- Release Date:1999-05-19
- In-universe Date:32 BBY
- Series:Prequel Era
Stranded on the desert planet Tatooine after rescuing young Queen Amidala from the impending invasion of Naboo, Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi Master discover nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker, a young slave unusually strong in the Force. Anakin wins a thrilling Podrace and with it his freedom as he leaves his home to be trained as a Jedi. The heroes return to Naboo where Anakin and the Queen face massive invasion forces while the two Jedi contend with a deadly foe named Darth Maul. Only then do they realize the invasion is merely the first step in a sinister scheme by the re-emergent forces of darkness known as the Sith.
This film has received a lot of criticism compared to the others, even Episode 2 and 3. I think the biggest problem that these critics have is that most of them were there for the original films and expected the same thing here. They weren’t expecting it to target the next generation of fans, which is exactly what it did. I was eleven when this film first hit theaters and I loved it at the time, I was the exact target audience. I admit, now, that there are a lot of things that could have gone better with this film, but there is also a lot of good. I would not rank it as my least favorite Star Wars film. In this review I’m going to point out a comprehensive analysis of what could have been done better, as well as the good points that keep it a worthy portion of the Star Wars saga.
The acting is one of the weaker points. Oddly, I don’t think this is because of bad casting choices. People might argue that Jake Lloyd was a terrible choice, but then again, Liam Neeson didn’t do that great of a job either. I would chalk this one up to bad directing and a bad screenplay, which I’ll get to later. But the acting is very flat and moving as if from one beat to another. It’s almost like the actors are reading from a teleprompter.
The script is easily the worst part of the film, and this only gets worse in later films. I honestly don’t have much good to say here. This is the real reason why the prequels didn’t work so well for so many people. If you had had an academy award winning screenwriter, it would have been so much better, and most of the criticism would have been avoided. There are a lot of inconsistencies. For example, if Jar Jar is brought on as a navigator in the planet’s core, then why does Qui-Gon say that the force will guide them later? What was the point of bringing on Jar Jar? Additionally, why did Jar Jar accompany Qui-Gon on Tatooine, or Anakin go to Theed when there was a good chance he could have gotten killed. It wouldn’t have been hard to figure out a story reason for these inconsistencies.
The villains, with the exception of the Sith, are weak and don’t provide any real threat. The droids are more comical than not, and they don’t seem realistic as a battle droid. You would think droids could shoot straight. They should have made them all in the style of the destroyer droids which are much more threatening, but don’t have much of a role. Their overseers are ridiculous and cowardly. It would have been nice to at least have a explanation why the Sith picked them to govern the invasion because it doesn’t suit them.
With Jar Jar Binks, I honestly don’t think he’s all that bad as people say. Sure, he can be a little bit annoying, and it’s hard to figure out why he’s there the whole time. However for me, an eleven-year-old, he wasn’t all that bad. He easily provided the comic relief for the younger generation that the movie was targeting in the first place. So he did what was intended.
The artwork is easily the best part of the film. Some of the designs, for environments, ships, and costumes, are gorgeous. Lucas hired a number of designers that were less used to the angular, black and white design of the original trilogy, going for a more sleek and elegant feel. This fits with the idea the film is set before the “dark times.” But it is simply impossible to watch this film an not be somewhat in awe of the design.
Darth Maul is another of the strongest aspects. Even though he does not talk much, he doesn’t need to, and isn’t supposed to really. He is a killing machine. His design is fantastic, and Ray Park does a great job of pulling off the look, not to mention his physical prowess. I would say that Darth Maul is the biggest reason why I still count this film as a part of the Star Wars saga.
Now, even though the dialogue and script could use some huge improvements, when you think about it, the story itself is not all that bad. When you consider the political plots and subtle machinations of Darth Sidious, you realize that it’s quite a perfect plan. You see more of this brilliant story later on in Episode 2 and 3, but it begins here. George Lucas might not be the best director or screenwriter, but he is still a decent storyteller.
And of course, the one aspect that has remained just as good as the original trilogy is the music by John Williams. I would even argue that this soundtrack is my first or second favorite out of the entire double trilogy. Songs like Duel of the Fates will always remain a classic, and Williams will always remain a genius.
For 1999, the special effects were pretty good and groundbreaking in some ways. Before the film, nobody had really tried to make any major character 3D. However, The Phantom Menace does this with Jar Jar Binks, as well as over half a dozen side characters like Watto, Boss Nass, and others. The ending battle at the end of the film was also the first of its kind: a large scale battle of CG warriors. It doesn’t matter that these aspects would be blown out of the water by Lord of the Rings a few years later, it was still a pioneer in special effects.
Sure, it’s not the best movie, but I think it’s far from the worst. I think what may have happened is that George Lucas had little resistance in doing the film the way he wanted to. When filmmakers start out, they get feedback from multiple sources with a lot of people giving input on what is working and what isn’t. If you pay attention to many of these voices, while still maintaining the overall vision, you will come up with a decent film. However, when you’re famous like George Lucas, people are less inclined to give constructive criticism, so the film turns into one man’s vision, instead of having creative input from multiple sources. However, even with it’s flaws, the film sports some of the best moments in the saga, such as the podrace, or what is probably the best lightsaber duel in the entire saga.