Sometimes perverse curiosity gets the better of me. Sometimes I revisit movies like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. A long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), it was the most-anticipated movie of 1999. But the intervening decade has turned it into a feature-length joke, a dartboard for cracks about podracing and midi-chlorians. So I was curious if it lived up to its negative reputation. Short answer? Yeah, pretty much. Long answer?
Let’s start with the writing. Episode I’s most fundamental flaw is tangled up with its role in the Star Wars franchise: whereas the original trilogy was all about telling an old-fashioned adventure story, the prequels are all about expanding the series. In Episode I, any detail added to the Star Wars universe is treated as inherently good, even if it impedes the storytelling. Thus, the film’s opening crawl begins with these words, ushering us into a bold new era:
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
(Oh, no! Not the taxation of trade routes! But how will the economically marginalized denizens of Outer Rim planets transport their goods now?)
Yes, gone is the original trilogy’s quotable pulp poetry. Instead, we have reams of clunky exposition. Even top-drawer actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are hobbled by the jargon-strewn dialogue—not to mention their own distracting Jedi hairdos. Supporting characters are reduced to mere mouthpieces, onscreen only to deepen the franchise’s convoluted politics and mythology. While the original trilogy was streamlined and instantly iconic, Episode I putters about in a morass of details and misplaced priorities. Its establishing shots—all those crisp CGI vistas—stirred up pings of recognition in me. (“Ah, the old Star Wars magic…”) But then it’d cut away to actors muttering gravely, and the tedium would set in.
Granted, when Episode I focuses solely on exotic landscapes, it can be kind of engrossing: “Ooh, an underwater abyss. Ooh, a giant coliseum. Ooh, a planet-sized city.” And the film does contain a pair of solid performances: Ian McDiarmid as the Machiavellian Senator Palpatine, and Ray Park as his taciturn protégé Darth Maul. But when it’s bad, it’s very bad indeed. The score sounds like a parody of John Williams bombast, accentuating pretty much everything; the film is infamous for its racial caricatures (e.g., the Neimoidians and their “Me rikey!” accents, or Watto’s obvious Fagin/Shylock lineage); and it’s just littered with botched attempts at humor. Slapstick droids! NASCAR-style color commentary for the podracing! Even a pack animal fart joke.
Of course, I’ve saved the worst for last. Because it’s impossible to overstate how violently Jar Jar Binks derails this movie. If, as a perverse exercise, you tried to create a mood-killing, unlikeable character, you could never improve on Jar Jar. No matter what’s happening in a given scene, he becomes its focal point; everyone else is suddenly the Bud Abbott to his Lou Costello. Somehow, George Lucas must’ve thought he could leaven the film’s solemnity with Jar Jar’s manic bumbling. But wow was he wrong. Jar Jar even gets a failed catchphrase (“How wude!”) that he trots out again and again, as if it’ll become funnier with repetition. (Spoiler: it doesn’t!)
The end result is a tone-deaf movie that, scene after scene, smacks you with its awfulness. Early on, for example, we get a tête-à-tête between Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Anakin’s mother, played by Swedish actress Pernilla August. As they discuss her son’s destiny, you can sense real performances, even real emotion, broiling right beneath the surface. But then all the tragic potential of this mother/son relationship gets squashed beneath the tacky costuming, artless writing, and hydra-headed subplots. Hell, Episode I isn’t just bad. It’s insistently anti-good.