Stars: *** out of 4
Summary: Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.
Review: I admit it. I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’. I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior. I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga. I don’t hate them anymore. In fact, I like them. A lot. The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for. It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something. These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected. The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.
‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness: It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought. The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action. This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film. It gets bogged down. The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour. It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’. This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three. Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story. It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.
Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong. Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon. Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul. Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general. Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning. The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great. The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame. They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.
The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce. Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule. They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.
Philosophically, here’s my take on it. An interesting — and very controversial — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations. There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’. Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’. Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation. Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation. It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.
The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’. There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic. Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker. Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist. Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace. This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.
Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie. It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding). Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.