The first of the notorious Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace kicks off Anakin Skywalker’s storyline that sets him on the path to becoming a Jedi, and ultimately a Sith. After a chance encounter with two Jedis on Tatooine, Anakin is taken to start training as a Jedi himself. Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine plots to take over the Republic by provoking (and this is the really thrilling bit) trade disputes.
When I first saw this at the cinema as a kid, I loved this movie. Obviously now, however, my cinema palate has matured and I can see that it’s actually pretty rubbish, but to be honest I have to give it credit for giving me the same enjoyment that I had when I first watched the originals. The plot and particularly acting (with a couple of exceptions- more on that later) is pants but generally speaking the film does embody classic Star Wars elements- the sound effects, the screen wipes, the aliens, and it’s actually cool to see Yoda et al before the events of A New Hope.
I’ll start with the bad points to get them out of the way. My main issue is that I just can’t find it believable that the Anakin from The Phantom Menace goes on to be Darth Vader. Obviously there are two more movies before he finally gets there, but there’s just no hint at all of his susceptibility to the dark side, or to be honest even his Jedi skills. Qui-Gon just “senses” that Anakin is really powerful- but as a viewer I just can’t join the two together. Sure he’s a good pilot, but so is Han Solo and I don’t think his flying reflexes are evidence enough of his so-called powers. It makes the leap into the next instalment, Attack of the Clones, unconvincing as he’s basically had a total personality transplant. Darth Vader is such an iconic character and the whole point of the Star Wars saga is effectively the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, but this movie just doesn’t build him up enough to become the badass but ultimately heroic character that we see by Return of the Jedi. It’s hard to tell if it’s the script or the acting that makes it not work (probably a combination of both), but either way Anakin is a let-down.
Other minor problems include the cringe-inducing script- the original trilogy is full of excellent lines that have become iconic in cinema, but can anyone remember anything from this? There’s also Jar Jar Binks- arguably the most universally hated Star Wars character but aside from his general grating personality, he doesn’t bring anything to the plot really so is surplus to requirements. There are a couple of casual racist stereotypes too, in the form of the trade federation reps and the Gungans. Finally, just the bad acting in general: too much stilted and unconvincing delivery, and I think the abundance of characters put quantity over quality.
The other main issue people have with this movie is the plot. Yes, it’s pretty dull but actually as a Star Wars fan I do think the events of this film are important. It paves the way to how we end up with the Rebel Alliance and the events of the original trilogy, and given what I’ve said above about the Anakin story-arc, the Senator Palpatine/Emperor story-arc actually works well in the prequel trilogy and is one of the trilogy’s overall redeeming features. As a kid I had very little idea of what was actually going on, but now as an adult I watch it thinking “ah, so that’s how that happened”. Perhaps it’s fair to say the key points are there but the execution fell short of the mark.
To end on a high note, the positives. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are super cool and it was good to have some context for Obi-Wan’s and Darth Vader’s relationship. While the script is terrible, both Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor manage to salvage their characters and they’re easily the highlight of the movie. (Mace Windu- Samuel L Jackson- is in this, but he doesn’t really get going yet until the next episode.) Darth Maul is also awesome, and while he only gets about three spoken lines (probably best given the rest of the script) he has some seriously cool moves in the final fight scene.
This isn’t the worst of the prequels but also I’d say not the best. In terms of storyline it’s good for Star Wars nerds for the general context/history of the Republic and the Empire, but for those who are lukewarm towards the originals I would say probably best not to bother as it won’t add anything for them.