Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
-20th Century Fox (1999)
Annoying and aggravating comic relief, fart jokes, bad acting by a little kid, two headed announcer aliens, and more!
This is the Star Wars film that Star Wars fans absolutely love to hate. Why? Because it blows. But, in the spirit of fair play I decided to take a look at it with a fresh set of eyes. My goal in re-watching the film was to try and see if it's as bad as everyone says it is, or maybe we are all a little harsh with our criticism.
The opening crawl starts out fine enough, but leads me to worry when it states that the, "…taxation of trade routes is in dispute." What? Who the hell cares about taxes and trade routes? I thought I was watching a Star Wars film. Sadly, you are watching a Star Wars film and you are supposed to care about trade routes and sales taxes, because the planet of Naboo is under a blockade by an organization called the Trade Federation. A delegation of Jedi is sent to try to work things out peaceably in order to end the horrible blockade, which is never really explained. I mean, what are the people of Naboo missing out on? It looks like they have everything they need on their Earth-like planet. Is there some sort of intergalactic panty hose they need?
Anyway, when we meet Obi-wan and his Master Qui-Gon Jin… wait a minute. Obi-Wan's master is Qui-Gon Jin? According to the previous Star Wars trilogy wasn't his master supposed to be Yoda? Oh well moving on, Obi and Qui-Gon are representatives of the Republic, and as stated previously, it’s their job to help the poor people of Naboo. They sit around waiting in the aliens' ship while the Trade Federation booger looking/stereotypical Asian aliens receive orders from a guy who looks like the Emperor (duh, because he is). He wants the incompetent aliens to kill the Jedi duo. Obi and Qui then escape down to the planet of Naboo in a pretty decent action sequence.
The film goes from passable to horrible in a nanosecond with the introduction of Jar Jar Binks. Enough trash has been spouted about Jar Jar over the years to fill volumes of books, but I was trying to give the alien a fair shake this time. Needless to say he's about as annoying as he ever was, although I have to admit that there are a few lines of his lines that I enjoy. What I don't understand is why he was included in the first place, because R2-D2 and C-3P0 always provided ample amounts of comedy relief without having some idiot alien around.
Better than Jar Jar though, we also get to meet the Queen of Naboo. She is fourteen-years-old and somehow got elected as Queen of her planet… yeah you figure that one out. The Queen and the Jedi decide to escape. It's their plan to leave and get some help from the politicians on the capital planet of the Republic, Coruscant. I've also found another fatal flaw with The Phantom Menace, Star Wars heroes should never run to politicians for help.
When they escape Naboo you’d think the film would start to get good again, but you'd be dead wrong. The heroes are forced to land prematurely because of some broken do-dad or whatever on their ship. They decided to go to (surprise) Tatooine, which is normally a planet full of fun and adventure, but in The Phantom Menace it's filled with stupidity. Here we meet a very young Anakin Skywalker, who is perhaps one of the most annoying kids I've ever seen on film. Through a misfortunate series of events, Qui-Gon has to ally with the boy in order to win some money so they can pay for the damaged hyperdrive on the Queen's ship. How do they get the money? Why, the oldest trick in the movie book, they must win it in a dance-off! No not really, but they have to win it in a super challenging, AKA exciting, race. This pod-racing portion of the film is pretty cool now that I look back at it, but it's filled still with all these damn cartoony looking aliens. Oh, I forgot to mention, somewhere in there we learn that Yoda and Obi-Wan were lying to us in the original trilogy. You see, the Force isn't some vague "energy field." Instead, it's created by these tiny microscopic things that live inside your cells called midi-chlorians. Way to ruin the mystique of the Force there, George. You think that's bad? Well, Anakin was the result of a virgin birth! And he might even be THE CHOSEN ONE. I always thought Star Wars was missing a Dune element in it anyway.
The whole crew rambles around the galaxy, makes it back to the capital planet Coruscant where we get to hear some more about taxation, voting, and senatorial procedural talks. Then we get to go back to Naboo before we are treated to a big battle. Sound fun yet? Yeah, its not. The Jedi fight the Emperor’s new toy, Darth Maul, who was critically underused. Jar Jar keeps screwing around in the big time battle, pulling jokes that Wicket did better over 15 years ago. By the end of The Phantom Menace I'm left feeling cheated, while thinking I could have done a much better job with that script. Time did not improve the film at all.
One of the biggest reasons that The Phantom Menace fails so dismally, aside from the script, is that the casting. The acting is completely horrible with very few exceptions. Even Samuel L. Jackson seems to be mailing in his performance. One of the only actors who seems to know what he is doing is Liam Neeson, who plays the Jedi Master Qui-Gon. The main problem with the acting is many actors provide their lines with the vigor of dead wood. Notice the scene in which Padme deadpans, "We're brave, your highness."
The highpoints of the film are of course, the special effects and set designs. Everything is so insanely believable looking (except for the cartoony aliens) that sometimes it's hard to tell what is CGI and what is not. The biggest exception is with Yoda who doesn't really look like Yoda at all to me. Attack of the Clones did a much better service to Yoda's look. The only set that didn't make sense to me was the enormous power room or whatever that the final Jedi confrontation takes place in. Why was it in the palace? Do they need that much energy surging through the building? One of the reasons I think it exists is to further prove that workers in the Star Wars universe think that guard rails and warning signs are idiotic.
There's a fair amount of good in the film, from such things as some of the droid designs, tanks, ships, and elements of the pod racing. The Jedi battle and the Darth Maul stuff are pretty awesome as well, but unless I'm having a Star Wars marathon, this will be one film that won't get any more play in my DVD player.
I understand the reasoning for making The Phantom Menace a much lighter film, because of the progressing heavy darkness leading to The Revenge of the Sith, but there were many ways this film could have been made to make it lighter, yet still have a good story. Notice how light hearted Star Wars: A New Hope is. The problem I think, was that George Lucas knew what he wanted to do, but didn't know how to really get there. This first film in the "new" trilogy is a fumbling around at what events needed to happen in order for there to be an Episode III. I can honestly say that if this wasn't a Star Wars film, I would hate it. Still, I have to give it some kudos for being almost Star Wars like in its own strange way.
Despite the disappointing film, the edition is a great presentation of the film. I've read websites that knock the video quality, but not being a video-freak there wasn't anything I really had a problem with. The surround mix is awesome, with all the light saber crashes, blaster fire, and annoying kids coming in loud and clear.
The Phantom Menace may not be a great movie, but it comes in an awesome DVD edition. This is a two disc set that heralded what we could expect to see for other Star Wars releases. Aside from some awesome motion menus found on both discs, the first disc contains the audio commentary featuring director George Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, sound designer Ben Burtt, animation director Rob Coleman, and visual effects supervisors Dennis Muren, John Knoll and Scott Squires. Don't worry; it indicates when each person is talking. It's a wealth of Phantom information and its one of the better commentaries I've heard in awhile.
Disc Two contains the meat of the special features, of course. “Trailers and TV Spots” contains the theatrical teaser, which was a warning that the film was going to suck. It also has the theatrical trailer, six television trailers, and a the “Duel of the Fates” music video that was popular until everyone realized that the film wasn't half as exciting as the music video made it look like it was going to be.
The “Deleted Scenes and Documentaries” contains the deleted scenes that were completed for the film. They are all pretty decent, but I'm glad that the Greedo scene did not make it in the final cut. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then have a bucket ready next to you when you watch that scene. You’ll need it because it’s that sickening. The “Deleted Scenes Documentary” is an informative look at the edited scenes and what work was done on them for the DVD release. “The Beginning: The Making of Episode I” is a well put together documentary, and a good watch even if you weren't into the film.
“Featurettes, Web Documentaries, and Star Wars.com” is chock full of extra docs and features for you. I'd recommend watching the five featurettes detailing different aspects of the film, including a great one about the lightsaber training for the film.
The “Animatics and Still Galleries” section is interesting, but not enthralling. It contains the usual production photos, print campaign, and posters for the film.
There's also a “Making of Star Wars: Starfighter” that dates the DVD release considerably. Last and certainly least, is some DVD-ROM stuff that's completely old and useless now that the film has been out forever.