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It was the film announcement heard ’round the world: George Lucas was returning to the realm of Star Wars to create a prequel trilogy to the original films. Given that this took place just before social media really took off (no Twitter, no Facebook, not even YouTube), excitement was at a fever pitch, with everyone speculating on how the origins of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others would be shown.
I remember being over the moon excited about this. I’d always been jealous that my parents had gotten to see the original Star Wars movies in the theater, and now (as I saw it), here was my chance to see a new Star Wars film on the big screen, just like they did so many years ago.
“What’s this?” “A local.”
The Phantom Menace (if I understand the timeline correctly), takes place just over 20 years before the Battle of Yavin (the climax of Episode IV). The Republic rules the galaxy, but corruption is starting to take over. While escorting the young Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman) to the galactic capital Coruscant, Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) encounter an extremely Force-sensitive boy named Anakin Skywalker on the planet Tatooine (and he ultimately ends up leaving with them after helping the group secure the parts to fix their ship by winning a podrace). Ultimately, Naboo is saved from the vile Trade Federation, Anakin becomes Obi-Wan’s apprentice, and Senator Palpatine is now the Supreme Chancellor of the Republic, all in all it sounds like a great story, but was it really?
I still debate this question to myself from time to time. Considering that I was only 11 when I saw this film in the theater, I couldn’t understand for a long time why people didn’t like this film. My thinking was “It’s Star Wars, so it’s automatically awesome!” And yet, as time went on, I found myself preferring to watch the original trilogy over the prequels. What happened?
I don’t think there will ever be a universal consensus, but for The Phantom Menace there is one element that everyone agrees they hate: Jar Jar Binks. Of course *I* thought he was funny…until I grew up, and the humor got old after the 12th viewing. I know Jake Lloyd (the child actor who played Anakin) has received a lot of flak for his performance, but for goodness’ sake he was what, 9 years old? Given everything he had to work with, I think he did a great job in the role.
Problems aside, the lightsaber duel (accompanied by “Duel of the Fates”) at the climax of the film was beyond awesome in my young eyes. Darth Maul was beyond terrifying, and it was really all well done. I remember gasping in horror when Qui-Gon got impaled too, I did NOT see it coming and I really wanted Qui-Gon to live. Looking back, the lightsaber duel between Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan remains one of the few highlights in a film that hasn’t aged terribly well (especially where some of its CGI effects are concerned).
It goes without saying that the rest of the score was equally as amazing (in seven movies there hasn’t been a bad Star Wars score yet and I don’t think there ever will be).
I think only time will tell how good (or bad) The Phantom Menace really was.
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*film poster is the property of Walt Disney Studios