With the recent release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story I thought it was a good time to sit down and finally write this series of articles that I’ve been meaning to write since The Force Awakens released last year. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that I have very weird opinions when it comes to Star Wars, so I thought it would be fun to share them and explain why I have those weird opinions. Today we start with the first entry in the series chronologically, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I’m assuming that I don’t need to say it, but just in case, spoilers for The Phantom Menace follow.
So, you probably guessed from the title that I think the first film in the prequel trilogy is kinda meh, and you may be thinking “what’s weird about that?” Well, before we go any further, I want to make one thing clear: I am one of those weird people who actually likes the prequel trilogy. They are flawed films, yes, but I still like them. Now, in my experience, most people rank Episode II as their least favorite Star Wars film, but for me that honor belongs to Episode I.
Like I said, I actually like the prequel films, so the fact that I put The Phantom Menace last doesn’t mean I hate it. In fact, the movie starts off pretty strong. Comparing it to the three original films that came before, Episode I does a better job of throwing us right into the action better than Empire or Jedi, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the opening of A New Hope, which, in my opinion, has one of the greatest film openings in the history of cinema. Within the first few moments of The Phantom Menace we meet our protagonists, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor respectively, and soon witness them wipe the floor with some Trade Federation Battle Droids before fleeing from Droidekas. This opening confrontation is rather enjoyable, as is the film as a whole up until the two Jedi escape to the surface of Naboo and meet Jar Jar Binks...
I think we can all agree that Jar Jar is the worst character in all of Star Wars. Obviously, he was intended as a comic relief character, but instead of being funny he just comes off as obnoxious. It would have been okay if Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan had just left him in Otoh Gunga and he wasn’t present for the entire rest of the film, but sadly that is not the Jedi way. Jar Jar is one of the main reasons why I rank Episode I so low.
So now the two Jedi and their idiotic new companion have to travel through Naboo’s core in a submarine. That’s right, apparently the core of Naboo is full of water. It’s like one of those details that makes you go “wait, what?” when you stop to think about it. So either the core is full of water and the submarine is extremely pressure resistant to handle the kind of water pressure that must exist in the core if it is, in fact, full of water, or the Gungans are just stupid and it’s not actually the core. Either way, they make it to Theed, rescue the recently elected Queen of Naboo and make their escape. “Wait, what?” Yup, Naboo has a democratically elected monarch because that totally makes sense. Also she’s a teenager for some reason.
So they have to a run a blockade now, but the shield generator takes a hit and then R2-D2 is just there for some reason and saves the day. It’s kind of a random way to introduce one of the best characters in all of Star Wars, but whatever. So they flee the planet but the hyper drive is damaged so they land on Tatooine to get it fixed. Unfortunately, their currency is worthless in the Outer Rim, so they have to find another way.
That way turns out to be a young Anakin Skywalker, who just so happens to be a slave of the junk dealer that Qui-Gon hit up for parts. So, a lot of people absolutely hated Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin, like with an extreme passion. So here’s where those weird opinions come in again. I actually don’t think his performance was that bad. In fact, it was totally fine.
Anyway, this leads us to the best part of the movie. In order to pay for the hyper drive, Qui-Gon and Co. make an insane wager on a podrace, relying on Anakin’s connection to the Force that allows him to pilot podracers in the first place. The whole race is just exciting to watch. I seriously would love a Star Wars spinoff that was just about podracing. I think it would be amazing. Anakin wins obviously, so they get the parts they need and win Anakin’s freedom in the process.
So, there’s this whole prophecy thing and a total Jesus Christ allegory where Anakin is believed to have been conceived by the Force itself, given that he had no father and is insanely strong with the Force. The Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. It’s kind of funny since there a way more powerful force users in the Expanded Universes, but many aren’t even canon anymore anyway. It’s kind of a silly plot point, but it is what it is.
Before leaving Tatooine, Qui-Gon has a brief encounter with Darth Maul and we get a brief taste of lightsaber on lightsaber combat, then it’s off to Coruscant to deal with politics. A lot of people hated the space politics, but I didn’t mind it. It wasn’t a huge part of the film anyway. The gist of it is that Senator “Totally Not the Future Emperor” Palpatine manipulates Queen Amidala into moving for a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor and putting him in power instead.
That’s really what the title of the film is referring to, the Sith Lords are there in the background manipulating events to achieve something. If you’d seen the original films before this one, then it was pretty obvious that Palpatine was moving the pawns to set up the rise of the Empire. It wasn’t clear exactly how it would play out though.
We also get out first taste of the Jedi Council on Coruscant. They discuss the possibility of the Sith Lords’ return and the possibility of Anakin being trained as a Jedi. It’s really there just to tease the eventual turn to the Dark Side.
This is also the point in the film where we run it to some weirdness. Padmé seemingly gets attached to Anakin out of nowhere. It’s not really romantic feelings since that would be creepy considering she’s 14 and he’s 9, but it’s definitely there to tease future romantic involvement. It does seem a bit forced however. The other weirdness is freaking midi-chlorians. What the hell are you doing explaining Force-sensitivity with microscopic organisms? I don’t really think it needs to be explained at all really, especially since there’s no mention of midi-chlorians in the originals and everything in the prequels that mentions the midi-chlorians could easily be explained in a way that doesn’t involve them at all!
More stupidity unfolds when they go back to Naboo to deal with the Trade Federation after unwittingly fucking everything up by putting Palpatine in power. It didn’t even change anything since he didn’t even do anything helpful before they left. Then Lucas pulls out a twist for no reason at all. It turns out that Padmé was secretly the Queen all along! It’s so silly and adds nothing to the film.
With that out of the way, aside from a few more idiotic Jar Jar moments, the film gets exciting again with a diversion in the form of a Gungan army, an infiltration team moving to capture the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, a space battle where the Naboo pilots try to take out the droid control ship, and The Duel of the Fates.
The battle between the Gungans and the droid army is kind of goofy, but the skirmishes in Theed are pretty enjoyable, and the space battle is as well, and I think it’s fitting that Anakin, who accidentally ends up riding a fighter into space ends up winning the day and destroying the control ship thanks to his force-sensitivity. Also, the one liner of “Now this is podracing!” is awesome and you know it.
The epic climax is of course Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan facing off with Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber. The fight is exciting and the soundtrack is great! I honestly think it’s one of the best lightsaber fights across all the films. Predictably, Maul slays Qui-Gon and then Obi-Wan avenges his fallen master, but the end of the battle is still satisfying. With his dying words, Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan to train Anakin, and the Jedi Council begrudgingly agrees to allow the newly knighted Obi-Wan to take on Anakin as his padawan.
After an ominous funeral for Qui-Gon, we end with a parade of all things. It’s an okay scene, but it has left me with a burning question for years. Seriously, what the actual fuck is that glowing orb that Boss Nass holds up at the end? What is it?! I need to know!
So, yeah. I might sound a bit critical of the film, but I kind of enjoy it. It has some excellent moments even if they are surrounded by blandness and some stupidity. It’s also visually impressive. Even so, I still rate it as the weakest Star Wars film. Next time we’ll explore Episode II, a film most people hate, and I’ll explain why I like it more than Episode I. Until then, feel free to share your thoughts on The Phantom Menace below!