Recent online and Youtube debates have sprung up during Quarantine regarding comparing the different Star Wars trilogies. The Prequel Trilogy was beat up by fans and critics when the films were released, but views seem to have softened.
While imperfect and a perplexing three trips to the theater due to Stars Stockholm Syndrome- its probably better as a rewatch at home. It fairly re-watchable.
The truth is now there really are three far worse Star Wars Chapter movies and one terrible origin movie out there. Only Rogue One has managed to work for Disney. Everything else we’ve gotten has been really bad.
While the Sequel Trilogy seems to draw universal condemnation; the Prequels are being reexamined.
Recently the EFAP youtube broadcast, (link at end of post) featured a sometimes heated debate about whether or not The Phantom Menace is well written.
To be fair with the pandemic and other bad stuff choking off content, people are rightfully bored and we have time for it. I’m reacting to their specific question “Is the Phantom Menace Well Written?” I now feel like it’s a little harder to answer than you think.
While a little acrimonious and no Rise of Skywalker Order 66 episode, it was still an amazing Star Wars discussion.
EFAP , Disney, The Real World and Me
The EFAP podcast on youtube is often brilliant. Listen to it. The Star Wars and film making discussions are probably PhD level. These guys know their stuff. They also really abide by not speaking about politics or their political takes to the point it took dozens of hours for me to decide “maybe in their countries their pretty centrist” because aside from Rags no ones American.
I buy in to much of what you hear on EFAP. Their views on how Disney has just botched all three of these movies they spent so much money on hold a lot of water.
The Prequels fortunately only focus on In-Universe Political Messages. Freedom must be protected.
I share these guts feelings on Star Wars and that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I don’t know what else they believe. It kind of doesn’t matter to me either. They aren’t monsters or jerks like Disney would have you believe though. They’re funny and they know this stuff better than JJ Abrams.
As far as Star Wars goes I’m about 80% in agreement with EFAP personalities Mauler, The Critical Drinker, Shad and Rags.
Do the EFAP guys go hard after Disney? You don’t pick up a label like ‘The Fandom Menace’ for being soft. But hey these Disney Star Wars movies have pushed hard to be talked about. It’s the one thing they did well. They uncorked four stinkers and this is what happens. Try making better movies, Disney!
Lastly, on politics in Sci-Fi but this is huge; it’s emerging more and more that while geopolitical points or just the need to be on guard against oppression and protecting freedom work, anything more personal than that just doesn’t. Or at least has yet to be done well by anyone credible.
There; I’m done with the disabusing of my ignorance. I’m not planning to revisit it. Time to dissect Star Wars a bit.
Rules of Assessment
EFAP has a great policy regarding how to assess the movies and Im going to adopt them. The big rule here is that the novels, video games and comic books don’t count. The movie has to work “out of the box” so to speak. Also, writing the movie for the writers is unacceptable, they’re the artists we’re viewers. The answers need to be on the screen. This really does put the movie in perspective for me. I was tired of people using novels, comics and video games to excuse stuff anyway. At some point it becomes expensive, un-fun Star Wars homework.
I willingly take on the mantle of Novice Objective Movie Critic. Thanks EFAP.
A Very Mixed Bag
Is this movie Well Written? It’s pretty Bi-Polar and seems to lack key information. Perhaps the opening crawl could have had more information? Or some throw away lines to illustrate the blockades origins and whatever sparked such a radical move?
At times the movies plain boring and depends on big budget CGI sets. For instance, a lot of the CGI has held up in the ho-hum senate sequences and helps getting through a Galactic Senate debate on Intergalactic Politics. Its possible Lucas miscalculated the impact of the kind of high quality CGI spectacle he provided. We’d never seen anything quite like it before. It did look cool on the screen, its also sometimes pretty dull. The best thing I can say about this is that the senate had to be i the movie for it to make sense and sets up some cool sentate scenes in Revenge of the Sith. This was heavy lifting but it was also probably necessary. The fact its slow, defective and dysfunctional is key to all three movies. Doesn’t help this movie til you re-watch.
There’s so much to be said about whats bad about this movie. There’s a few really bad characters like Jar Jar Binks. Notable for being the first ever all CGI character and not much else, Jar Jar is the Rose Tico of the PT, fading into the background in subsequent films.
This movie Jar Jar’s front and center and he’s a mess. Some found him offensive he may have been meant for much younger kids. He seems real enough and present though, more real than Leia in Rise of Skywalker.
We have some really terrible dialogue pretty much all over the place. George Lucas is directing and he seemingly never gets your best performance. He doesn’t care, he’s going for your best Star Wars Performance. I’m thinking he doesn’t give you a lot of Direction.
The Galactic Republic political system is logical enough, it’s pretty effectively shown to be nearly completely broken and approaching uselessness.. And that’s advancing the story but it’s just not a lot of fun to watch.
If you wanted to see some exposition on the Republic’s size and unwieldy nature you do get that though. It’s pretty well told in words and images in the debut of the Senate Chamber. For the most part though, it’s C-Span in Space.
Still, Lucas has a complete vision and says everything he wants to say. The problem is that in accomplishing that he didn’t really entertain. A Pyrrhic Victory.
So its a Mixed Bag of mostly bad. Maybe the musical score is the best part. John Williams does well. Duel of the Fates is absolutely great. Starting to count positives with the musical score says a lot though. Not much else gets to be called Great. Costumes maybe?
The plot in and of itself, is actually NOT terrible. Its sort of good. Lucas had pondered the three movie arc a long time. A lot of stuff is also mandated and locked in by OT dialogue.
The fact its a bad movie yet still was somewhat well conceived complicates assessing it.
Then there’s some things that are just hard to justify.
Objective Problems, Lucas Style
Why is there a blockade?
It does seem nebulous but just requires closely watching a slow movie. It’s plainly said. It’s money.
In the senate chamber Senator Palpatine says the dispute started over the Taxation of Trade Routes. So that’s that. The disputes over money and trade. That’s all we get. It’s easy to find. It’s just blurted right out, Amidala asks for a Vote of No Confidence right after at Palpatine’s suggestion. The “Badly Written Faction” was dead wrong on this.
How are they tracked?
One thing that was discussed on EFAP is “Just how does Darth Sidious trace the Queens transmission and find her and the Jedi on Tatooine?” Watching with subtitles actually answers this. It’s also pretty amazing to read the babble that Jar Jar actually says.
As far as how the Sith track them; its in the movie. In one brief exchange – They exposed themselves to being traced by even accepting the message. It’s not great but it’s said.
After Obi-wan tells them not to reply we get Sidious and Maul. They say theres a “contact trace.” I don’t think this new concept ever comes back again. It’s a contrivance to be sure, but I don’t find it that horrible. It’s done sort of bad but the answer is in there. This problem definitely took some to effort to even find. That to me makes it a bit more minor.
How Do They Get To Tatooine?
How do they get from Naboo to Tatooine if the Hyperdrive is leaking? This never really gets explained. This issue is legitimate as far as an objective flaw. How did EFAP miss it? The “Badly Written Faction” was right on this.
However the characters do not say the Hyperdrive doesn’t work at all. We don’t see them initiate hyperspace or drop out though. An Undocumented mini-jump seems to have been left out.
It’s probably a real mistake. This leaves merely the implication only that they can still move in an interstellar manner pretty quick without hyperspace because, hey- they get there. Not well done though. Sorry, George.
How they get to Tatooine is not spelled out. It is bad writing here. This one also just slipped by even the objective obsessed EFAP guys. It really was an objective problem.
The Separatist Blockade simply mentions to Sidious a Naboo cruiser ran the blockade and has passed out of their range. Nothing more. Nothing about having even a general idea where they went. It’s treated no different than if they did go to Hyperspace and couldn’t be tracked (ah, the good old days). That’s another reason that I think Lucas either forgot to write or cut a scene and just forgot to fix this error.
I guess it is sloppy. I can’t make it work either. Somehow its lost in other issues and doesn’t hurt the movie for me. Maybe Lucas is good at damage control and is better at everything at the end of the production then he was the beginning? Because its easy to miss and a little hard to find. Maybe he smoothed it out in editing. There’s no real way to know.
It’s cheaper and actually smarter to do what Watto says and buy a new ship.
They’re on what amounts to Air Force One and everyone is looking for it. The fact the ship itself is valuable is validated when Watto bets on it. I buy this as an objective problem. Lucas makes a mistake here too. Watto should never have said they would be better off buying another ship and created this issue. It’s a real mistake. The characters opt for the harder, dumber path.
Why are Republic Credits worthless and not exchangeable?
Republic Credits being worthless and not exchangeable anywhere on Tatooine was also a little weird and really doesn’t make sense. It’s a criminal planet, there’s no money launderer? Not movie killing, but a head-scratcher and just one more problem.
Why Leave Anakin’s Mother in Slavery?
That fact the Jedi leave Anakin’s mother in slavery when she’s spontaneously generating super powerful force users is a weird choice. The characters fate could have still been the same in the end without leaving her to Watto. This one is the worst loose end of all. What was Mace Windu thinking on this one? I still can’t get past this.
Lucas is inspired to a point but he’s never really right on in this movie writing or directing. It’s just too ambitious in a lot of areas. Like it’s overuse of 20th Century CGI.
Questionable Choices and Affluenza
Another issue is that a very key role is played by a child actor. This is compounded when the child actor is asked to act woodenly and Lucas-like. The first entrance of the future Vader is designed to be cute. It’s strange but not unintriguing.
Young Anakin also has to transition the fans from hating Vader to pulling for him. The movie does get there but its a tough slog. I got there after Qui-gon dies and we see Anakin as a padwan at the very end. And its just a visual. This is more a questionable choice than a mistake.
Maybe if Lucas had somehow made Anakin a padwan earlier it would have helped. Maybe he’d have been better with as a youngling apprentice doing things on purpose rather than sort of accidentally destroying a key enemy ship through a series of coincidences?
I think in the moment he writes TPM Lucas was simply too well insulated from any real feedback. There’s no real internet for him to get go and get beat up on yet, that comes in later. Does anyone think in 1996 when the wheels start really turning on this there was any person was able to say “hey George there’s some real problems here.” ? Or that they cared?
The studio knew demand was really strongly there. One example of how they knew- Bad movie Meet Joe Black was a hit that no one saw because all the people left after the Star Wars trailer and it played to empty houses. The trailer even made them money. They just let George do anything he wanted. The Studio was getting a Star Wars movie for the first time in a long, long time. They didnt care what he made.
The Phantom Menace script needed doctoring it never got. It’s too bad he didnt run it by Spielberg or really good creative. I don’t know if it could have been totally saved but this movies was worse than it had to be for sure.
The pacing of the movie is slow all the way through. There’s flashes of excitement, but usually these moments happen while another plot point is unfolding at the same time.
The great light saber duel, for instance, is about five minutes strung out over maybe 20. It might even be 3 minutes of 15, I’m unsure. The point is like all other action scenes we’ve got plots unfolding with other characters. This time it doesn’t work.
Some of this sequence is so bad it’s ‘un-Star Wars-like’ if you can say that about a Lucas movie. “Lets try spinning, that’s a good move!” is some really bad dialogue that takes you right out of the movie.
The execution and direction are bad. There’s also a few of worthy paths not taken.
Most of the acting isn’t bad, but no one has a super great performance either.
Liam Neeson is okay but his greatest feat may be hiding how bummed out he is to be there. He mostly stays away from Star Wars after this. It probably complicates Attack of the Clones as I think he would have died in TPM anyway and been a Force Ghost in the next two movies. Seems he wanted none of it.
Ewan McGregor, on the other hand does a great Alec Guinness imitation. He owns the role from here on, but he doesn’t save the movie. He’s just not in it enough for one thing. The ensemble cast is all over the place to the point of some confusion.
Everyone else is just sort of okay. Natalie Portman is good enough in her really confusing role. She’s not to blame for any of the problems. Shes mostly just really beautiful wall paper in all three of these movies.
The use of CGI was cutting edge and not all of it holds up. Lucas is trying to do stuff, it’s just not working! He’s no Peter Jackson with the CGI at first. The Disney Plus version may be a little more enhanced than my DVD is.
Is It A Childrens Movie ?
Okay this time maybe the movie really was aimed at a slightly younger audience then the rest of the films. Is Lucas out of his element, aiming too low in age to hit the right beats? It would explain a lot. In fairness we never get a story this bad from George Lucas again.
Way back in 1997, when he was teasing the release, I remember George Lucas saying some elaborate stuff about how he viewed the Prequel Trilogy’s audience. It was fairly well thought out and all about building the fan base through appealing to six to ten year old’s instead of middle school kids with Episode 1.
He was pretty proud of this concept and later it becomes a shield against criticism with the whole “childrens movie about space wizards” defense apologists for JJ Abram’s make later.
The idea these movies are for children shows up around the release of this movie. Until then I just thought the Star Wars movies were for everyone, turns out I was wrong. So I guess I like children’s movies to a point. Perhaps we all do? The flaw in the excuse is that ‘these are some VIOLENT children’s movies.’ The adversaries had to mostly be robots or its an R for violence.
Lucas 3 movie concept on the Prequels was daring, The movies were meant to be more mature as they went on, ageing up with the audience. Whatever the case, it gets said out loud that at least sometimes the movies were for 12 or even 8 year old’s.
It seems believable when you look at the three movies as one long story. Attack of the Clones has its plot unpacked better and is a departure from Phantom Menace. It’s not as simplistic and unpopular characters get semi-shelved. Then Revenge of the Sith has a dark, violent and somewhat mature tone. Episode III sort of justifies the journey, but that’s another blog post.
This one time the children’s movie excuse might be applicable. This one time the movie actually really seems to be aimed at younger children. Maybe that’s why it kind of sucks.
Is the Movie Just Bad?
Why lie? You could just say this and you’d be mostly right.
The Phantom Menace is definitely not a good movie. It’s fair to call it bad. I think it’s Lucas’ worst Star Wars movie. It was my worst in Theater Lucas movie experience! Especially the part where I saw it in theaters three more times thinking it must be me only walk out in the middle of the fourth viewing thinking about Stockholm Syndrome and
The complex plot is never fully unpacked. Its probably partly by design. It seems to have been Lucas’ thing. He was good at getting an audience to instantly invest in characters anyway. There’s minimal information about the nuts and bolts of the overall situation in this movie. It mostly holds up enough, it’s not good though. The conflict is pretty clearly over money.
We never find out why Naboo is such a priority. A line or two could have fixed this. It could have had some rare commodity the Trade Federation wanted or just been conveniently located on the hyperspace routes. We never get that. Its a fair point against the movie being Well Written too.
Lucas probably regrets he once boasted that the idea dawned on him one day and he wrote the script fairly quickly. It shows in The Phantom Menace. So while his concept was around a long time, he just fires off this script.
It was also the first time in a while. He’s a bit rusty and hard to advise. I doubt he redrafted it much. It seems like no one else was consulted.
In this movie Lucas is at his least successful in so many ways as a creator. The thing is he’s still better than most. His bad ideas are still overthought. He has a backstory and a reason for everything and he can spit out an answer on any aspect of his universe in most any interview. He’s wasn’t winging it, he just didn’t have the story refined enough.
Lucas is completely free to make any movie he wants and it will be funded. That cuts both ways in this movie and he owns the failure. It makes money and he doesn’t destroy his franchise, he just makes a bad Star Wars movie. The Studio didnt care, they just wanted their Star Wars movie after about 16 years of not having anything.
It was the franchises highest grossing movie. Lucas never rakes in more money but the criticisms are there. Having burnt off the Pent Up Demand the next movie had problems finding audiences by comnparison.
There’s real plot holes that got mentioned by EFAP and by people as far back as when the movie came out. The biggest issue is clearly “Why wouldn’t you break loose some cash and send a Jedi back to free Anakin’s mother from slavery?” That’s a problem that Lucas never addresses.
The journey through the center of Naboo was debated as unrealistic. On that point I just say “This is a Star Wars planet, its not even a Star Trek planet. You want to say the core is water? Okay.” That said, the sequence is a terrible mess. It’s not easy to tell who is doing what and why as we avoid a few too many monsters.
Lucas is not really mailing it in; but he has a bad day writing and directing. He gets the performances he wanted. They’re just not what everyone else wanted. The homage to serials was just too wooden in this movie. The expectations may have changed when it comes to acting styles from the release of the OT to the point this movie is made. The generation that grew up on serials was Lucas age. They weren’t running out to see it like they did in 1977. That generations grown kids were the target Lucas fails to appeal to. They were ready to follow him anywhere but this movie just kills Star Wars momentum for the entire prequel trilogy.
There’s a whole post to be made about how this movie is the moment so called “Head Canon” and Toxic Superfans start showing up. Who hasn’t had to sit through a lecture about how they need to throw 100 or so bucks into EU materials to walk into the theater? That’s just not a valid argument. The movie is supposed to simply make sense and entertain. I should be prepared enough when I fork over my twenty dollars.
One huge problem is Lucas has some dialogue and details from the Original Trilogy hemming him in a little. He tries to justify how a 10 year old can be a great pilot, but the solution is the Pod Race, which is only just so exciting and mostly played for laughs. It’s only kind of entertaining. Later when Lucas hits the ‘great pilot’ theme again during the fight on Naboo it doesn’t work either.
The final product has problems and is slow and boring. On the plus side- the damage is real but minimal to the franchise. It still feels like Star Wars, even with the warts. I could make a huge list of continuity and dialogue problems. I’ll mention just one – Theres some characters whose English accents just come and go. Notably Queen Amidala.
Lucas does sell his young Vader for the most part though. Its not a fun romp through the Galaxy Far Far Away, but its the Galaxy we liked for the most part.
The Force is explored to a point but the assumption is that you’ve seen the OT (and you have). There’s more powerful Force use on display, but just better, stronger versions of what we’ve seen for the most part. It’s logical enough a Jedi master would have more raw Force muscle than a glorified padwan like Luke is in Empire Strikes Back or a near complete Jedi Knight in Return of the Jedi.
TPM just sort of boring, though. So the limited exposition about the nature of the Force is an issue as much as the clunky dialogue. They are issues that count against the movie being well written. It’s not poorly conceived though, it just doesn’t work out.
The Midochlorian thing stays around and seems to relate to what’s called Garbage DNA in the real world. Its not in itself bad.
Viewed simply as the first of three prequels we can say we do get some more on the Force a little later. I myself also feel that some mystery surrounding the nature of the Force is good.
Directed with in a throwback fashion this only works just enough to be mostly coherent. Highlights are few and far between. A few more mistakes and it would have been awful.
You can’t say its Well Written but its not franchise-killing garbage. It’s a boring Star Wars movie and yes, overall its bad. Leave it to the Sequel Trilogy to make The Phantom Menace look like “the Good Old Days.”
Because the Prequels get better fast the movie has some fans. Its not Unwatchable.
It’s a Bad movie with a decent but poorly executed plot. Its only just so well written. Its an aberration among the six Lucas movies. I’m staking out a position in the middle. It’s the worst Lucas Star Wars movie. It’s only written just so well. On the other how smart was it holding off on this origin story now that we see it? Episode IV was a better starting point for sure! That doesn’t help TPM though.
The movie has an idea of where it wants to go but still meanders. It’s slow for a movie that has a lot of conflict. Its too long and its got bad dialogue. The plot was only okay. It’s only written okay. Its NOT written outright bad. The story is clear but can be hard to follow as things unfold so slowly.
The plots is pretty good but the movie is sub-par. If being immersed in Lucas’ Galaxy is your thing you’ll enjoy some of it. It wasn’t the best but is no longer the worst Star Wars movie. It’s a below average movie and a below average Star Wars movie and a fairly bad movie in general. Its about a Two Stars out of Five kind of movie.
I dont know if saying it sets up the next two movies well is redeeming to this movie in and of itself. Its still not good.
In a word “Underwhelming.” I guess “It never completely falls apart and just keeps plodding along” is my one sentence summation of positives.
If it got a grade its a C, maybe a C plus. One to ten as far as well written? It’s like a 6. I mean, there’s so many much worse movies for one thing.
It’s also a pretty bad movie, but there’s four that are much, much worse Star Wars movies out there now.
Perversely, its now mediocre among Star Wars movies. Thanks, Disney, you Force Healed The Phantom Menace to fourth fifth worst Star Wars movie!
Epilogue – The Internet Saves Star Wars
Around the time of the release of The Phantom Menace things like AOL get social media going and Lucas has anonymity again on the internet. This was the honest feedback Hollywood money men weren’t giving him and never would.
I’m convinced the internet revolution and it taking on its present form grounded a newly anonymous Lucas online, where people would just unload on the movie and say what they wanted.
My only real proof is that pretty much everything people hated was addressed in some form in the subsequent movies. There’s a darker story unfolding with things like more lightsaber duels, chases and space battles. Things sorely missing from TPM.
There’s a case to be made Attack of the Clones is a fairly good movie. It strongly departs from the stuff that killed TPM.
But the Internet hasn’t happened yet. The Phantom Menace was conceived and made before any real social media at all. The world was different. Cell phones could only make calls and send text messages when this movie comes out.
Here’s the EFAP Debate. This blog post is my theories, heres several others should you want to hear them.