The UnPopular Opinion: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
I always find that I gauge the age of people I meet based on which STAR WARS movies had been released during their lifetime. For myself, I have been alive since the release of RETURN OF THE JEDI, so I can take solace that at least part of the Original Trilogy premiered during my life. But, it also means that the only STAR WARS movies I saw during their original theatrical run have been the prequels. And, as you can tell from the fact this particular movie is being included in this column, I do not hate STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE. In fact, I think the level of hate for the movie is a bit overboard.
I firmly believe that if you take the elements of THE PHANTOM MENACE that most fans hated, they are not as bad as you may remember, especially if you have not revisted the film since 1999. Now, I am not a complete apologist and I recognize the flaws in the prequels and I would never choose them over any of the classic trilogy, but I also do not shun them from the series as a whole. There is still a lot of fun to be had in THE PHANTOM MENACE.
I won’t go through a retread of the plot of THE PHANTOM MENACE but instead will run down the list of issues most fans have with the movie and explain why I do not think they are such a big deal. Truthfully, the same problems with THE PHANTOM MENACE exist in A NEW HOPE and we have just had more time to get used to it. We often overlook the plot inconsistencies and lapses in logic because of the reverence that has built up A NEW HOPE as a flawless motion picture. But, we are here to talk THE PHANTOM MENACE.
Mee-sa, not a racist-a stereotype! Mee-sa stupid comic relief!
Jar-Jar Binks: He has been called a racist caricature, annoying, a waste of film, and much worse. I don’t despise Jar Jar because I accept him for what he is meant to be: comic relief. He is a bumbling, clumsy, Buster Keaton-esque alien that is primarily there for the children who watch the STAR WARS saga. I don’t remember thinking that C-3PO or R2-D2 were very funny when I was a kid, just that they were there. Over time, they became a part of the STAR WARS universe as a whole. The stupidity of those robots (C-3PO breaking, R2-D2 shooting sparks and wailing wildy, both of them coming in handy at the very last minute and completely by accident) are the same ways that Jar Jar influences the events of THE PHANTOM MENACE. Yes, he is annoying. Yes, he is poorly animated. But, he is not meant to be a realistic character but rather a humorous method to cut through the more dramatic subject matter. He is not even close to my top 50 favorite characters in the STAR WARS universe, but I am not offended by his existence. I do commend George Lucas for making Jar Jar the deciding vote in the Senate hearing that aids in Palpatine forming the Empire. That is the ultimate f*ck you to fans. Nice one, George.
Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker: I don’t think there is anyone who liked little Annie. But, remember that he is a person and his name is Anakin! You gotta give him some respect; this kid is the future Dark Lord of the Sith. But, in the first prequel, he is a bratty little punk who misses his mother and has a pre-teen boner for Natalie Portman. Then why do we hate him so? He is every man who has ever existed! Go back and watch A NEW HOPE and tell me that Mark Hamill’s original portrayal of Luke Skywalker is not one of the whiniest heroes ever put to film. I mean, he was supposed to go to Toshi Station for power converters and now he has to work on the moisture farm? Aw, man! Both Luke and Anakin follow the exact same path over their respective trilogies: they start as whiney bitches; they begin to come into maturity as they grapple with the Force, and they finish their journey by growing to manhood and facing the ultimate evil in the Dark Side. I get that Jake Lloyd is not a great actor, but he does what his character is supposed to do. He is innocence and naivete personified. He exists with an idyllic view of the world which will come crumbling down around in him the next two movies.
At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi for fifteen minutes and then be killed off.
Darth Maul’s untimely death: Yes, Darth Maul was underused. The most badass character since Boba Fett was killed off as unceremoniously as possible. For fans of THE CLONE WARS, you know they found a method for bringing him back to life and making him a bigger threat than he ever was in THE PHANTOM MENACE, but in this movie he did serve his purpose: he signaled the existence of the Sith to the Jedi and took out Qui-Gon Jinn. I am like you and would rather of seen him return in ATTACK OF THE CLONES instead of Count Dooku or in REVENGE OF THE SITH instead of General Grievous. Having him die in THE PHANTOM MENACE progresses the story and allows the true villain, Palpatine, to continue his ascension. But, in his scant time in EPISODE I, we have been given the eternal image of his red and black face, his double-sided lightsaber, and a badass Halloween costume for years to come.
Why are all the aliens CGI and we are puppets?
The convoluted political plot: Within minutes of the opening crawl of THE PHANTOM MENACE we have learned about Trade Federation blockades, Galactic Senate infighting, and the inability of the Chancellor to govern effectively. None of that sounds like the space opera heroics that we came to love in A NEW HOPE, but it still relates to the era of political instability that George Lucas was going for during the pre-Empire time period. Sure, it isn’t sexy, but it set the framing device for the trilogy.
There were a lot of things that did work well in THE PHANTOM MENACE. The John Williams score was excellent and gave us the immortal “Duel of the Fates” which is the best piece of STAR WARS music since the Imperial March. Many didn’t like it, but I thought the pod-racing sequence was beautifully shot. Our first look at Coruscant was breathtaking and Naboo is a perfect mixture of CGI and location shooting. The CGi did get better as the trilogy continued with REVENGE OF THE SITH finally being the closest to what fans imagined the prequels to look like.
If THE PHANTOM MENACE had been released in 1985 or 1986, or any time shorter than the two decades it took to get a new STAR WARS movie, I think the outcry would have been a lot less severe. When you have almost twenty years to think and imagine and come up with your ideal prequel, the real thing was destined to not live up to expectations. I think the key to enjoying THE PHANTOM MENACE is to take it for what it is: a family friendly action movie that continues the story we all loved as kids. George Lucas did not make THE PHANTOM MENACE thinking about ways to satiate the adult fans of the original films but rather for those same fans from 1977 who were kids and teenagers experiencing an adventure inspired by the serials he loved when he was a child. STAR WARS does not owe us anything besides a fun time at the movies.
Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!