A side effect of falling hard for any particular fandom means that you will spend far too much of your time investigating any and all avenues of it. I fall in and out of love with fandoms the way most people fall in and out of love with, well, other people, and right now I am head over heels for anything to do with The Force Awakens. I even read a Star Wars novel, and I haven’t done that in probably 20 years.
Thus along with the Disney Princess Movie Challenge of 2016, I have also begun the great Star Wars Rewatch (that, presumably, everyone else did last year BEFORE The Force Awakens came out). That means I had to square my shoulders, face my fears, and watch a film I had not seen in a long time: Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace.
. . . yeah, it’s not great. There are definitely things I’m going to make fun of. Like, a lot of things. So many things. That being said, I’m not entirely convinced The Phantom Menace is quite the “involuntary twitching, brains leaking from ears, weeping blood, oh God, the horror, THE HORROR” experience people say it is, either.
We’re marking this one as a blasphemy, kids, since I didn’t despise The Phantom Menace with every fiber of my being like I’m obviously supposed to. (I won’t pretend I’m particularly kind to it, because I’m not. But I do actually try to be fair, especially since there are aspects of the film that I do enjoy.) Also, there are SPOILERS for all of the Star Wars movies except The Force Awakens.
Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his padawan, a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are tasked to help negotiate a peace between the greedy Trade Federation and the Naboo. When that pretty much immediately fails, the two Jedi Knights must protect Naboo’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), but of course complications immediately arise, like broken hyperdrives, manipulative senators, and the first appearance of Baby Darth Vader (Jake Lloyd).
1. First things first: let’s talk about me.
I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid, mostly when it used to play over and over on USA. I doubt I watched the movies in order. Probably in pieces, which is how I watched the majority of five seasons of BTVS, too, before we FINALLY got the channel that aired the actual show. There’s a more than decent chance that I couldn’t have differentiated one movie plot from the next for a long time and just considered it all one long film (much the way I still think of The Belgariad by David Eddings as being one massive book instead of five normal sized ones). And if I had to try and pick one that I liked the best, well, I’m not sure if it would even have been one of the original trilogy. I may very well have picked the TV movie Ewoks: The Battle for Endor instead, which I know is almost certainly an appalling thing to say, but I liked the Ewoks as a kid and it had a little girl as the main character, so, yeah. If I got to choose what we rented, we rented that.
Look, I’m not proud of myself, okay? I’m just trying to be honest here.
My point is this: I always liked Star Wars, but I didn’t love it, not as a kid, anyway. I didn’t run around the house pretending to be a Jedi. I didn’t constantly dress up as Princess Leia. (I think I might have once because I vaguely remember trying to figure out how to do Cinnamon Bun Hair? But I wouldn’t have called her my hero or anything.) And we didn’t have any Star Wars toys at all. I did read a couple of Star Wars novels and enjoyed them, but that’s almost certainly because my sister read them and I basically just read whatever she did for years. Not to mention, I didn’t fully embrace my inner geek until after high school, and while I always loved watching movies, I didn’t get super passionately analytical and fannish about them until roughly college, which is also about the time I really started figuring out what I liked and didn’t like in stories.
So, The Phantom Menace? I saw it well before I became a diehard nerd: I was thirteen at the time, and the lady I semi-regularly babysat for took Mekaela and me out to see it. (I really don’t remember why. But it was nice of her.) I watched the movie and I thought it was, you know, okay.
This is the first time I’ve watched The Phantom Menace all the way through since 1999, and while I’m going to take way more words to say it, my basic impressions have not entirely changed.
2. I keep changing my mind about how I want to approach this review. Maybe the easiest way to do it would be semi-chronologically?
One of my biggest problems with this movie is pacing. The Phantom Menace is two hours and sixteen minutes long, but it actually feels considerably longer, alternating between spending too long in certain places and not nearly long enough in others. (Tatooine, for instance. For the love of Christ, save us from Tatooine.) And while it starts with an action sequence . . . I’m not particularly into it at all, and I’m not quite sure why. Is it because the Federation dudes are kind of annoying? Is it because the droids don’t ever feel even a little bit intimidating? Is it because the stakes just never feel terribly high, even though they should? Or is it just because I can’t concentrate on the story when I so desperately want to leap into the screen and cut off Ewan McGregor’s terrible little ponytail that doesn’t suit him at all? (Seriously, I could deal with the braid, but the braid and the tiny ponytail? No.) The mystery may never be solved.
3. Also, here’s something I think we should all acknowledge before we go any further: Qui-Gon Jinn is kind of a dick.
He’s a little condescending to Padmé while they’re on Tatooine, but his assholery really shines when it comes to Jar Jar. And I know, I know: we all hate Jar Jar. I’m not going to argue with you on that; in fact, we’ll get to the many problems with Jar Jar and the Gungans in the very next note. But Qui-Gon is a dick to this guy without much cause, like, pretty much immediately. Consider this:
Here you are, just chilling on your home planet, maybe picking some flowers or doing something else relatively innocuous, when all of a sudden an army of droids, a gigantic ship, falling trees, a bunch of huge, terrified wildlife, and a dude in a robe come running directly at you. The best thing to do, obviously, is turn tail and run yourself, but be honest: have you really never frozen in a situation where freezing was the worst thing to do? If you haven’t, be quiet; no one likes you and your perfect stress responses, anyway.
Anyway, so you freeze up, freaking out for fairly legitimate reasons, and the dude in the robe runs straight into you. You basically cling to him, terrified, because there’s not much other option at this point, and you both fall down, barely surviving being killed by the ship that passes just overhead. Obviously, you could have handled this better, and some irritation on the dude’s part isn’t entirely unreasonable, so when you express your gratitude and he responds with, “You almost got us killed,” okay, fine, that’s fair. “Are you brainless?” does seem like a harsh follow-up, though.
You are not brainless, so you remind him that you speak (in case he didn’t catch that before). And he says, “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent,” and okay, that’s it, that’s fucked up. Like, who says that to someone thirty seconds after you meet them? Especially if the person you’re talking to actually does have significantly lower intelligence, as Jar Jar pretty clearly does in this movie. Isn’t that kind of like going up to someone with a cognitive disability and saying, “Wow, so you’re retarded.” It’s pretty awful. At best, Qui-Gon is an elitist and an occasionally insensitive shit. At worst, he’s just a big bully.
It should also be said that Obi-Wan, too, is pretty much a dick. Hard to know if he was always this way or just learned under Qui-Gon’s terrible tutelage, but yeah. His first reaction upon seeing Jar Jar: “What’s this?” Not “Who is this?” or “What’s going on?” but “What’s this?” Mind you, Jar Jar is standing right there, but Obi-Wan ignores him entirely to ask Qui-Gon, and QG, in a dry, long-suffering tone, responds, “A local.” (Qui-Gon’s suffering, mind you, has been going on for roughly 25 seconds.)
And later on Tatooine, when Qui-Gon says he’s going back for unfinished business (picking up Anakin, although I’m completely unclear as to why Anakin didn’t just come along in the first place), Obi-Wan says, “Why do I sense we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?”
You know, I’ve got this manager at work, Tom, who likes to make passionate arguments in the Empire’s defense, and while I really hate to credit Tom with anything because some of his movie opinions are just terrible (hi Tom!!!), I’m starting to slightly see his point of view here because, based on this movie, the Jedi Knights are basically snobby aristocratic bastards with glowing phallus-shaped weapons to fully symbolize their dickery.
4. And then there’s Jar Jar. Oh Jar Jar.
I’m not really going to get into whether I think Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) is a racist stereotype or not. I feel like there are other people who are far more qualified to talk about that, and have. (Including Best himself.) I do, however, find him incredibly cartoonish and annoying, not quite to the point of madness, exactly, but my fingers may or may not have been curling inwards like talons.
I get that he’s supposed to be comic relief. I get it, but I hate it, like I generally hate all bumbling characters whose lack of intelligence and usefulness are, for some reason, supposed to be funny. Jar Jar feels very forced to me, like George Lucas really wanted to create a character who everyone would find Lovable and Endearing, presumably because people love nothing more than a hysterically inept sidekick? Obviously, Lucas rather wildly missed the mark here. In some ways, Jar Jar kind of reminds me of Neelix from Star: Trek Voyager. (Although, IMO, Jar Jar is much, much worse.) Both often feel more like mascots than actual characters, and the thing is, no one actually likes mascots. The best part of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is when Ace beats up the giant bird man.
5. It doesn’t help that we only really meet one other Gungan in this whole movie: Boss Nass. And despite the fact that he is voiced by the superb Brian Blessed . . . yeah, Boss Nass is pretty annoying, too.
Yes, yes, technically we see tons of Gungans, and there is one other Gungan guy with lines towards the end, not that I remember much about him. But for meaningful characters, it’s pretty much Jar Jar and Boss Nass, and Jar Jar is, at best, an overgrown child; Boss Nass, meanwhile, is proud and weak-minded and more full of bluster than anything else. It’s disappointing primarily because I want to be interested in the cultural rift between the Gungans and the Naboo; these are wildly different, segregated societies that obviously share a bitter history: the Gungans seem convinced that the Naboo look down on them, and the Naboo . . . I don’t know, maybe do look down on them? Their shared history is so poorly developed that it’s honestly hard to be sure.
Two disparate sides that have to come together to defeat a common enemy is classic storytelling and can be very engaging, but it works best when you understand where both sides are coming from, when you focus on how their history informs their complicated dynamic. Time should be spent developing both of these cultures so that, when they finally do agree to come together, it’s a Big Deal. Instead, The Phantom Menace decides to spend this time on podracing and introducing deeply uncomfortable UST between Baby Darth Vader and the Space Angel who’s twice his age. (Okay, not really, but we’ll come back to Anakin and Amidala’s peculiar relationship later.) As such, the whole conflict and resolution between the Naboo and the Gungans basically breaks down like this:
The Gungans: “The Naboo need help, and we’re not helping them because they’re snobby and mean to us sometimes, maybe.”
The Naboo: “The Gungans are obviously super annoying and useless (as evidenced by Jar Jar Binks and Boss Nass, the only representatives of their people) but we really need their help, so let’s just appeal to their vanity and pride. That way, we don’t all die.”
The Gungans: “Wow, you’re bowing to us now? Ha ha, now we’re talking!”
I said one of my biggest problems with The Phantom Menace was pacing; another one is seriously wasted potential. The Star Wars films have always been, essentially, action/adventure movies in space, but that doesn’t mean you can’t allot some time to flesh out relevant backstory and important character moments. (We’ll be coming back to this when I eventually get around to reviewing A New Hope, where a certain princess watches her entire planet blow up and doesn’t get even a second of screentime to process or grieve.) And almost everything I like or could potentially like about this story is either underdeveloped or weighed down by some pretty weak writing. Which is unfortunate because the plot of the story itself isn’t actually that bad.
6. The one thing I do love about the Gungans, though, is how awesome their hidden city is.
Isn’t that gorgeous? Seriously, I adore this design. I have many, many problems with this movie, but I generally enjoy the look of it. (Except the CGI, but I’m magnanimously trying not to hold that against a movie that came out in 1999.) Especially when it comes to costuming and makeup, which are of course superb.
7. We must now stop everything to talk about the many amazing looks of Queen Amidala.
Oh my God, I just want to be her. (Well, you know. Without the bullshit romance and tragic ending.)
I can’t help but feel like the fashion in SF movies lately has been a little lacking. Or maybe not that it’s lacking, exactly, just that it’s shifted in style: gritty apocalypses and dystopian futures are really in right now, so I feel like a lot of the costumes I’ve seen have been, you know, torn, dirty clothes and leather jackets and such. (And if they’re particularly fashionable apocalypses, maybe a mohawk.) The Hunger Games movies did have some spectacularly ridiculous costumes (mostly worn by Effie), but the majority of them were so lurid as to be a bit absurd. Which was fine, I mean, they were intentionally silly and I enjoyed them (especially the butterfly dress, ZOMG), but I’d really love to see more space operas with wildly elaborate fashion like this, fashion that’s meant to be taken a little more seriously. (Did Jupiter Ascending have fantastic costumes? I haven’t seen it yet, and admittedly, I suspect if you’re taking that movie seriously, you’re doing it wrong. But it does seem like the kind of story that demands elaborate costuming.)
I’m actually planning to cosplay somebody else from The Phantom Menace at Dragon Con, but if I had to pick one Amidala outfit . . . man, I don’t even know. I think it’s between Amidala’s black dress of fashionable mourning and the dress she wears to the Senate. Either way, I’d look great. And either way, my head would probably weigh a hundred pounds, but hell, it’d be worth it.
8. It also needs to be said: Queen Amidala and her handmaidens are so much more badass than I remember them being.
(Note: I’m mostly going to refer to Natalie Portman’s character as Amidala in this review, except for when she’s on Tatooine. Then I’ll call her Padmé. And maybe occasionally Padmé Amidala. Just to be confusing.)
I really love Natalie Portman’s performance as Amidala. I like how severe she is, how capable and commanding. She isn’t flawless, of course–she gets manipulated by
the Emperor Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who I prefer to think of as Senator Smirk–but I really buy that moment when she’s at the Senate and is like, “Uh, no, I’m not just going to wait for you guys to dawdle while my people are being slaughtered. Kick this guy out!” (Although, does it seem ridiculously easy to anyone else, deposing the High Chancellor? One new queen is like, “This dude’s weak!” and everyone else is instantly onboard? I can’t help but feel like the Senate must constantly be changing leaders, if this is how they run things.)
Also, I love, love, love that Amidala is the one who’s responsible for coming up with the battle strategy on Naboo. And that the two asshole Jedi, so in tune with the ways and secrets of the universe, never catch onto her deception, not until she chooses to come forward. And then she and her handmaidens all take up arms when invading the palace. It’s pretty awesome.
I do wish that Sabé (the perfectly cast Keira Knightley, above left) had a little more to do as her own character, if only because there’s such interesting potential in her relationship with Amidala. Sabé is both decoy and bodyguard, and she has to be able to communicate subtly and effectively enough with Amidala that she can issue her Queen’s commands without ever giving up the truth about their identities. There’s just so much material to work with there; it drives me a little crazy that Star Wars–a universe in which men seem to make up primarily 99.7% of the population–finally had a set-up where two female characters could have had their own relationship/dynamic/subplot, only to not do shit with it, in this or any other movie. (Sabé disappears from the story after this film, presumably because in the sequel, Amidala leaves office/abdicates and becomes Padmé forever. I find it wholly disappointing. I never thought in a million years I’d be tempted to write The Phantom Menace fanfiction, but yeah. I kind of want the Spectacularly Fashionable and Dangerous Adventures of Amidala and Sabé, like, right now.)
As far as Padmé goes in this movie . . . you know, she’s okay, but she doesn’t have that much to really do. Amidala has this presence, you know, and she’s doing important things and has a vital role in moving the story along. By contrast, Padmé on Tatooine is just kind of along for the ride. She isn’t particularly annoying (yet–I know the worst is coming in Attack of the Clones), but there’s nothing very exciting about her, either; she doesn’t add much to that part of the story and really is only around so she can meet her future husband, Anakin. Which is awkward because he’s a child and Padmé kind of comes off like his glorified babysitter.
9. Shall we now talk about Baby Darth Vader?
So, Jake Lloyd himself is . . . okay. I mean, the kid’s, what, eight or nine years old? I try not to be too mean to child actors because, you know, most of us don’t spring from the womb as genius prodigies, and the amount of hate this kid must have felt from the world before he even hit double digits is insane. I feel bad for Ahmed Best, too, (sure, I can’t stand Jar Jar, but I wouldn’t want anyone but the current presidential candidates from the Republican party to suffer the level of vitriol Jar Jar gets) but at the very least, he was an adult. Most of us have to hit puberty before we deal with the kind of shit Jake Lloyd did.
Still, Anakin himself has serious problems.
It seems like Lloyd is playing him more or less the way he’s been directed to, but Anakin comes across as very, very young. Like he’s supposed to be nine, but I would have guessed six or seven, and a young six or seven at that, like, this is a spectacularly innocent little boy. For Christ’s sake, his first line is to ask a pretty girl if she’s an angel. Ugh. The running around yelling, “Yipeeeeee!” also kills me dead, not in the good way.
And unfortunately, Anakin just gets worse and worse for me as the story goes on, like initially I rolled my eyes a little, sure, but by the time we got to Baby Darth Vader accidentally launching into space and taking down the Big Evil Ship, I was like, “Okay, no. Just no.”
Look, the Star Wars movies have always been relatively family friendly (or as family friendly as stories can be when whole planets get destroyed and evil fathers torture their daughters and amputate their sons), but having this child whoopsie-daisy his way into saving the day is just dumb. It doesn’t feel particularly Star Wars at all, actually; it feels like something you’d see in a movie meant for little kids and only little kids, the kind parents sit through and think, “Jesus, 99% of the time procreating was totally worth it, but this is the other 1%, and my brain is BLEEDING FROM DUMB.” And the adult fighter pilots are especially unconvincing as they’re forced to cheer in unison with Anakin’s delighted whooping. “Golly gee willikers,” they might as well say. “Where did that amazing hero pilot come from? Boy I’m glad he’s around to save our skins and render us fully grown and trained fighter pilots useless and obsolete!”
In a movie plagued with considerable flaws, Baby Darth Vader blowing up the droid control ship might actually have been my least favorite scene.
10. But I got a little off track here. Let’s go back to Tatooine and discuss how maybe making Darth Vader a precocious second-grader was, all in all, not the best idea.
Darth Vader pretty regularly makes Best Villain lists, and we all know why: because James Earl Jones is a god, an evil and wonderful god. And bad guy origin stories can be very powerful, depending on their execution; at their best, they are tragic and relatable and make you think how we’re all one wrong choice away from being what we despise. But at the same time, it’s helpful to find a thread of what we loved about the villain in their younger selves, some hint of who or what they could become. Maybe if Anakin was more like, I don’t know, a charming street kid who was basically on the side of good but had a hint of darkness to him, some sense of danger, an anger that went beyond a childish pout when he didn’t get what he wanted. Maybe if he actually seemed anything like a real child with kindness and meanness and mischief, instead of that super innocent wonder child that you really only find in Hollywood. Anakin turning out to be Darth Vader . . . it’s a little like finding out that Wesley Crusher from TNG turned out to be, I don’t know, Khan Noonien Singh or something. I mean, who would even buy it?
Be honest. “I’m with Starfleet. We don’t lie!” is about on par with “Are you an angel?” and “Now, this is podracing!” isn’t it?
11. And holy shit, how, HOW did I forget that Baby Darth Vader is actually Evil Jesus?
As explained in the Spoiler Section of my Force Awakens review, family and genetics in the Star Wars universe have always been desperately weird. So I wasn’t surprised when Qui-Gon Jinn, Rebel Jedi and Elitist Dick Machine, asked Shmi, “Who was his father?” Because of course the most special thing about Anakin had to come from his totally absent father. But that all takes on a whole other level of holy shit WTF when you find out that Anakin didn’t HAVE a father. Yes. The Force is Anakin’s father. The Force went ahead and impregnated Shmi without her knowledge or consent.
You know, there might be a decent essay in how the real villain of the Star Wars universe is the Force itself.
The best thing I can say about this whole what-the-fuckery is that virgin conception generally doesn’t lead to villains, like here you are expecting Jesus and instead you got the Antichrist. (Even if he is, unfortunately, redeemed six movies down the road.) In a way, it’s kind of hilarious. You’ve got to like a story where the prophecy about the Chosen One bringing balance to the Force only brings balance in the most homicidal fashion possible. (Unless you believe that Luke, instead, was the Chosen One. I’ve seen both interpretations.) Then again, a story about a misleading prophecy would work a lot better if we didn’t already know the end of the tale, right? I mean, I know dramatic irony’s a thing and all, but still. It seems ill-conceived because seriously. Virgin baby? Come on. That’s so intensely corny and unnecessary.
And here I had thought that the lasting power of Darth Vader’s spunk couldn’t get any funnier. Boy, was I wrong. I didn’t actually realize that Anakin was only half-human in the first place. (And by the time he dies, even less so. Anakin is maybe 1/4 human, 1/4 robot, and 1/2 God. Does that make Luke and Leia Skywalker 1/4 God? Ooh, neat.)
12. So. The less said about the midi-chlorians, the better, right?
Probably. But that’s not really how I do things on this blog, so: there are ways to mix science and spiritualism that are really very interesting. That’s not what The Phantom Menace accomplishes here. More than anything, it feels like an incredibly random, dumb, and unnecessary retcon, like weren’t we all okay when The Force was just an independent living energy between the spaces of things, not something you could connect to through a bunch of microscopic creatures who hang out inside of you, occasionally whispering the secrets of the universe or impregnating you without asking your opinion on the matter?
Even 13-year-old and considerably less critical Carlie thought that the midi-chlorians were bullshit. (It probably doesn’t help that anytime I think of microscopic creatures chilling inside somebody, I think of A Wind in the Door, which automatically makes me picture midi-chlorians as dragon-cherubim things. Actually, that probably makes the midi-chlorians far cooler than they have any right to be.)
13. It occurs to me that I still haven’t really talked about our future young lovers, Padmé and Anakin, yet.
In the interest of being fair:
A. According to this awesomely helpful chart, Padmé is only five years older than Anakin. She’s 14, whereas he is nine.
B. There is a huge bullshit double standard to take into account here. It’s generally considered normal for men to be ten, twenty, or sometimes even thirty years older than their female love interests, but when women are older than men, it’s suddenly considered creepy and weird.
C. In no time during this movie does Padmé actually look at Anakin like, “You know, that kid could be fuckable when he grows up.” Because that would be horrifying on levels unknown even to this movie.
On the other hand:
Natalie Portman was 18 when this movie came out and, unfortunately, looks 18. Of course, this isn’t uncommon in Hollywood, and in fact you see far bigger gaps between actors’ ages and their characters’ ages all the time. But not only does Padmé not look like a child, she doesn’t act anything like a child, either. She is a queen trying to save her people from annihilation. There are no scenes when she’s wishing she could be free to do what she wants despite her family’s wishes, for example, or thinking about boys, or playing with other children. Padmé Amidala is an adult character played by an adult actress, and there is a squick factor there when you know the story is going to eventually skew romantic.
I’ve already said how much I love that Padmé Amidala is a badass. I don’t have any particular need to see her secretly desire childish things, and if she were to suddenly start playing with Anakin (like, they played tag or got into a food fight or something), I wouldn’t buy it for a second because her people are supposed to be in this huge peril and she would seem like a pretty awful queen. But it would help me see the basis for a love story because, right now, I don’t feel like Padmé treats Anakin like a friend or equal. She looks at him like a child, almost like a charge, and there’s just something creepy about the idea of a babysitter hooking up with one of the kids she used to watch ten years down the road.
I’m not saying it’s an impossible love story, but I am saying it’s a difficult one and, from what I remember, Attack of the Clones falls down so hard executing it that it might very well be one of the most unconvincing romances of all time.
14. I forgot to mention this before when I brought up Shmi Skywalker, but can we all agree that Qui-Gon Jinn should have just brought her along when they left Tatooine? I mean, come on. I’m sure the Jedi are all Lawful Good and everything–which is probably why they’re almost entirely wiped out later, the losers–but who the hell is going to argue that rescuing a slave along with freeing her son was the morally wrong thing to do? And are we really concerned that Watto would somehow have been able to stop Qui-Gon, a powerful Jedi, from taking her? For that matter, this story would have moved along a lot faster if Qui-Gon and co. had just stolen the parts they needed early on. Again, I’m sure thievery would make them the bad guys and whatever, but it’s worth pointing out that Qui-Gon clearly has no problem trying to brainwash people into doing whatever he wants, which is a super creepy Jedi ability when you think about it. If Qui-Gon was willing to force Watto to accept useless Republic credits, is that really any better than just sneaking in and stealing what he needs in the middle of the night?
But seriously, it drives me nuts that they leave Shmi behind, and it drives me even more nuts that no one goes back for her. I mean, Anakin can’t yet, sure. He’s a baby. What the hell could he do? And Qui-Gon’s dead, which, as far as excuses go, is a pretty good one. But if Anakin couldn’t convince Obi-Wan to help out (which, unfortunately, is likely), then why the hell doesn’t Padmé do something about it?
Meanwhile, Baby Darth Vader asks Shmi, “Will I ever see you again?” Shmi asks back, “What does your heart tell you?”
15. I forgot to check exactly how many minutes we spend on Tatooine, but it feels like far, far too long, especially considering how little actually happens there. You can basically describe Tatooine in a single sentence: the good guys can’t afford the parts they need to repair their ship until they meet young Anakin, a slave incredibly strong in the Force, who wins them a bunch of money during a dangerous pod race.
The amount of time we spend here must be at least thirty minutes longer than the amount of time we spend at Coruscant, which is weird because getting Amidala to the Senate has been our heroes’ primary objective since almost the beginning, and they spend, what, ten minutes there? Damn it, I wish I had remembered to check. There’s a serious possibility that we spent more time watching the pod race (roughly twelve minutes) than we did at the Senate.
Like I said before, the pacing of this movie seems seriously off to me. We bring in a bunch of ridiculous and unnecessary stuff (like the prophecy, the godawful midi-chlorians), introduce too many callbacks (like, R2-D2 is fine but C-3PO feels like a huge stretch), spend a ton of time on comic relief shit that doesn’t even work (especially in the Big Battle, like, this is not the time to have Jar Jar comically failing at war the way he fails at everything in life), and we neither focus on any of the stuff that I would personally find interesting (culture clashes between the Naboo and the Gungans, the Republic’s apparent total disinterest in the awful things that happen outside of it), nor bother to ever elevate the stakes, like, everyone says that the people of Naboo are in mortal peril, but I’ve got to tell you: I never actually feel it.
I do enjoy how The Phantom Menace sets up Senator Palpatine, but for the most part there doesn’t feel like there’s much drive to this story, and that’s a problem in any movie but especially an action/adventure that’s longer than two hours.
16. Speaking of things that are said but not shown: I really wish that whenever Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan talk about feeling a disturbance in the Force or the like, you actually got to see them experiencing those feelings. I mean, I don’t want to see the Force or anything (I can only imagine the CGI horror), but, like, it’s just dialogue. My sister and I were talking, and she brought up a good point about how when Luke’s speaking to Leia telepathically in The Empire Strikes Back, we get a reaction shot where you can see that she’s hearing/feeling his distress call. It’s not even that big of a moment, but we’ve both always liked it, and I feel like The Phantom Menace needs something like that occasionally, some kind of camera movement or facial expression or anything besides just words. As it is, it kind of feels like Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sense things not because of the Force but because it’s in the script. (On the upside, these are excellent moments to take a shot if you’re playing The Phantom Menace drinking game, as I obviously need to do someday.)
17. Just because I haven’t mentioned it yet: I don’t particularly like Obi-Wan as a character in this movie, but I think Ewan McGregor himself is pretty great.
I have always loved how much you can hear Alec Guinness’s particular speech patterns in McGregor’s voice. And he’s believably emotional towards the end when Qui-Gon Jinn bites the big one.
18. Which brings us to maybe the very best thing about this movie: Darth Maul and the “Duel of the Fates.”
First, Darth Maul (Ray Park, with Peter Serafinowicz dubbing his dialogue) is such a superb, iconic villain. (Although, to be honest, I kind of forgot he had lines at all. I just thought he was the silent badass type.) His makeup is great. His acrobatic fighting style is awesome. He has the best lightsaber in the Star Wars universe, and he only blinks once, when he’s cut in half. Darth Maul is a vivid and fun character in what is, mostly, a fairly lackluster story, and I’m happy to discover that I don’t enjoy him any less now than I did 17 years ago. (Ugh, I feel so old. Turning 30, man. It’s all downhill from here.)
It’s also worth pointing out that the end battle between Darth Maul, Obi-Wan, and Qui-Gon is easily one of my favorite fight scenes of all time. I love the choreography. I love the forcefields. I love that Obi-Wan keeps up the glorious tradition of characters in Star Wars nearly falling to their doom. (Twice, even.) And holy Christ, do I love the music. I fully plan to buy this song as a reward for finishing this ridiculously long review. And then, when I’m at work, I’ll put my earbuds in and walk the long, empty corridors of the hospital with my arms outstretched at my sides, striding towards fate and ready to kick its ass.
19. I find it interesting that Qui-Gon actually leaves behind a dead body. He doesn’t disappear the way Yoda and Obi-Wan do. He doesn’t fall into the darkness the way bisected Darth Maul or The Emperor does. He just gets stabbed, and his body is burned. For that matter, I don’t think his ghost ever pops up the way Jedi ghosts like to do. (I’m not sure about that, as it’s been forever since I’ve seen Attack of the Clones, and I haven’t actually watched Revenge of the Sith. But I get the feeling he doesn’t return.) It’s just interesting.
20. Finally, FINALLY, I will leave you with a small collection of even more random notes:
A. According to Wookipedia, Darth Maul somehow survived being cut in half, and I’m here to tell you: I reject this bullshit. I love this dude. He is supremely awesome. But he got cut in half and he is forever dead. Sorry, guys.
B. Yoda looks . . . really weird in this. He hasn’t gone full CGI yet, so presumably they changed to a considerably inferior puppet? Or the old puppet, like, eroded with time or something? I don’t really know what’s up with that, but I don’t like it.
C. Hey, it’s Mace Windu!
I don’t have so much to say about Mace. I just like Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s cool to see a black Jedi. Actually, to The Phantom Menace’s credit, I think this movie improves on the prior films’ roles for PoC and women. There are two black characters who have names and lines and everything. We’ve also got more than one woman with actual dialogue. We even have a woman fighter pilot who I forgot about, although since she’s outgunned and outflown by an eight-year-old child, I’m not sure how competent she really is.
It’s not, like, amazing, and certainly women of color don’t get much, unfortunately, but it’s still progress. (Or was back in 1999.)
D. More and more I’m convinced that the Jedi were kind of incompetent assholes. They think Anakin might be dangerous so they choose not to teach him, presumably believing that it would be safer if the kid with the ridiculous amount of power at his fingertips doesn’t get trained to safely use it? Yeah, that makes sense. Like, I know things turn out pretty poorly, but I don’t think that’s because Anakin is taught the ways of the Jedi. I think it’s because nobody saved his fucking mother.
I feel like I should say, in case Tom is actually reading this, I’m still not swung to the Dark Side of the Force. Blowing up whole planets is kind of a turn-off. But wherever the Morally Gray Side of the Force is, that’s where I wanna go. (Personally, I think that’s totally where Leia belongs. And Leia, clearly, is the best.)
E. Quick question: is there a deleted scene on Tatooine to explain why Qui-Gon and Anakin are suddenly running across the desert? Like, Darth Maul’s appearance comes off as super abrupt to everyone else, right?
F. Finally, it’s deeply important to mention that Baby Darth Vader pulls off the stupid padawan haircut much better than Obi-Wan ever did.
Oh, kid. You are blandly and cheesily written, but I suspect I will miss you by the time I get through the next movie. I am not looking forward to watching Attack of the Clones at all.
Jar Jar: “Gungans no liken outsiders, so don’t expect a warm welcome.”
Obi-Wan: “Oh, don’t worry. This hasn’t been our day for warm welcomes.”
Ki-Adi-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?”
Qui-Gon Jinn: “There’s always a bigger fish.”
Qui-Gon Jinn: “We’re Ambassadors for the Supreme Chancellor.”
Sio Bibble: “Your negotiations seem to have failed, Ambassador.”
Queen Amidala: “I will not defer. I’ve come before you to resolve this attack on our sovereignty now. I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee.”
Palpatine: “And you, young Skywalker, we shall watch your career with great interest.”
Obi-Wan: “You were right about one thing, master. The negotiations were short.”
I think the most frustrating thing about the story is all the unrealized potential. It’s not a deeply compelling movie, but it’s relatively watchable. It could just be so, SO much better than it is. Taking out the virgin birth, the midi-chlorians, Anakin’s fighter pilot sequence, and Jar Jar would be a big step in the right direction.
Natalie Portman. But Ray Park is a close second place.
Er. We should do all we can to free slaves. You know. So long as they’re useful to us, anyway.
Also, the Jedi are dicks.