At the end of a heated debate, one of my coworkers admitted that "Episode I is the next step down from Return of the Jedi", and I think that's a pretty good way of summarizing the state of "The Phantom Menace" (although I'd set the figure at 2 or 3 or 4 steps down). One thing I'll say about Star Wars Episode I in its favor is that, for all its faults, I can't exactly say how it could be fixed. There are a number of bad movies about which I feel like saying, "goodness, even I could've fixed that script, it's so obvious to just do X". About this movie, I'm not sure what could fix it to my satisfaction; the project may in fact be fundamentally flawed.
For this discussion, the extra-film elements are not relevant (i.e., media campaign, over-hyping, or merchandising projects being too-transparently developed within the film).
First, I'll start with the things done well that commend the movie:
i. The light-saber battles were fantastic.
Fantastic choreography and stunning sound effects. Really exciting to see Jedi Knights in their prime in a fight. (We'll forgive the fact that they still never outright win a fight, always having to run away at some point...) Probably worth the price of a matinee ticket just to see these scenes.
ii. The pod-racing scene was very exciting.
The sense of speed was quite exciting and well done. The image of a minute, fair-haired Anakin behind the oversized goggles and controls of the monster machine is quite captivating.
And now, here's the list of criticisms:
1. Flat acting.
All the acting in this film was polite, cultured, regal: flat. With the sole exception of the comic relief Jar-Jar (see 4. below) not a single character ever delivered lines while afraid, or vengeful, or heroically, or passionately. Every single protagonist was regal and even-tempered and monotone at all times, and it makes for a very long film.
2. No character chemistry.
Somewhat affiliated with the first point, I couldn't find any chemistry between any of the lead characters at all. In the original Star Wars, we had all kinds of compelling conflicts as the quirky rag-tag band of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, Obi-Wan, the droids, Lando, etc., tried to mesh together. There was always some funny interaction or dangerous moment to be had between any of them (Luke could flip out, Han fly away, Lando betray everyone, the droids make Chewie go berserk, contention to woo Leia, etc.)
But I couldn't find any of that anywhere in this film. Not between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan; they're just playing by the master-student rules. No one ever reacted to Jar-Jar's antics. Mom seemed beatifically resigned to giving up Anakin, without even a peep of protest. Even Amidala and Anakin, who will have to be lovers in the future, didn't seem to connect or mesh in any way; just polite curiosity at best.
I never had the sense that anything revealing or surprising was possible when any of the main characters had dialogue with each other. I suppose this is one of the main critical complaints against "The Phantom Menace".
3. Leaning too much on a 9-year old actor.
The abilities of the young actor playing Anakin Skywalker were not NEARLY up to the task of the dramatic moments that the film gave to him. I never got a sense that he was smart enough to build a droid or a pod racer or what facility allowed him to take to the controls of a spaceship. His reactions in a fight scene were embarrassingly amateurish. There was of course no subtlety that ever suggested that he harbored a potential Darth Vader waiting to get out.
This is one place where I think a fix can be identified, and that would be to simply not give Anakin all these dramatic moments, not have him the proactive prodigy that he attempts to be. Even having him cheerfully run errands in a shop seems overly run-of-the-mill. I think it would have been more interesting and effective to have the young Anakin quietly watching his surroundings, watching the Jedi, silently pondering all the time as he is escorted along this particular journey. The later Darth Vader is a thoughtful, ponderous villain: it would have been sensible to reflect that thoughtfulness in his youth, and thereby lift the burden of dramatic "moments" from a young child-actor.
Clearly giving the 9-year-old Anakin so much screen time is part of the much accelerated juvenilization of the film series (see point below), more blatantly trying to stoop to children's attentions. I strongly feel that it placed unreasonably deep and abstract dramatic demands on a too-young actor.
You can't hear or understand him. He's funny about 10% as often as he tries to be. It's unfair and too-predictable to have all the comic relief coming from one character -- in Star Wars everybody got into the act at some time: C3PO, Han, Leia, Chewie, even the wry Obi-Wan. Jar-Jar's clumsiness disabling his attackers was undramatic (and also predicted ahead of time by one of the friends sitting next to me). 'Nuff said.
Note: the next 2 points address what I call "cannibalizing the previous films".
5. Cannibalizing the material of the previous films.
Tatooine again? Come on, 4 films and 3 of them are half-set on this "backwater planet"? I wanna see some other part of the galaxy, already -- yet I've got a bad feeling that Anakin has to try and rescue his slave mother in the next film, from Tatooine.
C3PO, Jabba the Hutt, Jawas, and Sandpeople in throwaway cameos for no good reason... a little of this goes a long way; why did EVERY race and character have to make an appearance? It got extremely predictable.
Are light-saber battles always held on a series of precarious catwalks (as per all 4 films at this point)? I can even buy a lot of catwalks on half-constructed space stations, but why are they in the palace of the planet Naboo?
The delicate princess leading the way in a blaster fight, outgunning her own security guards -- not surprising the second time around.
6. Predictable plotting (cannibalizing previous plot structure).
The climax comes with a simultaneous: light-saber battle; small-team infiltration; land battle with quasi-primitive protagonists; small spaceship fight around an orbiting satellite. EXACTLY like Return of the Jedi (which itself suffers from a "Death Star... again?" problem). It ends with a formal awards ceremony on a stage before a crowd, EXACTLY like Star Wars, EXACTLY like Return of the Jedi. The cannibalization of previous structure is very nearly unforgivable.
Note: the next 6 points address various severe continuity problems created by "The Phantom Menace". These are partly created by the film cannibalizing previous materials/characters (see the preceding 2 points).
For starters, there is NO reason for C3PO to be in this film (other than some need to have the 2 droids in "all the films"). He serves no purpose here except further distraction as a cheap cameo. His presence creates a few scenes with an overabundance of comic relief: R2 and C3PO standing around commenting on Jar-Jar's antics. What a bore, trying to cram all these characters in. But worse...
C3PO is created by Darth Vader. Why did a 9-year old prodigy create a "protocol" droid in the exact same configuration as the ones we see elsewhere? Why does his slave mother need a translator? Why doesn't Vader recognize him in the later films? Why doesn't C3PO recognize Tatooine, or another blonde Skywalker kid living there, in Star Wars?
In the era of Star Wars, isn't Tatooine a hideous choice as a planet to hide Luke on if Vader himself grew up there? Why doesn't Vader get suspicious of the coincidence at the start of Star Wars when rebels try to escape there?
9. Trying to give the Force a bio-scientific explanation.
Making the "Force" a bacterial agent in your cells that can be measured in a blood test is so non-Star Wars it just boggles the mind. I'm sure fans will be arguing over what the hell this meant for decades to come. Can I be infected with it in a blood transfusion? Can I be genetically altered to foster more of them?
In Star Wars the Force was a mystic, magical energy, and that's a lot more satisfying fantasy than this revision. It was precisely that "magic" counterpoised with futuristic equipment and spaceships which gave Star Wars its mythic fascination; to explain the Force sadly collapses that contrast.
10. Making Darth Vader the product of a virgin birth.
What's the point of this? Most of the audience I was with started laughing when they tried to explain this point. What a needless distraction.
11. An age limit in training young Jedi.
If the Jedi council has a maximum age allowed in training a Jedi, and Anakin at 9 years is too old for it, and they won't relax it even for the greatest Force-wielder ever known, and if when Obi-Wan breaks this rule the result is Darth Vader...
Then why in god's name would Obi-Wan want to try it AGAIN in Star Wars "A New Hope" with an 18-or-something Luke Skywalker?
12. How can Naboo be a democracy, but be led by a queen?
Doesn't Amidala at some point say that she's been "elected" by the people of Naboo? Then in what sense is she a queen?
13. What was the deal with Amidala's "double"?
Was she supposed to be a clone, or just someone who looked similar? Why did she bother having the double address the Gungan boss when she was just going to plead the case herself anyway? Why couldn't the Jedi sense her feelings to tell she who was the real queen? (I kept expecting Qui-Gon to slyly admit that he knew it was her all along. No such luck.) What a confusing, poorly developed plot point.
14. Racist characterizations.
Jar-Jar and the rest of the Gungans' Jamaican rip-off; the trade federations Chinese "green menace" overtones.
Now, I'll admit that this was not something I could have articulated myself during the movie; but I knew that I was deeply embarrassed by Jar-Jar and the Gungan boss blubbering and spitting all the time. More than one person I was with when I saw the film complained about racial stereotyping the first thing out of theatre, and basically no one could disagree. Clearly Jar-Jar's dialect is inspired by Jamaican culture, and the reflection is not flattering -- it speaks for a glaring lapse of creativity on the makers' part in imagining this "alien race" (one friend said he'd prefer it if the language was just subtitled, and I think I agree).
Can you think of another race in the previous Star Wars films that spoke in broken English? I guess Admiral Akbar in "Return of the Jedi", but then that dude (a character I'm fond of) sounded like a FISH. At any rate, most spoke in a clearly alien tongue, and were, as necessary, subtitled.
As a final note (and a single lapse in my "no extra-film elements" ground rules) I'm further bothered by the complicity of the media reports I've seen around this issue, defusing the criticism of racism with questions like "where did this rumor get started?", as though it were spawned from some devious central source. The problem is obvious on the screen, and multiple people I was with arrived at it independently.
15. Inappropriate parodies of real-world characters.
The two-headed "race announcer" who mimicked motorsports commentators; the droid "sergeant" who mimicked a foppish military officer speaking over a radio with his "roger-roger" and all that.
Both these characters were entirely inappropriate for Star Wars; they catapult you crashing out of the fantasy "in a galaxy far, far away" for a cheap laugh at the expense of familiar real-world folk. Never did the original SW films attempt anything so mundane, nor should they.
I'll also say this element is an ironic counterpoint to some of the principals' defenses of racism (see 14.), that the film is "totally fantasy with nothing to do with the real world".
16. The Jedi having to pin their success on an unknown 9-year old child.
Come on, the Jedi are as easily stripped of resources as that? I realize this sets up the tension around the pod race, but it's slowly and clumsily done. It's unconvincing and disappointing to run into a species that just happens to be immune to mind control and just happens to be the only being with the spaceship part they need.
I guess we'll never see the Jedi accomplishing something really intrepid, you know what I mean?
17. Not paying off with the Jedi backstory.
I remember the awe of Yoda revealing himself as a Jedi master, lecturing Luke on the mystic Force, running him through exhausting tests, lifting an X-Wing fighter with mere thought. That was exciting -- and we expect more such revelations with the full Jedi council.
But the Jedi council in this film looked like a bunch of old biddies, basically. They did nothing and revealed nothing. They sat around and asked some questions of Anakin (I expected a far more interesting "test"). They mentioned something about "a child who will balance the Force"... well, what's out of balance? Why is this desirable? Having decided Anakin was too old to train, why just sit there like lumps and do nothing at all about him? What's the motivation for Yoda changing his mind on this issue?
What a letdown. What I wouldn't have given to see why all these people defer to "Master Yoda".
18. Juvenilization of the film.
It's obviously pitched at a lower age level than the previous films. Previously, rebels got shot and died, Stormtroopers got shot and died, Leia and Han were tortured and you heard them scream, Vader's flunkies gasped as he choked them with the Force. In this film, the enemy is never anything but hordes of battledroids who are morally untroubling to hack down by the dozens with light-saber, blaster, and bomb; almost no good guy ever gets hit; the suffering of the people of Naboo is never depicted, but merely some fuzzy far-away thing (apparently just getting pushed down a hallway once in a while from the looks of it). There's almost no willingness to deal with mythic human issues like suffering or fear.
(Even the mortal blows given to Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are not long pictured or endured, as say, Luke's lost hand was.)
19. Why is Darth Maul bad?
As pointed out by a friend who accompanied me to the film, we know he's supposed to be bad, and clearly he fights with the Jedi who we're supposed to root for, but what exactly "bad" things did he do? Nothing like Darth Vader striding over blasted rebels, or torturing the captured heroes, or choking his own underlings to death, or cutting down Obi-Wan as he stands defenseless, or delivering his own son to the corrupting Emperor. Darth Maul did ZERO to make him the "bad guy"... we're just supposed to accept that the structure of the film requires that there be a villain like this.
Heck, I see Maul taking orders from his lord and engaging the Jedi in a straight-up fight at 1:2 odds. In most fantasy, that would qualify him for status as the "honorable warrior".
At any rate, my point is that this film was such a leaden paint-by-numbers effort that no one ever thought to bother with any characterization of the main villain at all. As a friend observed, the conflict in this film is completely murky, if not unidentifiable, and this is the most glaring example.
20. The climactic fight on the space station.
I'll state this last, because it's basically emblematic of a whole set of preceding criticisms coming together in a single horribly awkward confluence. Anakin mistakenly flies into the space battle (uncompelling dramatically). It's exactly like every other Star Wars space fight we've ever seen (cannibalizing previous films). Even though he's never flown any spaceship ever before, we know Anakin can't possibly die because he's alive in the "future" films (fundamental dramatic problem), and we've never seen a hero die in a space battle to boot. He flies into the space station exactly like the Millenium Falcon does in Return of the Jedi -- except by mistake. The young actor's reactions to what's happening (which of course are 100% post-production special effects) are embarrassingly unconvincing. Anakin hits the "power core", detonating the whole station and escaping at the last second -- as always, except that Anakin has done it by accident (much like Jar-Jar's "fights") and never knew where he was going or what he was doing.
Depressingly predictable, anticlimactic, tension-lacking, and poorly acted.
Daniel R. Collins
June 15, 1999 (original)