Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Estimated Budget: $115 million
U.S. Gross: $474 million
Do I have impeccable timing or what? I announce the Citizen Kane of Awful Star Wars special and days later, J. J. Abrams releases the cast list for Episode VII. It helps to have friends in high places…*
*I don’t know J. J. Abrams and never have. Please stop calling me.
It’s time for me to tackle the biggest question of our generation: was the Star Wars prequel trilogy as bad as everyone likes to think, or was a jilted generation of Jedi-lovers just taking out its disappointment on George and Jar-Jar? In case you’ve somehow forgotten, The Phantom Menace is the story of young Anakin Skywalker as he takes his first steps on the road to becoming SPOILERS REDACTED.
The production design
The Phantom Menace may have many flaws, but production design isn’t one of them. The Atlantis-esque, underwater realm of the Gungans is beautiful in its simplicity, consisting of countless spheres with membranous surfaces, all containing tiny settlements. Things get even more beautiful on land with the Naboo world resembling a more tropical Venice in its canals and Renaissance buildings. Tattoine also has a rugged elegance with its sci-fi take on a North African market. If there’s one thing Star Wars does brilliantly, it’s creating captivating worlds.
The underwater chase on Naboo
It’s rare for a blockbuster chase sequence to say something about marine biology and the survival of the fittest, but The Phantom Menace manages it. As Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar head to the surface they are attacked by a variety of fantastically designed underwater creatures. One is like a piranha with shrimp legs, another is like a cross between a swordfish and a T-Rex, a third is a kind of eel with the torso and head of an alligator. They’re all delightful ‘what-ifs’ of the creatures you might find on earth and as our heroes evade them they eat each other in a glorious real time demonstration of Naboo’s underwater food chain. This is how you build a memorable fantasy world: with attention to detail, a sense of fun and a lot of imagination.
Let’s hand it to the Star Wars team, Ray Park and Peter Serafinowicz. They created a legendary villain in Darth Maul. The second he stepped onscreen, even though it was just as a hologram, I got chills. He arrives looking like the demon-tiger offspring of Scar from The Lion King, but walking on two legs and wielding the most bad-ass weapon in all of Star Wars. That moment when he finally reveals the double-ended lightsaber and the choir sing in the background…a legend is born.
The greatest lightsaber battle in Star Wars history
Yeah, that’s right. I’m making that claim. Deal with it. The climactic battle between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of my earliest cinema memories and there’s a good reason for that. The swordplay is intense and brilliantly choreographed, and the tension is palpable as our heroes wait for the laser fields to disable. In my 7-year-old eyes, that final moment where Obi-Wan launches out of the pit, catches Qui-Gon’s lightsaber and slices Maul in half was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. And Qui-Gon’s death was the saddest. I’ve still got a replica of that lightsaber somewhere…
The federation aliens led by Nute Gunray are voiced with heavy Chinese accents speaking in pidgin English. Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans speak in…Jamaican? I don’t even know. All I know is that it’s very broad and a little bit offensive. Sure, you can kind of justify it as ‘realistic’ to have different alien races adopt different national accents, but do they have to be such crude stereotypes?
Jesus Christ, Jedi Knight
So yeah, Anakin was born via an immaculate conception. I’d forgotten about that. Lazy George, lazy. King James is going to be suing you for copyright infringement any day now. On the other hand, the Bible would be a lot more entertaining if the baby Jesus had a lightsaber. Let’s make it happen.
Imagine the numbing boredom of the most depressingly dull Formula One grand prix you’ve ever seen condensed into ten minutes and you’re getting close to the joys of this pod race. You’d think a space race with flying vehicles would be impossible to screw up, but Lucas & co. have really outdone themselves here.
At the halfway mark we’re still stuck on Tatooine with Jabba, Watto and Sebulba and the faint remnants of a plot are nowhere to be seen. The trips to Naboo and Tatooine were mildly diverting for a while, but now I’m just left wondering when things are going to get interesting. The answer is: when Darth Maul does anything.
Politics has no place in a blockbuster
You know why the original Star Wars trilogy was great fun? Because it had no senate hearings. Think about it: when was the last time you saw an entertaining blockbuster that featured a political debate about trade route taxation? For future reference here’s a list of words that should never feature in any summer tentpole: bureaucracy, committee, Supreme Chancellor, recently-elected, trade routes, commission, unfair taxation, trade federation, Jar-Jar Binks. Speaking of which…
Jar Jar Binks
Elmo on Quaaludes. The walking talking STD. Call him what you want, Jar Jar Binks was a bad move. “Yousa think yousa people gonna die?” he asks Padmé as her people are being slaughtered. With the tact of a drunk rhino and the people skills of Nigel Farage at the MOBOs, Jar-Jar is hated by Star Wars fans and barely tolerated by Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.
Star Rating: 3/5
Kane Rating: 0/5
A modern masterpiece. 5/5. Give George Lucas all the awards…no. On a serious note, The Phantom Menace is nothing more than mediocre. The story is horribly plotted, with some intriguing moments (those Jedi Knight trials sounded fun) skipped over for incredibly boring pod racing and bureaucracy. There’s also the much-maligned presence of Jar-Jar Binks, floating around this film like a bad fart. On the other hand, the production design is always inventive and entertaining and Darth Maul is the best villain in the entire series after Vader himself. Perhaps I’m equally biased in the opposite direction as this was a real nostalgia trip for me, but so far I’m getting the impression that The Phantom Menace received more of a backlash than it really deserved.