Of course, The Phantom Menace is probably one of the most controversial movies in film history. 16 years had past since the original trilogy had ended and there was therefore a lot of hype surrounding the movie. Many people were disappointed by the result. It seems that these days, you cannot be a true Star Wars fan without hating the prequel trilogy or at least Episode I. However, while their are many flaws with the Phantom Menace, I believe that there are also many good things to say about it. So without further ado, here we go.
The biggest problem with The Phantom Menace is that Lucas couldn't decide what story he wanted to tell. Is The Phantom Menace supposed to be about corruption and bureaucracy in government, the story of a slave boy who gets the opportunity to explore his destiny, or the story of an annoying rabbit-man that somehow manages to ruin every scene he is in? Of course, a film can explore many different ideas and be successful. However, in order for a film to do this and be successful, it must have a heart, a center. The Phantom Menace has no center. Anakin, the supposed protagonist doesn't even appear until well into the movie. Qui-gon is the closest thing the movie has to a central figure, but even he fails to bridge the gap between all of the movie's disparate elements.
Personally, I feel that the important story in The Phantom Menace is the story of Anakin. The fact that he is destined to become one of the most powerful and evil men in the galaxy makes his origin story inherently interesting to me. Here is a unique opportunity to explore so many things. Are people born evil? Is it something that happens to them, or do they choose it? And if they do choose it, what makes them do so? What circumstances can lead a good person to become a bad person? These questions are all very interesting to me, and if I was Lucas, that's what I would make the center of this movie. Unfortunately, these issues get very little attention in the Phantom Menace, despite being set up very well. They are discussed briefly, mostly through the Jedi Council's reluctance to allow Anakin to be trained as a Jedi. In particular, the following exchange is clear foreshadowing.
Ki-Adu-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Afraid to lose her, I think, hmmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side! Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.
It is obvious that these are issues to be explored in future movies, and while I am thankful that they acknowledge them here, it seems a waste to not explore the ideas that, to me, are clearly the most interesting.
The story largely centers around the Trade Federation's blockade of the planet Naboo and the Galactic Senate's inability to do anything about it: an elaborate ploy set up by Senator Palpatine in order to become Chancellor. This is a fine story, but lacks the focus required to really make me care about it. I feel that the most interesting aspect of this story is Palpatine. Here we have an evil man who is seeking total control. We know that eventually, Anakin will be not dissimilar from this man. In this story is the perfect opportunity to explore those above ideas. How could the boy Anakin grow up to be similar to Palpatine? What is it that they share? Unfortunately, these ideas are unexplored and Palpatine remains a shadowy figure in the film, orchestrating events from behind the scenes as Darth Sidious. At the end of The Phantom Menace, we cannot be said to really know Palpatine. We know his intentions, but we do not know his motivations. Why does he want total control so badly? Why has he chosen the path of the sith? Does it stem from fear, as Yoda says? What is Palpatine afraid of? We don't get to know Palpatine in any significant sense in The Phantom Menace, and he therefore makes a fairly weak villain.
The other main antagonist is of course Darth Maul, who, despite having only a small amount of actual screen time, is one of the most memorable characters in the film. Unfortunately, he is an even weaker villain than Palpatine in that he has no personality to speak of whatsoever. The only character trait he posses is concentrated badass, which, while impressive and memorable, doesn't lead to great storytelling. His only purpose in the film is to provide a sense of danger for the otherwise nearly invincible Jedi Knights and to ultimately kill Qui-gon. Once he has done that, he his quickly dispatched by Obi-wan, and we never learn anything about his motivations or character.
Between Maul and Palpatine, the film doesn't have a very strong set of antagonists and I would say that this is another problem with it.
The pacing of the movie is also very odd. As I mentioned earlier, Anakin isn't introduced until well into the movie, after a very long and belabored sequence with Qui-gon and Obi-wan on Naboo that I can't help but feel could have been severely trimmed. The entire underwater sequence with the monstrous fish in particular seemed a waste of time. The story becomes stagnant again when we arrive on Tatooine, where the minutes drag by. The characterization here is not interesting enough to justify all of the time spent on Tatooine and again, it seemed as though Lucas just didn't feel like cutting anything. There are some very odd scenes that were intended to introduce us to the characters that only ended up being confusing. The scene with Padmé and Anakin was particularly bewildering with his "Are you an angel?" line. I couldn't decide if they were already setting up the future romance between these two (in which case, that's kind of ew. He's nine) or show that Anakin is a nice little kid who wants to get away from his crapsack life. Either way they failed and the scene just come across as awkward, out of place, and a little creepy. The final battle was also very strange, with the intercutting between all of the different places becoming very emotionally disorienting. I especially feel that Qui-gon's death was very oddly placed and that it would have been much better for the audience not to have to flit back and forth between the Darth Maul battle, the Queen/Viceroy battle, the Anakin space battle, and the Gungan ground battle.
Another odd thing I couldn't get past was the extremely awkward transitions between scenes. The screen wiped after every scene. It looked as though the editors were using Windows Movie Maker. It just seemed so out of place and odd that it took me out of the movie every single time it happened, which was quite frequently. Is this a common practice in all the Star Wars movies? I don't remember it being, but maybe I was even less attentive as a child than I thought. I really hope it's not, because that was the most annoying thing about the movie for me. Well... second most annoying...
Jar-Jar Binks. Ugh. Just ugh. Clearly, Lucas was afraid that kids would not be interested in the political drama or the ideas of good versus evil, so he decided to create a character specially designed to annoy every single person on earth. His slapstick comedy is so forced and out of place that I couldn't help but feel like I was watching a very different and much worse movie every time he was on screen. The slapstick humor was meant to be amusing but only came off as out of place, weird, and annoying. The Gungan ground battle could have been easily cut out. In fact, I think the movie would have benefited from cutting the Gungans completely as they really added very little to the story or its themes.
No review of The Phantom Menace would be adequate without mentioning midichlorians. I can understand the fan reaction against them, but I don't really mind them. I think that it is a mistake to think that just because something is explained that it loses it's mysticism. Just because there is an explanation to how people connect with The Force doesn't make The Force any less awesome or magical. The Force is what it is regardless of whether it is the result of a symbiotic relationship with microscopic organisms or is just plain magic.
I feel like I have ragged on the film a lot more than I intended to. I want it to be clear that, despite all of the problems I have with it, I really enjoyed The Phantom Menace. There is a reason that Star Wars is so popular; it is such a grand, imaginative story that speaks to the sense of wonder in all of us. This film is no exception. The visual effects in The Phantom Menace are very impressive and do wonders in bringing this world to life in ways that had never been seen before. The pod race, in particular, was very impressive. The action sequences as well were top notch, with the final fight with Darth Maul being some of the best fight choreography I've ever seen. The film also had a fairly respectable emotional component as well. In particular, I was affected by Anakin saying goodbye to his mother and Qui-gon's death. Both scenes were very well done.
So, maybe The Phantom Menace wasn't the best film ever made, or even anywhere close to the best Star wars film. Maybe it had some problems with pacing, characterization, and focus, but there was also plenty of good there too, and it sets up the next film very well, which I look forward to rewatching soon.