What was right with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?

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September 12, 2013 by Devin

Recently, the YouTube movie critic, Michael Barryte of Belated Media, began a series of videos asking, “What if the Star Wars prequels were actually really good?” He then went on to rework the first two movies in some subtle and other not-so-subtle ways to focus on character and plot over pure spectacle.

Honestly, so far Michael is right on. While there are some changes I would make to his changes, he focuses on what really matters to story: characters. I’ve embed the first video at the end of this post in case you have not had a chance to see it yet.

But in thinking about this, I started thinking about Star Wars a lot more and what happened with the new trilogy, specifically the first one. I mean, I liked it as a kid. What did I see in it?

See, here’s the thing: tons of people have talked about why Episode I doesn’t work. And these people are right. Ultimately, it does not work. But I want to approach this from the other side.

What was good about Episode I? In what may have been my most difficult blog post yet, I explore that question.

The World Building

Roger roger roger roger roger roger rabbit!

What I think a lot of people take advantage of is that we, as an audience, really had no conception of what a pre-Galactic Civil War Star Wars was like. Think about this: before this movie, very few people had heard of the Jedi Council. Now that seems such a fixture in the Star Wars mythos, yet before this movie, it only existed in the expanded universe, if that. The Jedi Academy, the Republic, and even Coruscant were only things that existed in people’s imaginations, and seeing them up on the big screen was kind of awesome.

And the Separatists were a completely new threat established within the first 10 minutes. We learned that there is this evil menace with a robot army and that someone else is pulling strings (the Emperor being a politician playing both sides was a particularly effective interpretation of the character). This completely new antagonistic force added a whole new dimension to the Star Wars galaxy. While some areas of the mythos were too convoluted for their own good (what is that federation even trading in the first place?), ultimately this movie showed that the galaxy could have evil forces beyond the Empire.

The Spectacle

Du du dududu du du dududu du du dududu ahhaaaaaaaaaaaa rehhaaaaaaaaaaa

The prequel trilogy abandoned the more down-to-earth take on space operas that the original trilogy had, and though I will not necessarily defend that decision, I will say that at least the prequel trilogy moved in a more fun direction. And in going this direction, the movies added a flair that had only been hinted at in the original trilogy. The Darth Maul lightsaber battle was the most impressive lightsaber battle out of any of the movies. The choreography and cinematography were both perfectly suited to the scene and characters, creating a battle that was simple in scale but epic in feel. And the pod racing scene, though it went on a bit long, also used its sound design as well as its visuals to create a thrilling experience that took inspiration from the original trilogy but expanded it using the resources available.

I think the best example of this new approach is the decision to have Anakin make C-3PO. Now, I am not going to defend this as a good storytelling decision. It is silly. It is kind of dumb. It is pure fan service. But it is fun. It reminds me a bit of playing with toys as a kid and having to reuse characters for multiple purposes. In fact, the whole movie feels like George Lucas really just wanted to have fun with the Star Wars universe. If nothing else, that is an admirable goal.

The Casting

You know some Lucasfilm execs were going, "Man, we need to make a Jedi as cool as Liam Neeson... lightbulb!"

And finally, the casting of Episode I was perhaps its best part and the reason the movie at least remains watchable. Sure, Jake Lloyd was annoying (though not half as annoying as it must have been to be Jake Lloyd), but a child actor with such a poor script was always going to be a bad mix. The rest of the cast, on the other hand, all added character to characters that did not have much support from the script. In particular, I do not think Natalie Portman gets enough credit for infusing a strength in Padme that echoed Carrie Fisher without copying her. When she announced that she actually was the queen, there was an authority in her voice that made it so we understood why no one thought, “Wait, you can’t be the queen!”

And furthermore, Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson were both excellent Jedi Knights. Ewan McGregor in particular adds an excellent sense of heart to his role, and perhaps the greatest sin of the prequel trilogy was not putting him at the center. Also, Qui-Gon is an interesting character that adds another element to the mythos. Again, this helped with the world-building and showed that the light side existed beyond the authority of the Jedi Council. And Liam Neeson emanated that rebel-with-a-cause attitude without it becoming overbearing. The characters were not fantastic, but the actors made the movie more enjoyable to watch and gave hope that the future films could rise above its meager beginnings.

But of course, that is just one perspective. Now that you have read my thoughts, be sure to check out Belated Media‘s video below. And if you really want to go in-depth on Episode I, check out Red Letter Media’s slightly disturbing and NSFW hour long review here.

So what do you think? Was I completely wrong and Episode I is the worst movie ever? Or do you think there were strengths that I forgot. Or perhaps you know exactly what George Lucas should have done. Let me know in the comments below!

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