With The Rise of Skywalker coming in December, I decided to revisit the Star Wars movies in timeline order. When I was younger I used to watch The Phantom Menace over and over again and I liked it a lot back then. Upon revisiting the movies in the lead up to The Force Awakens however, I found it to be the worst in the series. I had a feeling that with people talking about it, as well as really noticing the fandom’s constant hatred, I decided to take a different look at it. After my rewatch I can confirm that I definitely don’t dislike it, but I don’t think it’s particularly good either. However it’s not without some decent parts (or at least it had potential).
As this is a retrospective review it’s only fitting that this movie is talking about spoilers. So obviously don’t read this or the other Star Wars retrospective reviews if you haven’t watched the movies already. The writing of The Phantom Menace is a very mixed bag, while some of the ideas are fine enough, most of the executions weren’t handled well. The story goes in and out of being interesting, more often than not however I wasn’t very engaged. A lot of the dialogue is very formal, stiff and unnatural for most of the characters. In the case of the Jedi, it works, but I’m not so sure why every other character acts like that too. Not to mention so much of the dialogue is really bland and even cheesy. Not to say that the original Star Wars trilogy was like that (a little more than a lot of Star Wars fans would like to admit), but the prequel trilogy is even more so. One thing I consistently liked about this movie and the prequels was the introduction of new worlds, as well as it expanding upon the lore and the universe. The first act starts off fine enough, but it has its issues. The Gungan parts were handled a little weirdly. Though to be fair most of it comes from the fact that Jar Jar Binks is meant to be our insight to the Gungans, and we don’t really learn a whole lot from him about them (more on that later).
There’s quite a large portion of the movie dedicated to the main characters on Tatooine, which takes up much of the second act. I’ve always found it unnecessary to re-introduce this planet, for all the new worlds that were introduced (and those were greatly appreciated), we didn’t need to come back to Tatooine. It seems like it was done to connect Anakin to Luke from the original Star Wars, but they really didn’t need to do that. It’s a bit of a nitpick but I also really didn’t see much of a point introducing C-3PO in this way as one of Anakin’s creations. He doesn’t really do anything, it’s random more than anything and feels thrown in. On the whole, this whole segment on this planet is surrounding Anakin, but he doesn’t really become the main focus point of the plot. The podracing scene is praised quite a lot from some people. While it certainly establishes Anakin’s skills as a pilot, I personally just think it’s okay, I guess it’s directed fine enough. It just never did anything for me. The Coruscant section was something I didn’t really like before watching this movie more recently. While I still have some issues with it, it does expand the Star Wars universe with something that the original trilogy didn’t have, politics and a political system. Sure it’s not particularly exciting but at least they actually tried something different, so I can’t complain too much (just a little bit). It doesn’t vibe well with the rest of the movie and it really slows to a snail’s pace, and they really could’ve handled the political talk to make it a little more engaging and less bland. The highlight of this segment was how it showed Palpatine’s rise in political power, that’s something the prequel trilogy did well over the entire prequel trilogy. In this segment we also get to see the Jedi Council, and much of how the Jedi act feels purposeful, they’re meant to be a little monotone and all that, and so I was fine with that in the grand scheme of things. I would’ve liked to have seen Jedi more involved in this movie but given the number of issues The Phantom Menace has, that’s hardly a problem even having. A much despised aspect about this movie was the introduction of midichlorians for the force. I do agree that it’s not needed, even if it was made with good intentions to expand the lore. Personally I just ignore this aspect of the plot, it doesn’t matter to me or the movie really. I don’t even recall the other prequels mentioning them.
The third act is quite good and my favourite section of the whole movie. There are multiple battles and I liked most of it, but the whole Gungan vs battle droids was not so great, though to be fair it’s mainly because a large portion of it was just showing Jar Jar’s comedy unfortunately. The rest of that battle would’ve been fine otherwise. Then there’s the ships trying to destroy the Trade Federation station and involving Anakin in the third act, but I’ll get to that later. The parts where Padme is leading an attack was pretty decent. The best part of this segment is of course the fight with Qui Gon and Obi Wan against Darth Maul. For as much as some Star Wars fans complain about some of the dance like choreography in the prequels (and there’s a truth in that), the choreography in this scene is pretty much perfect. It’s entertaining and it really works, I can’t really think of many complaints about this fight. Although this third act is the best part of the movie, it still has its own share of problems. There are 4 battles going on at once, and it can be a little much, not to mention you don’t really care much about any of them, so you’re basically just watching them because they’re entertaining.
The movie doesn’t particularly do a good job at establishing a singular main character or a focus. Not that they can’t focus on multiple main characters or anything, but it definitely would’ve helped to have at least one major character that you could latch onto, but there’s none to be found here. It’s not Qui Gon, we don’t get to learn about him much, nor is it Obi Wan, we spend even less time with him. Padme’s not really the focus of the story, and it’s a whole third of the way into the movie before you even see Anakin. There’s really no emotional connection to be had with any of the characters, at least in this movie. Thankfully despite some problems, the next two movies focussed on the main characters a little more. Most of the characters feels very stiff, but some of the actors break out of their shell at points. Liam Neeson is believable enough as a Jedi, and Ewan McGregor even from just this movie has vibes of a much younger Obi Wan Kenobi. McGregor also worked a lot better due to the fact that he had two additional movies to develop and showcase his character. In that respect, I do feel like Liam Neeson should’ve been the main character, because we didn’t really learn much about him outside of some brief snippets, and then he just dies at the end. Natalie Portman is also victim to the bland monotone acting that much of the cast has fallen to, the direction really doesn’t take advantage of her great talent sadly. However she is trying, and I do actually like the character quite a bit and she does actually get to do things in this movie. I do find it a little weird that the Jedi couldn’t somehow figure out that she had a decoy, given that they have the force and all that, but that might just be a nitpick.
Jake Lloyd plays the young Anakin Skywalker in this movie. In a previous review I might’ve been a little too critical of him. Honestly the problems I have are not to do with the performance. Ignoring the fact that he’s meant to be a younger Anakin/Darth Vader, Lloyd plays the rest of the role as well as possible given the material. His last scenes with Anakin’s mother I actually thought were well acted. However there are some problems with the character. He’s brought in as a side character a third of the way through, he’s shown to be significant as potentially the one destined to bring balance to the force, there’s parts about him being very powerful with the force and him being a great pilot but that’s it. He almost feels tacked on like a subplot then rather a significant driving part of the movie. Considering that the reason the prequels exist was to show the transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader, it was a little weird that in the first movie they didn’t even put him in one of the leading roles. It doesn’t help that towards the end he ends up blowing up the Trade Federation station at the end by accident instead of purposefully. They already established him as a great pilot with podracing back on Tatooine. Even if they were to have him get stuck in the ship flying towards the station, everything he does after the autopilot is switched off is one Jar Jar moment after the other, where he accidentally manages to save the day, and it would’ve been the perfect moment to prove how capable he is. As for the idea of him being just created by the force, I don’t mind that. Jar Jar Binks is… not really all that bad. George Lucas seemed to find him to be hilarious since he’s placed in so many of the scenes, but unfortunately there’s really nothing that he does that’s genuinely funny. I lost how many times Jar Jar would say “How wude!”, to absolutely no laughs whatsoever. I don’t like him and he’s still slightly annoying but not insufferable, I’ve seen countless worse comic relief characters in other movies. If anything the most disappointing part of him is that they don’t really do anything with him as a character. He’s essentially meant to be our insight into the Gungans, but they do basically nothing with that, nor do they give him any form of character outside of being clumsy. Even if you wanted to make him a slapstick character for 80% of the time, a little bit of character would be nice. He’s distracting more than anything, but hardly among the worst parts of the movie.
The Trade Federation villains like Nute Gunray I’ve always found to be rather uninspired and underwhelming. I’m not expecting every Star Wars movie villain to be at the level of Darth Vader or anything, but I’d like to feel more about them than just “what was the point of them?”. They are after all aside from Darth Maul at the end the ultimate antagonists of the entire movie. I’ve always found the battle droids to be rather unimpressive as physical enemies to the main characters. As much as the Stormtroopers are made fun of because of their terrible aim, they had their moments. Aside from having some large droids, I don’t remember them being particularly threatening at any point in these movies outside of the very large scale battle scenes later on. Ian McDiarmid always delivers as Palpatine/The Emperor, The Phantom Menace establishes him very well in this time period and he absolutely nails all of his scenes. Pretty much everything involving The Emperor in the prequel trilogy was great. We also have Ray Park as Darth Maul who everyone likes, even people who hate The Phantom Menace still highly praised him. He became so popular in fact that he was resurrected in spin off Star Wars stories and media, and even cameoed in Solo. I do wish he was in the movie more and we don’t get any sort of idea of his personality or character and he doesn’t get many lines, but what we get from him is great. He’s got a great and dangerous presence about him, and he’s shown to be quite the adversary in the third act.
George Lucas’s direction is a bit of a mixed bag. With the prequel trilogy, Lucas put an even higher emphasis on CGI, unfortunately the CGI hasn’t really held up all that well. Some moments are okay, some aren’t so much. Most of the practical effects and sets are good, there was actually a lot more practical effects used in this movie than I remember there being. The only parts which distract are the Trade Federation aliens, they just look so lifeless from their blinking to the lip movement. And since we are talking about CGI and aliens, we should probably address Yoda, even if he’s a very small part of the movie. Initially The Phantom Menace had Yoda done through puppeteering, and that sounds good on paper, but something must’ve gone wrong because he looked freakish and creepy. In the updated versions of this movie they replaced him with a CGI Yoda like with what they’ve now done with episodes 2 and 3, and honestly I think it’s better than what it was before. With that said, something seems really off about it, the animation really doesn’t fit the voice at all and it can look quite out of place. CGI not always being great aside, generally the action in The Phantom Menace is filmed well. John Williams’s score across the first 6 movies have remained iconic, no matter how much the prequels are hated. Tracks like Duel of the Fates stick out at as some of the most standout songs from the franchise.
The Phantom Menace is still a mixed bag, but I guess at least I like it more than the last time I saw it. I think there’s a lot here to like, I like some of the expansions of the Star Wars lore and worlds, even if not all of it works I appreciate the efforts. There are also some parts like the third act that I legitimately think are good. However, there are just so many missteps and mistakes made here that really hold the movie back from being as good as it could’ve been. I’m not mad at the movie at all, just disappointed, and I’m unlikely to revisit it that much. Still the worst Star Wars movie, but more average than actually bad.