Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace ★★★

A lot better than I remembered/was told. In fact, if you cut everything prior to Tatooine, we’re not in bad shape. Apart from the moody world of Otoh Gunga, where we spend barely three minutes, nothing in the first half hour prior to Tatooine is interesting or necessary, nor are there any great images. Starting on Tatooine would have given this film an immediacy it desperately needs despite the relative quickness of the pacing.

But once we get to Tatooine, there’s a lot to admire. I don’t hate Jake Lloyd like some do; he’s just fine as child actors go. The podrace is among the great Star Wars sequences. It’s here that Natalie Portman does her best work in the film, too. I think she draws the shortest straw here when it comes to Lucas’ poor dialogue and direction of actors; as Queen it feels like she was given a ton of terrible notes and was told to make everything as dry and unrealistic as possible.

Coruscant is a mixed bag. The environment is some fantastic Lucas world building, but the change of location also mires the picture in the nonsensical politics and boneheaded governmental organization that may be its worst feature. None of Lucas’ ideas about the organization of the Republic, or Naboo, make any sense at all. From the poorly thought through Senate procedures, to the idea that the invasion is illegal but could be made legal by a treaty (???), to the idea that a Queen would be elected, to the idea that this Queen would pretend to be a handmaiden and have her handmaiden pretend to be the Queen, it feels like Lucas is taking random concepts that exist in our world and going ‘what if it just was the opposite way?’ without even thinking about how it might work if it was that way.

The characters are hit or miss. Neeson’s stoic Qui-Gon is a great realization of a Jedi Master at the top of his game, while Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is given practically nothing to do and ends up feeling shoehorned in. Jar Jar Binks, the subject of much discussion and vitriol since the Prequel Trilogy’s release, is both not as bad as he’s chalked up to be and very annoying. The Gungans as a whole are a misfire to me 

Ultimately, I find that The Phantom Menace has a lot of great Star Wars in it. But it’s also the first of the Star Wars films to be dull, and some of the ideas are so misguided (I haven’t even mentioned the midichlorians) that the film is brought down significantly by the amount of runtime they take up. It’s far from the heights this franchise can achieve, but it also doesn’t deserve to be excised from the franchise as some assert.

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