When the ‘Star Wars’ reboot was announced, it quickly became considered as one of the most talked about films in history. People loved the original trilogy, and even today, they are considered some of the best science fiction and adventure films ever made, but something went awry during the creation. Absent is the magic, the mystique, the charm, and the humor of the original two, and Director George Lucas proves again that the Ewoks were not a facade, but rather the beginning of the end for the Star Wars series.
Return of the Jedi with its clunky exposition, reliance on green screen, and Ewok disaster scenes, had plenty of flaws, but the heart was still at the core of the production. The idea was to sum up the trilogy in fine fashion, but it became scattered along the way. It’s not a classic like Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, but it is still passable and worth a viewing.
This reboot, intended to start the prequel trilogy is most frustrating not because of the lazy production (that’s only a part of it), but rather the fact that none, NONE, of the events that occur in The Phantom Menace are necessary. The series could’ve started some time around the events of Attack of the Clones and although some of Lucas’s stylistic choices in Episodes II and III are quite awful, the never feel entirely unnecessary like this one does. Did we need a prequel trilogy? No. Was there a good story to tell? Yes. The problem is that knowing Anakin as a small boy for only one act of the film and introducing the film’s main protagonist, Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi who dies anyway, is just completely pointless. Introduce us to Anakin after his training is almost complete, and have his adversarial but friendly banter with Obi-Wan on missions together be the building block of knowing him as a character, then, when we need to know his slave backstory, it can be told through visuals or small hints of dialogue. A large movie with no true purpose is all that is The Phantom Menace.
The film opens with two Jedi on a mission, sitting down for some sort of meeting in a Star Destroyer. One is the older Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and the other is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), one of only four characters to be in every Star Wars film. They are there to negotiate a trade dispute, where a blockade of ships has stopped all imported goods to travel to the luscious planet of Naboo, causing a crisis for Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her people. The blockade is, in fact, owned by the very Trade Federation who uses their services to ship goods across the galaxy, and are run up front by Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson), but are controlled behind the scenes by the evil Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and his apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park).
Darth Sidious is actually an undercover Senator named Palpatine on Naboo, and he is using the Trade Federation crisis, fabricated as it is, to blackmail Queen Amidala into granting his charming alter-ego Senator a bid for Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic when current Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) does not handle the situation properly. This is about as much of the plot that makes sense to me, and discussions about Sidious wanting a treaty signed by Amidala to make the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo (they somehow, despite only being merchants have an army of thousands of battle droids for unexplained reasons) legal do not. If the invasion is being done by force to cause a crisis, I’m not sure why the treaty is important, and if it’s to make the Trade Federation look much less like assholes, then why are they working with a Sith Lord? The fact that a merchant Trade Federation has an army and is using their army to stake Sidious’s gamble of blackmailing the Naboo to gain political favors is quite a stretch, and really makes no sense. And even if this is accepted, a tax on trade routes to piss off the Federation would not come from the Naboo, it would come from Coruscant, so why Gunray would want his droid army to be involved in this is beyond comprehension. Character motivations either make no sense, or are so fake and contrived that they aren’t worth investigating.
So Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan learn that there will be no negotiations over this issue, and learn about the military of droids heading down to invade the Naboo people. They decide to go down to the planet and warn them, but land on the other side of the planet near a settlement of aquatic, speaking creatures named Gungans. One eccentric Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) guides the Jedi to the Gungan home city, where their leader Boss Nass (Brian Blessed) grants them access to a boat that they can take to the Naboo people to warn them.
Warn them they do, and they rescue the Queen, her security guards and a few other people such as Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie). The Jedi escape with the Queen, but their ship is damaged by the blockade as they attempt to flee to Coruscant with the intent to both tell the Republic of the crisis, and to warn the Jedi Council run by Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) of the disturbance of the dark side in the force. The blockade around Naboo damages their ship and they are forced to land on Tatooine.
While there, their republic money and yuppie culture does them little good, and the local traders and citizens don’t take kindly to them. Qui-Gon heads to a reputable parts dealer Watto (Andy Secombe) who has the parts for his hyperdrive to get working again on the ship. Qui-Gon is immediately striken with one of Watto’s slaves, a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) who possesses clear powers with the force. They decide to place a bet, allowing Anakin to compete in a high stakes Pod-Race for them to try to win the money for the parts. Anakin, with Jedi-like reflexes, is able to do this, and Qui-Gon eventually frees him but leaves his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) behind. Anakin is eager to become a Jedi, but feels conflicted about leaving his mother behind.
Once at Coruscant, they warn the Senate and the Council immediately is unhappy with Qui-Gon for wanting to train Anakin, who seems a but more fearful and angry than a Jedi should initially be. Despite this, they are attached to security detail for the Queen and escort her home to Naboo to deal with the crisis. They work out a strategy, the Gungans will face the Federation’s droids, a small team of security personnel led by the Queen will infiltrate the palace to take down Nute Gunray thus creating a distraction to allow Naboo pilots to fly out and attack the blockade and shut down the droids, and the Jedi will attempt to take down Darth Maul, who has been left on the planet to oversee the invasion.
Anakin pilots a ship and blows up a Star Destroyer, using his Podracing skills, thus allowing the Gungans to win their battle against the droids. Meanwhile, Amidala and her team capture the Trade Federation people, and the Jedi fight against Darth Maul. After an elaborate sequence of events, Qui-Gon is killed, but Obi-Wan is able to defeat Darth Maul and take on Anakin as his apprentice per Qui-Gon’s dying wish. The film ends with Palpatine/Sidious as Supreme Chancellor, the Naboo and Gungans celebrating their victory, and the main characters mourning the death of Qui-Gon.
The lack of emotion told in this movie is partially a result of very few realistic sets and instead mostly CGI, but also because of this sterile world that Lucas has created. He wanted the Jedi to seem like emotionless monks, and because of this, neither Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan really have much personality. Without much for Natalie Portman to work with, her turn as the Queen is pretty wasted until her last scene in combat, and Jake Lloyd’s Anakin is nothing close to what we would’ve wanted to see.
The villains, although their motivations are a bit confusing because of an awful script, are some of the more passable characters in the film. Sidious/Palpatine using blackmail as a weapon to advance the political agenda to eventually become the Emperor is an acceptable story-line. Even Darth Maul is quite intimidating in combat, so those scenes are very effective. This is also unpopular, but I don’t hate the Trade Federation guys either. The fact that the script is poor and their decision-making doesn’t make sense is not the characters’ fault, it’s Lucas’s, so the dynamic of a reputable, albeit sleazy, organization to be working for Sith Lords is interesting. The issues arise when character motivations come up.
Anakin himself is really a wasted character here. There was no need for Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon, as likable as Neeson is, but its obvious the Lucas wasn’t ready to hand the reigns of his movie over to Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan yet. In fact, Obi-Wan spends little time actually on screen in this, and other than the small discovery of Anakin, he’s really unimportant outside of a few lucky plot-points he hits. Jake Lloyd was a poor child actor, and he really ruins Anakin for the scenes he’s in.
Because of an over-reliance on computer generated sets, the cinematography and production design really don’t hold up to the modern day. Scenes seem really fake, and even groundbreaking effects scenes like the Podracing scene really is filmed without much taste, being a constant left to right panning shot like a boring NASCAR coverage. It’s hard to marvel the Production Design when the sets were minimal, and the film is crafted as this cold, computerized universe.
The other big problem is tone, where the film goes from being a super-serious adventure film with political thriller aspects of it to scenes of a young Anakin or Jar Jar doing something for comic relief. Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels as R2D2 and C3PO are reprised, but the odd stabs at comic relief in a film that doesn’t need it sticks out like a sore thumb.
It’s not that The Phantom Menace does all wrong, we still get Natalie Portman and some good action sequences, but it just comes off as so bland, and the scripts were not well thought out, they are way too easy to poke holes in. Neeson’s Qui-Gon was a valiant effort, but him and McGregor are really wasted with this plotting and that dialogue. We never see Obi-Wan and Anakin become friends in this film, and we never see his growth into a warrior, so for me, it’s the fact that this film was useless that bugged me most. Erase this movie from the other five, and the series stands no problem at all.