Roadkill Revisited: Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace

This time on 'Roadkill Revisited', I took aim at a franchise that has both suffered and prospered since its inception all the way back in the summer of 1977. Created by George Lucas at a time when science fiction and thoughts of the future were mere dreams, he took us back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far way, and ushered in one of the most influential film sagas of our time. Elevating the sci-fi and fantasy genre into a new age, Lucas was on track towards greatness. But with all journeys towards greatness, there comes a few missteps. Opting to direct a bout of prequels to his coveted Star Wars trilogy, fans were greeted to a new -- and ultimately underwhelming -- layer to the universe Lucas created, beginning when 1999's The Phantom Menace released into theaters. Crippled by its slim character development and overbearing political focus, the first in George Lucas' prequel trilogy was shot down immensely as it failed to capture the essence of the original films. Now, as I look back at the film, I see that even as a major fan of the franchise and the prequels as their own entities, this film still doesn't rank high in the space saga. 

As far back as I can remember, this was most definitely my first exposure to the Star Wars franchise. Releasing just one year after I was born, it was only a matter of time before the space-age franchise popped up on my radar. Quickly becoming entranced in the magic of the prequels as a young child, I had the slightest clue that there was a whole other epic trilogy just sitting there waiting to be uncovered. But, before I ever got to A New Hope or Empire, I had The Phantom Menace. Of course, while I loved this film as a child -- and greatly enjoyed once more it when it was released again in 3D a few years back -- today all I see in this film is a beautiful mess wrapped up in the glamour of a nearly 40-year-old franchise. While there are a number of redeeming elements, there's no doubt that the prequels began on a rough note as Lucas struggled to introduce us to a whole new side of the galaxy. So how does this film hold up today, especially as further sequels and prequels aim to hit theaters? Let's find out.

The Good: Birthed from the mind of the man behind the epic space opera that is Star Wars, the first in the flawed yet enjoyable prequel trilogy had the potential to introduce a whole new layer to the galaxy far, far away. While its writing and premise falls under some mix-matched performances by its cast of child slaves and CGI aliens, one of the biggest things going for this film had to be its ability to draw in fans of the original trilogy. While many didn't expect the franchise to go anywhere after 1983's Return of the Jedi, George Lucas had a vision to continue the series the only way (at the time) that seemed practical. Calling fans back into the saga of lightsaber battles and Force-wielding warriors, The Phantom Menace presented a glimmer of hope as to where Star Wars could go after a trio of memorable epics. Despite the fact that today the film is deemed one of the worst in the series, back in 1999 when this film was released, it must have been a glorious moment for true fans seeking more.

Aside from its obvious acclaim as the coveted return to the galaxy far, far away, The Phantom Menace also managed to deliver a stunning visual palette when it came to bringing its refreshed planetary realm to life. While the film -- and its subsequent sequels -- are still heavily criticized for their major use of computer animation rather than practical effects like the OT (original trilogy), I have to admit that even in 1999, the visual effects of the film are something to praise. Yes, while they did create manifestations like Ahmed Best's Jar Jar Binks and other forgettable elements of the franchise, the special effects also worked to amplify the saga out of just relying on props and models to bring magic to the screen. While today the CGI of the film may appear quite dated -- especially as techniques like motion-capture and green screen have been massively perfected and have become common now in cinema -- for its time it was something monumental to see as a kid in the movie theater.

Even with Jake Lloyd's acting, the Podrace scene is still
pretty damn exciting and visually-pleasing to watch today
While the film's story and writing have become noticeably tedious over the years, trying to sell us the history of the Jedi while also giving us an origin story to Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker) along with a dreary political guide to the galaxy, another mostly redeeming element to the film was its cast. Now before you start a flame war over how Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd's Anakin are the worst atrocities in cinema, I'll start off with a badass fellow by the name of Bryan Mills...err, I mean Liam Neeson. Tasked with tracking down a child who was taken from -- crap, I'm thinking of something else. Taking lead of the starship in this murky space flick, Neeson's wise and resourceful Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn delivers probably one of the best performances in the film. Neeson already being a pretty well-verse actor in comparison to Lloyd or even Samuel L. Jackson, having him in this film managed to save the numerous scenes where the performances fell below satisfaction. As for Jinn's loyal apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Ewan McGregor), he offered another favorable performance, making up for the missteps in the cast. 

The Bad: Muddled by a overly-political story, smudged together with plot surrounding a young slave who dreams of leaving his dreary world behind, the flow of the plot in The Phantom Menace was ultimately one of its major downfalls. While the story did kick off exploring the exploits of Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan as they infiltrate the vile Trade Federation's central hub in order to negotiate the end of blockades surrounding the planet -- wait, that already sounds too complex for any child to understand. But if this movie's not for kids, then why is Jar Jar even here? That aside, while the film did go off on numerous intriguing tangents exploring the likes of the origins of the Jedi and how the villainous Sith have finally come out of hiding, The Phantom Menace ultimately tried too hard to give a compelling story that flowed well with its confusing tale of trade disputes and lackluster legislation. With the film mostly being geared more towards kids of the late '90s, its overwhelming political focus and social undertones are still hard to follow even as an adult.

Yeah, I don't understand interplanetary trade disputes either...
With its writing and characterization drawing on the border of the mundane and often moronic, one of the things that really annoyed me about this film was its messy way of storytelling. Tossing in comic reliefs and other predicaments at the flick of a wrist, the film was ultimately just a distorted mess trying to breath new life into a franchise that was never about politics or even aliens. Putting too much effort into selling us a politically-fueled premise conjoined with a few Jedi, an duck-faced numb-skull, a monotonous princess, and a giddy slave trying to earn money to get off a dustbowl of a planet, while The Phantom Menace did flourish in offering fans a colorful new palette of the galaxy, its premise was an odd and unforgiving mix of both juvenile antics and dismal outcomes.    

The Verdict: Sustained by a handful of effective performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, Ian McDiarmid, and Ray Park as the silent-but-deadly Darth Maul, as well as a phenomenal score by composer John Williams, I could never call The Phantom Menace an immensely horrible film by any means. A major fan of the Star Wars franchise, seeing this film as a child effectively introduced me not to the space epic series those many years ago, but also the true magic of what musical scores and computer animation can bring to the silver screen. Yes, while the first misstep in George Lucas' underwhelming prequel trilogy was never going to be the best in the franchise, it did offer an enjoyable sci-fi film that still stands above a number of lackluster space-age projects out there. While Jar Jar Binks may haunt the prequel films forever, The Phantom Menace gave rise to one of my favorite trilogies as a kid, delivering a semi-compelling origin of Darth Vader and bringing space-age action and thrills to young fans everywhere.

Messa did sayin 'young' fans, didn't messa?
What are your thoughts on Episode I - The Phantom Menace? What's your favorite entry in George Lucas' prequel trilogy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and stay tuned soon for another 'Roadkill Revisited'!        

Popular Posts