Review – Star Wars : The Phantom Menace
George Lucas’ first of the prequel trilogy still has a lot to offer, however could have been so much more
Firstly – Please consider this a reflection rather than a specific review. As such, it will have spoilers in it.
The Phantom Menace hit its 20 year anniversary in May this year. It’s been a while since I watched it, but in the build up to Episode 9, it seems right to work through them.
Firstly then – a brief replay of the story. The story centres on a trade dispute that has escalated into an invasion of the planet of Naboo. Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) find themselves in the midst of this, and then their escape (with the Queen of the planet – Natalie Portman) leads them to the remote planet of Tatooine where they meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a young slave boy.
Skywalker has an unusually strong connection to the force, and Qui-Gon Jinn decides to take him to the Jedi Council to be trained, after he wins his freedom in a pod race. They return, save Naboo, although Qui-Gonn is killed during a battle with Darth Maul – a Sith, and Obi-Wan takes Anakin to be his apprentice. All of this plays out whilst a lot of political manoevering by Senator Palpatine, that is really about future films rather than this one.
Ok, let’s start with the positives. Easily the best ever lightsaber battle, visually stunning scenes that effect a real sense of the galaxy that the previous trilogy had been about saving, another John Williams score (including Duel of the Fates which is the best musical moment of the prequel trilogy).
Lucas approached the film with admirable ambition in terms of filmmaking that embraces CGI, and a number of storylines that are trying to layout the entire foundation for the next 2 films. Number of strong acting performances, including Neeson, McGregor and McDiarmid, and a cracking bad guy in Darth Maul. Also – the pod race remains a hugely exciting and innovative sequence.
However there are also a number of negatives here. In the ambition of the film’s breadth, there is a lack of any sustained moment. The film bounces (especially in the 3rd act) between moments which from a tone point of view are very different. The most obvious is after Qui-Gon’s death, we are quickly onto the battlefield with Jar-Jar acting the fool (Im actually ok with him as a character but the levity that he brings, creates a tonal conflict at times).
From an identification point of view, we’re not really aligned to any of the characters based on the constant movements. In earlier films, we want to be Luke, Han or Leia. There is a lack of that in the way that the story is established, with Obi-Wan the nearest there for us. I also still wish that that they hadn’t killed Darth Maul – had they been able to keep him around and set up a future Anakin v Darth Maul battle, I think that there would have been continuity into the 2nd film.
On reflection, there are still more positives than negatives in the film, but it still does feel like a missed opportunity.