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Definitely Not the Worst of the Prequel Trilogy

  • Jul 12, 2009
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In 1999 everyone was excited about Star Wars starting over.  It was now becoming a full circle thing.  We were going to learn about how Anakin was seduced by the dark side of the force.  But... is this something we really want?  It seemed like something Lucas wanted.  What could go wrong with making prequels?  I mean besides Lucas deciding that watching his original trilogy wasn't important?  Oh not much except giving us a different look at the biggest badass in the galaxy.  Unfortunately, the prequel trilogy left me wondering about al ot of things that didn't exactly make a lot of sense.  But we'll have to watch the whole prequel trilogy in order to really grasp all of this.  The Phantom Menance usually gets flack as being one of the worst.

We're all left to wonder just when exactly George Lucas lost the spark with Star Wars.  He often claims that the entire saga was planned by the first film.  That not only were Episodes IV, V and VI written, but that Episode I, II, and III were already stories (though not screenplays).  That's a little hard to believe once you watch the Prequel Trilogy.  While Episode I gets flack for being "the worst" of the prequels, I humbly disagree.  Certainly, yes, Jar Jar is by far one of the worst characters Lucas could've come up with, but he isn't so bad he ruins the entire film.  So let's focus outside of just Jar Jar.  We all know that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menance has other problems that aren't exclusively Jar Jar.

It's a little vague just how long before the original trilogy the prequels begin.  What we do know is that Obi-Wan is a young Jedi in training.  His master's name is Qui-Gon Jinn and he's played by Liam Neeson (who would later go on to train Batman!).  As the movie begins we learn of The Trade Federation and their political nature.  Hoping to curve things with the Federation, the Republic of Naboo has dispatched two Jedi... Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to negotiate.  Things don't exactly go well, however.  They are discovered to be Jedi and eventually need to find a way to escape the Federation.  Luckily they're able to get passage onto one of the ships as they plan an attack on Naboo.  In the midst of running away from these ships, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan run into Jar Jar Binks.  We'll get to how annoying Jar Jar can be in a moment.  Jar Jar takes them to an under water city full of Gungans where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan get passage to the capital of Naboo.  They must save the Queen.  And they do.  But in terms of escaping Naboo their ship gets badly damaged, forcing them to make a quick stop on Tattooine.  There, they meet a boy named Anakin Skywalker who is quite a mechanic in his own right... but he's also a slave.  But the force is very strong with Anakin.  So much in fact that Qui-Gon believes Anakin has potential.  In a pod race, Anakin wins his freedom and he's also able to help fix up the ship.  They manage to take a ship off Tattooine and narrowly escape Darth Maul--a sith lord.

From there they travel to Corusant (I'm sure I spelled that wrong) a city that's teaming with Jedi.  Qui-Gon tries to convince the council to train Obi-Wan.  Except that's not exactly easy.  He is too old to begin the training; he already has too many people he's attached to.  It's never made clear what age Anakin is, but we assume he's around ten or eleven (maybe slightly younger).  After much debating and after Qui-Gon talks about how Anakin is supposed to bring balance to the force, a strange porphecy that George Lucas apparently decided to pull out of his--well, you get it.  It feels kind of tacked on.  However, that's not really that bad.  The council agrees to let Qui-Gon train him.  Unfortunately that is not all to last. What the Jedi Council doesn't know is that Anakin is destined to be seduced by The Dark Side.

The original Star Wars was a fantastic film.  And while Episode I isn't really all that horrible, it seems like Lucas pulled out his screenplay of Star Wars and decided to make a mirror image for Episode I.  In the sense that there's a lot the first film of the original trilogy has in common with the first film of the prequel.  The first, and most obvious, is that in both films we meet a Skywalker on Tattooine who is destined for great things concerning the force.  The second is that a primary character in both trilogies loses a mentor to a Sith Lord.  In the original, Obi-Wan met his fate to Darth Vader.  Here Qui-Gon meets his fate to Darth Maul.  These similarities mostly come from the fact that Star Wars followed the arc of The Hero's Journey.  The Phantom Menance does the same thing.  

Of course, there are differences.  For one, there's Jar Jar Binks instead of a guy to resemble Chewbacca.  And yes, Jar Jar is fairly annoying.  He's mostly there to provide comedic fodder.  There's nothing wrong with comedy only... could it have at least been from a less annoying character?  The way Jar Jar talks and all that can be a little grating.  On the other hand, if you're younger in the audience, you might like these antics.  However, it's hard to really get passed the fact that Jar Jar's only real means is to provide comedic support.  He hardly does anything to progress things within the plot or the story.  And when he disocvers how to defeat the droid army... it's more of an accident than anything else.  So yes, Jar Jar is as annoying as most people make him out to be.  But he doesn't ruin the movie entirely.  Lucas does other things with the film that make it pale in comparison to other Star Wars movies.

One of the things people are often nitpicky about is the idea that Anakin built C-3PO.  There is something a little odd about it as in the original trilogy he makes no quip or remark about Threepio at all.  And while Threepio's mind is wiped in the third film of the Prequel trilogy, it just feels odd knowing that the Sith Lord made Threepio.  Yet it feels as though he's mostly thrown in there for the sake of fanservice and nostalgia.  Much like Jar Jar, he isn't exactly instrumental in moving too much forward.  It was almost as if Lucas didn't feel Obi-Wan and Anakin were enough to bring back memories so he did a bit more.  Beyond that, however, you also get R2-D2.  Who is the ever resourceful droid.  Again, how much was Lucas trying to mimic the original Star Wars?  Both droids are there for a Skywalker.

Yet what may be the most annoying tidbit about Episode I is Anakin Skywalker himself.  We can go easy on him because he's a kid, but the original trilogy painted a picture of a Stalwart Hero.  He's supposed to be an amazing Star Pilot... and yet that hardly comes out.  Certainly that Pod Race scene is quite fun and it does showcase that Anakin has skills, yet we still hardly see what makes Anakin so great.  I understand that he's a kid, but with how Lucas made it sound from Episode IV, and how they talk about him in Episode I, Anakin seems like he'd be a bit more... mature for his age.  Who the hell wants to hear Darth Vader say "Yippie!" even as a child?  From the moment we meet Anakin our first thoughts are something along of the lines: "THIS kid grows up to be the biggest badass in the galaxy?"  And then I laughed and thought it was a joke.  But no, it turns out THAT'S Darth Vader as a child.  Granted, he still has his innocence and whatnot, but even as a kid you'd expect Vader to be a bit more mature.  It doesn't help us to sympathize or understand Vader in the slightest.  He was such a mysterious character in the original trilogy.  But the prequels show that sometimes there's nothing wrong with a mystery remaining a mystery.  There's nothing wrong with having our own interpretations as to what Vader must've been like in his younger years.

This is probably one of the other problems with the saga and prequel trilogy as a whole.  Is it really necessary to go back to the very very beginning of it all?  Do we have to see Vader as a child and literally grow up?  So much of the movie is spent on this political backdrop that the real focus of the entire prequel trilogy--Anakin Skywalker--is often in the backseat throughout much of the first film.  The only real purpose Anakin has here is to introduce us to him.  Even the title doesn't do anything for Anakin.  "The Phantom Menance" isn't a reference to Anakin as Vader.  Rather it is a reference to Darth Maul.  So even then one is tempted to ask... was Episode I: The Phantom Menance that important in the whole scheme of things?  Well, maybe.  It does introduce us to Anakin.  It's just it introduces us to a side of Anakin that most of us weren't THAT curious to know in the first place.  I would've happily taken a story that begins with Anakin already being a fully trained Jedi and doing all those heroic and legendary things Obi-Wan talked about in Episode IV.  The problem is throughout much of the prequel trilogy (just about ALL of it) we NEVER see Anakin as the guy Obi-Wan described him to be.  

That's not to say everything about The Phantom Menance is so bad.  The special effects, as is the norm for Star Wars, are phenomenal.  They're really something to behold.  Although at the same time I couldn't get over why Lucas would insist on making the prequel trilogy look so much more futuristic.  One of the neat things about the original trilogy was that the world actually looked as though it was inhabited.  Here everything looks so slick and clean... always.  Even in the middle of a huge dust storm on Tattooine.  The world doesn't look like it's been "lived in".  But that's a little nit-picky, I suppose.  The movie as a whole just looks really good.

There's also the lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul.  Regardless of anyone's views on the prequel trilogy, this is perhaps the most incredible lightsaber fight in the entire saga.  It's action packed and incredible to behold. 

The video I'm showing you has been cut so that we don't have to get stuff like Padme and company running around or the space battle. 

Another thing that we can definitely compliment The Phantom Menance on is its incredible soundtrack--particularly the Duels of Fate which is played during the climactic lightsaber battle.  The visual spectacle and productiong values keeps the film from being a total bust.  However, it still can't be helped that part of what made the original trilogy so exciting was not just the special effects.  It was also the storyline as a whole.  In The Phantom Menance the main crux of the story is overshadowed.  This is Anakin's story yet we don't actually see any real part of his story come out until the second film in the trilogy... The storytelling has certainly suffered in the prequels.

So has the acting.  Much of the acting is fairly forgettable.  The only man who does a great job is Liam Neeson.  And unfortunately his character dies...  Samual L. Jackson does a good job as well (though without being able to say "MotherF@#ker" what exactly is Jackson good for?), even if he isn't really featured that much.  But the focal characters, namely those like Ewan McGreggor (Obi) and Natalie Portman (Padme) don't exactly do a great job.  And this is strange considering these guys are incredible actors.  We can defend Lucas's overuse of CGI as much as we want, but perhaps some of that overuse is part of the reason some of the actors don't do as good a job as they are capable of.  As a result of so much CGI, the world also doesn't come as alive as it did in the first film.  It LOOKS better, at least.  That much we're certain of.  But there is a point when the use of CGI becomes a bit much.

All that aside, it's not the worst of the prequel trilogy.  It has its strengths, they're just not nearly as big as the faults in both number and scope.  We all know that Lucas can be a fine director and storyteller.  This is, after all, one of the men behind the original trilogy and Indiana Jones.  It's not a great movie by any stretch.  While it does quite a bit well, the faults are just too big in scope to ignore.

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January 10, 2010
This should have done better with more Darth Maul and less Jar-Jar Binks! nice review!
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Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
First of the infamous prequels for Star Wars. Suffers from a weak story that doesn't make sense and characters that don't resonate the way they should but at least it's fun. Try and ignore Jar Jar and the literal destruction of the magic that is the force and it's like I said, fun.
review by . January 18, 2010
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I remember reading all of the horrible reviews of The Phantom Menace and my disappointment upon first seeing the film. Admittedly, it's not the greatest Star Wars film and a lot of the criticisms are valid. However, I recently rewatched it with my wife and started to see some value in it. It is an adventure movie with some pretty cool scenes (the Darth Maul duel in particular). But more importantly, it isn't supposed to focus on character and plot development - that's for Episodes II and III. Rather, …
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Peaceful palace on Naboo
No movie got more hyped up or got people more excited then The Phantom Menace.      No, not even The Dark Knight, though it comes close.    In 1999, The Phantom Menace was talked about by everyone and before the movie opened, it's merchandising was everywhere.  Red and black Star Wars logos were on everything, toys, lunchboxes, posters, soda cans, video games, shampoo, fishing rods, charcoal, Batman toys etc.    Well okay, maybe …
Quick Tip by . November 20, 2009
A big budget and the first of Lucas's prequel trilogy has some impressive sights and action but the story is weak and Jar Jar is a pain.
review by . May 29, 2006
The Phantom Menace was probably one of the most anticipated movies of all time, and ended up disappointing a lot of folks. The DVD release has fared better. The DVD contains lots of special features that describe the technical, human, and creative work that went into creating Episode I. In doing so, this DVD has set the foundation by which all newer DVD releases are measured; how completely do the special features describe the movie and all the thought and work that went into making and advertising …
review by . May 17, 2005
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Pros: It begins the true story George Lucas wanted to tell     Cons: That ACTING! WOOD!     The Bottom Line: Paarents could have an amusing in-joke amongst themselves if they referred the the boogyman as the phantom menace.     Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace confused me a bit at first. I understood the plot and all that, but some of the dialogue left me a bit confused. It was only after a series of repeated viewings that I finally …
review by . October 04, 2004
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"The Phantom Menace" isn't what everyone expected it to be. Die-hard Star Wars fans were expecting another "A New Hope." Casual fans were hoping to get more of the whiz-bang adventure that was presented to them in the initial trilogy. Folks relatively new to the Star Wars phenomenon were left wondering what the big deal was over all of these films to begin with.    What we were actually given was a typical, contemporary, over-budget sci-fi flick that had great intentions and …
review by . August 09, 2004
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: CGI is outstanding     Cons: CGI is outstanding, acting is flat, not enough battle scenes.      The Bottom Line: In the end, The Phantom Menace fails to live up to the hype leading up to its release, or the standard set by its predecessors.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot. As I stated in my review of Star Wars Episode II – Attack of the Clones: Usually at the end of a movie I like …
review by . February 08, 2000
posted in Movie Hype
The acting in this movie was very bad. My favorit charictor in the movie was Jar Jar Binks, but even his ears went through people because the acter's never even stoped to look at how to do this. A discrase to Star Wars.
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Sean A. Rhodes ()
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I'm a more analytical person. I believe that the purpose of the review is not for me to give you my opinion but for me to give you an analysis and help you decide if you want to get it. If you reading … more
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"I have a bad feeling about this," says the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor) inStar Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menaceas he steps off a spaceship and into the most anticipated cinematic event... well, ever. He might as well be speaking for the legions of fans of the original episodes in theStar Warssaga who can't help but secretly ask themselves: Sure, this isStar Wars, but is itmy Star Wars? The original elevated moviegoers' expectations so high that it would have been impossible for any subsequent film to meet them. And as with all theStar Warsmovies,The Phantom Menacefeatures inexplicable plot twists, a fistful of loose threads, and some cheek-chewing dialogue. Han Solo's swagger is sorely missed, as is the pervading menace of heavy-breather Darth Vader. There is still way too much quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo, and some of what was fresh aboutStar Wars22 years earlier feels formulaic. Yet there's much to admire. The special effects are stupendous; three worlds are populated with a mélange of creatures, flora, and horizons rendered in absolute detail. The action and battle scenes are breathtaking in their complexity. And one particular sequence of the film--the adrenaline-infused pod race through the Tatooine desert--makes the chariot race inBen-Hurlook like a Sunday stroll through the park.

Among the host of new characters, there are a few familiar walk-ons. We witness the first meeting between R2-D2 and C-3PO, Jabba the Hutt...

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Director: George Lucas
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Release Date: May 19, 1999
MPAA Rating: PG
Screen Writer: George Lucas
DVD Release Date: March 22, 2005
Runtime: 2hrs 11min
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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