So 16 years after Return of the Jedi ended the original story and after years of hinting from George Lucas, Star Wars finally returned for the first in a much-hyped, much-anticipated prequel trilogy promising to chronicle how Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader. Boy, were Star Wars fans hungry for this movie. Everyone had high hopes. Aside from the haters who were rooting for a failure (before "haters" was a widely used term), I don't think anyone expected quite what they saw on the screen.
The Phantom Menace, easily the worst entry in the Star Wars theatrical franchise (note that I'm not counting the animated Clone Wars movie, which I have not seen), plays like an unending series of miscalculations. Some would argue that the entire prequel trilogy is a miscalculation. I won't go that far; I'm something of a prequel apologist, to a degree. That degree does not extend to The Phantom Menace, which is riddled with misfires, from conception to execution.
Let's start with Jar Jar Binks. Sure, Jar Jar is an easy target, but that's because he's terrible. Lucas still defends Jar Jar and claims to love him, and I can't for the life of me understand why. His voice is annoyingly awful. His dialogue borders on unintelligible. His jokes and would-be catchphrases are lame and stupid. He's comic relief in a movie that is jarringly out of step with that tone and otherwise humorless. He's a moron who bumbles his way through the movie (including some "heroics" during the closing droid battle that he accomplishes by complete accident). Every time he talks I cringe and want to shut off the damn movie. How wude. Ugh.
Next up: Jake Lloyd as nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker. Sure, Jake Lloyd is an easy target, but that's because he's terrible. The performance is a complete and total dud, with line readings that never come across as anything but, well, overly cocky line readings. The idea that this obnoxious kid grows up to become Darth Vader is really, really tough to swallow, let alone stomach. Only mildly less annoying than Jar Jar, he gets wonderful lines like, "Yippee!" Toward the end of the movie he flies into the droid army control ship and blows it up by goddamn accident. Ugh.
Next up: The Trade Federation guys. Sure, these guys are an easy target, but that's because they're terrible. They have awful, fake accents that sound like ethnic stereotypes, and line readings that don't match the movements of the CG characters' mouths. (Was it intentional? Surely not.) Not to mention they inhabit an impenetrable political plot (the blockade of Naboo) that no one cares about. Not even me, who elsewhere defends aspects of the prequel trilogy's political backdrop.
Next up: Endless scenes of sternly serious monotone-performed exposition, mostly involving the queen of Naboo (and all the over-baked silliness surrounding her and Padme and which is actually the "decoy"), but also the Jedi Council and the Senate of the Republic. Yes, these arid scenes of exposition are an easy target, but that's because they're terrible. It's in watching these scenes where I just don't understand how Lucas saw dailies of his footage and thought that it possibly worked. I want to go into the movie and tell everyone to crank it up about 12 notches. This is Star Wars, for chrissakes, not your grandmother's wake.
Next up: Midi-chlorians. Sure, the midi-chlorians are an easy target, but this is where I plot-twist you and tell you that I don't find them particularly terrible. Unnecessary? Sure, I suppose, in that I didn't need the Force explained in vaguely sci-fi terms. But in terms of its specific application here as a piece of plotting business — so that Qui-Gon could realize Anakin's importance and essentially set all the pieces in motion that will ultimately lead him to becoming Darth Vader — I don't really have a problem with it. Nor do the midi-chlorians lessen for me the mystique of the Force. Honestly, I don't really care, and never saw why people got so up in arms over it. (On the other hand, the notion of the virgin birth of Anakin might be a bridge too far in terms of over-mythologizing.)
So, no, The Phantom Menace is not a good movie. It's over-plotted and under-performed, with political material that feels impenetrable even if it isn't really that complicated. And when viewed in the context of the entire prequel trilogy, it's also largely unnecessary, proving to be a disposable prologue.
But it does have some things to recommend. For all its faults, Lucas and his visual effects crew still conjure up some amazing images, and 16 years of technological cinema evolution (mostly in the CGI arena) allowed Phantom Menace to really land with some major visual impact. This movie looks amazing. The action sequences and digital sets are impressive. Indeed, one knock against the prequels (one that I can understand) is that the visuals are so excessive as to be overwhelming and unnatural in their fantastical nature. We see Coruscant, the capital of the Republic, a planet covered by one massive city. (This is true to the Star Wars penchant for excessive scale that I love, which allows things like super star destroyers and Death Stars to be built.) Lines of flying cars fill the sky to the point of absurd implausibility. Every inch of the frame is filled because now Lucas can fill it with virtual imagery.
But the big sequences work as memorable self-contained set-pieces. Anakin's pod racing sequence, while mostly existing for the sake of itself, is a wild ride of breakneck-speed fun. And with the new technology and stunt coordination (virtual or otherwise) the creators really up the octane on what a lightsaber battle can be. The prequel trilogy, starting here, is filled with badass, innovative lightsaber sequences that previously had been impossible. (There are also lots of CG droids that get sliced and diced without it coming across as "real" violence.) The fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul (who is a cipher as a character but very effective as a single-sequence menace), is sensational. And let's not forget the contributions of John Williams here. "The Duel of the Fates" is every bit the iconic theme for this trilogy that "The Imperial March" was for the original.
So there are some gems here among the chaff. But lots of chaff. The Phantom Menace is a failure, but not an unmitigated one. The best news here is that the prequels had nowhere to go but up, and fortunately they did.