When it was originally revealed that there would be more Star Wars movies, there was no doubt an outpouring of excitement from fans. But at the same time, some of them surely felt like it wasn’t needed (similar to the emotions fans are feeling right now). And while The Phantom Menace did a great job of opening up the Star Wars universe to a new audience, it does falter in doing so.
The Phantom Menace takes place before the Empire, before the Rebellion, before Han Solo, but not before Yoda (he is 900 years old after all), and shows off a younger Obi-Wan Kenobi, who’s still apprenticed to Qui-Gon Jinn, while also introducing Anakin Skywalker as a young boy.
While the plot shows a lot of potential, it gets to caught up in itself to ever really do anything great. There’s way too much focus on the politics surrounding the Trade Federation blockade on Naboo, and for a movie that tries to appeal to a younger crowd, it spends an unreasonably long time on boring dialogue between pompous politicians.
However, Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor both give fantastic performances as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan respectively, and the two really do have some good chemistry. In fact, it’s these two actors that almost entirely ground the movie, as most of the remaining cast is hit-or-miss.
For example, Padme Amidala, who the two Jedi are supposed to protect, isn’t exactly interesting, despite playing such a big role. Some of the secondary characters do fare a little better, specifically Pernilla August, who plays Shmi Skywalker and Ian McDiarmind as Senator Palpatine, but overall, it is very much a mixed bag.
Even Ahmed Best, who plays the infamous Jar-Jar Binks, doesn’t’t do a bad job. While his character is a ‘love-him’ or ‘hate-him’ kind of deal, he is actually rather funny at times. The rest of the time, well, let’s just not go there.
With all that said however, the only actor who really brings the movie down is Jake Lloyd, who plays a young, nine-year old Anakin. Lloyd just can’t seem to handle the complexity of Anakin’s character or the pressure of starring in big-budget film. His lines are delivered flatly and without emotion, and outside of the oddly exciting pod-racing scene (which he ironically doesn’t speak during), he really doesn’t have any good scenes.
And for a movie to fill in the backstory of a character as important as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, I’m shocked that the producers, or George Lucas, didn’t spent the extra time needed to find a more capable actor.
With all that said, The Phantom Menace is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s actually a pretty good one. Yes, it does fall victim to a somewhat weak script and a mixed bag of quality acting, but yet, there’s something oddly wonderful about seeing Star Wars done with newer technologies and some new, fresh faces.
I expect the purpose behind George Lucas deciding to revisit his most famous franchise rests behind money (of course) and bringing a beloved movie series to a younger audience (which, of course, yields more money). And in this case, The Phantom Menace is a success.
Lucas successfully recaptures the sense of wonder that’s so commonly associated with Star Wars, and there are at least a dozen gorgeous scenarios and set pieces that will delight fans of all ages and opinions.
One thing that I know all kinds of fans will appreciate, however, more than the special effects or action, are the Jedi. Original Trilogy fans only ever got to see a handful of them, but The Phantom Menace showcases these mighty warriors in their prime. And the results are brilliant.
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon alone, who are actually the only Jedi we get to see in action, capably carrying the entire film on their shoulders, and their fight scenes, which actually have complex choreography, more than make up for the areas the film falters in. You’ve never seen a lightsaber do the things it does in this movie, and, in a way, it reignites the wonder and excitement that was started so many years ago.
So while the film stumbles in its middle, when it nears its climax, everything gets drastically better. It does use the same three-climactic-battles-at-the-same-time formula started in Return of the Jedi, it’s actually done better here, giving equal focus and importance to each of the three battles going on.
However, where the film really shines is in the final showdown between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon versus the mysterious Darth Maul. Indeed, this is a scene that, even now, still stands as one of the best lightsaber duels in the franchise, as it is not only amazing to look at thanks to the insane acrobatics and choreography, but also emotionally investing as we know the fate of only one of the above three.
It’s brilliant through and through, and although Darth Maul is given little to no personality or character, he is still a mystifying character that just eats up every scene he’s in. And the fact that he wields a double-bladed lightsaber, a first for the series, is reason enough for his fame.
Overall, The Phantom Menace is a good movie that perhaps falls victim to either George Lucas’ underdeveloped script or the acting abilities (or lack thereof) of some of its cast. It’s not a great movie, but it’s also not a bad movie.
It does a lot of things right, most important being introducing Star Wars to an entirely new generation, and if you don’t let its flaws take over the experience, there’s a lot of fun to be had with this movie.