The Last Jedi is now clearly on our horizons and Star Wars is once again dominating the internet. I, like many of you I’m sure, am re-watching the series in order to reacquaint myself with the story, as well as to substantiate my Snoke theories. In re-watching the films, I can’t help but mentally rank them as I go. Given my love for the series, I am taking this opportunity to exploit the re-ignited fanfare of Star Wars and am putting my thoughts of these films, as well as my personal ranking of them, to digital paper. Each article will be a more-or-less review of the film and my justification for its placement. I will break down what I think works in the film, as well as what doesn’t. So, with no further ado, let’s begin.
#8: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The Phantom Menace is the story of, well, a lot of things. Which is a big reason as to why it’s regarded the way it is. It is unfocused in its narrative. It’s difficult to identify a singular protagonist and a central plot, as the film throws several characters, each bringing with them their own side plots, into a vague, already established conflict that brings with it many of its own side plots. If you were to be asked who the protagonist of the story is, who would you say? I think the film wants us to believe it’s Anakin, but if he is the protagonist, then he’s a poor one. This is because Anakin is almost entirely passive. He isn’t given any discernible arc, nor are any lessons learned along the way. He begins as a slave and ends as a Padawan, but these decision have been determined almost exclusively by external forces, most notably Qui Gon. However, despite it’s narrative shortcomings, this film isn’t all bad. So lets separate what works from what doesn’t.
While you will definitely find several cast members in the latter half of this article, there are some performances here that are genuinely great. For example, it should be a surprise to no one that Liam Neeson absolutely kills it as a Jedi Knight. Seeing him in the robe with a Lightsaber just feels right, and he brings the gravitas needed for the role. While several Jedi, including his own apprentice, view him as unnecessarily rash in his decision making, he simply does what he feels is right. Contrasting that with the way the Jedi Order operates, especially in the proceeding films, is quite interesting, actually. And on the subject of his apprentice, a youthful Obi-Wan is brought perfectly to life by the always delightful Ewan Mcgregor. Mcgregor’s performance throughout the prequel trilogy makes him actually my favorite character of the series, and it begins here. Of all the characters in the film, Obi-Wan is given by far given the most meaningful and coherent arc. He begins similarly to how one would expect a Padawan would behave, with a very by the books mentality. This causes Obi-Wan to eventually clash with Qui Gon’s way of thinking, often in subtle ways. However, we see a discernible influence Qui Gon has on him throughout the film, and by the end of it Obi-Wan is defiant as Qui Gon was, choosing to take on Anakin as his own Padawan. It’s all done surprisingly well and completely informs who he would become as a character, not just in the proceeding prequels, but in the original trilogy as well. On the opposite end of the force, we have the canonical introduction of the eventual Emperor, Darth Sidious, as well as his apprentice, Darth Maul. Ian McDiarmid returns to reprise his role as Sidious, though spends the majority of this film disguised as a well intentioned senator by the name of Palpatine. One of the things the prequels did exceptionally well was Palpatine’s rise to power and the creation of the Galactic Empire. Though Episodes II and III will provide more to discuss on that front, the seedlings of this story are planted here, and done quite well. As a character, there isn’t much to be said of Maul, yet I will plant him firmly in this section of the article based simply off of how fantastic he is in design. His black attire and menacing war paint. His swift, agile way of fighting that actor Ray Parker so wonderfully brought to life. And yes, the fact he introduced us to the awe inspiring double bladed lightsaber.
Speaking of which, the moment when those doors open up, Williams’ score kicks in, and the second blade emerges is one of the greatest moments of the entire series, with the subsequent battle being arguably the best battle of all six films. And though that is by far the peak of the action in this film, there are other moments of greatness as well. The final space battle is actually fairly good. It’s not amazing, partly due it being won accidentally by Anakin, and it’s certainly not as good as the famous assault on the Death Star in episodes IV or VI, but it’s competently shot and at times pretty exciting. We are also introduced to a pastime they had a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away in the form of pod racing. This sequence, while perhaps a bit long, is exceptionally well directed and undeniably exhilarating. All of these sequences are elevated to their fullest extent by the always fantastic John Williams. The Dual of the Fates and the Trade Federation March stand as some of the greatest themes Williams’ has ever composed across all seven films he’s scored.
So with all of this that works, why does it sit at the bottom? Lets get into that.
What doesn’t work:
I actually often find myself giving an apologetic for the politics of the prequels. I find them as an enriching layer of lore, and an interesting way of setting the stage and making way for the original trilogy. However, this defense I give usually starts with episode II, as here it is poorly explained and generally boring. Nowhere in its over two hour runtime does this film convince me to care about the trade disputes between Naboo and the Trade Federation. The film never takes the time to elaborate, in any coherent manner, what the actual dispute is and what the two opposing goals are. We just know it has something to do with taxes. Now that by itself may be enough to upset any red blooded American, it fails to create a conflict worthy of the Star Wars name. It also doesn’t help that Naboo is generally uninteresting. Naboo’s capital city Theed is beautiful, but my compliments for the new location end there. The city and world feel cold and empty. It doesn’t look or feel lived in, certainly not like Tatooine or Bespin from the first two films. And unfortunately, the people of Naboo are not the planets only residents. Any argument that maintains that Ewoks are the worst creatures in this series flies in the face of all logic and reason, for under the oceans of Naboo dwell the Gungans, a people so obnoxious that cinema has yet to create a more annoying species. The relationship between the Gungans and the people of Naboo, and the political turmoil they are in aren’t interesting or compelling, making any plot or structure based off of them the same.
To make matters worse, this uninteresting plot is inhabited by several bad characters, starting with Queen Amidala/Padme, played by Natalie Portman. Throughout the film, Amidala, later to be revealed as Padme, exhibits poor leadership skills. She refuses to condone any action that might lead to war, and essentially allows for the occupation of her planet. This passivity leads to war anyway, one fought in a last ditch effort that only works because it’s a film and conveniences are allowed. The character doesn’t work even beyond just the script. Never in her career has Portman given such a wooden, stilted performance. Sure, her dialogue is often painfully bad, but that’s no excuse for some of the excruciatingly poor delivery she has in several key scenes. The same can be said for Pernilla August, who plays Shmi Skywalker, mother of Anakin. She delivers her lines with the conviction of an untalented high school performer. It’s as if Lucas gave a prize for the performance with the least amount of emotion. With these two characters in the review, it’s hard to imagine we’ve yet to arrive at the worst character of the film. History tends to exaggerate things that are bad or don’t work in film. Such is the case with the prequels in general. However, one character that manages to live up to his reputation of genuine awfulness is Jar Jar Binks. He consistently undercuts and undermines any semblance of dramatic tension the film might have. He, quite literally, stumbles his way through this film from start to finish. And the icing on this atrocious cake is that the film rewards him by making him a general and war hero. Everything about this character is actively working against the integrity of the film.
I could go on for another full paragraph about how the film manages to have the actors who only have one or two lines of dialogue give noticeably bad performance, but to refrain from allowing tangents, we must move on to an issue that plagues this film; visual effects. With the original trilogy, Lucas was a pioneer of innovation in technology, and the truth is I don’t think it’s fair to strip him of the title for the prequels. Episode I was, in many ways, at the forefront of special effects. He was exploring cgi in a way that many hadn’t. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out in his favor this time. The locales are often mostly or entirely computer generated, making nothing in the environment our characters are standing in look tangible. Creature who are fully cgi, such as Jar Jar or Anakins pod racing nemesis, Sebulba, have aged poorly since their creation. Watching this film in 2017, knowing what cgi is capable of, makes this film look cheap and silly in retrospect.
I touched on the films narrative flaws earlier, but I think it’s important to go more in depth. One of the films most glaring flaws is that of a protagonist. I have heard compelling arguments that the protagonist is Obi-Wan. His actions often directly relate to the films general plot, and he is given a clear emotional arc. However, I don’t think we can ignore that it feels as if the film is convinced that Anakin is our protagonist, and if he is, then the film is structurally flawed in a huge way, in that Anakin is unrelated and irrelevant to story at hand. It feels as if the film is tricking us into thinking he’s important by using our knowledge of who he is against us. We buy that he is a central character, because we know he becomes one. However, if removed from the equation, the film doesn’t change in any meaningful way, or at least that can’t be fixed with a few tweaks. And regardless of whether you believe the protagonist of the film is Anakin or Obi-Wan, the triumph of the films plot, the victory over the Trade Federation, is completely emotionally disconnected from either character. Neither had any tangible stakes in the films plot. We celebrate at the end because the film tells us to, not because it means anything important for our chief characters.
So, after weighing the pros and cons of this film, I don’t find enough value to rank it above any other entry in the series. It has a lot of heart, but fails on nearly every technical aspect of filmmaking. Even still, I will argue with those who claim it is better to be skipped entirely. There’s enough good here to warrant including it in a marathon.
This concludes the first entry of this series. I won’t tell you that Attack of the Clones is number seven yet. You’ll have to wait to find that out.