In defence of The Phantom Menace

George Lucas’ first Star Wars prequel has been widely criticised over the years, but does The Phantom Menace really deserve it? Here’s James’ defence of Episode One...

The late 1990s were a joyous time for Star Wars fans. The release date of The Phantom Menace was drawing ever closer, and anticipation for it was at an all time high. Fans were buying cinema tickets, watching the trailer for film in coming attractions, and then leaving before the film they’d paid to see began.

The big day finally came and the reaction was lukewarm at best. The reviews from critics were something of a mixed bag. American critic Roger Ebert gave it four out of five stars. Empire magazine was less favourable, giving it only three stars. The public, however, were far less forgiving. The Phantom Menace has been branded (among other things) ‘a disgrace to Star Wars’, ‘unforgivably bad’, and ‘a piece of utter crap’.

The Phantom Menace is in no way perfect, but I don’t believe it deserves the rather savage mauling it received upon its release. I’ve trawled through some of the more negative reviews to address some of the most often cited complaints. So, without further ado, here is my defence of the film.

Let’s begin with what people view as the crowning turd in the water pipe: Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans. Jar Jar was, quite frankly, an embarrassment. He’s a bit like a Wicket W. Warrick for the 1990s. But he will have had little kids giggling with delight. So, I think that that’s something we can forgive George Lucas for.

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Under no circumstances will I ever like Jar Jar, but I will accept him as a necessary evil. Because like him or not, Jar Jar is a crucial part of the Star Wars saga. Were it not for Jar Jar’s presence on Coruscant in Attack Of The Clones, Palpatine would not have been granted the emergency powers that allowed him to start the Clone Wars.

As for the rest of the Gungans, well, they’re really just there to provide cannon fodder for the Battle Droids in what was a very impressive battle sequence. Boss Nass is a tad irritating, but at least it gives a chance for the legendary Brian Blessed to become involved with the saga.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of Jar Jar, a quick word about racism. There is no racism in this film. Anyone who says that Jar Jar is a stereotype of Jamaicans and that the Nemoidians are a stereotype of Asian businessmen is the kind of idiot who deliberately reads into things just so they can get offended and have a good rant about it.

One frequent criticism is that The Phantom Menace is dull. This criticism is directed at the plot of the taxation of trade routes and the scenes in the senate. The Phantom Menace is set in peacetime and, therefore, problems faced by the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe will be significantly more mundane than those in the original trilogy.

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Also, the taxation plot is really only used as a minor component of Palpatine’s overall plan and a precursor to the invasion of Naboo. I won’t criticise anyone for finding the senate scenes dull. It’s not typical of Star Wars, but this is mainly because the original trilogy was set during a dictatorship, where democracy didn’t exist and the senate was just for show.

Personally, I find the senate scenes to be brilliantly done and a fantastic showcase for Ian McDiarmid’s acting. It’s a bold experiment for a sci-fi film series noted for being full of action, where characters mainly solve their problems with blasters, but it seems to work.

Democracy is the cradle of civilisation and the Star Wars universe is no exception to that. It’s a well observed satire on how politicians can manipulate things so easily. The senate scenes, no matter how dull you may find them, are pivotal to the prequel trilogy. It’s the start of Palpatine’s rise to power and, without these scenes, the rest of the plot concerning the formation of the Empire would make no sense.

The film has been criticised for its overuse of CGI but, to be honest, I fail to see the problem. Some may comment that it diminishes the reality of the film and makes it seem more artificial, but if you’re watching a film full of gun toting robots and dogfights in outer space, realism shouldn’t really be a priority.

For much of the film, the CGI blends seamlessly with the rest of the film’s elements. Also, the more visually spectacular aspects of the film, such as the Podrace or Otoh Gunga, would not be possible if CGI was not used.

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I’ll at least try to defend the dialogue. It’s a bit clunky at times but that’s something of a minor irritation. It’s only when Lucas tries to sound grand and inspiring that the dialogue falls a bit flat. Senator Palpatine’s dialogue is brilliant, but Darth Sidious (despite them being the same character. Oh, come on. It’s not like you didn’t work it out when you saw the film) fails to convey any sense of menace due to him spouting the same old evil clichés that we’ve heard too many times already.

Oh, and let’s not forget the absolutely appalling vernacular of the Gungans. It would have been a much better idea to have them speaking a foreign language, with Jar Jar acting as a translator rather than giving the entire species a mangled version of English.

The film also takes a lot of flak for its characterisation. I’ve already addressed the issue of Jar Jar, so I’ll move on to the next most hated character, Anakin. It’s been a frequent criticism that Anakin does not show any signs of evil and is nothing like the character he is destined to become. I can negate this argument with two words: he’s ten.

You’d be hard pressed to find an evil ten-year-old (though if you try Slough, you might have some luck). Hitler probably wasn’t insane and murderous at the age of ten. This film is about Anakin’s very beginnings and, therefore, he’s not going to show many characteristics of sci-fi’s second greatest man-machine villain (Davros comes first, in my opinion).

While I’m on the subject of Anakin, even though I’m defending the film, the whole ‘virgin birth’ conversation was a real head on desk moment for me. Qui-Gon is well characterised as a maverick who trusts himself more than his superiors and is willing to go with his instincts. Padme is basically a Princess Leia clone, but it’s a tried and tested character. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi is well thought out and is believable as a younger version of the wise old character we all know and love.

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The best character of this film, and possibly of the entire saga, is Palpatine. In Return Of The Jedi he was shown as a typically megalomaniacal villain, but this time around we see the true depth of Palpatine. He’s cold, calculating and delightfully Machiavellian. He could easily accelerate his rise to power by bumping off the necessary obstacles, but instead he’s shown to be truly brilliant, by making allies and then playing them off against each other for his own benefit.

Palpatine is quite possibly the greatest sci-fi villain of all time and is certainly the strongest character in The Phantom Menace.

Now, the question of the acting. There’s no denying that it’s decidedly dodgy at times. Jake Lloyd’s performance is very poor and really drags the film down. Surely there were better child actors out there. Was this nepotism at work? I suppose we’ll never know. Ewan McGregor’s accent keeps slipping, which can be something of an irritant.

Other than those minor niggles, The Phantom Menace has a great ensemble cast with Ian McDiarmid stealing the show. However, Samuel L. Jackson and Brian Blessed are wasted. I would have liked to have seen Jackson being given a more sizeable role and Blessed having a part that allowed him to show how absolutely brilliant he really is. A Star Wars version of his Richard IV from The Black Adder would have been a terrific addition to the film

The standout element of this film is the spectacular action sequences. Duel of the Fates is etched on my brain and will hopefully remain there for a long time. The Lightsaber duels of the original trilogy were very impressive and never fail to send a tingle down my spine. But Duel of the Fates blows all of that out of the water. It’s beautifully choreographed and Ray Park’s performance is flawless. And the cherry on the cake is that John Williams’ musical score is brilliantly evocative and fits the action perfectly.

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The dogfight over Naboo is classic Star Wars and invokes memories of Return Of The Jedi. It even retains the element of the good guys blowing up their target from the inside.

Finally, there is the Podrace. It’s visually stunning and adds a whole new element to the Star Wars universe, but it’s an element that’s close to our own culture, despite it being ramped up to delightfully mad levels. We have car racing where there’s an occasional crash. In Star Wars they have people roaring through desert canyons at six hundred miles per hour in flimsily constructed vehicles where it’s a miracle if there’s a race where nobody dies. The whole sequence looks fantastic and there are great moments of dark humour. Come on, you can’t deny that you didn’t at least smirk a little bit at some of the crashes.

To conclude, The Phantom Menace has it bad points. Most, if not all, films do. But I think you’ll find it a lot more enjoyable if you stop comparing it to the original trilogy.

People say that it’s not like the originals, but that’s a good thing. I wouldn’t want a carbon copy of A New Hope. It’s crammed full of terrific action sequences, there’s some really nice political scenes thrown in, and thanks to the magic of CGI, the whole thing looks bloody gorgeous. So stop comparing it unfavourably to its predecessors and enjoy it for what it is: a fun, bonkers, sci-fi romp with some minor unfortunate flaws.

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To finish off, here are ten facts you may not know about The Phantom Menace:

Only one shot in the film is not altered using CGI. It’s the shot of the poison gas coming out of the air vents on the Trade Federation ship.

Alan Ruscoe (Daultay Dofine, Plo Koon, and Bib Fortuna), Silas Carson (Nute Gunray, Ki-Adi Mundi, Trade Federation Senator, and Republic Cruiser Pilot), Hugh Quarshie (Captain Panaka), and Steve Speirs (Voice of Captain Tarpals), and Lindsay Duncan (Voice of TC-14) all went on to appear in the revived series of Doctor Who. Toby Longworth (Voice of Trade Federation Senator and the fish salesman in Mos Espa) voiced Caw in the animated Doctor Who episode, The Infinite Quest.

Sets were only built as tall as the actors’ heads. The rest of the sets were created using CGI. However, Liam Neeson’s height necessitated the rebuilding of the sets, which cost the production team an extra $150,000.

The character of a Jedi named Mace dates back to one of the very first drafts of A New Hope.

Spooks actor Richard Armitage had an uncredited role as a Naboo fighter pilot.

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Jar Jar Binks is the first main character in the Star Wars saga to be created digitally.

Natalie Portman’s voice was digitally altered to distinguish between the characters of Padme and Queen Amidala.

In early drafts of the script, Naboo was named Utapau. The name Utapau was originally used in early drafts of A New Hope and would later be given to a planet that features in Revenge Of The Sith.

The core plot of the film is based on an early draft of A New Hope, which was written in 1975.

This is the last Star Wars film to use a puppet version of Yoda and the first to feature a CG Yoda. The CG Yoda is seen briefly in the scene where Obi-Wan is knighted.