Much ridicule and even hate has been leveled at the origin story of the Empire, Darth Vader and The Emperor in the Star Wars universe. But are all the arguments against George Lucas’ Episode I: The Phantom Menace really justified or is it just fan talk deriding an otherwise enjoyable sci-fi blockbuster?
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
(USA 1999, director: George Lucas)
Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi escape an attack of a trading blockade and don’t only find boy Anakin Skywalker who is strong with the Force, but discover that the Dark Force in the form of the Sith resurfaces and threatens the Republic.
Oh, where to start with this one here? After being disappointed the first time and now having watched it on BD the second time (in comparison to the original trilogy I watched countless times on various formats), my opinion hasn’t changed much. It’s actually gotten worse. I tried to see this outside the fandom box, but even as a standalone movie, it’s simply a terrible mess.
Both plot and character development in addition to a mix of drama and humor just don’t work. There’s awful acting throughout, especially with Jake Lloyd playing a very annoying young Anakin Skywalker. Even experienced actors like Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala don’t seem to know how they should react or interact in all the CGI backgrounds. The Goofy (even before the Disney takeover)-like Jar Jar Binks is also a pain to watch. The action sequences might look nice with the new technology, but they don’t offer any sense of danger or excitement, except maybe for the excellent pod race. It’s telling that the antagonist Darth Maul is only memorable because of his badass two lightsabers and impressive fighting skills. So it’s too bad that he’s introduced just as fast as he is disposed of.
A bit of Star Wars magic can be found if one looks closely enough, like the creature design or the colorful underwater city and Naboo palace, even if they don’t wow those who’re familiar with JRPGs or gaming in general. Unfortunately it doesn’t help much if jumping from one location to the next without a moment to breathe discards the sense of place the original trilogy was so good at. The same holds true for the characters. The heroes are just as forgettable with cringeworthily unfunny or unintentionally funny drama lines as the boring plot. It’s actually quite shocking how George Lucas managed to do a movie over two hours long that doesn’t tell anything interesting or new, even if it tries to be very political and deals with mature topics like oppression and freedom.
Now these problems can already make the movie unbearable for someone who hasn’t seen the original trilogy or who knows more about the Star Wars universe by books and games. As a Star Wars fan, it’s disappointing to see that Lucas played with the notion of the Force by trying to explain it in a scientific way. Of course the idea of genetics is a nice one, but taking blood samples to see if someone is fit for being a Jedi and making a young boy’s past more mysterious than it is doesn’t really fit into the more religious or existential context. More mysticism and less science babble would have been nice, especially since there’s so much (Jar Jar Binks) slapstick and (unfortunately pretty standard) space and lightsaber fights going on that a more serious tone is somewhat out of place. As it is, the movie is enjoyable for a popcorn flick in some parts, but for most parts it fails in its dramatic moments and doesn’t do the epic saga justice at all.
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