Star Wars Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Can I talk to you about Star Wars?

When I think about Star Wars, I think about that shot from A New Hope; God knows how young I was when I first saw it, but it’s burned on to my memory like a brand ever since. Luke Skywalker stands at the edge of his family home on Tatooine, staring out across the desert, while two suns dip low in the sky in front of him: it’s so alien and so familiar at the same time, and it sums up what the Star Wars universe means to me. Possibility, wonder, newness; all the best things that science-fiction cinema can be when it’s done right. I love this universe, this franchise, this world: I’ve written about it a few times before, so I won’t spend too long evangelizing on that love here, much as I would like to.

So, when I ask you if I can talk to you about Star Wars, it’s time we got specific. More than just a masturbatory nostalgia-fest. I’m talking movie-by-movie. I’m talking extended universe shit. I’m talking fifteen straight articles whining about the Thrawn trilogy and how it should have had a proper adaptation instead of being de-canonized by the new trilogy, dammit. This is (half of) my movie blog, and cinema starts for me with Star Wars. So, let’s talk about it, shall we?

In fact, cinema starts for me, specifically, with The Phantom Menace. I would have been barely five by the time this movie hit the movies in my country, and it’s the first film I can ever really remember seeing in my life. I still recall the independent cinema, that my dad stole an armrest from when it shut down as a souvenir, the squishy red seats that I was practically too tiny to fit into without sliding down the back of them. And even though I had no real knowledge of what Star Wars was, or what it would come to mean in my life, I watched this magical little movie and everything changed.

And, to be honest, I think that’s the only circumstance wherein The Phantom Menace (written and directed by George Lucas) could be considered a good movie: if you had literally never seen another film before, had no concept of what “cinema” actually was, and looked back on it for decades after the fact drenched in obfuscating nostalgia that served to wipe from my memory the worst of the racial stereotyping and fucking Jar Jar gags.

I mean, I can still sit here and make a really good case for why this movie brings me an exceptional amount of joy, even two decades and several film studies courses later.If you take this as the actual first film in the franchise, the introduction to the universe, then there’s an enormous amount of creativity, skill, world-building on display here. Naboo is a stunning new addition to the universe, the podracing sequence is still fucking cool, and there is some great casting on show here. Also, I’m that one fucking nerd who actually loves all the space-democracy business, and I’m still somewhat disappointed that none of this stuff came up when I was getting my history degree. It’s set a long time ago, dammit! It’s in the title card! It’s relevant!

And to be honest, there are still things that I will straight-facedly defend about The Phantom Menace. I think the costuming and set design is totally gorgeous, and the sense of the scale of the galaxy has never felt bigger. I really rate a lot of the action in this movie, not least the exceptional, world-beating three-way man-on-man-on-man lightsabre fuckfest in the third act, and I have to admit that I much prefer the look and feel of the slightly ropey, more expressive battle droids in this movie to the ones that are to come in the franchise. Darth Maul is also the most objectively cool-looking Sith, and he’s always the villain I would choose to play as on the Mos Eisley Assualt map of Battlefront II, so he has a special place in my heart.

I’m also going to take this as my first and only chance to talk about how fucking dope Queen Amidala is in this movie. Played by a young Natalie Portman in the role that made me realize I was bisexual a film later , Amidala is a totally banging female lead for this trilogy. Her maturity, focus on democracy and politics as a route for change as opposed to just sort of sitting around waiting for the chosen one to roll up, her incredible, incredible headwear – she’s independent, unsexualised, intelligent, and (mostly) unfettered by a romance plotline with an actual nine-year-old child. This is Natalie Portman’s finest hour (yeesh, seriously), but that doesn’t take away from Padme’s pumping badassery in the democratic and, y’know, palace-heist arenas. If you have met me for more than ten minutes, you have heard me throw a tantrum about how badly the rest of this trilogy fucked over such a great character, but for now, let’s just enjoy the good we got, shall we?

But look, objectively, truly, really: The Phantom Menace is not a good film. Listing off everything wrong with it almost feels pointless by this stage, since we’ve all had twenty years to get into the bullshit that it put forth as a “story”: Jar Jar Binks, the top-heavy plotting, the paper-thin characters, the focus on spectacle over story, the fucking Midichlorians. If I sat down and watched this movie for the first time now, I would write it off as an ambitious but ultimately disastrous attempt to set up for a storyline that feels more like a threat than a promise given the weak-ass, unfocused nature of this first episode.

This is meant to be Anakin’s story, after all: that’s arguably what the whole trilogy, and the one that follows it, is about above anything else. Jake Lloyd plays the young Skywalker – look, he’s really not that bad, no Haley Joel Osment for sure, but y’all need to stop ragging on him. But Anakin, he feels so secondary to proceedings that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was just a spin-off set-up more than anything else for most of the movie. He’s punishingly annoying, and awkwardly shoved in to a story that feels like it forgot about him for the most part, more focused on the Naboo plot that sandwhiches his story awkwardly in the middle of it. He’s there, sure, but more because he has to be than because the film is interested in exploring anything profound about him as the groundwork for what is to come. Did they mention the Gungans? George Lucas is really sure you’re going to love them, guys. Adelaide Skinwalker who?

In fact, the problem that overwhelms Phantom Menace, and what renders all the good aspects so scattered and ultimately underwhelming, is the fact that there is no leading character. Luke hinges the original trilogy, and Rey and Finn double-team the newer one, but this film can’t figure out who it’s actually about. Qui-Gon Jin? Anakin? Amidala? It’s chaotic, episodic structure gives no character a solid arc to build a story around, and in a blockbuster as enormous as this one, you really need that to make things feel cohesive.

The biggest issue, I think, with the prequel trilogy is that it failed to capitalize on potential. And trust me, we’ll get into that. But there’s no potential to waste here, what with it being the first part of this story: this is all promise, in a lot of ways, which saves it from a lot of the frustration that would be aimed at the next two instalments, at least in my eyes. I’m in no way trying to deny the obvious issues that plague The Phantom Menace, but it’s also a reminder that the first parts of huge stories like this are always the most interesting, and the easiest to pull off. It’s what follows that trips us up. And damn, is this franchise about to land flat on its fucking face.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it,  please check out our other cinematic universe retrospective – for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Jurassic Park movies, and the Batman cinematic universe. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!

By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Time)

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