The Reviewinator: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

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1999 was a busy year for movies. With the millennium approaching, studios were cranking out bigger and more epic movies than ever before in hopes of drawing in the crowds before the impending Y2K disaster. But there was one movie that stood out from the bunch. One movie that had everybody talking. One movie that made countless promises and then not only delivered on those promises, it surpassed everybody’s expectations. And that movie… was Fight Club. But a few months before that, there was this epic sci-fi movie. The first in a planned trilogy, with state-of-the-art CGI special effects, stylishly-dressed characters, and the most mind-blowing battle scenes ever committed to film. And that movie… was The Matrix. But somewhere in between those two classics was this long-awaited prequel, one that fans had been waiting nearly twenty years for, even camped outside the movie theaters for, just hoping for the magic of their childhood to rejuvenate their increasingly down-to-earth lives. But when it came time to willingly glue their eyes to the silver screen, those same devoted, obsessive, and quite possibly insane fans just couldn’t wait to peel them back off again.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace tells the story of Queen Amidala’s dispute with the Trade Federation that has set up a blockade around the planet Naboo while they wait for negotiations with the Galactic Republic ambassadors to take place. (If that sounds riveting to you, you’d be the first.) The ambassadors turn out to be Jedi Knights, which the Trade Federation is afraid of for some reason, so they try to kill them. After the Jedi run from a fight and save Queen Amidala, their ship breaks down on the desert planet of Tatooine where a mysterious young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker seems to possess powers beyond that of a normal boy, or Jedi for that matter. Most of the second act is devoted to this boy and his unique abilities, but when the third act begins, it’s back to Queen Amidala and the Trade Federation in an epic showdown that resolves whatever the hell their dispute was about in the first place.

Where do I start with this movie? Jar Jar Binks is an obvious choice, where the most developed character in the movie is by far the most exasperating. The rest of the cast just expects to be remembered for their appearances and job titles, with dialogue so wooden and free of subtext that any line could be spoken by any character with absolutely no change to the scene or the rest of the movie. It’s a far cry from the witty banter between Han and Leia or the father/son dynamic between Luke and Obi-Wan. Humor falls flatter then pancakes, and the references to the Original Trilogy are completely dependent on the viewer’s long-term memory. And the clean, shiny, reflective world they live in here is borderline unrecognizable for those that loved the dusty, grimy futuristic world of the Original Trilogy. Prequels, in my opinion, should be treated as the new first entry in its respective franchise, but Phantom Menace is a prequel intended for those that already know everything. Anyone beginning the franchise for the first time here would be bored to tears and probably unwilling to continue. Even hardcore fans doubt proceeding forward when faced with this overtly-childish excuse for a movie.

Prequels are quite nearly pointless. How do you tell a story when everyone already knows what happens? And how do you spread it across an entire trilogy? And most importantly: how do you keep the highly-expectant audience engaged in the same way as with the original movies? These are questions George Lucas should have asked himself decades ago when he first had the idea to turn one trilogy into two. A better idea would have been to stop referring to the Original Trilogy as Episodes IV, V, and VI, rather than force-feed a slow-paced backstory over the course of six years. And while 20 years is more than enough time to prepare for any cinematic project, it’s also more than enough time for the original creator to change into a completely different person than they were the first time around, resulting in a wildly-cartoonish take on what was once a highly-respected and beloved piece of cinematic art.

The Phantom Menace was lambasted upon its release 16 years ago, and to make matters worse, it has aged very poorly since then. Gone are the classic sci-fi heroes of old and instead we’re left with well-dressed one-dimensional characters who meander their way through what is supposed to be an epic tale of good vs. evil. It doesn’t help that George Lucas’ dialogue had gotten more wooden since his younger days, and casting an inexperienced child actor in place of the most diabolical villain in sci-fi history just destroyed any positive expectations fans may have had for this prequel trilogy. It’s almost as if he waited 20 years for the sole purpose of making a special effects extravaganza. But probably the biggest problem is the fact that this movie was intended to be the first in a PLANNED prequel trilogy, never once promising to resolve or even establish the core conflict. So after 20 years of waiting, fans were expected to do even more waiting(!). But all movies – ALL MOVIES – are supposed to deliver on entertainment. And all this movie delivered is a reason never to look back.

1 out of 5

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