It was 1999. It had been 16 years since the last Star Wars film. Fans turned out in droves, hoping to see a great movie about the origins of Anakin Skywalker. Many were disappointed.
I was in junior high when I first saw this film. I thought it was a good movie. My enjoyment of the film has dropped significantly as I have aged. Weak elements of the plot are further exposed; bad acting and dialog are more irritating. I don't hate this movie, but I would probably not watch it if Episodes IV, V and VI did not exist.
There are good things to say about the film, so let's start with those.
Various plots of the movie are pretty good. Palpatine is itching to become supreme chancellor, the first stop on his quest to become ruler of the galaxy. In order to accomplish this, he fabricates a crisis to force the Senate to pick a stronger ruler, positioning himself on both sides of the table playing puppet master. The execution of this plot is also pretty good, albeit a little loosely tied together.
The other main plot is the discovery of the chosen one, Anakin Skywalker. Again, this is a good plot, and necessary for the events of the original trilogy. The problem here is execution. You have some strange details in this plot: a virgin birth (not mentioned again) and midichlorians (the Force can be measured!) are bizarre and unnecessary to the core of the plot. Also, what is the prophecy? What does it mean he will “bring balance to the force”? The Jedi seem to have it pretty good, and the Sith are thought to be extinct, so what is this “balance” that they crave?
The link to bring these plots together is the crisis on Naboo. Attempting to retrieve help, Amidala tries to reach the Senate, but must land on Tatooine to repair her broken ship. In order to get the necessary parts, Anakin wins a podrace, and the heroes escape to Courscant. Palpatine continues to manipulate the situation, but Amidala, desiring quicker action, allies with the Gungans in order to free her planet.
These are the makings of a good story.
Two parts of this film stand out as great. First, Darth Maul is amazing. He is pure hunter at every step, threatening and sinister. Every time I see him on screen, I get excited. Second, the podrace is well done. I am usually not a fan of chase/race scenes, but this one is fun. The vehicles are creative, and it is very clear what is going on, which is usually a problem for race scenes.
Now, onto the bad elements.
The largest problem is an unnecessary character: Jar Jar Binks. As a child, I found him entertaining, but as an adult, I can't stand him. Much ink has been spilled with Jar Jar hate, so I won't persist. I'm sure you can find plenty elsewhere online.
Several of the actors (Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon and Ian McDairmid's Palpatine in particular) give strong performances, but most of the actors are weak. Jake Lloyd may be forgiven a little since he was only 10 at the time, but Natalie Portman also gives a pretty lackluster performance. These two performances make the supposed initial spark of the relationship between Anakin and Padme more like a sputter. Part of the problem is the obvious age difference, but the problem is not fixed with Hayden Christenson in the later films. I'm not sure it's a better love story than "Twilight."
The film's climax splits into four arenas to follow the Battle of Naboo, but most of the storylines are weak. The first follows Jar Jar and the Gungans as they battle the droid army. Jar Jar manages to use his clumsiness to defeat more droids than anyone else in the army, which is stupid. The second features the Naboo pilots who blow up the droid control station -- except it focuses on Anakin, instead, featuring bad dialog and acting and a notable lack of anything resembling a cool space battle. The third follows Padme as she attempts to capture the viceroy. This battle is has nothing notable about it, good or bad.
The only good sequence of the four is watching Qui-gon and Obi-wan fight Maul, the best part of the movie and probably the best choreographed lightsaber fight of the entire Star Wars saga. While it lacks the emotional resonance of other duels, this is the most artful of the bunch.
Episode I is a disappointing start to the prequels. The fun elements of Star Wars are present, but the resonance of the original trilogy is absent, and poor execution by the actors is prevalent. Try as he might, Darth Maul does not make all things great. Sorry George.