I called the original Star Wars a textbook example of storytelling. Well, if Star Wars was a textbook, The Phantom Menace is more of a case study: what happens when you give a vividly imaginative, but uneven writer unchecked control after years of being out of practice?
Let’s try to be fair here.
The film opens with the news that the Republic’s taxation policy has driven the Trade Federation to blockade the planet of Naboo, causing the senate to dispatch two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, to negotiate a settlement.
Okay, maybe you can see the problem there just from that description.
Granted we know this world better than in the first film, where it was simply “the Empire has constructed a weapon that blows up planets, the Rebellion has plans that might show a weakness,” but this is the sort of thing no one cares about in the real world, let alone in our fantasy space epic: an organization we don’t know is angry about tax policy, so they blockade a place we never heard of. Most people wouldn’t watch a news show about that.
Now, I will say that the plot, once you figure it out, is actually not bad, at least in conception. What’s really going on is that Senator Palpatine (more on him later) is manufacturing a crisis that will cause the Senate to elect him Councilor. It’s a multi-layer chess game where everyone is looking at the wrong thing. That’s a good idea for a story, especially as the prequel trilogy is structuring itself around Anakin’s rise and fall as a Jedi, while the whole series is being structured around Palpatine’s rise to and fall from power. Granting all that, though, they needed something that mattered a lot more than a stupid trade dispute.
Okay, okay; I’m getting ahead of myself. But that’s kind of indicative of the problem of this film. It has some decent ideas, or the bones of decent ideas, but the execution is almost universally terrible, and the core ideas are surrounded by an impenetrable boundary of unfathomably poor decisions on the part of the writer, who of course is none other than George Lucas himself.
I’m not going to pick on Lucas much, because God knows he’s been put through the wringer enough for his terrible writing choices. He badly needed a co-writer or a script doctor on this film: the plot is confusing and painfully contrived, the dialogue is often horrendous, and that’s not even getting to the acting or staging.
On the subject of staging, consider this: we meet the Jedi Council in this film, something that’s been hovering over us as an unseen image of peace, justice, and wisdom for three films. It’s a huge moment for the story, whether you want to see this film as the beginning of the series or a continuation for it. But all we get is a single exterior establishing shot of a bland building, the cut to the Jedi Council just sitting around glowering. Why? Why no build up, why no sense of grandeur, no sense of respect, nothing? Even allowing that the film is supposed to show a decayed Republic and Jedi Council that has lost its way, that should be for later: the first shot should be showing something of their grandeur and nobility, even if tarnished.
And there is some of that earlier in the film, with the Trade Federation’s reaction to the two Jedi and their tearing through the ship’s security with ease. We do fee this is the Jedi at the height of their powers as Obi Wan alluded to back in the original, but we should have had something like that for the whole council.
The Harry Potter books did this very well: the first half of the series is all about Harry discovering the wonder of the Wizarding World, and it’s only later that its rot becomes apparent. That’s the sort of approach this series should have had, but instead it just seems lazy.
Okay, so the Jedi go down to the Naboo to ‘warn them’ (by travelling with the invading army and apparently landing on the opposite side of the planet. Why didn’t they just say they needed to go down to rescue the Queen so she could tell the Senate what happened? That’s what they actually do in any case, so why the unnecessary nonsense about ‘warning’ someone of the army you are travelling with?). During their escape the ship is damaged and they have to ditch on Tatooine to try to get parts to repair it, where they meet Anakin Skywalker, who is a slave working for a junk dealer. Qui-Gon senses he’s strong in the Force and decides to take him with them.
You know, there are bigger problems with the film. I don’t even know if I can call it an objective flaw, but personally my biggest beef with this movie has always been why the heck did they cast Anakin as a ten year old?
The way the film progresses, especially with his semi-romance with the Queen (sort of: more on that in a bit. God, there are just so many things wrong with this film!), his flying a warship into battle, his being described as ‘too old’ to be trained, all of it feels like it was originally designed for a character about Luke’s age in the original film. That would make sense, that would have felt natural, that would have created a sense of a recurring pattern. But instead, it’s as if near the end of the writing process Lucas just decided he’d rather have a little kid on the idea that kids would want to see someone like themselves in the movie (by the way, has any kid actually preferred seeing a child hero on screen? I don’t think I ever did), so he went back and altered the description and a few of the lines.
See, the biggest problem with this (apart from making him irritating and raising questions about why the adults are putting him in these dangerous situations) is that it largely removes any sense of agency from what is ostensibly the film’s protagonist. He doesn’t make decisions with consequences, he doesn’t accept moral responsibilities (like Luke does), things just happen to him. Even his presence in the final space battle is sheer accident, as is his victory in it. He doesn’t achieve anything; he is simply given things. And you can’t really expect anything else because he’s a kid. It also prevents him and Obi Wan from having any relationship at all in this film, much less the close friendship they’re supposed to have.
In summary, Anakin ought to be the film’s protagonist; the equivalent to Luke in the original. But because they decided to make him a ten year old surrounded by adults (also because he doesn’t even appear until about forty minutes in), they removed that possibility. That kind of leaves the film without a real protagonist. Qui-Gon is the closest as he directs most of the story, but we don’t really know anything about him apart from the fact that he’s wise and good. He structured like a mentor character, but has to carry the whole plot himself.
Another problem: their conception of Anakin’s origin basically removes Owen entirely. You know, his brother. The implications of the first film of a falling out, of the brother who went to war and the one who stayed at home, the subsequent implications that Owen was trying to keep Luke from becoming his father, all that is out the window now. Yes, it’s a little odd to be hung up on the fact that they didn’t make space to account for what, after all, was a minor character, but it would have been so easy to do and seems so obvious (there’s even a random kid who just hangs around with Anakin during his time on Tatooine: why not make him his brother?) that you just have to wonder why they didn’t. Why construct this over complicated, contrived origin story about a virgin birth (really) that raises a million questions instead of following the backstory you yourself created?
Okay, I’m going to limit myself to addressing three more major problems: the pod-race, the Queen, and a slightly more abstract idea of script contrivances.
The pod-race kind of exemplifies the film as a whole: visually it’s great, but on a writing level it’s awful. There’s probably no better way to explain why it’s so bad than to compare it to the race in Ben Hur, which Lucas is very clearly trying to imitate (yes, it’s unfair to compare The Phantom Menace to Ben Hur, just as it’s unfair to compare, say, Bill Nye to St. Bellarmino, but, hey, if they’re asking for it…).
In Ben Hur, the race was the culmination of the enmity between Judah Ben Hur and Messala. Judah has already sworn to kill Messala, and the circus is one of the few places he can do that legally. Messala, for his part, is equally ready to kill Judah, something he already tried and failed to do. The question, therefore, is whether either or both will succeed before the end of the race. This is further linked to the idea that Judah is racing for the honor of his own people on their own homeland against their occupiers, connecting the hero’s personal goals with those of his community (symbolized by the Sheik’s high-stakes bet with the Roman officers – “Ten to one: what a Roman is to a Jew. Or an Arab” – and further reinforced by Messala’s loud prayer to Jupiter, done deliberately so that Judah can hear it).
In The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, the race is simply a way to solve an already contrived plot thread designed solely to have the Jedi meet Anakin, a problem that could have been solved about a dozen other ways even given the provided scenario. The sole question is who is going to win, and as Anakin is the only actual character in the race, that is never really in question. Sebulba is not a character; he simply exists to be the jerk that Anakin beats. There is no emotional weight to what happens, no larger issues at stake, nothing but the fate of this one character: if he wins, he succeeds, if he loses, he doesn’t. Combine that with the fact that it goes on for about ten minutes straight, plus a lengthy introduction with flags and listing characters we’ve never seen before and never will again, and the whole thing is just an absolute train wreck in terms of storytelling.
(All that said, I do love the gag of Jabba the Hutt falling asleep during the race. Who would have ever thought he would be the audience identification character?)
Now about the Queen. If you’ve seen the film, you know that the Queen we spend most of the movie with (Keira Knightley) is actually a decoy, and the real Queen is her handmaid, Padme, played by Natalie Portman.
This raises so many questions, even beyond “who the heck thought the Queen’s dead-white makeup and ultra-elaborate costumes were in any way a good idea?” First of all, considering the real Queen is right next to her, as is captured along with her, what was the point of any of this? Isn’t someone more likely to kill her like this, when she’s off alone, less protected (even her bodyguards the Jedi aren’t told of the deception. That’s probably something you want to tell the people specifically tasked to protect you)? Isn’t it more likely that, in an emergency, her guards will end up leaving her behind or letting her get shot while they guard the fake Queen?
Also, the fake Queen does things like sending her off to clean a droid while she sits in council with the Jedi. Or the fake Queen is apparently the one doing all these important jobs and making all these crucial decisions while the real Queen just sits around in the background. Or the real Queen is the one who goes off into the dangerous city with the Jedi while the fake one sits safe on the ship.
She’s also apparently elected. Why? And how does that square with her daughter being a princess?
So, the whole Queen deception thing is unnecessary and stupid. Now let’s tackle the final matter: contrivance.
This basically is a catch-all term for the script handing characters things without them have to earn it. The infamous midichlorines are a good example of this (yes, there are also thematic problems with making the Force bacteria). This whole development has one purpose and one purpose only: so that they can take Anakin’s blood test and find out that he’s an ultra powerful force user who even surpasses Yoda. It’s a means of telling so that we don’t have to show. No need to convey this through action, through following him in his training and the Jedi and us slowly realizing they’re dealing with something they haven’t seen before; just declare he’s got lots of these things that give him Force.
The whole idiotic ‘Prophecy’ and ‘chosen one’ plotline is another example: a way to tell us that Anakin is special without actually having to make him be special. It raises so many questions (who prophesied? What’s he’s supposed to do? Why does it matter?) and, again, is just a lazy way to tell the audience that we should care (again, Harry Potter handled a similar plotline much better, where the prophecy isn’t revealed until late in the series and they discuss how it only matters because the bad guy thought it mattered and fulfilled the terms himself. It isn’t used to make the hero special, but to motivate the villain).
Again, this all comes down to the script giving things to Anakin rather than having him work for them, partly because he’s a kid. He’s not exactly a Gary Stu, because he doesn’t really do anything. He’s kind of like Mowgli in the animated Jungle Book: less of a character than a living prop for the characters to pass around and comment on. Not an auspicious start to the origin of Darth Vader.
(By the way, the same pattern plays out for Jar Jar during the final battle, where his ‘comic’ bumbling reeks havoc on the droid army. Again, not earned, not proceeding from any skill or insight that the film set up: it all works out in his favor because the writer says so).
Okay, so I could go on and on about how bad this film is. Is there anything to like about it?
Well, others have said it before now, but the sets and some of the visuals in this movie are often really, really good. Naboo is fantastically designed; the most paradisiacal, civilized world imaginable. So is the underwater city of the Gungans, so are the cool monsters inhabiting the depths, so, to a lesser degree, is Coruscant, the capital world, where the city covers the entire planet (yeah, some of the shots look ugly as hell, but others are very cool).
To his credit, Lucas actually did think through some of the sci-fi concepts. Like, for instance, we see the underwater city is protected by permeable energy fields. Then when these creatures go into battle, these same shields for a major part of their strategy. That sort of thing shows some thought, applying a piece of tech in multiple, though consistent ways. On a similar note I like how establish that Anakin is freezing in space because the temperature on the ship is so much less than he’s used to. I also like how they burn Qui-Gon’s body in the end, mirroring the burning of Vader’s corpse in Return of the Jedi and making it feel like a real cultural practice.
And though the acting and writing are bad, they take time out now and then to have quiet moments, to try to let the characters breathe a little. There are a few scenes emphasizing how much Anakin misses his mother after he leaves home, for instance. Anakin’s actual good-bye to his mother is also fairly well done, especially with her telling him to not look back as he leaves. And though it precedes the infamous midichlorian reveal, it is a nice moment where Anakin asks Qui-Gon about the stars and expresses his desire to visit them all, echoing Luke from the first film (though much more on the nose).
Similarly, though the dialogue is mostly terrible, there is a good line here and there. Like when Anakin insists “No one can kill a Jedi,” and Qui-Gon softly answers “How I wish that were true.” Or Palpatine’s comment that in the Senate “there is no civility: only politics,” which is kind of perfect.
Speaking of which, if there is one undiluted positive about this film, it’s Ian McDiarmid’s reprisal of his role as Palpatine. In a cast that predominantly reads their lines in a flat monotone, he actually injects some life in the role: I love his incredibly smug smile when he shows up at the end, or the subtle expressions on his face when he first appears. You can absolutely believe this is the same character we met in Return of the Jedi, only younger and obliged to hide his malevolence behind a mask of urbanity and kindness. Yet he still has the same satanic, spider-like machinations that made the character so intimidating in the first place.
As for the new characters, Qui-Gon is mildly memorable, just because Liam Neesan manages to convey a sense of actual wisdom and kindness through him. Watto the junk dealer isn’t bad; you certainly remember him and he’s not extremely irritating like Jar Jar. And though it’s an uncomfortable caricature, I do kind of like how the Trade Federation Viceroy is played as this gutless mandarin type: something different in terms of ‘Star Wars’ villains. And Maul, of course, continues the tradition of vivid ‘Star Wars’ bad guys. He doesn’t say much, but you sure remember him.
Speaking of which, yes, that final lightsaber duel is really good. One thing that struck me about it this time was how brutal it is; Maul and the Jedi are punching and kicking each other left and right, while Maul leaps and dances about like a wild cat. Add in that fantastic music, and it’s an honestly great sequence (if only we didn’t have to keep cutting away to the other three events going on around it).
So, on the whole, the film is pretty bad. Though I will say, it’s bad in a way that still lets you see flashes of talent. George Lucas, whatever his failures as a writer, is a fantastically creative person, and that creativity does come across on screen, with the creatures, the new worlds, and so on. He just needed someone to process his ideas into something workable, and to elicit decent performances out of his actors, and to tell him no when he has a terrible idea. The Phantom Menace is one of those fascinating failures: a movie that is more interesting to take apart and examine why it doesn’t work than it is to actually watch, yet not without some highlights of its own.
Nevertheless, having a film this bad as the opening act is an ominous sign for any trilogy.