Film Review: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

When a story is created out of sequence it’s hard to know whether you should watch them in cinematic or chronological order. Do you watch Lord of the Rings before The Hobbit? Should you watch Episodes IV, V and VI before the prequelling I, II and III?

I, however, arrived at the Star War franchise in numerical order. My first foray into the work of the Republic, Jedi and Jabba the Hut came with pod racing, Jar Jar Binks and a boy named Anakin. Which means that whatever anybody says about it and about where it ranks in the franchise as a whole, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace holds a dear place in my heart.

Star Wars Episode 1 - Pod Racer PC Game -  The Phantom Menace

Sadly though, that place is built on the foundations of memories that surround the film rather than the movie itself. Of times spent with friends having pretend Lightsaber fights and of whittling away hours playing spin off computer games, because, let’s face it, the movie is rather naff.

My first problem with the film is that it just feels too thrown together, too unimportant. The story is just superficial and skin deep. You never really understand why anything is happening. It almost feels like it’s filler for the other films, a story to set up a story that is already setting up a story. It never really engages you or conveys any real emotion. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it’s almost boring which is all the worse because it’s not a hard story to follow; everything simplistically laid out in front of you. Why imply or metaphor when you can simply state, but that’s not a good thing as it means that everything feels dragged out and silly. I can see what’s happening I don’t need to be told as well.

Star Wars as a franchise has always felt to me like an cinematic comic book, the swiping transitions always conjuring images of cartoon story boards, each element its own box, stroked and outlined, contained, before jumping to the next. And George Lucas has reemployed this technique. However, because the story is so basic and wordy chopping and changing in this style hampers it even further. It makes each segment feel elongated. It’s takes a large portion and divides it up, not into sustaining bite size chunks but rather a seemingly all encompassing feast that overwhelms you.

The film is already long at 136 minutes, but this clipping style breaks the pacing so it feels even longer, even though at no point does it ever stop. Never feeling stationary. Instead it just revolves on and on in a marathon of storytelling.

Star Wars Episode 1 Storm Trooper Marathon Running - The Phantom Menace

The film is often criticised as well for it’s introduction of the aforementioned Jar Jar Binks. The parody of a character that some, most, loyal fans claim is the death of the franchise. I however don’t mind him, too much. I will completely agree that he is totally out of character with the tone film as a whole and serves only to lower the plausibility of the world. Star Wars is fantasy but also somehow believable. The worlds, the people, have a realism that mean it you always feel that one day it could be true. But Binks defies that, he feels wrong. He’s the comedy clown at a funeral. In the right place at the right time he might be OK, but this isn’t it.

In terms of the cast, the film essentially focuses purely on Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and their interaction with the boy Anakin Skywalker. I find Neeson distant and cool. He’s almost too calculated and questioned. Everything done by process rather than instinct. And McGregor just feels out of place against it. He comes across almost hapless and needy at times. Somehow lacking the maturity and strength his position claims he has. Portman is OK, but I never really buy into her being capable of her actions. She’s visually portrayed as a china doll, you get a sense she’s simply a puppet on a string waiting to be manipulated, performed, which is then dispelled through scenes of tactic, skill and wisdom that are meant to show the hidden power and courage she has; but are so far removed from everything else, and her physically, that they feel wrong.

John Williams - Star Wars Episode 1 - Soundtrack -  The Phantom Menace

One place you cannot criticise The Phantom Menace is it’s soundtrack. Composed by John William’s it was always going to be a safe bet that it would add needed emotion to the film, but you don’t expect it to linger in the way it does. While often blending annoyingly lightly into the background, it’s when Williams takes you to the dark side that it really shines, saving the film and striking power into your very heart. It’s just a shame that when the credits finally roll, it’s the music and not the story that leave the lasting impression.

Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace has more to dislike than like. The direction is poor and at times cheesy, it feels drawn out and monotonous and the characters one dimensional and weak. The story is often too comedic, linear and uninteresting, but also, it has pod racing, double ended lightsabers and R2D2. It’s just that they’re not on screen long enough to truly save it.

5 out of 10 stars (5 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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