Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Posted by Maria Mills | Posted on 4:59 PM | Posted in

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Film Analysis written by: Born Movie Reviews
RT Critics Rating: 5.7/10

Born Movie Reviews' Rating: 6/10

Film Review & Analysis: Plot Holes and Writing [SPOILER ALERT]

The year is 1999, sixteen years after Return of the Jedi was released, ending the classic and iconic Star Wars trilogy. Now, with the breakthrough of computer-generated imagery, it is time for George Lucas to bring the true visual tone of Star Wars to life, by telling an origin story of Anakin Skywalker, also known as Darth Vader.

This time around, The Phantom Menace takes place at a time when Anakin is just a little boy in his ten's, living a dangerous and unpleasant slave life in his home planet of Tatooine, the same home planet of Luke Skywalker, Anakin's son. It appears that the prequel trilogy is telling the story of Anakin and how he becomes a Jedi who finds himself slowly seduced by the dark side of the Force. Already, in this critic's opinion, this was a bad idea to start. Why? Because in all honesty, Darth Vader was not the true antagonist of the original trilogy.

Though he is the most iconic villain in the franchise, his actual presence and tasks are merely of low rank. If looked at in detail, Vader does a lot of "dirty work" under the hands of the Empire, similar to an SS general in contrast to, say, Adolf Hitler himself. In Return of the Jedi, one of the main character themes is redemption, the process of how Darth Vader reverted back to Anakin Skywalker. At this point, we only cared about him coming back to the good side. We never wanted to care *how* he went to the dark side. The only thing that the audience needed is one sentence from Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force." That one sentence from A New Hope told us everything we really needed to know. Now that we are going to have not one but three movies to tell us how Anakin became Darth Vader, George Lucas seems to be pushing the story arc a bit too much.

Well, now that The Phantom Menace is the very first of the Star Wars series, it needs to do the job of a prequel. What can the film be about? At this point, it would be awkward to put Anakin as the protagonist, because we will end up following a ten-year old boy across different planets. So how do we tell this story?

The Phantom Menace revolves around a scandal being run in the universe. The Trade Federation has started a taxation process on trade routes specifically on the planet of Naboo, led by Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). Eventually, the Federation has set up a full-on blockade to prevent supplies from ever going to the planet, and this soon leads to a head-on invasion. As the Galactic Senate continues to debate on how to settle this conflict, the Chancellor secretly dispatches Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), to discuss the dispute with the Federation, led by Viceroy Gunray. It is soon revealed that Gunray is leading this scandal with what seems to be the Emperor we have known from the original trilogy. As The Phantom Menace progresses, Qui-Gon meets young Anakin Skywalker and becomes determined to train him in the Jedi arts, under the protest of the Jedi Council.

At this point, the public audience has already commonly agreed that the storyline is utterly disappointing and boring. What cares about trade routes? Who is the main character here? Is there anything worth caring about? Though I completely understand the anger from the fans, I found myself accepting of this story in The Phantom Menace, and this is why:

When you read a history textbook, do you connect with any notable figure? Are you able to truly bond with Franklin D. Roosevelt when he desperately tried to save the United States from the Great Depression? Not quite, because those books never emphasized on truly who Roosevelt was, what his personality was. You see him as a character, but it is indeed much harder to relate to him. Yet, the whole story of him saving the nation at a time of crisis is still intriguing to tell. This is exactly how I felt for The Phantom Menace, and the reason why I accept this kind of plot line in The Phantom Menace is because of the very fact that this is the film that starts the whole saga. This is the film that introduces us to the world of Star Wars. It should be nothing but a mere window for us to peak at and observe. As a result, the storyline of The Phantom Menace is tolerable, even when the writing is sloppy at times.

After being attacked by the Federation, the two Jedis discover a droid army built to invade Naboo. In response, they stow away onto the ships, land on the planet with the army, and warn the Queen. This whole scene though boggles my mind. First, why would the droid army land so far away from the palace to begin with? Oh, so that the Jedi can run into Jar Jar Binks. 

To be honest, I dislike Jar Jar Binks, but not as much as everyone else. Yes, he is annoying and is the worst idea for comic relief in the film. However, I did like the idea of the whole Gungan race, and having a specific Gungan to be with the Jedi. But, change his voice and make him not funny, but still keep his character.

For the Trade Federation, maybe the army should have landed right in the city so they can take the Queen right away. However, if that was to happen instead, then how does that give the Jedi enough time to warn the Queen about the invading army? Furthermore, the Queen does not have her own army to protect her, just security volunteers. As for the Viceroy, he then begins pushing the Queen to sign a treaty, making the invasion legal. What would this do for him exactly? If you are planning on pushing someone to sign a treaty, you might as well forge it. Furthermore, not only does he not push right away, he sends the Queen away to be "processed," which coincidentally gives the Jedi room to come to the rescue and flee off the planet.

Come to think of it, if they wanted to escape the planet of Naboo, they should have tried to escape using a smart tactic, instead of flying a ship directly towards the blockade, which can probably annihilate them in seconds. After successfully escaping the Federation, the ship starts losing power and they land on Tatooine to fix the ship. This is where Qui-Gon meets our Anakin, and the reason why he trains him is because of his high midichlorian count. Oh wait. What are midichlorians? They are explained to be microscopic life forms that logically explain the existence of the Force. Okay. Why not just say that the Force is strong with Anakin?

After leaving Tatooine, our fellow characters then fly to the city/planet of Coruscant, where the Galactic Senate and Jedi Council reside at. Here, Qui-Gon attempts to persuade the Council to allow Anakin to train under the Jedi Arts. This is where the characters bring about a "prophecy," where a chosen one is said to destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force. Arguably, the prophecy makes sense when looking at all six Star Wars films together. However, if you introduce a prophecy, you should tell the audience how this prophecy came to be. Otherwise, this becomes nothing but a formulaic plot device. In response to Qui-Gon, the Council all sense "grave danger" in Anakin's training, and thus refuse. However, at the end of the film, they allow the training to go on for no explainable nor logical reason. By the way, this illogical decision is made by wise Jedi Masters who maintained peace and justice for a thousand generations.

While this entire plot line of the Trade Federation, Queen Amidala's revolt, and Anakin's introduction is going on, there exists a subplot where the sudden emergence of the Sith arrives. For the people who are still not sure who the phantom menace is, it is Darth Maul. According to the Council in the film, the Sith have been "extinct" for a million years. This sudden reappearance must trigger a red flag to all of the Jedi, so why would they not group together and capture this new enemy? Instead, the Council sends only Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Why do I consider the entire Council arriving to stop Maul possible? Because the entire Council basically arrives and fights later on in Attack of the Clones.

In all honesty, Darth Maul is one of my favorite aspects of The Phantom Menace. Creating a villain is actually very tough in a film. A villain needs to have something worth remembering, something that stays in our heads and can imply more than it tells. When we saw Darth Vader for the first time in A New Hope, all George Lucas needed to do was to have his black appearance "break" the white smoke as he walks in. As this darkness of a figure walks in, we already visually know that Vader is the "baddest of them all," and we figure this out without having him say a single word or do a single action. You might not be aware of this, but your mind naturally takes this visual in. For Darth Maul, he does the same thing. His red face with black pattern designs on his face generates an appearance similar to the devil. He bears a gothic tone with his horns and facial designs. He does not need to say a word and you know he is evil. With his black hood and yellow eyes, there is no good in him. Unfortunately, this creatively made villain dies off within one film. In this critic's opinion, he should have been present in all three prequels, because he is the best Sith of them all in the prequel trilogy. With a double lightsaber, Maul is both evil and extremely fast in saber fighting. But for the saber fighting themselves, they do have big problems.

In the original trilogy, there is no grace in the lightsaber fights. The characters look like they are really trying to kill each other. They look like they are fighting. Here in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi look like they are dancing or performing. It all dives down into choreography. If you are watching the film as a kid though, you would indeed find it far more entertaining, and I would agree. However, we need a depth to things, a context to the events. When Luke faces Vader, it is never about the fight itself, but the character conflicts they have within each other. In Phantom Menace, it is nothing but the fight itself and what fancy locations the filmmakers can put the Jedi in. I would not call this bad. I guess you can call it stylish, but if you compare it to the original trilogy, it has a different meaning altogether.

Come to think of it, what are those red walls in the hallway during the lightsaber fight? Even lightsabers were unable to go through it. What were they for exactly? For me, I cannot think of anything else except for a plot device used to separate Obi-Wan from Qui-Gon so that Qui-Gon can die. What was that giant hole for as well? I cannot think of anything else except for a visual device used to show the formulaic image of the villain falling to his death, similar to falling off a cliff into an ocean or falling off the roof.

Despite the lightsaber fight having a few problems, the final fight itself within the last half hour was extremely entertaining. Although many argue that there are too many events going on, The Phantom Menace is again an exception because it tells its story like a history lesson instead of a narrative. To be honest, the final fight was well-made in the editing department, that is if the humor from Jar Jar was removed. Otherwise, the Gungan fight against the droid army is the most entertaining fight I have seen in the science fiction genre.

Yes, the writing is very sloppy at times in The Phantom Menace, but it is one of those films where it is never intended to be looked at as a cinematic work of filmmaking. This is why there is so much hate for it when comparing it to the original trilogy, because the original trilogy were indeed works of filmmaking.The Phantom Menace is one of those simplistic popcorn films that are meant to just give the audience a good time instead of really doing something a film needs to do. The film has no depth, no character study, no themes to explore, but that is completely fine, mostly because this is the origin story. As a result, there are a lot of flaws in The Phantom Menace that I honestly do not mind and let slide by.

In conclusion, The Phantom Menace is all-in-all an entertaining science fiction film, even when it is definitely inferior to the original trilogy. As a controversial opinion, The Phantom Menace is the best entry in the prequel trilogy. Why? Because it made the audience have the least expectations and because it is the origin story that sets everything up. It has a lot less elements to truly screw up on. As for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, well, I've got a bad feeling about this.

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