Confessions of a ‘Star Wars’ Virgin: Watching ‘The Phantom Menace’ for the First Time
In honor of Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ release, we’re rerunning our series from 2012 when I watched the Star Wars movies for the first time. Read my intro/explanation here, and here are my reviews of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
Oh heavens, so here we are. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 14, and out of all of the Star Wars movies I probably knew the most about this one without having seen it. I clearly remember the gripes about the fiasco of Jar Jar Binks, and even though the prequel series was probably aimed at just about my age group at the time, it still seems (at least to my eye now) even younger-reaching than that. I thought I would be surprised at how young Natalie Portman looked, but I was far more shocked at how Jake Lloyd as Anakin was only slightly larger than a fetus. His age, plus the interminable Jar Jar, wiped away the quirky appeal of the original series and turned it into a basic kid-pic without a decently intriguing story.
Where to begin … my two favorite characters from the original trilogy, C-3PO and R2-D2, where woefully inserted here. R2 was a helpful droid in Phantom Menace, but without 3PO he didn’t have any of his (presumed) snark, which took away his personality. And 3PO! Don’t get me started on the logic of him being built by Anakin, my blood pressure is too high already.
Jar Jar seemed to fill the role of 3PO throughout much of his interaction with the others, insofar as his negativity, but whereas 3PO did so with charm, Jar Jar nearly sent me to the Dark Side. Han would have never put up with that level of shrieking and backtalk in the cockpit — I know that Qui-Gon wanted to save him from prison or death but did he really have to sit up front with everyone? Couldn’t they have taped his mouth shut? One of the best things about characters like the Ewoks or Chewbacca or even Jabba is our inability to understand them except through other people. Jar Jar could have been taken in so many different ways, but to insert him just as the Village Idiot for kids watching the movie to laugh at because he makes poop jokes and says a fart smells bad was a waste of screen time and a disservice to the entire franchise.
I honestly didn’t have a problem with the CGI overall, though (with one exception: digitized Jabba). I thought it would look a lot more dated than it did, but some of it (like Wotto the Toydarian, in close-up) were actually pretty well rendered.
Acting-wise, Liam Neeson deserved better than this, and he (and only he) carried any weight in the film. Natalie Portman did ok, but her fluctuating accent (along with Keria Knightly‘s) was distracting. Ewan McGregor was charming as usual but he didn’t have a huge role (I know absolutely nothing about the other two prequels, but I am assuming he has a much bigger part there).
In fact, the most interesting character, Darth Maul, was given the least consideration of all. His presence also launched the best bit of fighting. The choreography of the 2-on-1 was great, with the double lightsaber, and it was much more elaborate than the lightsaber combats of the earlier films. But his dismissal as being one of two Siths (which seems kinda like a huge deal) by a largely-devoid-of-personality Yoda was unsatisfying. “Eh, there are always two.” Why? And?
As a stand-alone film, Phantom Menace could probably work as some basic kids sci-fi action movie with a few loose ends (like the Sith business). I was interested in Anakin being possibly a dark force (I mean obviously, he will be), though Jake Lloyd’s cherubic performance lacked any hint of that. As for him being immaculately conceived, that’s when I wrote “game over” in my notes.
Episode I Roundup:
Favorite Character(s): Qui-Gon, Darth Maul
Least Favorite Character(s): Jar Jar Binks
A-ha! Moment: Well, I get the hate now. I’ll admit, I tried very hard to look for positives with Jar Jar, but they just weren’t there. You guys were right.
WTF? Moments: The slaves seem to live a pretty good life on Tatooine; they get to have money, decent housing, time to work on race cars, get to leave work early and have no signs of being beaten. Not bad! Also, it seems like massive droid troops > Stormtroopers, and if that kind of technology was available why didn’t the Empire use it later? My head hurts.
Pop Culture Moments: Warrick Davis popping up was hilarious and sad as it made me remember his comments about it in Life’s Too Short (“I was in Star Wars!” “…were you?”). Also, Samuel L. Jackson, you are better than this.
What worked best: The race was fine but unnecessarily long. It kinda reminded me of Mario Kart.
What didn’t work: CGI Jabba is not as gross or interesting as muppet Jabba. Also, the runtime was interminable. Finally, most of the big battle scenes were about accidents and chaos, not planning, which wasn’t very interesting. Oh oh, one more thing: Amidala and Anakin. Just … weird.
Best Quotes: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering, and suffering leads to the Dark Side.”
Tomorrow: Episode II.