THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS
Believe it or not, but we are now 6 weeks out from witnessing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yep, it's nearly time to return to the galaxy far, far away, and I couldn't be more excited. To celebrate, I will be reviewing one Star Wars movie a week, starting with The Phantom Menace..... obviously. So, get your laser beams ready and your lightsabers out because it's time to reminisce about the biggest disappointment in cinema history.
16 years after the release of Return of the Jedi, George Lucas decided to tell the origin story of the original trilogy's primary antagonist, Darth Vader. The Phantom Menace begins this tale, focussing in on Jedi knight, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor). While protecting Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the evil trade federation, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan encounter a young boy living on the desert planet of Tatooine. His name? Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Qui-Gon believes that he can bring balance to the force, eventually helping the Jedi to overcome the Sith. One of the Sith they need to overcome is Darth Maul (Ray Park), a Dathomirian (don't even ask) with a double bladed lightsaber who's been assigned to hunt them all down.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, as previously mentioned, was the first time in 16 years that audiences got to return to their galaxy. There was obviously a lot of hype around it, similar to the hype surrounding this year's The Force Awakens (although I would argue that the hype right now is a little bit bigger). While I wasn't around to experience this hype, it's safe to say I'm experiencing a similar feeling right now. I've seen photos of people lining up around the block to see this movie, nobody able to contain themselves. After all, it's freaking Star Wars! It's going to be great! Or so audiences thought.
The Phantom Menace starts out promisingly. We see Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan invading a trade federation ship, and of course a fight ensures. It's exciting stuff, and it's even got a bit of humour, something the original trilogy was full of. Then this scene ends, and everything goes downhill from there. It quickly stops being something along the lines of the original trilogy and becomes something else entirely. It becomes..... political. Politics in Star Wars? Yeah, no. This is called Star Wars, not Star Politics.
It takes a lot more than just familiar faces to bring back the magic of the original trilogy, yet all this film provides us with are familiar faces, and hardly any of them followed continuity. Sure, we know that Obi-Wan trained Anakin, so that's not really out of continuity. But do you know what is? The fact that Obi-Wan wasn't trained by Yoda. And the fact that C3P0 was built by Anakin. And I don't even remember how R2D2 fits into this whole thing, but I'm going to guess it's just as non-sensical as everything else. To be fair, George Lucas did attempt to explain these continuity errors in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but just like everything else in the prequels, it just makes no sense.
Let's talk about Anakin Skywalker for a second, okay? Anakin Skywalker, obviously, is the person who eventually becomes Darth Vader, and so this trilogy is supposed to showcase his transformation to the dark side. Unfortunately, the character we get is not worthy of the name Anakin Skywalker. He doesn't deserve it. He's a whiny brat of a kid who plays no part in anything. He's not relevant to this film at all, although to be fair, not much is. At least the Anakin we get in The Phantom Menace is slightly more bearable than the one we get in Attack of the Clones, but more about that next week.
Anakin isn't just some random kid they run into. No, he's a podracer. A podracer who Qui-Gon straight up uses to earn some extra cash. But what's a podrace, you ask? A podrace is essentially the Star Wars equivalent of a car race, or something along those lines. So, of course, we get a sequence in which Anakin participates in a podrace, and just like actual car races, the podrace is boring as hell. It's 95% computer generated, and the computer generated images aren't even admirable. They're slack, and it doesn't really help when the scene on screen is far from exciting.
The inclusion of the podrace scene allows for Lucas to start foreshadowing the eventual romance between Padmé (AKA Queen Amidala) and Anakin. In case their romance doesn't end up being creepy enough, watching a nine year old kid flirt with someone who appears to be twice his age is far from flattering. Their dialogue is atrocious, as is Lucas' entire script for that matter, and the romance just comes out of nowhere. They try to play it off as cute since he is, after all, just a little kid, but it's really not. It's just awkward to watch, and it really taints the legend of Darth Vader.
One of the best things about the Phantom Menace, aside from the perfect casting of Ewen McGregor (who ends up being devastatingly underused in this first movie), is Darth Maul. He's a man of few words, but he's a complete badass. Wielding an insane and unique lightsaber, Maul's presence should've made a big impact on this trilogy. He should've been the Darth Vader of the prequels, but instead, this film doesn't really know what it's trying to be, the result of that is very little screen time for one of this film's only redeeming qualities.
He does, however, provide one of the coolest and most exciting lightsaber battles in the entire prequel trilogy. In the film's finale, while a bunch of CGI action is taking place elsewhere, we get to witness the insanity that is Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan vs Darth Maul. It's a lengthy battle where the stakes are felt, and these stakes are proven to be quite the risk when old Qui-Gon bites the dust. While Liam Neeson is a tremendous actor, I actually like the fact that his character is killed off. Not only is he underdeveloped, but it goes to show just how skilled and relentless Maul is, and it gives Obi-Wan a cause to fight for.
Taking place simultaneously to this three way battle is a CGI clusterfuck of a battle involving droids and gungans, and I'm not even sure if the grass was real or if that was CGI as well. I don't think it really matters. It's a prolonged and overstretched battle where nothing interesting ever takes place. It's lifeless animated characters shooting at other lifeless animated characters. There's no stakes and no central character to follow, and I don't even want to get started on Jar Jar Binks. He's one of the most annoying characters to ever hit the silver screen and I'm going to stop talking about him before all the anger inside of me starts to boil and steam is released out of my ears.
If you thought one lifeless CGI battle was more than enough, you haven't seen anything yet. Also taking place at the same time as these battles, young Anakin has somehow managed to fly a ship up into space and yes, he's managing to out-pilot all the professional pilots. How? I don't know. Why? Don't even ask. What was George Lucas thinking when he wrote this? I don't think he was. There was no logic or sense put into anything, and the sequence has me staring at my TV in confusion every single time I see it, and I've unfortunately seen this film more times that I'd like to.
All I've been talking about for the last few paragraphs are the battles in this film, and I feel as though that's giving off the wrong impression for those who have not seen the film. This film is not action heavy. In fact, it's not really until the finale that we get any sort of action. Sure, there's a couple of moments here and there, but nothing lasts for more than a minute or two and nothing is all that memorable. Even the more memorable battles are still forgettable, and that's a really disappointing aspect about this movie. Do you remember how cool that Luke and Darth Vader fight was in the original trilogy? Same. Too bad nothing in this movie comes close to being as cool as that does.
Filling up the runtime is a bunch of sitting around and talking. Prefer your talking to take place while people walk? Good. You get that too. Or maybe you prefer people to sit in awkward silences because this film has that as well. It really does have it all.... except the requirements of a good movie. It's a whole bunch of mumbo jumbo and I will admit, I do tune out from time to time. Most of the performances are stale and the dialogue can be awfully cringe worthy at times. Not even Samuel L Jackson can provide this film with the energy and excitement that a Star Wars film needs.
To sum up, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is one of the biggest disappointments in cinema history, and this is mostly thanks to George Lucas' atrocious screenplay, full of uninteresting characters delivering cringe worthy lines in entirely CGI environments.