With the release of the seventh Star Wars film this Friday, this week is more appropriate than ever to look back at the iconic film series that brought us here. From the memorable highs of The Empire Strikes Back to the laughable lows of Attack of the Clones, join us as we recap the Star Wars saga in preparation for The Force Awakens.
Before the shadow of the Galactic Empire, there was the democratic Old Republic. Before they were extinct, the Jedi Order flourished. Before he was one of the most iconic villains in cinema, he was just a little boy on a desert planet.
With all these genuinely promising premises at the ready, The Phantom Menace — the first prequel film to the original Star Wars trilogy — was the most anticipated film of 1999. Unfortunately, it instead gained infamy as one of the greatest disappointments in pop-culture history.
Set more than 30 years before the original 1977 classic, the film centres around an isolated trade dispute between the planet of Naboo and the Galactic Trade Federation. On behalf of the Galactic Republic, Jedi warriors Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to settle the dispute as ambassadors. However, the crisis turns hot when the Trade Federation is revealed to be corroborating with the Sith — the elusive villains of the Star Wars universe. This forces both Jedi to flee the planet, now invaded by the droid army of the Federation. Their flight is not without new company: Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her staff, as well as the clumsy aquatic alien, Jar Jar Binks.
As the group reorganizes on the desert planet of Tattooine, Qui-Gon discovers something unexpected. Anakin Skywalker, a 10-year-old slave to a local merchant, is incredibly strong in the Force — the mystical power the binds the universe and gives a Jedi power. For Qui-Gon, it is a sign that Anakin is the “Chosen One” of ancient Jedi prophecy, fated to bring balance to the powers of good and evil. Little does Qui-Gon know that, later on, he will be known as the most feared Sith Lord in the galaxy: Darth Vader. Regardless, this revelation prompts the group to help Anakin gain his freedom and eventually, execute a desperate retaliation to liberate the planet Naboo.
When you look at the plot and content of the film, there’s nothing extremely wrong with The Phantom Menace. The story of liberating Naboo from the Trade Federation is good, old-fashioned sci-fi that harkens back to the originals. It provides plenty of exciting moments: from the epic space-battle to destroy a Federation starship, to the memorable lightsaber duel between the two Jedi knights and the sinister Sith Lord, Darth Maul. The secondary plot of Anakin is also genuinely interesting. Knowing his eventual fate as Darth Vader, seeing his innocence as a young boy with a steadfast desire to help people is an intriguing contrast as much as it is good character building. Overall, it is solid ground work you expect from a prequel film.
The real problem of Episode I is its overall execution. Though the general story is solid, the script is plain terrible. Often times, characters end up in prolonged bouts of exposition or say the cheesiest lines straight out of your high-school drama class. In effect, actors like Neeson, Portman, and McGregor provide incredibly awkward performances. This is not because they are bad at their jobs, but just trying to work with what they have. Inexperienced actors — like Jake Lloyd who plays Anakin — are less fortunate, as it creates a perfect storm for a disastrous on-screen presence. Also, the comedic relief character of Jar Jar ends up being terribly unfunny (even annoying) because of this script, relying on gags only a five year old can enjoy.
The special effects are also shoddy, though not as terrible. The CGI is sufficient enough for the film’s set pieces, but still feels incredibly bland and dated. It lacks a novelty provided by the original trilogy’s conventional effects. Still, even for a Star Wars film, the CGI is not prominent enough to be a huge problem but is merely passable for a 1999 movie. The intensity of scenes like the lightsaber fight also partly makes up for these shortcomings.
Despite these complaints, The Phantom Menace is not a terrible film. It contains enough story and spectacle to satisfy casual viewers. Yet, it’s significantly bogged down to mediocrity due to its execution. If you are new to the series, you will easily understand why it is still perceived as a massive failure for most fans. This is especially with how, at the time, it was overhyped as the first Star Wars film in 20 years. Inevitably, there were huge expectations that came with it. As some fans in a documentary described, the opening night of the film “was one of the greatest moments in anybody’s movie-going life… and then the movie started.”