Star Wars: Episode I has become my generation's equivalent of Highlander 2: The Quickening - it's the epitome of a filmmaker betraying his fans, the base line for terrible filmmaking, and the butt of everyone's jokes. It has been taken apart, deconstructed, ripped to shreds and seethed over by countless disillusioned fanboys, to such an extent that reviewing it seems redundant. What can I say that the likes of Red Letter Media have not covered in far greater detail, and with much better jokes?
Being someone who never likes conforming to popular opinion for its own sake, I went into The Phantom Menace with as open a mind as it was possible to have. Sure, it might be bad - but surely not as bad as its reputation would lead us to believe? Even as someone with mixed feelings towards the Star Wars phenomenon, I wanted to be the one defending the film, at least in some small way. But despite my best efforts, I am forced to concede and state the obvious: The Phantom Menace is horrendous.
It is rare that you come across a film so utterly inept that you don't know where to begin in criticising it. I have neither the time nor the patience to list every last plot hole, or criticise every single creative choice (if the word 'creative' is remotely appropriate). Nor do I have such low standards that I intend this to become a splurge of incomprehensible ranting about how George Lucas is the devil (he's not, he's just delusional). So forgive me in advance if this review feels a little cluttered or disorganised - at least it'll make more sense than The Phantom Menace.
It probably makes sense to start with the ways in which Episode I betrays the original trilogy, and therefore the fans that made Lucas immensely rich. The whole reason that the prequels exist, other than money, is because fan enthusiasm for the originals was so sustained. Lucas had planned the trilogy several years before the Special Editions, in light of the success of the Dark Horse comics and Timothy Zahn's novelisations.
The difficulty is that The Phantom Menace doesn't know who its core audience is - indeed none of the prequels do. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a direct throwback to the originals, replicating the trilogy's aesthetic warts-and-all, or whether it wants to bring in a new, younger audience who have no familiarity with the first three films. Lucas never comes down on one side or the other, resulting in a film which is too complicated for anyone older than then, but too infantile and stupid for anyone over that age.
The plot of The Phantom Menace is simultaneously too convoluted and too asinine. The originals were classic, Flash Gordon-style stories of good vs. evil, which drew inspiration from the westerns, matinee idols and adventure comics of Lucas' youth. They explored ideas of freedom, justice and redemption through epic dialogue and action scenes on a grand scale. This is a film about taxation, votes of no confidence, and pod racing. At best, it's not engaging; at worst, it's cataclysmically dull.
Perhaps no aspect of The Phantom Menace has gained greater notoriety than the concept of midichlorians. Put simply, in a single conversation Lucas changes the Force from a spiritual power into a biological phenomenon, caused by something as ordinary as bacteria. The Force is no longer something which can be controlled and mastered by everyone, given enough time and training: it is something that you can only use if you are genetically built a certain way. Not only does the concept not make sense, but it turns the Force into something elitist and aristocratic. While the originals were populist, making us believe that anyone could master the Force and become a Jedi, Episode I teaches us that Jedi are born, not made, so you may as well not bother trying to be one, or indeed care about them.
Everything written up to this point has been from a fan perspective. But even to the casual viewer, who may be coming to Star Wars for the very first time, there are many problems with Episode I as a piece of filmmaking in general. It's not just that it's a terrible Star Wars film, or a terrible prequel - it's a terrible film, full stop.
Firstly, as Red Letter Media have pointed out, there is no central protagonist to whom we can relate. This stems from the fact that the whole of The Phantom Menace, and the other prequels, are essentially backstory to get us to the creation of Darth Vader and the birth of Luke and Leia Skywalker. Since this transition would only take up one film at most, Lucas has to keep us distracted for more than five hours, introducing characters whose only purpose is to get us to that point. They have no personality or development outside of that - they just exist as dull, poorly-written, obvious devices.
Qui-Gon Jinn's purpose is to be killed at the end so that Anakin can be trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi. There is nothing else that he does in the film that couldn't have been done by Obi-Wan himself. Darth Maul does nothing but follow the Jedi and fight them, since his only purpose is to provide a climactic action sequence - which of course, ends with a big anti-climax. Anakin, Obi-Wan and Amidala are all completely in situ: they're only there because they have to be in the next two films. As an aside, the body double sub-plot involving the latter and Keira Knightley doesn't work - because they look nothing alike. Why not just create a CG duplicate of Amidala, like you did with the droid army?
This brings us onto Jar Jar Binks, a character who epitomises everything wrong with the film and the prequels in general. Not only is he poorly written, obnoxious and annoying, but he exists solely to appeal to very young viewers, patronising them with every word he says. That's not to mention the racial stereotyping of the characters, whose Jamaican-style dreadlocks and accent are partnered to a personality which is lazy, clumsy and cowardly. And Jar Jar is not the only blatant stereotype on show: the Viceroy, head of the Trade Federation, speaks with an oriental accent a la Fu Manchu.
The performances in The Phantom Menace are universally terrible. Liam Neeson spends the whole film speaking in monotone and looking into middle distance, like he really doesn't want to be there. Jake Lloyd is pretty poor as the young Anakin, though he's mildly less annoying here than in Jingle All The Way. Ewan McGregor does a half-decent Alec Guinness impression but it's all on one level, and Natalie Portman looks mopey and confused. Not even Brian Blessed and Terence Stamp can save this film: even if the latter started shouting "Kneel before Zod!", it wouldn't help.
If nothing else was true about the original trilogy, the action sequences were always exciting and engaging. But here not even the mindless action is remotely entertaining. Lucas has become so reliant on CGI that the battles have no physicality, and the lightsaber fights are so highly choreographed that there is no surprise or spontaneity. The editing is repetitive, Lucas' camerawork is lazy and his staging of every scene is broadly the same, with character either sitting and talking, or walking and talking.
There is no better example of a pointless action sequence than the pod race. Like so much of the prequel trilogy, it feels like we're watching someone playing a computer game - or that the film is essentially a long advert for said computer game. We sit there watching pods overtaking each other at random, enduring random explosions and changes in the course, until convention takes over and Anakin wins. In many ways, it sums up the film, being a long, tedious distraction with no narrative purpose, designed only to milk money from people who are mostly too young to know better.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is a cataclysmic alliance of boredom and betrayal that will break the spirits of any Star Wars fan and put newcomers off the series for life. Every aspect of the film that you could possibly mention has something wrong with it, and all the pieces are barely held together by Lucas' horrible direction and lazy editing. It's a soulless and depressing experience, which leaves us not just reeling from its own awfulness, but from the knowledge that there are two more films to go before we get to the good stuff. Still, at least things can't get any worse - right?