I’m a firm believer in context and that, in order to know where you’re going, “you got to know where ya been,” to quote Will Smith in his video for the immediately dated 1999 song “Willennium.” So when the editors of Nerdist asked if I would be interested in doing a rewatch/review of all six Star Wars movies leading up to The Force Awakens, I at once said “Yeah!” and then got scared. I haven’t watched the prequels in years; how could I subject myself to that again? The answer, I decided, is for science. Pretty much everyone agrees the prequels don’t work, but what if things do? What if parts of it hold up after 16 years? That’d be interesting. Also, if I get through these three, I can watch the original trilogy again.
So, without further ado…
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
I think it’s important to note that when The Phantom Menace came out, I had just turned 15 and was so excited for new Star Wars. I bought toys and books and partook in this silly sweepstakes campaign through Taco Bell where you had to buy large soft drinks to get tokens to possibly win a million dollars (I never won anything). This is all to say, I was in it. And when I watched it in theaters, I liked it. I was a dumb, sci-fi obsessed kid. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was bad. In fact, I liked all the prequels the first time I saw them and then later went “Oh…” So, I now own the prequels on Blu-ray (for experimental purposes) and I’ve thrown in TPM.
I think at once, Episode I is the best and worst looking of the prequels. It was made at a time when George Lucas was still trying to perfect his and ILM’s visual effects, and a lot of them, especially the larger battle scenes toward the end, don’t look very good. Jar Jar and some of the battle droids look pretty good, but the backgrounds of the Naboo pastureland look like half-rendered video game footage by today’s standards. However, it was shot on actual sets and locations so it looks the most like the original trilogy because the characters aren’t all on blue screen sets interacting exclusively with tennis balls on sticks… the downfall of the later prequels.
There’s still a texture to the filming in The Phantom Menace, mostly because it was actually shot on film, so we get things like the Theed palace and grounds looking actual like they were actually filmed outside. Anything on Tatooine had a much different feeling than stuff shot in a studio. And for that reason, I think this movie actually looks pretty good. Yes, it has the late-’90s funk all over it, but it’s actually real. People wore prosthetics some of the time; it wasn’t all CGI creatures. Oh, hey, the Blu-ray replaced crappy-weird puppet Yoda with slightly better CGI Yoda. All right, cool!
That’s kind of all the good things I have to say about the movie. I’m not going to pile on and talk about how certain performances (all of them, really) aren’t very good and how Jar Jar Binks was an unimaginably huge mistake. We all know this. What I AM going to talk about is how Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace might just have the most convoluted, least sensical plot in history (excuse the hyperbole; I haven’t rewatched the other two prequels yet).
First, we need to point out that George Lucas, for all his faults regarding these three movies, had a vision, and that vision was to repeat everything good about the original trilogy. He also produced the films himself and answered to no one. That’s not bad in theory. But what is bad is that it seems like they went ahead with a first draft of the screenplay and nobody ever stopped to tell him it makes no sense at all and is a narrative and conversational mess.
Darth Sidious’ plan makes no sense given what he wants the outcome to be. Lucas wrote Sidious and Senator Palpatine (whom we already know are the same person) like completely different characters with no knowledge of each other. The whole plot hinges on the Trade Federation occupying the planet of Naboo in order to force Queen Amidala to sign a treaty that “makes the invasion legal.” And invasion is never legal, that’s why it’s called an invasion. A legal invasion would be called “a dinner party.” But this is all a ruse so that Palpatine can call for a vote of no-confidence against the Republic Chancellor so that he could take over. Right? Like, that’s the plot?
So, then, he needed Amidala to get off the planet so that she could make her way to Coruscant to tell her heartfelt story to the Senate. Okay? Still with me? BUT, at the beginning of the movie, the Jedi come to negotiate a peace (over a TRADE DISPUTE, guys) and Darth Sidious tells the Viceroy to have the Jedi killed… if the Jedi are executed, and presumably the Federatio cover it up, then the Senate would never know about the plight of the Naboo, because they’ve jammed the transmission on the planet. Sidious continually says he’s going to make the occupation legal but if he does, or if Amidala just goes, “Okay, fine, I’ll sign your treaty, GOSH!” then there won’t be any problem and Palpatine would never get power. Right? Are we all on the same page?
Also, furthermore, we hear all these reports that the Naboo people are suffering and dying, yet we never see one instance of that happening. We never get one shot of the poor and innocent peasant class of Naboo being subjugated at all. They seem incredibly docile, the people of Naboo, and likely wouldn’t resist, and yet we’re led to believe they’re dying without supplies for like three days. And Naboo looks pretty damn opulent, but they don’t have a stockpile of any sort of food or anything for more than a week? And, it’s been said before, but the Jedi/Darth Maul fight at the end of the movie takes place in a massive, skyscraper-sized power room, and yet the people who built this enormous feat of technology can’t figure out a way to stop a bunch of bird-headed droids?
And the planet Naboo – is it just the city of Theed, a billion miles of forest, and then oceans under which live the Gungans and giant, improbable carnivores?
I’m not letting Qui-Gon Jin off the hook, either. His plan on Tatooine is insane. He takes a comical idiot, a droid who can’t roll on sand very easily, and a handmaiden who we know is the Queen [Sidebar: were we EVER supposed to think Padme WASN’T Queen Amidala? You can’t advertise Natalie Portman as playing Queen Amidala and then expect us to believe she’s just the lowly handmaiden Padme for over half the movie] with him on this journey to find the parts for the she Queen’s fancy, chrome ship. He easily could have done it all by himself. He says they need R2-D2 because he has the schematics for the ship, but we see Qui-Gon have it in a little handheld device. Then he goes to one junk shop and the first guy he meets, Watto, claims no other junk shops will have the parts he needs, and then Qui-Gon just believes him?
His whole scheme for tricking Watto out of Anakin is similarly absurd and complicated. He believes Anakin is the chosen one (convenient that Amidala’s ship is set up to scan for Midichlorians, huh?) but the boy is a slave, so he tricks Watto into believing he has a racing pod (which Anakin built) and if Watto allows Anakin to pilot it in the big race coming up and supplies the entry fee, Watto can either keep all the winnings minus the part or keep the royal ship. But then he also tricks Watto into betting for the freedom of the boy and is generally duplicitous the whole time. Qui-Gon himself might be the Phantom Menace.
Look, I could go on and on and on about all the things in this movie that fail even the simplest of water-holding logic tests, but this has already gone on long enough. Does The Phantom Menace hold up? It does not. The visuals are all right and the effects don’t look as bad as you might think, but everything else about it (sans John Williams’ amazing score… truly great work) works in the least. The dialogue is forced and unnatural, the internal logic of the characters doesn’t make even the most basic of narrative cohesion, and the finale is forced and unearned, especially when 9-year-old Anakin blows up the Trade Federation ship. Yippee!
Oh, also, it’s bullshit that Anakin built C-3PO.
Next time, I’m going to look at the movie that I realized wasn’t good the quickest, 2002’s Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and I’ll talk about whether this one holds up (because who knows?) and also all the cool things that spun off from this movie that may have made up for it a bit.
Let me know your thoughts on The Phantom Menace below!
Images: Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox
Kyle Anderson is a film and TV critic for Nerdist and loves nothing more than to pick apart the minutiae of science fiction films. Follow him on Twitter and join him!