director George Lucas
This was for my 10 year old daughter who had never seen the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Last year, we completed the first cycle of Star Wars movies and I had wanted to let that sink in. The prequels tarnished the reputation of the original series, but it’s easy to imagine that someone of a more modern generation not fully grasping the difference right off the bat. So, I figured we’d wait to see episodes I-III.
I don’t think it’s radical to state that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the worst of the six movies. Starting next year, with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), the J.J. Abrams-directed first of the new Disney franchising of Star Wars, we are about to enter an all-new onslaught/glut of Star Wars as never before seen or conceived. Who knows, they might be good, great, meh or terrible, but the only thing for certain is that the original films and even this second series will soon be diminished at least by volume in an ever-growing empire (haha) of franchise-ization looming far into the future
Hard to imagine The Phantom Menace as quaint, but I reckon it will be by comparison.
I recall vividly first seeing trailers for The Phantom Menace and being overwhelmed with excitement. The John Williams score on top of the vivid visual images from the film tapped into a deep, deep part of me. It looked great. And frankly a lot of the movie still “looks” pretty good. There is a lot of great design and costuming.
But it’s terrible, too.
George Lucas somehow managed to expose his greatest weaknesses in this film, like some confluence of his worst elements, which overshadow any qualities the film actually retains. The Phantom Menace traded on immense goodwill. People freaking love Star Wars. They were ready to be awed and amazed.
Then there was Jar-Jar Binks. Even if Binks wasn’t intended as racist a caricature as he appeared, he was massively annoying. In 1999, fully digitally animated characters interacting with live-action actors was still moderately new and was far from perfected. Jar-Jar is both a horribly conceived character and also weak from an overall execution standpoint. Digital animation makes massive strides every year, and Jar-Jar, technically innovative at the time, does not read well visually. It’s not surprising that Lucas suppressed him through the latter films of the series in large part due to critical and fan response.
Jake Lloyd, bless him, is also completely awful. It’s hard to blame an 8 year old for his performance in such a critical role as the young Anakin Skywalker (and eventual Darth Vader), and so I don’t blame him at all. He’s terrible and it’s entirely Lucas’s fault. He wrote the lines Lloyd has to speak, selected the kid, directed the kid, and ultimately put him up on screen as wooden, awful, and pandering a presence as one could imagine. At least he draws some attention away from Jar-Jar Binks.
You’ve got good actors like Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and many others contending with Lucas’s dialogue. It’s not hard to understand why a kid would come off the worst for the whole in comparison.
The racial stereotypes are also extremely hard to fathom. It was 1999, not 1931, but yet you have the Stepin Fetchit-esque Binks and the Jamaican cum Creole Gungans, the insidious East Asian inflected Neimoidians, and Watto, a pawn dealer-like Jewish character seemingly from another era. Lucas has of course denied such claims up and down but the reality is there onscreen. It’s hard not to read them as racist stereotypes.
Reductive analysis of Lucas’s Star Wars universes typically can be insightful. I had a film professor who equated Tatooine with Modesto, CA (Lucas’s home planet) and the more beautiful Yavin 4 as the Bay Area. Maybe the Death Star is Los Angeles and Hollywood, I can’t recall. But with planets of snow and planets of desert, it’s easy enough to read singular places and races as representative of individual groups or countries of our real world.
The film has a convoluted plot set-up that of course lines up the narrative for the other five films. And oddly enough, if it wasn’t for all the really awful parts of the film, maybe there is a reasonable amount of good stuff too. The bad stuff certainly distracts from the good.
Clara found Jar-Jar annoying and Jake Lloyd really awful but I think she enjoyed the movie otherwise. I actually hadn’t seen it in full in some time myself. I think it runs on regular television enough that I’ve managed to catch parts off and on to have almost seen the whole more than the one time I sat through it in the theater in somewhat shocked disappointment.
This time through, I still found it awful and annoying in the aforementioned ways, but I enjoyed aspects of it as well. Clara has an understanding of the whole from pop culture and video games and other things, so though Felix claimed to have watched The Phantom Menace six to ten times, we’ll be sitting down before too long to take in the final films of the series.