Star Wars Revisited: The Phantom Menace

The Rise of Skywalker is almost here, and it’s supposedly the conclusion to the Skywalker Saga. So, I’ve decided to attempt a full canon rewatch before it releases, reviewing each chapter as I go. That’s all the movies, as well as the Clone Wars, Rebels, and Resistance TV series. We start with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

For better or worse, the saga starts here

I love this dumb movie. It’s taken me a long time to get back here, but honestly, I just love it. I loved it when I saw it opening day in theaters, and I honestly love it now. It’s got problems. Whoa boy, does it have problems. But for me, the good manages to outweigh the bad. Also, Qui-Gon Jinn is the MVP of Star Wars.

Still with me? Cool. Let’s dive in.

So let’s start with the stuff I like. First and foremost, I love Qui-Gon Jinn. Liam Neeson plays this character as cool as can be, and he’s exactly what I always imagined a real Jedi to be like as a kid. He’s basically what Obi-Wan grew into as an old man. What’s particularly fascinating about him though is just how right he was about the Force, especially given what we know about the Jedi Order following The Last Jedi. They were rigid, kind of arrogant, and made a bunch of bad decisions that eventually lead to their downfall. Qui-Gon wasn’t on the Jedi council because he was too much of a hippie who just kinda played things by his own rules. He focused on the will of the Force, and the Jedi who survived Order 66 (mainly Obi-Wan and Yoda) eventually grew to understand that Qui-Gon was the rightest dude in the galaxy. If he had survived Darth Maul, Vader probably never would have happened, because under Qui-Gon, Anakin would have likely grown up knowing how to chill the heck out. Qui-Gon is the entire saga’s MVP in my book, (especially since we learn in Clone Wars that he’s the one who figured out to go all force ghost after death) and since so much of this movie is about him, it makes it really cool to watch.

I stand behind the pod race as being one of the coolest things in any Star Wars movie. It’s a tad gratuitous and goes on for a while, but seriously, just sit back and watch it. It’s freaking enthralling! It’s gorgeously shot, super exciting, and it sounds incredible.

Speaking of sound, John Williams really brought his A game to this one. Every scene is flawlessly scored, and that adds so much to what Star Wars is, it can’t be overstated. Everything here is beautiful, and I love that man for it.

Speaking of beauty, this is the only numbered prequel that isn’t bogged down by non-stop garish CG. Yes, there’s still plenty of dated CG to go around here, but there’s no shortage of actual physical sets and practical effects all over the place in this movie. It’s why it feels so much more like a Star Wars movie to me than the other 2 prequels. It’s true that a lot more of the sets are physical than I initially realized, but it’s still too far in the wrong direction for my liking. Episode I looks and sounds the part like a champ.

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan is flawless. Ian McDiarmid does an amazing job as Palpatine. But then we have Darth Maul. Let’s talk about him. 

This character eventually got the story he deserved in Clone Wars and Rebels, but it took some real doing to get there, and it shouldn’t have. He never should have been “killed off” in this movie because HE’S SO AWESOME IT HURTS. Way cooler than Count Dooku, who also has the infinitely cooler name Darth Tyranus that is never used for some reason, but whatever. We’ll get there. Seriously, the whole ending sequence set to Dual of Fates is to this day one of my very favorite action sequences in any movie. The lightsaber battle kicks all of the ass, the space battle is fun, and the land battle with the Gungans is super cool too (minus the Gungans… I’ll get there). The whole thing is ridiculously well constructed and made with passion and love, it’s just plain great. But back to Maul, man, his presence is outstanding. He’s nearly as imposing as Vader, but in a completely different way. He’s almost completely silent, and that adds a ton to his creepy-factor. The first time you see him introduced, he’s terrifying in all the right ways. I love Darth Maul.  

Before I get to the bad stuff, I have to talk about the opening sequence, which I also think is spectacular and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The way they set up Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan’s relationship with just a few words is flawlessly executed. The battle droids still had cool robotic voices and were believable as something bad guys would use for an army to eventually be replaced with the clones, and then replaced by storm troopers. Once Clone Wars came along and they made their voices all goofy and stupid, the battle droids became almost completely worthless as a threat of any kind, but that’s not a problem here. Yes, they’re stupid. Yes, the Jedi cut through them like butter, but they serve their purpose well, and seeing them as an invasion army in the movie’s opening is imposing and cool.
But man, back to the awesomeness that is Qui-Gon, when he puts his light saber through the blast door, what a cool effect! Aces all around. 

I even like the Trade Federation dudes. Racist undertones aside, their designs are great. I love those guys (who are practical effects, btw), and they make interesting-to-look-at sniveling villains. But the other new creature designs are great too. Watto, Sebulba, and even the Gungans, Jar Jar included, are really great physical designs. But back to the opening sequence itself, it sets the stage for this being a very different kind of Star Wars movie brilliantly, while still maintaining the feeling of Star Wars. It deserves a lot of credit for that. 

Speaking of the Gungans, that’s where the bad stuff begins. I’m not going to harp on the stuff I hate too much because I want to stay as positive as possible these days, but man, Jar Jar is sooooooo awful. All of the Gungans are awful, but Jar Jar, ugh. Why, in the name of sanity, did Lucas make this species talk like this? It’s one thing to be a kids movie, which this effectively is, and it’s another thing to aim directly at the lowest common denominator. Jar Jar is involved in at least 3 poop and/or fart jokes in this movie, and every single one of them is not only not funny, but completely distracting and wholly unnecessary. Everyone who pokes fun at Poe talking about Hux’s mom in Last Jedi has to admit that even if you hate that scene (which I certainly don’t) it’s a damn sight better than any of the Jar Jar poop jokes. Which is a shame, because if you take away those pointless jokes, remove his ridiculous speaking affectation, and had they stuck with the practical effect for him instead of going all CG (there’s an amazing documentary on the Ep1 DVD showing this whole bit, and yeah, they originally started Jar Jar s a dude in a suit) Jar Jar wouldn’t have been a problem at all. Some of his scenes actually work, and the general idea of him as a character and the things he goes through/his purpose in the overall plot are perfectly fine. Him zapping his face in the power couplings is kinda funny. Qui-Gon catching his tongue at Anakin’s house is actually funny. Him being banished because he’s a clumsy jackass then being the catalyst to bring the Gungans and the Naboo together is a sound idea. But the execution was GARBAGE. 

The trade dispute stuff I think is super interesting, but I totally get it as a complaint. Midichlorians didn’t have to be a thing, and they kinda take away from the overall mystical nature of the Force from a world building perspective. The puppet they used for Yoda was… I don’t even know what that was, but it wasn’t Yoda. The CG they replaced him with for the Blu Ray release is still wrong, but it’s better than that creepy-ass puppet they used. Yuck. 

But I’ll call it there. I could criticize Jake Loyd’s performance and Natalie Portman’s too, but they honestly work pretty well just as often as they don’t. I spent a lot of years putting the prequels down as overall trash after spending a number of years overzealously defending them because as stated before, I’m a Star Wars whore, but putting all that aside and just judging the film based on how I feel when I watch it today, I love it. It ain’t perfect, and it isn’t my favorite by any stretch, but I stand by my assertion that it’s the most watchable of the prequels, and it does the least amount of damage to the franchise overall. Having Anakin build C-3PO is problematic. Having R2 spend so much time with Obi-Wan all throughout the prequels is a problem too. (And no, his “distaste for droids” that they try to shoehorn into the prequels and Clone Wars doesn’t explain away Obi-Wan straight up not recognizing R2 in A New Hope.) But aside from those two, not much here really contradicts the original trilogy, which can’t be said about its sequels, so that’s a very big set of points in its favor. 

If you haven’t seen Phantom Menace (coolest tile in the franchise, by the way) in a long time, I heartily recommend giving it another go. I mentioned earlier this effectively being a kids movie, and I stand by that. Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t very kid friendly, but no more so than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It does scary the way a good kids movie should. I’m not saying Star Wars is all kids movies, but Episode I totally is, and as a starting point for the franchise, for kids to have something in this tone to grow up with and eventually get to Luke and Vader and all that, is a really sound concept. It didn’t continue that way with Episodes II and III jumping into full emo-drama mode straight away, but I always thought if they continued to tell the story of Anakin as a story to grow up with, it would have been a really cool way to actually add to the overall mythology. Anyway, I can say that watching this as a parent with a better understanding of what kids get out of entertainment (at least my kids, anyway) there’s just so much to love here. The bad stuff hurts it a lot, but not enough to make it a bad movie. 

Now onto Attack of the Clones, my absolute least favorite piece of canon Star Wars. (No, the Holiday Special doesn’t count). May the Force be with me…

Kris Randazzo

Kris is the Content Supervisor of Geekade. As an avid consumer of all things video game, Kris spent his formative years collecting cartridges, CDs, discs, and assorted paraphernalia in an effort to amass a video game collection large enough to kill an elephant. He works with Stone Age Gamer, writing for their blog and hosting the Stone Age Gamer Podcast right here at Geekade. He's also the host of the WaveBack Podcast, co-host of This Week's Episode, and can occasionally be found in the pages of Nintendo Force Magazine.

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