Thoughts On: The Phantom Menace

Before I go to see The Force Awakens, I plan on watching all of the Star Wars films to freshen up. I started with The Phantom Menace.

I feel strange talking about this movie. It premiered over fifteen years ago and most people have seen it and opinions on it are not all that varied. Everyone agrees that they hate the film. And they all seem to hate it for pretty much the same reasons.

As for my personal opinion? I am probably one of those people who does not hate the film. That is not to say that it is a good film. It is not. But I cannot see it as the atrocity that most people think it is. (My vitriol is reserved for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.) Now, to be sure, there is a lot of bad in the film.

Here’s a short list of issues that I have with it:

The senate chamber scene is dry and dull but at least it is not that long.

The first half hour or so feels very rushed with plot point moving to plot point without a lot of time left for the viewer to absorb it all.

C-3PO serves no narrative purpose. It is a huge contrivance for Anakin to be the one who built him. He only seems to be in the movie just for Lucas to give him and origin story.

It is really hokey for the elected head of state in a democracy to be titled a queen and to be a teenager.

I do not like the idea of the Jedi only accepting newcomers before a certain age. This point uncomfortably reminds me of real-world clergy abusing underage children. Is it even necessary for the Jedi to be hesitant in accepting him into the order? Why is that a plot point?

There is no need for Anakin to be so young. The film would have worked better if her were in his teenage years or older.

Darth Maul is criminally underused. He serves little narrative purpose other than as an obstacle for the Jedi and he has little personality.

The acting is a mixed bag. Jake Lloyd is mostly flat as Anakin. I like Ewen McGregor’s performance. Liam Neeson is fine but comes across as a little wooden in areas. Natalie Portman delivers her lines like she is reading them for the first time off of a cue card. You can tell that Lucas wanted her to go for some sort of stoic and authoritative regality in her speech but he does not know how to articulate that thought to the actress. I have to blame this on the direction more than the actors.

And, yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. We all know this so I will not dwell on it further.

Despite all of those flaws, there is a lot to like in this film.

The environments are visually memorable like in the original trilogy. I like the Greco-Roman look of Naboo’s capital. I like the rock formations on Tatooine during the pod race. The underwater Gungan city is pretty to look at.

I like the designs of the aliens and starships. The aquatic monsters in Naboo’s core are memorable. The Naboo Starfighter is a sleek and unique design for a spaceship.

I even kind of like the CGI in this film. It has aged rather interestingly. I think the battle droids look fine. They have a certain jankiness to their movements that makes them look as if they have some weight to them. A lot of the CGI creations, especially the Gungans and Jar Jar, have a sort of brightness / dullness that makes them look slightly out of the shot. Not surprising, seeing as how they are out of the shot. This is 1999 CGI, after all. I do not know if there is a filter over them or what, but I really do not mind it. It is akin to admiring a centuries-old oil painting. It is not the photo-realism that a lot of modern CGI tries to go for, but it has a charm of its own. There is quaintness to the way they interact with the live actors. There are many more CGI creations in modern films that try to be super real and look much worse.

The midichlorian idea is… not terrible. A lot of people see it as de-mystifying the concept of the Force but I see it another way. I always saw the midichlorians as a sort of link between living organisms and the Force. They are not the Force itself. The Force works through the midichlorians. It is not created by the midichlorians. Yes, I know that I am rationalizing this in my head-canon, but so what?

I do like the pod race. It is probably my favorite part of the film. There is a certain novelty to the whole concept that fits within the Star Wars universe. A lot of the ideas in the original trilogy come from taking concepts from fantasy literature like knights and mystic powers and putting them into a Space Opera setting. Instead of chariot racing with horses, they race with jet engines pulling a hovering pod. That is a really cool and neat idea.

The race itself is well shot. It looks exciting and it feels tense. It is simply a fun scene. Perhaps that is because the tension comes from how the vehicles are moving in relation to each other and there is minimal dialogue in the scene. I also like the two-headed announcer alien. He / they are fun character(s). On another note, I noticed additional shots in the film that were not in the original version. Most of these shots occur right before and during the race. I do not know when these shots were added to the film but they look fine. They do not clash with the film in the same way that the additional scenes in the extended editions of the original trilogy do.

As for the climax, I really do not have much of an issue with it. A lot of people complain about this part. Yes, I know that having four different plot threads confuses some people but I followed it fine. I’m weird like that. There is Anakin flying in space, the two Jedi fighting Darth Maul, the queen and her entourage storming the castle, and the fight on the plains between the Gungans and the droids. That last one is the only part that irritates me, mainly because of Jar Jar’s antics. The lame attempts at comedy subvert the drama of the other plotlines. If the Gungan vs. Droid battle had been cut or seriously downplayed, then I think it would have worked a lot better.

The lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan and Maul is one of the best fights in the films second only to the showdown between Vader and Luke in Return of the Jedi.  It is well-choreographed and enjoyable.  John William’s score is remarkable for that entire sequence.  There is an almost chilling tension when the red force-field separate the combatants.  Qui-Gon turns off his saber and assumes a tranquil stance while Maul paces back and forth like a predator mere feet from him.  Suspenseful stuff.

Like a lot of modern fans, I saw this one in theaters when it came out. I really liked it when I saw it, Jar Jar aside. Maybe that was due to the hype. The trailer for the Phantom Menace is the only trailer that I have seen in theaters during which the audience applauded for. Yeah.

The thrill of the film wore off for me around the time that Attack of the Clones came out in 2002. The film’s flaws became a little more obvious to me. As of this writing in 2015, it has probably been a solid decade since I have seen The Phantom Menace. I oddly found myself enjoying the film upon my recent rewatch. Perhaps I have more of a tolerance for the films flaws.

So, yeah. The Phantom Menace: A watchable and enjoyable film.

…I dread rewatching Attack of the Clones, though.

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