To say that there was a lot of anticipation for George Lucas' Star Wars prequels back before they were released would be sugar-coating what was probably one of geekdom's all-time biggest events.
Seeing the rise of Darth Vader could only be awesome.
Well let's just say that if ever there was a way not to start that trilogy, The Phantom Menace was it. Not that it didn't deliver anything of value but the backlash that followed the film was so huge that it made everyone very worried for the rest of the prequels. Jar Jar Binks became the single most hated Star Wars character of all time and The Phantom Menace, by extension, the most hated Star Wars movie of all time.
But was that backlash an overreaction or was it somewhat deserved?
While I'd love to say that The Phantom Menace was in fact a misunderstood gem, one can't deny just how inept parts of this movie are. Yes, Jar Jar Binks was a bad idea from the start: his bumbling antics unfunny from start to finish, his way of speaking loud and confounding and his look completely unappealing. This is what happens when a film tries way too hard to create a goofy character kids would gravitate towards. Removing this character from the film entirely would likely have increased people's enjoyment of The Phantom Menace but I would argue that Jar Jar was the least of that movie's worries.
Jar Jar could easily be ignored as most of his scenes were mercifully short. The overall plot, however, was so uninteresting that, to this day, it's hard for me to describe exactly what this movie was actually about. The Star Wars prequels were definitely more political than the original trilogy but this was only really a problem with this first instalment. Caring about Jar Jar's people or Padmé Amidala's (Natalie Portman) involvement in the whole war which ends the film proved rather difficult. Add to that an increasingly grating performance by young Jake "Anakin Skywalker" Lloyd, shockingly awful puppetry throughout (Yoda looked particularly bad), a lot of shoddy writing, some borderline racist stereotypes and an inexplicably overlong pod race and you've got yourself a melting pot of bad ideas.
Most people still love that pod race but I would be willing to bet that what people really love is the old pod racer video game, not so much the sequence in the film which goes on for far too long when it could have easily been intercut with a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) doing something useful. On the plus side, the visuals are impressive for the time, not just in that scene but in the rest of the film as well: you've got some stunning backgrounds and special effects in there. Another thing fans remember fondly is baddie Darth Maul (Ray Park) who showed up with his double-bladed lightsaber and devil-like make-up adding some welcome danger to an otherwise relatively tame outing. That character I would say was criminally underused and looks a little out of place in the Star Wars universe but he does provide us with a worthy fight scene at the end of the film.
The movie's one good idea seems to be to have cast Liam Neeson as Obi-Wan's master Qui-Gon Jinn. The actor easily being the only convincing element in The Phantom Menace. The man makes some pretty bad lines sound good just by saying them but maybe it's just that everyone around him's struggling so much that he looks in focus in comparison. Look out for the first appearance of Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu, C-3PO's first meeting with R2-D2 and Keira Knightley's extended cameo as Amidala's decoy.
All in all, this remains a tough flick to recommend.
Parts of it work, most of it doesn't.
For every good Qui-Gon Jinn scene there's like five energy-draining Jar Jar scenes, for every cool action sequence there are five dull ones. The Phantom Menace meant well and introduced some nifty tidbits which would admittedly grow into good elements later on in the prequel franchise. That said, its biggest crime is how boring it is overall: it's too easy to get distracted when watching this movie when it should be captivating from start to finish. George Lucas maybe should have handed writing/directing duties to someone else for this one.
Far, far away from being a must-see.