The 1999 release of The Phantom Menace has got to be one of the weirder events in cinema history. A full two decades after the release of Star Wars, the OG blockbuster franchise returned to expand its universe and tell the story of one of the most iconic villains in all of movies. It was perhaps the most anticipated movie ever at that time. And it failed.
But by just how much?
“Episode I” is now sometimes used synonymously with “bad prequel/sequel.” “Jar Jar Binks” is now code for “annoying side character.” The movie looks as if it was animated by video game developers of the time and has horrendous pacing, but here’s something you don’t see said on the internet all that much these days: It’s not awful.
The Phantom Menace set out to expand the Star Wars universe and man did it do just that. While the original trilogy didn’t focus much at all on background and world building (it basically said “here’s bad guy nation, here’s good guy rebels”) Episode I successfully creates a vast Star Wars political lore that lays the groundwork for the rest of the expanded universe that we see in novels, video games, and television today.
And people rail Episode I for doing just that. Ever hear someone bring up the “boring trade route discussions” or say something along the lines of “why did they start the movie with a conversation? The first one started with a big action scene!”
I’d argue that Episode I is trying to do something completely different than IV. IV is a pretty familiar Hero’s Journey type tale told exceptionally well. Episode I isn’t doing that. (Its “hero” is actually destined to be the villain, after all.) Instead, it’s an exercise in worldbuilding. I mean, you wouldn’t say Game of Thrones should cut all its intrigue and get to the head chopping would you?
Granted, Game of Thrones is orders of magnitude better made than The Phantom Menace… defending this thing can get tricky…
Another common criticism I hear of the movie is “why did they put all that boring political stuff into a kids movie?”
Of course Lucas would have wanted kids to see the movie and enjoy it, hence Jar Jar’s inclusion. But anyone that thinks that a prequel to a movie released twenty years ago is going to be targeting specifically kids is, well, kidding themselves. The movie was for Star Wars fans. And that makes the decision to expand the lore make perfect sense. Execution is another thing entirely, but the inclusion of it at all is so often ridiculed. That doesn’t make sense. I mean, if you don’t want to expand the lore and political intrigue is too highbrow for Star Wars I guess they should’ve just done the exact same thing but with different characters…
As a kid, I was really interested in the Separatist movement and the political intrigue surrounding the Republic’s final days. My favorite subject was history, I was already into the idea of blockades and coups and separatist factions. It wasn’t highbrow stuff.
In fact, the reason why the movie failed was that it was too simple in its approach. The motivations and plans of Dooku and the rest of the separatists are not adequately explained. The plot holes and logical jumps add up in a huge way. The CGI aliens they created just didn’t have the charm of the puppet and animatronic aliens of the original trilogy. So yeah, the Gungans might have been a cool idea. But when they look the way they did you can’t take them seriously.
If Episode I: The Phantom Menace was a cookie, it would probably be an Oatmeal cookie. I’ll just flat out admit that it’s not a good movie, despite liking a lot of the things in it. But, like an oatmeal cookie, it’s like its trying to do two different things. An Oatmeal cookie is trying to be both a healthy snack and dessert, and ends up being not very tasty and only sorta healthy. Episode I wants to both be this big universe expander and a dark character study of Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side. It can not balance these two things and would have better off going all in on one or the other. And while the result isn’t great, it’s not unacceptable. There are redeeming qualities to it.
Instead of hating Episode I, I invite you to throw Attack of the Clones under the bus. And then back up and run over it again. And then do some sick wheelies and tailspins over its crushed body to make sure it’s not just dead but disintegrated. Attack of the Clones is where the prequels get truly awful, with its horrendous acting, dialogue, pacing…
You know what, let’s save that for another post, shall we?