Review – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
In the countdown for Episode 9, every week I’m reviewing an episode of Star Wars, this week Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
It’s quite hard to review a Star Wars movie from a story perspective without inadvertently getting pulled into the original trilogy and the expanded universe, but I will do my best to forget everything I know and try to view these movies as if I was watching them for the first time, in episode order.
So the harshest part first, if The Phantom Menace was the first Star Wars movie that had been released, I very much doubt it would have got a sequel. That’s a weird thing to say about a movie that’s grossed more than a billion dollars. But without the pre-existing fan base – if this was the first movie from some unknown filmmaker named George Lucas – I’m not sure it would have made its money back. Obviously that also requires mind-bending of the highest order, because an unknown filmmaker could never have got a production company to give them enough money to make a movie so over the top with CGI, and that very fact of having a limited budget might have caused innovations that would make the film much better. Still, standing alone, The Phantom Menace isn’t a very strong film.
The prequel trilogy changes the overarching story of Star Wars. The OT is a story about Luke, but the prequels refocus the story on Anakin. If we are looking at these movies through the lens of having not watched the OT movies, then it’s hard to pick who the main character of the movie even is. If Anakin is the main character, then why is he not introduced until the 32-minute mark, at the beginning of the story’s middle build? It’s perfectly fine not to have a main character and instead to have an ensemble, except that it will become clear that the story isn’t an ensemble as soon as the next movie comes out.
No matter who we pick it will be a bad choice because you can make arguments for Anakin, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, or Padme as the focal character, but no candidate has a complete hero’s journey.
The hero needs to be connected to the story’s plot. The plot of the movie is that Naboo is attacked by an invader then liberated. Everything else that happens outside of that plot is gravy for the story universe, but not for the movie itself. When it comes to analysing the story from a hero’s journey perspective, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan save the Queen, Qui-Gon gets the parts, Padme gets the Gungan army to ally with her, Obi-Wan slice and dices Maul, Anakin blows up the droid controller.
No single character’s decisions drive the plot. While this helps to build out a lot of lore for the universe, when you look at the story singularly, it becomes harder for the audience to stay engaged.
Another problem that this movie creates is framing Anakin as “The Chosen One.” For a full onslaught of my hatred for this trope see episode 16 of Dotting the I in Spaceship, but to put it simply here: The Chosen One is an outdated trope that writers use to give exposition to an audience without earning it. Instead of having Anakin a powerful force sensitive who has some struggles and issues to deal with, he is THE ONE WHO WILL BRING BALANCE! A mantle that will tell him that he should be more powerful than he is, leading him to become arrogant and resentful, and ultimately to the Dark Side, but I’m several movies ahead of where I should be. What’s worse is that this trope is entirely superfluous. If you have Anakin as a powerful force user by natural talent he’s a much more compelling character, much more relatable a character, you know, like another young man on Tatooine was when he was introducing the franchise to the world in 1977, but I digress.
I’ll only kick the movie one last time, but I suppose it’s hard to do a review of The Phantom Menace and not talk about Jar Jar Binks. The characterisation of Binks as a comedic relief clumsy idiot stuck in a lot of the audience’s craw. Jar Jar and the cartoonish CGI are often noticed by audience members as out of place. I think that, in the attempt to bring in a young audience, George got too carried away with trying to please everybody. You have a plot about a trade dispute, and you add in a childish character and childish visuals to try and keep the kiddies happy. I think audiences felt they were being condescended to.
Ok, good things. The lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan vs Maul is epic. The battle is fast-paced, well-choreographed, and emotionally engaging. All the things a good climax action scene should be. Maul, who has barely had any screen time before the scene, is incredibly menacing.
The music by John Williams is a masterclass of how to grab an audience and make their emotions dance to your tune. While I focus on story in my reviews, the use of music to enhance story beats and signal to the audience is a staple of Star Wars that made it the franchise that it is today.
If I were a story editor for this movie, I would make a few changes. I think that this whole movie could have been a first act to the clone wars and then had Anakin fall in the second movie, and have a whole third movie of Vader snuffing out Jedi, but if I have to work with what’s given to me there are a few simple changes that could make the film better.
Firstly, Jar Jar can be clumsy or stupid, but not both. Pick one. Since the Gungans will be viewed through him, I would rather clumsy.
No Chosen One. I’d pretty much get rid of that trope from all cinema if I could, but having Anakin as an everyday guy who has access to magic but still falls to the folly of human attachment is a stronger story.
I would refocus this movie to set Qui-Gon as the main character. A little more back story, a little more likable, way fewer mind tricks (he seems to do those all the time), still dead at the end. If Qui-Gon is the one calling the shots – he can delegate – it would only take a couple of small tweaks. If returning to Naboo is Qui-Gon’s idea, rather than Padme’s, you can make his death the result of a decision to try to draw out the Sith without the sanction of the council. You can bring Qui-Gon’s death into the narrative as a result of his own hubris. It also frames his insistence to train Anakin in a new light, is it the will of the force, or Qui-Gon’s hubris? A question that I would then never explicitly answer in the rest of the movies. If Anakin’s fall is due to his attachments then the end of the Jedi is a result of Anakin’s failing. If he never should have been trained at all, and then could never have fallen, it is the result of Qui-Gon’s failings. Nerds would be arguing about which one until the sun burns out, probably longer.