Countdown to The Force Awakens: The Pros and Cons of The Phantom Menace

forceawakenscountdown

For movie studios, it’s all about franchises.  That never ending quest to find the next big thing, but let us not forget the king of them all – Star Wars.  In just over a month, the true king returns.  And not only is Star Wars back, but the characters who made it so legendary all those years ago will grace our presence once again.

The last time Star Wars was on the big screen it was the prequels.  While ridiculously successful, that “p” word sends a shiver down people’s spines, as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.  But that’s what we’re here to talk about over the next few days – those dreaded prequels.  We’ll talk about all the horrors that began in 1999, but also the elements that do actually work, because there were some.  I know a lot of this stuff has been beaten to death, and I’m not exactly breaking new ground when I talk about Jar Jar Binks.  Once and for all, and before the new era of Star Wars begins, let us revisit and nit-pick these films one last time.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  It was a time of great excitement.  Joy.  The advent of online ticketing hadn’t caught on yet.  It was a time when Star Wars fans were full of hope as they waited in line for weeks.  Then the movie began:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.  The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Ugh.  Well, let’s dive in – It’s the pros and cons of The Phantom Menace!

phantom-menace-logo

The Characters – Pros:

Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi: While the dialogue is stilted at times, I completely bought into this master/padawan relationship.  I know many lump Qui-Gon Jinn as one of the dry elements to this movie, but he’s a solid character, helped enormously by the presence of Liam Neeson.  His defiant personality towards the Jedi Council is justified as the prequel trilogy goes on, but we’ll get there.  He’s not dark side, but he wants to go his own way as a Jedi, and that’s admirable.

One of the few aspects everyone can agree on with the prequels is Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi.  For all the bad these movies did, at least George Lucas nails arguably my favorite character in all of Star Wars.  It’s funny to seem him as a complete smart ass, constantly questioning his master.  It’s not until the very end when he comes into his own, and shows how much his master rubbed off on him, but not until his death.  This relationship was one of the strongest parts to the entire prequel trilogy.

Darth Maul: This is another character everyone loves.  The double lightsaber reveal in the trailers had everyone crapping their pants, and for good reason.  Yeah, there’s not a lot of depth here, but this was essentially the Sith version of Boba Fett.  He’s a mysterious bad ass who wrecks shit.  He was the perfect one off villain.  I don’t need to see anything else from Darth Maul, and certainly don’t need to know anything about his past.

R2-D2: You could argue throwing C3-PO and R2-D2 into this trilogy was forced, but in this movie, R2 felt right at home.  Watching him save that Naboo ship was the perfect way to reintroduce this character to the world.  It’s one of my favorite scenes from the entire prequel trilogy.

Star_Wars_Episode_I_The_Phantom_Menace

The Characters – Cons:

Jar Jar Binks: There’s nothing I could possibly add that hasn’t been said already.  It’s the most frustrating character in the history of cinema.  The whole idea of Jar Jar is disgusting.  The voice.  The pratfalls.  The Full House dialogue (“How rude!”).  I love Full House, alright!  But I’d rather not see Full House brought into a damn Star Wars movie.  This character was a complete and utter disaster, so much so that George Lucas had no choice but to reduce him to almost nothing in the next two films, and George doesn’t usually submit to popular opinion.

Anakin Skywalker: There’s nothing wrong with the way the character is written.  The idea of Anakin as this wiz mechanic, and the only human who has the reflexes to podrace works well.  The problem is the acting by Jake Lloyd.  I showed more range in my two scenes from our 8th grade production of The Sound of Music.  I’m not going to blame Jake Lloyd though.  George Lucas is horrible when it comes to directing actors.  With guys like Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson, they can get by on pure talent.  But when you have a child actor with no direction, there’s no hope whatsoever.

Queen Amidala/Padme: Proof that George Lucas can’t direct actors is Natalie Portman’s performance.  We know now she’s a great actress, but Star Wars could have easily ended her career before it started.  Everything about Padme is atrocious.  There is literally no personality to this character whatsoever, and the performance compliments that flawlessly.  Padme is one of the primary reasons why the prequels fail.  She’s such an important character, but there’s not one trait to grasp on to.  This is Leia’s mom?!  What a complete miss.

C3-PO: Anakin building C3-PO sucks.  I have nothing else to say.

The Trade Federation: Not only does it fuel the racist complaints this film has endured for years, but these guys are nothing more than annoying Power Ranger villains.  Couldn’t they just be human, like a Grand Moff Tarkin?  Come on!

The Action Scenes – Pros:

The Opening Sequence: The Phantom Menace actually gets off to a good start, until Qui-Gon saves Jar Jar.  Watching the Jedi carve up battle droids for the first time, and go nuts with the force was a great way to reintroduce Star Wars, as we finally see the Jedi in all their glory.

starwarsshadow

The Pod Race: The two scenes that everyone says they like from The Phantom Menace are the Pod Race, and the next sequence which I’ll talk about later.  Even if you detest the over use of CG like I do, you have to admit that Pod Race was a spectacle to behold.  You can tell in every behind the scenes interview and documentary, that George Lucas cared about this scene more than anything else.  It’s just a pleasure to watch, and actually does the character of Anakin justice, as we seem him fix a multitude of problems throughout the race.  He also doesn’t talk in this sequence.

The Lightsaber Duel: One of the common complaints about the lightsaber duels in the prequels are that they look too choreographed, whereas the original trilogy fights are more rugged.  I totally understand that, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with the prequel lighsaber battles.  They look incredible, and the finale in Episode I may be the best of them all.  First off, the music is fantastic.  There’s really not a whole lot to say about Darth Maul taking on both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  It’s spectacle in its purest form.

The Action Scenes – Cons:

The Gungan Battle: I’ll never understand the hatred for the Ewoks.  They kick ass.  What I love about the Ewoks is how they use ingenious traps, and their own planet to their advantage.  The Gungans on the other hand blow bags.  Their fight against the battle droids is nothing but a lame CG-fest with Jar Jar accidentally hitting droids with a bunch of giant purple marbles.  Awful.

The Space Battle: I don’t mind Anakin accidentally destroying the droid control ship.  That’s fine.  My problem is with the other pilots.  When you look at the space battles in the original trilogy, all the pilots had a unique personality.  Who could forget Wedge and Jeck Porkins!  Or how about Dak, the man who thought he could take on the whole Empire by himself.  They had real character.  These pilots are generic, with even more generic lines.  What a rip off.

The Story Beats – Pros:

Senator Palpatine Becomes Chancellor: Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Palpatine is one of the better elements to the entire prequel trilogy, and his slimy compassion in this movie works in spades.  As it relates to the saga as a whole, this movie serves two purposes: Introduce Anakin, and get Palpatine into power.  I like the idea of this BS trade conflict serving that later purpose well.

Anakin’s Training: I’ll have a lot to complain about in regards to the Jedi Council later, but I love the uneasiness they instantly feel at the prospect of training Anakin.  Yoda knows this kid is bad news bears, but the events of the film get to this end point very organically.  Qui-Gon and the Council are at complete odds, with Obi-Wan right in the middle.  The idea that Obi-Wan vows to train him out of pure emotion over the death of his mentor, essentially forcing the council’s hand, is interesting.  It gives the audience more of a connection to Obi-Wan, as he was burdened with this from the very beginning, and that’s what prequels should do – enhance the original film, or films.

The Story Beats – Cons:

The Political Shenanigans: Taxation.  Trade routes.  Senate hearings.  Votes.  It’s Star Wars, for crying out loud!  It’s supposed to be mythical adventures in space, not votes of no confidence.  This is why the trailers for The Force Awakens have me so excited.  There appears to be no mention of a Senate, Coruscant, or taxation, just pure adventure.  We knew there was a Republic in Star Wars, but we never wanted to see it.  We want to see the Millennium Falcon go into light speed, and crazy aliens in bars.  I will admit that Senate room with all the pods does look pretty cool though.

Midi-chlorians: Out of all the horrible things the prequel trilogy does, this is what I hate the most, even more so than Jar Jar Binks.  They took the philosophical version of the force and turned into a biological one.  It’s as if George Lucas came into your house and ripped the imagination from your throat.  So, microscopic beings are telling us the will of the force, and the more midi-chlorians you have, the more likely you are to become a Jedi?  Yup.  That’s it.  Just a simple blood test.  I hate it.  I hate it!  I hate it!  I hate it!  The idea of midi-chlorians is so lame, it had the potential to ruin the entire saga.  I will admit they at least bring some validity to the idea of midi-chlorians in Episode III, but we’ll get there.

Closing Thoughts:

I always considered The Phantom Menace to be the worst of the prequels, but I no longer feel that way.  At least The Phantom Menace gets the big picture stuff right, it’s just plagued with about 900 little problems.  As a Star Wars movie, it’s bad.  As a regular movie, it’s mediocre at best.

 

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.