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Most Star Wars fans have a special kind of hate for The Phantom Menace. They don’t casually dislike it or even strongly hate it; they seem to think The Phantom Menace was a scathing affront to all things decent and holy. In many ways, I don’t blame them. I too sat in a darkened theater as the credits rolled and angrily wondered what the hell I’d just witnessed. Being pissed twelve years later is perfectly reasonable, but here’s where many Star Wars fans and I disagree. I still tell people The Phantom Menace is worth watching. In fact, I think anyone who has seen and enjoyed the three original movies is doing themselves a great disservice by avoiding The Phantom Menace. Hear me out…
There are a lot of things that are truly awful about Episode One. The dialogue is frequently atrocious, some of the actors are shaky at best, and the character of Jar Jar Binks is truly reprehensible. I sympathize with the obsessives who are bothered by midi-chlorians, and I don’t like how many characters are shoehorned in. These are all definitely problems and reasons why Phantom Menace does not live up its predecessors, but lost in that mess are a whole lot of things the movie actually does right, most importantly, its basic story.
When I try to explain to people why I love Star Wars so much, I never talk about the acting or the one-liners, I talk about the overarching plot. I talk about the trajectory and how it slowly unfolds with twists and turns and surprise paternities, all perfectly uniting to depict one cohesive tale. That awesomeness is just as present in Phantom Menace. In fact, if someone were given cliff notes without having seen any of the films, there’s no way they’d know this was the weak sister. That’s because the basic premise is just as good here.
The film makes the correct decision to start the story with Anakin as a kid, and I like the fact that he’s a slave. The Trade Federation blockade is a sensible way to way to begin tensions without having an all out war, and the method through which Senator Palpatine grabs more power seems about right. Qui-Gon Jinn is a pretty effective character, and he’s written and played with enough confidence to make him suitable as a master for Obi-Won Kenobi. Yoda’s apprehension to Anakin being trained as a Yedi makes him appear even wiser, and I like many of the new faces. In addition to Qui-Gon Jinn, Wotto and Darth Maul are also perfectly at home in the Star Wars universe and just as cool as many of the supports found in the original three films. All of these events and details are right, even if they aren’t presented perfectly.
Phantom Menace is also quite impressive visually. It might not be as ahead of its time as the first three films were, but it nonetheless has a lot of really well put together sequences. The camera angles are exemplary during the podrace, and I absolutely love the palace on Tatooine, as well as the underwater village. Darth Maul is also just the right level of imposing in costume, and the lightsaber battle between him, Qui-Gonn Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is among the best of the entire Star Wars saga. There’s also consistently a lot of great background detail and plenty of truly unique and interesting new aliens.
Of all the Star Wars movies, I’ve seen The Phantom Menace the least amount of times. I don’t own it, and I have no plans to ever buy it. I suspect I’ll watch it for a third time at some point in the future, maybe a fourth if I live longer than most. That strikes me as about right for a disappointing film part of a franchise I love. If you’ve seen it before and never plan on watching it again, more power to you. I sympathize, and I too am sorry it’s not better. But if you’ve never seen it, if you’ve always taken the word of others and never experienced it yourself, go to the theater this weekend and check it out. I bet you’ll be glad to know how it began for some of the greatest characters in cinematic history, and even if you’re ultimately disappointed, at least you’ll be on the same page with millions of bitter fans.