If you want to get hyped with some Star Wars pregaming to lead up to the release of The Last Jedi, then you might as well go in chronological order and get the worst ones out of the way. While I will admit that my criticism of the prequel films has mostly been a result of bandwagoning, as I have not seen any of these movies for quite some time, I decided to revisit The Phantom Menace to try to recapture some of that Star Wars magic from my youth. Besides, in a world of excessive hyperbole, how bad could it be?
Very. Very bad and sinfully boring.
After my rewatch it’s safe to say that this is no exaggeration. The story of a young Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and his master Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) saving the planet Naboo from a droid invasion severely lacks the pathos required to properly invest people in a new chapter of the franchise. It’s a shame, because there are definitely some good ideas in here. Attempts to bring something new to Star Wars, including a more overtly political story, are well intentioned, but as we all know by now the execution is not there.
It’s hard to point to one thing exclusively as the root of the problems with this movie. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to point to the writing. This is a movie where things happen in surprisingly rapid succession. I remember thinking that the fast pace of The Force Awakens was a response to the prequels being criticized as slow, but this was a mistaken recollection. I was very surprised at how fast The Phantom Menace moves, with every plot point happening within a few minutes of the last and very little tension in-between beats. A thing happens, characters discuss the next thing to do, and then they go do it. There is practically no room to establish any kind of character drama or stakes, because we gotta keep the plot moving! This is why the pod-race sequence is the only good sequence in the movie; it’s the only scene given enough time to develop any kind of stakes or tension.
Additionally, Shmi Skywalker ends up being the only good character in the movie because we can tell very clearly from her reaction shots that she is heartbroken over the knowledge that she will inevitably need to let Anakin go fulfill his destiny (the scheming Palpatine is a close second). Her character is given very little time to develop and her performance only seems good in comparison to some of the worst acting ever. Basically all of the performances are stiff and emotionless, which stands to reason since nobody has any real character. Sure, you can pull nonsense out of your butt about Qui-Gon being reckless in his rigging the gamble with Watto, but nothing is really established about the Jedi and how they should act. Besides, the fact that Qui-Gon is the main driving force (pun intended) behind the plot yet suffers neither internal conflict nor external consequences for his actions (not until the very end, anyway) makes any “trait” of his not really matter.
God, everybody’s faux attempt at being stoic and proper is just so boring. Boring like Darth Maul, who ranks with Boba Fett and Captain Phasma as an overhyped character fetishized only because of their physical design. The only good thing about that final duel is the music. John Williams can do no wrong. So if you want to tackle the franchise before heading into The Last Jedi, try to watch Episode I with a group. This is a movie that really wears down on you as it goes on, and it doesn’t really establish anything of lingering consequence since the saga dismisses a good amount of it by Episode II. And Jar-Jar is annoying.