Star Wars – The Re-Review – The Phantom menace
Well, with The Mandalorian coming out tomorrow, it’s time I get back to my reviews, and here we are, the prequel trilogy. You will never find a more wretched hive of bad dialogue and poor plot decisions… Or at least that’s what some people say. The prequel trilogy has provided the internet with fantastic meme fodder, and I’ve still got pleasant memories of watching Phantom Menace as a kid (I was 9), but let’s see how it holds up on a re-watch 20 years later. As a quick reminder, here’s where I am in the order, and here are links to my reviews for Rogue One (3.5/5), A New Hope (4.5/5) , and The Empire Strikes Back(5/5).
Unlike most of the other Star Wars films, Phantom Menace does not open on its best note, in fact, it opens clumsy. The better part of the movie’s first half is slow, with exposition-heavy dialogue and little to no character development beyond the basics (e.g. Jar Jar is a bumbling idiot that can jump real good, Obi Wan has a rat tail, and Qui Gon Jin is dour). Sure, the audience is introduced to a host of new and exciting planets, but the story is bogged down by the one thing no Star Wars fan ever wanted more of, politics. Re-watching the struggles of the Naboo and the Galactic Senate is a painful reminder of just how slow and inefficient governments can be. It’s interesting in the lore that it creates, but it should have been a footnote, not the plot of the whole damn movie.
The story is especially damaging to one character in particular, Obi Wan. Going back to watch the prequels, I was particularly excited for Obi Wan given his relatively short presence in the original trilogy. Sadly, in the Phantom Menace, he’s not given much to work with and is practically reduced to a side character. Aside from the film’s opening, Obi Wan sits on the sidelines for the majority of the film until the final, climactic battle. One can only imagine the better decisions that might have been made on Tatooine had they brought him along for the ride. There are glimmers of Obi’s dry charm and humor, but ultimately, this story isn’t about him.
Unfortunately, rather than an interesting character, this story is about Anakin, a walking pile of terrible dialogue and awkward child-teenager romance. The one thing I can say is Jake Lloyd surpasses Hayden Christensen in the role, but that’s only because adult Anakin is just so god damned creepy (more on that in the next film). Anakin’s plot on Tatooine is boring, formulaic, and hosts one of my least favorite scenes in the entire saga, his first meeting with Padme. All I had to hear were the words “Are you an angel?” and immediately my headed exploded Scanners style.
Luckily, there’s a glimmer of greatness at the end of Phantom’s stay on the miserable desert planet, and that’s pod racing. The Boonta Eve sequence is one of the coolest in the franchise, and arguably better street racing than the Fast and the Furious series (come at me Vin Diesel). There’s a memorable cast of racers, amazing effects, and to this day, it’s still exciting. As a bonus point, it also spawned one of the better Star Wars video game incarnations and should be brought back as a modern game immediately.
Now, the pod racing scene was amazing, but in the words of Yoda, there is another. The fight between Qui Gon, Obi Wan, and Darth Maul at the end of the film is the best saber fight in the entire series, hands down. Once more, I encourage you to fight me if you disagree. With one of John Williams’s finest scores, Duel of the Fates, pumping in the background and some excellent fight choreography, the scene holds up and is still incredible to watch. However, and there’s a big however, this scene also kills of the film’s two most interesting characters.
Darth Maul is set up as an amazing baddie that could have easily carried over to menace Obi Wan through the rest of the prequel series, but sadly, he’s the one Star Wars character that can’t recover from dismemberment. Of course, Darth Maul had a big presence in the expanded universe of books, television, and even in Solo, but he could have really helped the prequel trilogy along. By killing him, Obi Wan completes what could have otherwise been an exciting emotional journey. Struggling with the need for revenge and a pull toward the dark side could have given him better character beats moving forward, but these films aren’t about characters, they’re about CGI.
And boy, a lot of the CGI does not hold up well here. As a kid, I remember thinking the battle of Naboo was one of the more memorable in the series, but as an adult, it’s hot trash. Not only do we have Jar Jar as a clumsy, but somehow lethal general, the CGI battle with the droids feels like a miss and lacks some of the weight of the other fights in the series. Especially coming hot off watching the Battle of Hoth in Empire, this one is hard to stomach. The accompanying space battle is great, but the ground game could have used some more up close scenes with practical effects.
In the end, Phantom Menace felt like Lucas really wanted to flex his newfound CGI muscles, who didn’t it was the late 90s, but in the process, he lost the realness of the original trilogy. Even going back to watch those older films forty years later, they still hold up better than the 20-year-old Phantom Menace. That’s the problem with CGI, it advanced so rapidly, that even more recent films start to look old faster. It doesn’t help that the computer-generated characters were also tropes with little personality beyond being various racist stereotypes (Looking at you trade federation).
Overall, Phantom Menace is just bad. It can be fun to watch at times and has some of the coolest scenes in the series, but action scenes knit together by politicians providing exposition does not make a film. While the original trilogy was heavy on tropes and didn’t offer an original overarching story, we knew why the characters did what they did, and their actions were consistent. Phantom Menace shortchanges its best characters in exchange for cheap, walking piles of CGI garbage that are forgotten almost as soon as they’re off screen (except you, Jar Jar, Lord of the Sith). Together, all this makes for my lowest ranking in my rewatch so far.