The hype was too big to live up to.
The early buzz for the latest entry in the world famous space opera saga Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been very positive, with many saying it is one of the best the series has to offer. With Star Wars: The Last Jedi opening in theaters this week, many television networks are of course opting to show the previous entries in marathon fashion throughout the week. This of course always re-opens the conversation Star Wars junkies and casual fans almost universally agree upon: the prequels are awful.
After the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi, fans had to wait nearly 16 years for another Star Wars film. It came in the form of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menance, the first film in a planned trilogy that would act as a precursor to the original three films from the man who helmed the 1976 film that started a worldwide phenomenon, George Lucas. With the promise of state of the art special effects, a talented ensemble cast including the likes of Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson, and an ominous new threat, the film had sky-high expectations, especially considering the positive reception the first three films earned.
While the film earned over $431 million and was a smash hit at the box office, many left the theater disappointed. Most of the complaints centered around the terrible acting, over-complicated plot, lack of action, and Jar-Jar Binks. One might say the film is one of the biggest disappointments in the history of cinema, and the release of two more not well received prequel films only solidifies this status, as it was the one that started the disappointing cycle. I, however, invite you to reconsider, as while The Phantom Menace is far from a perfect film, it is a fine entry in the Star Wars saga.
Many criticize the acting in the film, placing much of the blame squarely on the shoulders of unrefined child actors Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd as Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker respectively. Here’s a newsflash: most child actors are terrible. I would never advise one to praise their acting prowess in the film, as they deliver mostly wooden performances, but they get the job done. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are great as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Won Kenobi respectively, and are able to anchor the film. And lets be honest, the acting in the original three films is awful as well. There’s a reason why Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer (*R.I.P.*) didn’t get much work once the original saga concluded, it was because they weren’t very good. Star Wars isn’t a movie franchise you go to see for the acting, you go for the visuals and the story.
However, many complain the story in Phantom Menace is poor as well. What they really mean is that the story is complicated. It isn’t as clear as the Cold-War like storyline represented in the original three films, which is the Rebels (*the good guys*) fighting the Empire (*the bad guys*) for space supremacy. In Phantom Menace, there’s many more parties involved, including the Republic, the Trade Federation, the Gugans, the Galactic Senate, the Jedi Council, and the Sith. Each of these parties have their own agendas, with some even acting as double agents, thus alluding to the political climate we have grown accustomed to. The film may not have the sharp dialogue required to pull off the story due to George Lucas’s shortcomings as a writer, but the film should be praised for containing such a complex story-line and using it as the set-up to the stories in the 70s and 80s films.
If there’s anything I can agree with most people about, it is Jar-Jar Binks. Actor Ahmed Best will have to live with this burden the rest of his life, as the borderline racist character will forever live in infamy as one of if not the worst character in the Star Wars universe. However, fans and critics are missing the point as to why the character exists: it’s a movie for children. Yes, Star Wars appeals to fans of many ages, but the films target children. Jar-Jar was the major selling point for kids to see the movie, as the fun loving, goofy character represented the lighthearted side of the film, and whose main function was to provide comic relief for the children. After seeing him in the film, children who more than likely loved the character would then bug their parents enough for them to buy them a Jar-Jar toy, thus allowing the Star Wars franchise to obtain even more funds from everyone. The same was and remains true for Chewbacca, the Ewoks, and also continues for new additions like BB-8 and Porg.
The podracing scene stands out to most as the best sequence in the entire movie. It’s undoubtedly inventive and suspenseful, and clearly took advantage of the advancements in special effects technology to deliver one of the most thrilling scenes in Star Wars canon. But let’s not forget the feeling of dread and awesomeness when one of the baddest Sith lords to ever grace a Star Wars film, Darth Maul, reveals his double sided lightsaber in the best lightsaber battle in all the Star Wars films. Sure, it’s interrupted by a somewhat annoying Anakin Skywalker in an auto piloted starfighter joining the federation in fighting the droid control ship and the Gugans battling the droids with a clumsy Jar-Jar somehow saving the day, but even those scenes are fun as well. The choreography for the lightsaber fight is unprecedented, filmed in such a way you can tell what’s occurring on screen and feel every clash of a lightsaber, and adds one of the biggest gut-punches that would forever shape the Star Wars universe.
It’s elements such as these that makes Phantom Menace much better than its reputation would have you believe. Yes, it’s far from perfect and maybe has its sights set too high in regards to its story for a Star Wars film, but Phantom Menace delivers blockbuster thrills and tremendous state of the art visuals on a grand scale. The hype machine set the expectations for the film so high there was no way it could live up to it. People had been craving another Star Wars movie for over a decade, and wanted it to be the way it was when they were a child. There’s no doubt “this wasn’t my childhood” sentiment also hindered the film, but it’s been long enough now that hopefully everyone has grown up and realized these movies, while they can be enjoyed by all ages, are targeted towards children, which they obviously no longer were by the time Phantom Menace landed in theaters nearly 20 years ago. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace should be given another viewing, and one should leave with a greater appreciation for the film than they did a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
Rating: 2.5/ 4 Stars. Pay Matinée price.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace stars Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiamird, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Ahmed Best, Frank Oz, and Samuel L. Jackson.