Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace(PG)
Caution: spoilers! (Seriously, don't even look at the picture to the right.)
This is the first film, chronologically, in the Star Wars saga (or to be more specific, the "Skywalker saga"), but it's the fourth to be released. The first film, originally called simply "Star Wars," was released in 1977, and later called "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope". That was the start of the "original trilogy" (which I'll henceforth refer to as the OT). Episode I - The Phantom Menace wasn't released until 1999, and it began the "prequel trilogy." Obviously, for a long time people had no choice but to watch the films out of order, starting with Episode IV instead of Episode I. But ever since the release of the prequel trilogy, there has been some debate about the best order in which to watch the films, for anyone who hadn't already seen the OT. Machete order would suggest skipping Episode I entirely, and watching them in the order 4-5-2-3-6. There are some really good narrative reasons for this, but since I'm old enough to have seen the original trilogy first, I'm still a 4-5-6-1-2-3 kinda guy. I don't think Episode I should be skipped, because I actually quite enjoyed it (for the most part). Still, I do think that, for the reasons outlined by Machete Order, 4-5-1-2-3-6 would be just as good (if not better) for a first-timer as either release order or episode order. Of course, whatever order each individual chooses to watch the series is entirely up to them. (I was going to mention some things about Star Wars that I thought might be useful to know, going into episode I, if you haven't already learned them from episodes IV through VI, but on second thought, I expect it isn't necessary.)
I want to mention that I saw the movie in theaters when it came out in 1999, and then I don't think I saw it again until I got it on DVD in 2020, which is when I'm writing this reivew. (Well, most of it. I did actually write some notes about it years prior to that, whenever I first set up the page where my review would eventually go.) Anyway, I've been a Star Wars fan since I was a kid, and I spent many years waiting for George Lucas to make his long-promised prequel trilogy. In fact, I'd say it was one of the things I was most looking forward to in life. And then, when it finally came out, I was pretty excited to see it. But um... it wasn't as good as the OT. In fact, many fans of the franchise hated it, with a passion. I didn't hate it. It had its problems, but I didn't hate it. I actually kind of liked it. But that, in itself, is a pretty big disappointment when you've spent all those years waiting for something, especially a new entry in a franchise you love. In spite of my disappointment, I've often felt the need to defend the movie. (I remember, for example, hearing Randal list a bunch of complaints in an episode of Clerks: The Animated Series, and I felt like I could reasonably dispute most or all of those complaints.) Now... when I watched the movie on DVD in 2020, I didn't just "kind of like" it, I actually kind of loved it (if still not nearly as much as I love the OT). Anyway, one of the things I had written when I first set up this page was that I thought the movie would have been better with less CGI. "George Lucas," I said, "seems to think CGI ships and creatures and whatever look more realistic than the models and things used for special effects in the original (pre-Special Edition) trilogy, but I think he's wrong. I think CGI looks way less realistic." Re-watching it now, after a couple of decades of getting used to CGI effects in tons of other movies... well, I still think practical effects look more realistic than CGI, but this time around, the CGI didn't bother me at all.
I went on to say that "My main complaint about the prequels is that they suck at character development. The original trilogy had a totally epic story, but it wouldn't have worked so well without awesome characters. And while the prequels may look epic, they are sorely lacking in the awesome character department." Watching it now, I still think the characters in the prequel movies aren't as well-developed as the ones in the OT, but I actually liked at least some of the characters more this time around than I did before. (And I don't think I ever really hated any of the characters, when I first watched this movie.) Although there is one elephant in the room that must be discussed: Jar Jar Binks. Again, I must stress that I didn't hate the character, but I did find him somewhat annoying. Both fans and critics, at the time the movie came out, had a number of criticisms of the character, some of which I agree with, some I don't, and some I'm not sure what to think. But I do think it was wrong of so many people to pile as much hate upon the character as they did, and even more so to extend that hate toward Ahmed Best, the actor who voiced the CGI character. (He later revealed that the backlash got so bad that he considered suicide, which I find particularly understandable these days, after the past several years of my getting "woke" to how bad harassment of certain people can get, for various reasons.) I want to stress that I am entirely opposed to any form of harassment, either online or in the real world. And I sympathize with Best. That being said, I do want to mention at least a couple of the complaints people had about the character. The biggest problem many people had was that Jar Jar appeared to be a racial caricature reminiscent of how black people were portrayed in minstrel shows. That's a concern I don't feel I, as a white person, have the right to dismiss. But I also don't know enough about such things to be aware of how much validity there is to such claims. So, it's something I don't really have an opinion on, one way or the other. I do find his way of speaking somewhat annoying, regardless of whether or not it has problematic racial connotations. But it's really more the character's personality in general that I find annoying. Still, he does have some importance to the plot, even if I think the character could have been much better written. Another complaint some people have is the idea that Jar Jar was included in the movie just to appeal to children, as a comic sidekick. That complaint I can certainly dismiss, because I find it absurd to be upset about attempts to make movies appeal to children. The "Star Wars" franchise as a whole is something I feel should appeal to people of all ages.
Further notes I made before starting the actual review:
I'd like to recommend you watch Fanboys. Oh, and before I forget, I also wanted to say that I like the title, "The Phantom Menace." I think I've heard (or read) some criticism of the title, but I don't exactly remember. But I do think it's nicely evocative of the kind of old school adventure serials that inspired Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. And I think it's actually fairly apt. (It's also possible I heard or read some praise of the title, rather than criticism. I do wish my memory didn't suck so bad.) I also really liked the simple, dramatic symbolism of the promo poster, which I've used on this page (even though it's actually a spoiler for anyone who watches the prequels before they've seen Episode V; sorry about that). And... I wanted to mention that I love Duel of the Fates, one of the musical themes that John Williams composed for this movie. I also love The Saga Begins, a Weird Al Yankovic song that parodies the film (or, to be more accurate, it summarizes the plot pretty faithfully, but still manages to be really funny without exactly making fun of the movie... at least in my estimation), to the tune of Don McLean's "American Pie."
Well, time to get to the plot. To begin with, I should mention that this movie takes place 32 years before the events of Episode IV. There's an organization called the Trade Federation, which I guess is upset about taxes imposed by the Galactic Republic. For some reason, the Federation has a space fleet blockading the planet Naboo. (It seems the reason for this particular planet having been chosen is because of a secret deal between the Federation's viceroy, Nute Gunray, and a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. Of course, no one in the Republic could have been aware of this, so I find it strange that, as far as I could tell, no cover story for the choice of planet to be blockaded was ever given, and no one showed any sign of confusion or curiosity about it. But whatever.) Anyway, the Republic sends two Jedi, Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), to negotiate with Gunray and his lieutenant, Rune Haako. (Incidentally, Gunray and Haako are both Neimoidians, and while I guess they were just people in costumes, it would not have been hard for me to believe they were CGI characters.) Unfortunately, no negotiations take place, because Sidious orders Gunray to have the Jedi killed.
Of course, the Jedi manage to survive not only poison gas, but to fight off the battle droids (CGI) sent to kill them. (Though they do have to run away from some pretty neat, badass CGI destroyer droids.) They then hide on Federation ships that are sent to the surface of Naboo, in preparation for an invasion. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan want to warn the Naboo (which is also the name of one of the planet's two sentient species; the one that looks human) of the impending attack, but it's going to be difficult to reach the capital city, Theed, without being found by Federation forces. Luckily, they get some help from a Gungan (the other sentient race, which are CGI) named Jar Jar Binks. He takes them to one of his people's underwater cities, to introduce them to the council of "bosses," led by Boss Nass (voiced by Brian Blessed). Qui-Gon uses a "Jedi mind trick" to get Nass to give them a transport to take them through the underwater core of the planet to reach Theed undetected, and Jar Jar goes along with them. Along the way, we have more than one occasion to learn that "there's always a bigger fish." That was fun.
Meanwhile, we meet the 14-year-old, newly elected queen, Amidala (Keira Knightley, whom I didn't recognize under all the geisha-like makeup and whatnot). Nute Gunray wants her to sign a treaty that would make the Trade Federation's occupation of her planet legal, which she refuses to do. So, she's kept prisoner in her own palace. But soon, the Jedi (and Jar Jar) arrive. They, along with Amidala's chief of security, Captain Panaka, manage to rescue the queen and her retinue of handmaidens, and get them off the planet in one of the Naboo's starships. (And one of the astromech droids on the ship is R2-D2) But they still need to get past the Federation's blockade, planning to take the queen to the Republic's capital planet, Coruscant, to plead for help from the Galactic Senate. Unfortunately, their ship sustains damage, and has to land on the planet Tatooine (which fans of the OT, of course, know as the homeworld of Luke Skywalker, whom we first met in Episode IV; but in this movie, he hasn't been born yet). While Obi-Wan stays with the ship, Qui-Gon and Jar Jar head toward a nearby settlement, hoping to find parts they need to repair the ship. But before they go, Panaka tells them Amidala has insisted one of her handmaidens, Padmé (Natalie Portman), accompany them, to learn more about the planet and its culture. They soon meet a CGI Toydarian junk dealer named Watto, who has a part they need, but they can't afford it. (And there's a gag about Qui-Gon's failed attempt to obtain the part that I will never not find hilarious.)
While at Watto's shop, they meet a 9-year-old slave who works there, named Anakin, or "Ani" for short. (He's played by Jake Lloyd, who, like Best- but for different reasons- received a lot of fan hate, which I feel is totally undeserved). Padmé befriends Ani, and when it later turns out a sandstorm is coming, he takes Padmé and her companions back to his home for shelter. There they meet his mother, Shmi, and a protocol droid Ani has been building, C-3PO. Ani talks to his new friends about an upcoming podrace, and offers to help them get the money they need for the part by entering the race himself. Shmi doesn't want him to, because podraces are extremely dangerous. But she ultimately accepts the idea. And later, Qui-Gon secretly makes a wager on the race with Watto, to potentially gain Ani's freedom. This is because Qui-Gon believes Ani is the "chosen one" from some old prophecy about "bringing balance to the Force". I also want to mention that this movie provides some deeper explanations for things like the Force than we've ever heard before. It involves something called midi-chlorians, which I don't want to explain. But I recall a lot of fans being really upset about this explanation of the Force. I personally kind of liked it... it reminds me of something I think I read in a Star Trek book once, as well as something in a book I was once writing, myself. But whatever.
Where was I? Ah, podracing. Well, that is one of the highlights of the movie, one of the few things that pretty much all Star Wars fans can agree was pretty cool. And as it happens, Ani is the only human who's even capable of podracing; all the other racers are various CGI aliens. The main one is the reigning champ, Sebulba, who sabotages all the competitors, in various ways. (I have no idea whether or not there are even rules against that sort of thing, but I tend to doubt it.) There's also a two-headed CGI commentator. (One head speaks Galactic Basic, or whatever Earth language you might be watching the movie in; for me it was English, of course. The other head speaks some alien language.) I think when he announced Ani's surname was the first time in the movie we heard him (or Shmi) referred to as "Skywalker," but I could be wrong about that. It probably couldn't really be considered a major plot reveal, anyway, since fans of the OT would have known who he was, and in theory, newcomers to the franchise wouldn't be sure what his connection to Luke Skywalker would later turn out to be. (Though they can hardly be expected never to have heard the name "Luke Skywalker.") Anyway, there's a huge crowd watching the race; it was neat to spot Warwick Davis in the audience. I also really enjoyed seeing Ani making repairs to his pod on the fly, whenever things went wrong (mostly because of Sebulba). Ani's facial expressions make it seem like he isn't sure the things he does will work, but of course they always do, thus proving he really is a great pilot as well as a great mechanic.
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Ani wins the race, because otherwise the movie would basically end right there. So, he gains his freedom from Watto, and while he's excited to go to Coruscant and train to become a Jedi, he's heartbroken at having to leave his mother behind (since Watto still owns her). But before they can get back to their ship, Qui-Gon is attacked by Darth Maul, the Sith apprentice of Darth Sidious. But Qui-Gon manages to escape, and everyone goes to Coruscant. Queen Amidala meets with Naboo's senator, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who advises her that the Republic's Supreme Chancellor, Valorum (Terence Stamp), doesn't have the political strength to convince the Senate to help Naboo. So Palpatine believes that if necessary, Amidala should move for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum, which would lead to the election of a new Supreme Chancellor. (When Palpatine himself turns out to be one of the nominees, he acts surprised and honored, but it seems clear that was his plan all along.)
Meanwhile, Qui-Gon introduces Anakin to the Jedi High Council, and asks permission to train him. The leader of the Council is Yoda (Frank Oz; while in the OT he was simply a puppet, in this movie he's mostly a puppet, with CGI in some scenes... and I read that in a later Blu-ray release he was, like, entirely CGI). We see a full circle of twelve seated Jedi (of various alien races) on the Council, but most of them don't have speaking roles. The main one aside from Yoda is a human named Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), but he'll be more important in the next movie than this one. Anyway, the Council is against the idea of training Anakin to become a Jedi, for reasons I won't get into. But Qui-Gon is determined to train Ani, regardless. Aside from the debate concerning Ani's future, Qui-Gon also tells them about the person who attacked him on Tatooine, who is assumed to be a Sith. Since their order was supposedly eliminated long ago, the Council is shocked to learn that one exists in the present. And they assume there must be another, because there's always a master and an apprentice, though they're not sure which this attacker was. So... that's another whole mystery to solve.
While debate concerning Naboo continues in the Senate, Queen Amidala decides to return to Naboo to help her people, despite the danger this would put her in. She's accompanied by Quin-Gon, Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, and Anakin (as well as all of her handmaidens, of course, including Padmé). Soon after they get back to the planet, there's an all-out battle between the Trade Federation's droid army, and some unlikely allies recruited by the Queen. But I don't want to spoil anything about that. In fact, I don't want to spoil anything at all about the rest of the movie. (So certain details will be revealed when I review Episode II.) Except I must add that there's an epic lightsaber duel with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan against Darth Maul.
Well, then, that about covers it, for now. There are things I could say that wouldn't be spoilers for this movie, but would be for the OT, so I'll avoid those things... essentially. I'll just say I liked seeing Ani as such a sweet kid (he even exclaims "Yippee!" at least a couple of times, which reminded me of Francis from Swiss Family Robinson). A lot of fans didn't like this depiction of Anakin, for pretty much the same reasons I did like it. So, aside from Jar Jar being written (and therefore performed) as overly buffoonish, I really have no major complaints about the movie. I just thought it was a lot of fun, with some decent drama and setting-up of future events....