overthrow the Republic and become Emperor. I found it quite intriguing to see Palpatine playing politics, and how he cleverly manipulates his way to the Chancellor’s seat — Not to mention that it was amusing, at least to me, to see a Dark Lord of the Sith having to be all smiles and pleasantries (As if he should be running a chocolate factory somewhere) when he had to put on his public persona.

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  3. I have little critique of your critique. I am not a fan of the midichlorians, but I appreciate your interpretation of their role in the SW universe. I prefer something more mystical that defies the ability of science to quantify, while its effects are apparent.

    I love the character of Jar Jar and the Gungans. I do not like the portrayal. The heroic buffoon is a fascinating character. I just feel like his role in the script was forced. His lines and delivery were awkward. The whole mock Rastafarian accent was pretty insulting (as is true for the faux Japanese accent of the Trade Federation). Poor choices.

    The story, though… the story is fantastic, and the reason why I persevered through the next two. Overall, though, I didn’t think there was much chemistry between the actors, and that Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor were the lone high points (though I’ll take your perspective on Liam Nessan’s portrayal under advisement).

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    1. I think I understand what your saying, and what I’ll fall back on is: editing. The comedy with Jar Jar misfires because Lucas doesn’t know when to cut away. If there’s a major lesson he forgets here, it’s that you can’t stay in love with your own ideas and you have to be willing to trim them down. Lucas makes rookie mistakes in the editing booth, which is surprising considering he helped reinvent how to edit films.

      To wit: “There are four specific points that, if the editing knife had been exercised a little more judiciously, would have made the character of Jar Jar go over much better, as well as help the sometimes-dogged pace of the movie.”

      To speak to another comment you made on another blog review: One of those four scenes is the journey through the “planet core.” It can be cut in half.

      Another is the scene where they get the podracer working. It stops being funny about a third of the way in (and those kids…). The third: The scene where Boss Nass promotes Jar Jar can just be cut out completely. It’s not necessary in any way to the story. ‘Number four’ is the fart joke at the podracer arena and the stepping on poop as they enter Mos Espa. The irony is that Jar Jar is supposed to annoy the other characters, and he winds up annoying the audience; he didn’t annoy me as much as some others.

      As for the Asian accent, Lucas was trying to draw out the Federation as China. Other accents were to account for what he felt was a pet peeve: aliens speaking perfect English in certain other Sci Fi franchises. As for Jar Jar’s accent, that was Ahmed Best’s work and idea — according to what he said when I saw him at the convention before the movie was released.

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        1. Trust me, if it was blind loyalty I’d insist the movie was flawless, which it ain’t. 🙂

          I’m not making the accents thing up on my own; the reasoning is partially lifted from an interview he gave after the release (to Starlog magazine), that sort of swayed my own opinion on it. As for Ahmed Best copping to the voice — he wasn’t originally supposed to do it, and he campaigned to let Lucas let him do it — that can be confirmed by sometime-commenter Hawk (he was there at Celebration I, Tent B, in April 1999 with me).

          But I would love to get together sometime, whether it’s to discuss Star Wars or not. And you’re going to hate something that’s going to publish in a couple of days. It’s definitely another opinion that finds me in the minority with my friends…and one where people are unlikely to shift no matter where they stand. Possibly even more contentious than the prequels versus originals debate.

          Thanks for the comments, I like knowing that someone out there is at least listening! 🙂

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  4. OK, I thought you had a post about the 10 minutes to cut from Episode One that make it better, but if it exists, I could not find it, so I’m resurrecting this post (apologies to earlier subscribers) to reflect on the pain and suffering we call Episode One.

    I’ll admit – it’s not ALL bad. Young Obi-Wan is attractive. There’s an interesting, underlying tension between Shimi (?) and Qui-Gon. There’s mystery, and if you reflect on it, you realize early on that a war is being engineered by one mad man. The chancellor MAKES this movie. I’d be satisfied with a revised version in which most scenes included him.

    However, there’s a LOT to be desired in this film. Now, I didn’t time it, but I believe there’s a LOT more than 10 minutes that I’d cut from this. In the spirit of what I would do to make it successful, here’s what I’d take to the mattresses with Lucas (which is saying a lot, despite appearances, I don’t like to argue IRL).

    – cut the first meeting with Jar Jar, and the first Gunga meeting
    – revisit the look of Gungas (fat toads? really?)
    – cut the entire underwater scene, especially the fish eating larger fish thing
    – cut cleaning R2D2 (there are better ways to show Padme is down to earth)
    – cut Jar Jar stepping in poo upon arrival in Tattooine
    – revisit Watto design (too cutsy/stupid)
    – revise weird Padme/Anakin first meeting (seriously? “are you an angel?” gag me)
    – cut fighting with Bulbo (sp?)
    – cut working on the pod racer before the race (Jar Jar, space kids, young greedo, barf)
    – cut the midichlorian comparison to Yoda (this makes me want to pull my toenails out. we’ve argued about it before, my issue is that I believe becoming a Jedi is more like a “calling” than a “science”)
    – cut the virgin birth stuff (you’ve defended this before, but the movies don’t make this clear on their own, so, tough)
    – cut some time off of the pod race. It’s too long, and time on tattooine drags on the storyline
    – revise creepy “care for you” scene between Anakin and Padme – reeks of all kinds of wrong. Might just be a casting problem, perhaps an older Ani would work better (though you insist this was a good choice above). I don’t have a problem with the dialogue here, just the age of the people saying it.
    – revise weird Yoga fear-hate-anger-suffering line.
    – the power of Qui-Gon challenging the decision of the council over Anikin is lost, because there’s no indication that he was ever a rule-follower to begin with. Perhaps if they added a scene at the beginning, or if this scene was filmed more dramatically, it could be better.
    – cut Qui-Gon’s explanation of midichlorians to Ani
    – cut Jar Jar’s “misa goin home”. Worst. Line. Ever.
    – change JarJar/Gunga accent/language – cutsy “misa”, “yousa” and “exSQUEEZEme” stuff is silly and distracting. (and boss nass shaking face like a dog thing? dumb!)
    – “gungas go to sacred place” scene. We can meet Gungas in their sacred place for the first time, when Amidala reveals herself, and that would be fine.
    – cut the cutsy battle scene stuff with Jar Jar near the end (droid caught on his foot, tripping over stuff, fumbling water bombs, etc)
    – padawan learner’s haircut – the stupid long braid is distracting
    – Jar Jar getting caught in the camel’s harness thing during the ending ceremony

    Obviously, I’m not alone. While I dont agree with EVERYTHING from this video, the bit about a protagonist is spot on. I’m sure you’ve seen this before, but just in case…

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    1. Just to fast forward to the “I’m not alone” bit – so what? There are a ton of movies and films through time that haven’t found their audience until much later, and others that have enjoyed unexpected acclaim (think The Matrix) that over time have seen their luster fade.

      You offer what you think are good cuts. To encapsulate mine:

      1. Get to Theed quicker.
      2. Cut two gags.
      3. Tighten editing in conversations.

      Number 3 seemed to have been done in the BluRay. And CG Yoda was awesome in the BluRay.

      As for the exhausting complaints about the virgin birth, you do realize that’s explained by inference in Revenge of the Sith, right? And it needs a device like the midichlorians to work. Just because some in the audience can’t pay attention, doesn’t mean it’s a bad concept.

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