A couple of days ago I won tickets to a screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which recently has been converted into 3D, and is out on a re-release. Having not seen the film since I was a child, the opportunity to go and “rediscover” it on the big screen was attractive, although my thoughts had been darkened by the large amounts of negative press the film had got since its initial release in 1999. The Phantom Menace is often dubbed the worst Star Wars installment and fanboys use every excuse they get to slander George Lucas because of it. Nevertheless, I had to see it again to reckon my own opinion, so I went along to the screening at the Empire in Leicester Square.
As I entered into the crowded foyer, stormtroopers and a rather large Darth Maul stood proud, posing for photos. I found this slightly strange as the stormtroopers only appear in the sequel, but I ignored it as best I could.
We were handed our 3D glasses and sat down. Before the film began, a Fox executive introduced the film along with Anthony “C3PO” Daniels, who seemed, even at 65, incredibly upbeat and positive about the films. Then the show commenced, and one of the most disappointing moments of my life (very) slowly began to unfold.
OK, it wasn’t that disappointing. My expectations were already quite low. But Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is bad. Really bad. Perhaps not as mind-bogglingly awful as some of the fanboys make it out to be, but in comparison to the original trilogy, it really can’t stand up. There are a number of reasons for this, which have been outlined before, but I’m going over them again anyway:
1. The Story – The original trilogy certainly matured as it went on, from Lucas’ “space-western” vision of the first film to something much darker, as Darth Vader’s grip on young Luke Skywalker tightens and tightens throughout The Empire Strikes Back. The climax of the middle film of the trilogy is one of cinema’s greatest moments, a shocking revelation of grand scale, something that would assure its popularity for years to come. Given that The Phantom Menace‘s premise revolves around a trade dispute and the ensuing politics of the Jedi Council, the first of the prequel trilogy is never as interesting as the simple thrill of A New Hope or the satisfying closure of Return of the Jedi.
2. The Characters – I didn’t think I could bring myself to mention Jar Jar Binks but it is inevitable. Nobody can talk about the prequel trilogy without mentioning the irritating, 2-metre-tall, slightly racist gungan. He is a colossal error, a commercialised annoyance that surely appeals only to children rapt by flashy explosions and overdone visual humour. The young incarnations of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are poorly done, as is the (also slightly racist) Nute Gunray. Qui-Gon Jinn is the single rare paradox to the shoddy characterisation found in this film.
3. The Acting – Lucas showed remarkable aptitude for choosing the right people in his early days, especially when he employed a number of brilliant young unknown actors (handpicked from thousands) in his film American Graffiti. This time round, however, he seemed to be so far into the (admittedly rather impressive) visual effects that he forgot about the benefits of a good cast. Jake Lloyd almost rivals Jar Jar Binks in the annoyance factor, while Natalie Portman is wooden as Queen Amidala and Ewan McGregor does a rather depressing impersonation of Alec Guinness. Again, Liam Neeson is a strange paradox.
4. The Screenplay – whether it’s Anakin’s overstated cry of “NOW THIS IS POD RACING!” or the ludicrous number of times that the word “negotiations” is repeated in the first act, The Phantom Menace is often laughable. Reportedly George Lucas wrote the script in a matter of days and given his status as a powerful producer was barely challenged in the transition to the silver screen. Sadly, it shows.
5. The Directing – Natalie Portman is a good actor. She was great in Heat and fabulous in Leon, but Lucas failed to achieve an equally impressive performance this time round. He is terribly unfocused here, and the film as a result is all over the place, especially in its muddled climax.
6. The 3D – admittedly not a part of the original film, but the 3D conversion is ultimately pointless and lacking depth (around a third of the film could be watched without glasses).
The Phantom Menace has its moments, though they are few: the pod-racing sequence is a thrill and the the lightsaber fight with Darth Maul is an explosive (though shortened) affair. You can see that George Lucas is passionate about his vision, and the original three films are certainly brilliant and pivotal to American culture, but this is a terrible mess. It may be exciting and exhilarating for young children, but for older fans, it’s ultimately soulless and very poorly done in comparison.