Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – Review

One of the things that I like to do over Yule is watch films. I find it’s essential for making it seem like Yule. And I don’t watch films in the way that I usually do either – usually I do something else at the same time while watching a film, but over Yule I like to sit and watch films, and focus on them completely. That’s a much more relaxing way to watch a film, and relaxation is an essential part of Yule.

This year I decided that I would rewatch the six Star Wars films over Yule. I’ve been rewatching one a day – I’m now half-way through. This is actually the first time that I’ve gone back and rewatched the Star Wars films since the Disney films came out.

The three Disney films that were meant to follow on from Return of the Jedi – The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker – were shit. The Last Jedi is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and The Rise of Skywalker was about as bad. Before watching The Last Jedi, I didn’t realise that it was even possible for one film to destroy an entire series of films, but that’s what it did. (Incidentally, since that film came out, we’ve seen this sort of thing happen (at least) two more times with other sci. fi. and fantasy titans – Game of Thrones was completely annihilated by its final series (no-one talks about Game of Thrones anymore – that’s the extent to which that franchise was destroyed), and the most recent series of Doctor Who tried to retcon its entire history.) After seeing The Last Jedi, my interest in Star Wars completely dissipated. I only went to see The Rise of Skywalker out of a sense of morbid fascination – I wanted to watch the franchise completely collapse as a result of the stupid decisions that had been made. I did not see the Han Solo film; I have not watched any of The Mandalorian. The only thing that could bring my back to the franchise is if Disney were to officially announce that their sequel films are not canon, and will have no bearing on things they make in future.

However, now that there is some distance between the Disney films and the six Star Wars films, I find I can go back and watch them, and still enjoy them.

This time, I have started with Episode I. There is much debate as to the best order to watch the films in – I tend to vary it, sometimes starting with I, sometimes starting with IV. This time I have started with the prequels.

Now, there are some people who absolutely despise the prequel trilogy. I myself have always liked them. I am aware of their many flaws, of course – I do not pretend that they are perfect – but they do have many good aspects to them. For the entire time that I’ve heard people complain about the prequel films, however, I have found their complaints to be disproportionate. They seem to focus on aspects of the film that are highly inconsequential, and take up only a few seconds of screen-time – like the odd bad line. And this focus seems to be at the expense of the many excellent aspects of these films.

Coming back to these films after having now seen the Disney films, I am now struck even more how out-of-proportion some of the complaints about the prequel films are. Many of the people who abhor the prequels adore the Disney films – the number of people who I see claiming that The Last Jedi is a perfect film – not just good, but perfect – is astonishing.

So, I’ve decided that as I rewatch each of the Star Wars films, I’m going to write reviews of them. I don’t intend for these reviews to be exhaustive – I’m not going to go through every aspect of each film and analyse it. The aim is just to point out the main flaws in each film, and just how many good things each film has in it.

So, Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way.

One of the problems with this film is that many of the scenes are ‘incomplete’. Actually a better way of describing this is that in many parts of the film (many, but not all), there simply are no ‘scenes’. Many times the film cuts to one set of characters, in one location, who will say only one or two lines, and then it cuts to a different set of characters, in a different location, who will again only say one or two lines, and then it will cut again. There is no ‘scene’ – it’s just clips. It’s enough to understand the events of the story, but no more. This makes the film seem more like a synopsis than a story – just a list of things that happen and in what order. This is a problem that all three prequels have, and is probably a result of George Lucas focusing a little too much on the overall plan for the prequels. (That focus has paid off in other aspects of the films, however – the overall structure of the prequels (as a set of three films) is excellent.)

A related problem to this is that there are many missing reaction shots. It is often said that all good acting is reacting. One reaction we don’t get is Anakin’s reaction to learning that Qui-gon Jinn has died. This, I would think, is quite an important reaction. Qui-gon is the first Jedi that Anakin met, and the person who got him freed from slavery. Anakin expected Qui-gon to be his teacher, and Qui-gon would probably have been a better teacher for Anakin than Obi-wan. Anakin found Obi-wan frustrating – he thought he was overly critical and didn’t listen to his ideas. Qui-gon’s more laid-back style of instruction would probably have complemented Anakin’s over-confidence well. (Indeed, one could argue that Qui-gon was meant to find and teach Anakin, and if he had, Anakin might not have fallen to the dark side – making Qui-gon’s death a crucial moment in the series.) However, as an author, I have the luxury of being able to put whatever I want in my stories. Qui-gon’s death is quite late in the film, putting Anakin’s reaction in there might have made the pacing of the ending of the film a bit odd, which is why we only get Obi-wan’s reaction, which does not require a separate scene.

Another problem that Episode I has is that it doesn’t really have a main character. Many people might say that Anakin is the main character, but Anakin doesn’t appear for quite a while in the film – not until they go to Tatooine. Also, Anakin is only tangentially involved in the ending of the film. He does blow up the droid command ship, but he does this by accident – it’s not something he intends to do, and it is not a particularly important moment for Anakin. Qui-gon and Obi-wan are main characters, but neither is the main character. The same is true for Padmé. This is unlike the original trilogy, where even though Leia, Han, Obi-wan, Yoda, et alii, are all main characters, Luke is the main character.

Related to this is that we don’t really get a strong sense of what the characters personally want. We know that Qui-gon and Obi-wan are trying to fight back against the Trade Federation, but they are doing this because they have been told to by the Jedi Council, not because they personally want to. (That’s not to say that they don’t want to do it – it’s just that their main reason for doing it is shown to be because they are told to by the Council, rather than personal motivation.) This is one of the difficulties in writing about Jedi – especially ones that are part of a Jedi Order at its height. Jedi are supposed to be detached. They are not supposed to fiercely want to fight – they are not supposed to fear losing the fight. Their personal motivation isn’t supposed to come into it.

However, this problem of not having a clear sense of what characters want extends beyond Qui-gon and Obi-wan. It’s true of Padmé too. We know that she does want to fight back against the Trade Federation, but this comes across in the film as not much more than the duty of the monarch. We needed a stronger sense earlier on in the film that the Trade Federation is a great threat to Naboo, and that Padmé knows this, and resolves to fight back against it. (A lot of this stuff is just covered by throw-away dialogue in the film – it needs to be more than that.)

And it’s also true of Anakin. Anakin almost has the opposite problem, in that he wants too many things. He wants to do pod-racing, and he wants to win in the pod-race that Qui-gon enters him for in particular. He wants to travel the galaxy; he wants to become a Jedi; he wants to free the slaves. The focus for this film should have been on getting off Tatooine, and becoming a Jedi so that he can free his mother. That needed to be established earlier and more strongly, and then we would have understood why Anakin was doing anything he was doing.

So there are flaws with the film. The ones I’ve mentioned are not structural in the sense of the events that happen, but they are structural in the sense of what we know of the characters, when we know it, and whether it affects the subsequent events of the story.

One of the things that people often complain about with this film is the dialogue. A lot of people complain that the dialogue is wooden. They often focus on Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin, and complain that many of his lines weren’t delivered well. Personally, when it comes to very young actors, I always give them a pass. Jake Lloyd was about 9 or 10 years old when he played Anakin – it’s extremely unusual to find people of that age who are great at acting. (I’ve only ever seen one, and that’s Iain Armitage, who plays Sheldon Cooper in Young Sheldon – and he is such a good actor at such a young age that it’s actually quite unnerving.) As a society we should generally expect that if we put nine-year-olds in films, that there is a limit to what they’re going to be able to do, and that’s fine.

I will also say, though, that many of the odd lines that Anakin says in this film are due, I think, to the writing and the direction. For some of Anakin’s odd lines, it’s very obvious that what was written in the script was odd, and that Jake Lloyd was just doing it as written (which is what we should expect from a nine-year-old – I don’t think we expect them to improvise). Twice in the film Anakin says ‘Yipeee!’ – now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever actually say that in real life – people don’t say that in real life. That’s why it comes across as an odd line – it’s very unrealistic. But I suspect that was just what was written in the script, and Jake Lloyd just read it out.

For Anakin’s lines, George Lucas seems to veer between lines that are clichés of what children say, and lines that only older people would say. This is a problem that a lot of writers have – they forget how children talk. So I think some of these odd lines are due to George Lucas not having a strong sense of how people of different ages talk (which is a problem, I think, that film directors tend to have more often than novelists, because film directors tend to think more about camera shots and the composition of scenes, rather than words and styles of language).

Many of Padmé’s lines are often called wooden too. I think this is primarily a direction problem. It’s apparent that, when Padmé is speaking as a queen, Lucas wanted her to come across as forceful and somewhat remote. This works well in some scenes, but not others. I think in some of the scenes, Natalie Portman should have been directed to do the performance more casually. (Indeed, she may have done some takes like this, but these were not the ones that were chosen in the edit.)

More importantly, though, the bad lines in the film are few in number, and take up a very small amount of screen-time – the complaints about them are very disproportionate. Furthermore, while Jake Lloyd does do some lines not so well, he does do plenty of lines very well, and I think this is often overlooked.

Oh – I might as well get the Jar Jar stuff out of the way. A lot of people complain about Jar Jar – I have never understood this. I find Jar Jar a completely ignorable character – my focus is never on Jar Jar when I watch this film.

Something else people complain about is the pod-racing. A lot of people seem to just wish it weren’t in the film. The existence of pod-racing is, I think, very good world-building. We were introduced to speeders in the originals – speeders, of course, have some kind of anti-gravity mechanism in them, as they float off the ground. (Anti-gravity technology must be very cheap in the Star Wars universe.) Pod-racing is just what you get in answer to the question ‘What if we add some jet engines to a speeder?’. You would end up with something that could move extremely fast, because only air resistance is slowing it down, and that would naturally become a sport. This is good world-building – figuring out what the consequences of different kinds of technology are. If both anti-gravity speeders and jet engines exist in a universe, then pod-racing exists in that universe. And besides, is pod-racing really worse than all that stuff on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi? Absolutely not.

That’s some of the bad stuff; now for some of the good stuff. On the subject of world-building, this film is a masterpiece of world-building. There is more great world-building in the first ten minutes of this film than in everything produced by Disney since they bought the franchise.

We get several new species: the Neimoidians (the species that seem to run the Trade Federation), the Gungans, the Dug (Sebulba’s species), the Toydarians (Watto’s species), the Cereans (Ki-Adi-Mundi’s species), the Zabrak (Darth Maul’s species), and what seems like hundreds more. And what’s more, characters of these species aren’t just standing in the background, as is often the case in the Disney films – the characters of these species in the prequel films actually have lines.

The Gungans get even more world-building. The Gungan cities are completely unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before, with a unique and distinctive style of architecture. The Gungans also have a distinctive military, and technology which is unlike what other species and factions in Star Wars use.

The planet of Naboo gets a lot of world-building overall. The fact that the planet has no solid core, and is just water all the way down, is something we’ve not seen before in this series. The Nabooians also have a distinctive culture and their cities have a distinctive architecture.

In fact many planets get a lot of world-building in this film. Tatooine becomes more than just a moisture farm and Mos Eisley, with Mos Espa and its grand pod-racing arena. We get the entire planet of Coruscant – a planet that’s one giant city – Coruscant alone is more than we got from all of the Disney films. Coruscant has the senate building and the Jedi Temple, both of which have unique designs. In the Disney films, the most we see of anything like Coruscant is a few seconds of Hosnian Prime before it’s blown up.

We get new, and distinctive, ship designs, with the Nubian starships and Trade Federation’s control ships – both unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Star Wars. We even got new droid aesthetics – most of the droids in this film, and all of the adjacent technology that they use, are completely different to what we saw in the originals. The battle droids have a design that shows they were intended for mass production – they appear to be made of something like plastic – something that is cheap – because all these droids have to do is carry a weapon. They don’t have to last; they don’t have to endure; they just have to fight, and then be disposed of.

And the Jedi themselves have had a lot of development. We get a Jedi Order at its height, with Yoda as grandmaster of the Jedi Council. We get Mace Windu – a fan favourite. We get the very concept of padawans. We get the Jedi clothing and customs.

Some people don’t think that world-building is important, but it’s incredibly important. A rich, highly-developed, convincing world is essential for something to be immersive. When I watch a film, I want to be transported to another world, and I want to be convinced that it could be real. World-building is essential for that. The real world is complex and detailed. For a fictional world to be believable, it must be complex and detailed too.

But if you wanted a more simplistic argument for the importance of world-building, notice that it is the stories and franchises with the best world-building that have the strongest fanbases. Notice how there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to the worlds of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek. These channels don’t just focus on the characters – they are able to make entire videos about seemingly minor aspects of these worlds, and people are interested in them. World-building matters.

We get some fantastic music in this film – most notably Duel of the Fates. Duel of the Fates alone makes the prequels far better than the Disney films. We also get some great actors in this film, and some excellent performances. Liam Neeson is outstanding as Qui-gon Jinn; Ewan McGregor is fantastic as Obi-wan Kenobi (though he doesn’t get too much to do); Samuel L. Jackson is outstanding as Mace Windu (although he didn’t get much to do either); Ray Park was brilliant as Darth Maul; and of course, Ian McDiarmid was sublime as Palpatine. There are even some minor characters who I think were done very well. Brian Blessed is perfect as Boss Nass, and I think Pernilla August plays Shmi Skywalker very well.

This film also sets up the trilogy, and the hexalogy, very well. Anakin is shown to be headstrong, and over-confident. He believes he can win the pod-race, despite never completing a race before. He deliberately stays in the Naboo starfighter, knowing that he can join in the fight while also technically following Qui-gon’s instructions. He also has a determination to change the world around him – he talks about dreaming of freeing the slaves – he wants to change the way the world works. And he also has a strong attachment to his mother. These traits all lead to his downfall.

This film also sets up Anakin’s interaction with the Jedi Order. When he first meets the Council to be tested, he finds them hostile, and he finds their questions to be irrelevant. Later, he is told by the Council that he will not be trained as a Jedi. This immediately sets up the Council as being an obstacle to Anakin – something that connects to Episode III, where he believes that the Council does not trust him, and wants to hold him back. He sees the Council as something that will prevent him from doing what he wants to do.

As I’ve said, this episode also shows how it might have been better if Qui-gon had been Anakin’s mentor. Obi-wan only just becomes a Jedi Knight at the end of the film, and as Qui-gon says, Obi-wan still has much to learn of the living force, and it’s Qui-gon’s understanding of the living force that gives him his laid-back way of doing things, which is probably what Anakin needed in a mentor. So this film sets up very well this idea of how even though Anakin was the chosen one, who would destroy the Sith, if the Jedi didn’t do it right – if they didn’t have the right person training him – then Anakin might not destroy the Sith in the way they expected. This is why Yoda says that Anakin’s future is clouded – it’s clouded partly because it’s dependent on whether Qui-gon lives or dies.

So those are some thoughts on this film. It has its problems, but it has an extraordinary number of great aspects to it – far more than all of the Disney films combined. As I said, this review isn’t exhaustive – there are many things that I’ve left out (which I might return to later). I think that all of the prequels might actually have been better as a television series, rather than films. There are many reactions and scenes that it would have been good to see in the films, and if all of them had been put it, they would probably have been too long as films. I’m not keen on the big time jump between episodes I and II, but that was necessary to fit everything into three films. But on the other hand, the idea of long-form television series’ with film-quality effects is something that didn’t really exist in the late 1990s and early 2000s – that’s a trend that’s appeared later as special effects have become easier and cheaper to do. It’s only nowadays that the boundary between film and television has ceased to exist. So I think these stories would only ever have been films.

Hyphens – the greatest punctuation mark ever

I have a number of idiosyncrasies in the way that I write: I like putting brackets within brackets – sometimes three or four levels deep; I put spaces around ellipses and forward slashes (if I even use a forward slash at all – I prefer not to – I think it looks inelegant as a symbol for ‘or’); and when I write dates I only use numerals for the year – the rest I write in full words.

But probably the most prominent of my idiosyncrasies is the way I use hyphens. In fact I’ve already done it several times in this post. I use hyphens where others might use commas or semicolons to mark a separate, but related, idea to the main sentence.

I think of it as a self-interruption – I’m interrupting my own comment. I did it just then. Some people would say that I should be using a semicolon there. However, I do use semicolons as well as hyphens, but I use them for different expressions. I use a semicolon when the second idea that I’m introducing is not intended to seem like an interjection to the first – I’m not trying to adjust what I previously said – I’m just trying to add to it. I use a hyphen when I’m trying to mimic in writing an expression I use in speech. So for example, I would use a semicolon in:

‘Ben was very tall; he was the tallest in his class.’

But I’d use a hyphen in:

‘Ben was very tall – the tallest in his class, in fact.’

The second of these examples makes it seem more like the second idea is an adjustment to the first. I find it reads more like a natural conversation. The first reads slower.

Similarly, some people would say that I should be using commas where sometimes I use hyphens. But again, I use hyphens for the sense of self-interruption. So for example, I would write:

‘Ben was the tallest in his class – which was odd, because he was about average height compared to the general population.’

If the first hyphen here were a comma, it would make the second part of the sentence seem like the main idea of the sentence. The hyphen makes the second idea seem more like a tangent – an interrupting thought that is not the main point.

I call this an idiosyncrasy, but of course lots of people use hyphens in this way – I think more and more people are – I’m sure this was less common ten years ago. Nevertheless it’s still thought of by many as being grammatically incorrect. I think even if at one point it was ‘officially’ grammatically incorrect, the hyphen is so useful and versatile when used in this way that we should use it, and change the ‘official’ rules of grammar to allow for it.