“Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is the best Star Wars prequel film.
And no, that’s not because conventional wisdom is wrong about the film (though it sometimes is). It’s not because it contains the two best action set pieces in the prequel trilogy (though it does). It’s not because, terrible though he is, Jake Lloyd is less of a gnawing cancer on this movie than Hayden Christensen is on the next two (though that’s true).
Instead, Episode I wins the prequel contest simply by default: despite the movie’s disjointed story, hacky jokes, and repeated misjudgments of what makes Star Wars so appealing, Episode I is the best because Episodes II and III are even worse.
The climax of “The Phantom Menace” explains precisely the film’s problem, as well as what makes it so frustrating to a Star Wars fan. The fourth movie in the series by release date, Episode I tries to continue its predecessors’ escalation of cutting between different action scenes as the film comes to a head. Where “Return of the Jedi” has three different concurrent climaxes (the battle on Endor, the battle surrounding the Death Star and the duel inside the Death Star), “The Phantom Menace” bites off more than it can chew and cuts between four different conflicts: the Gungans’ battle on the Naboo plains, the Naboo fighter pilots’ dogfight above the planet, the Royal Guard’s takeover of Theed Palace and the Duel of the Fates inside the palace’s power generators.
The first two of those sequences are poorly done, featuring ill conceived attempts at humor, bad plotting and, in the case of the dogfight, confusing editing and direction (compare Episode I’s space scenes with their tense, coherent counterparts in Episode IV, and it’s a wonder the movies were helmed by the same director). On the other hand, the second two sequences are taut and exciting. The Duel of the Fates is the best sequence in any of the prequels by far, and the Theed raid features technological wizardry and a fun display of strategy, even if its denouement relies on head baddie Nute Gunray making a stupid decision. The push and pull of quality among the four sequences illustrates the conflict (or perhaps lack of one) at the movie’s core: as its writer, director and producer, George Lucas was throwing all of his ideas on the table at once, and he could not distinguish which ones were bad and which ones were good.
Those good and the bad elements live together in virtually element of the film. Take the plot, which is often unfairly maligned as being too complicated and focused on boring political topics like trade agreements. Lucas shrewdly chose to flip the script from the original movies, taking a cue from some of Earth’s great wars to start a conflict from a seemingly insignificant event. Palpatine’s slow, secretive rise to power is one of the prequels’ greatest strengths, and the recognition that leaders and nations can wear out and deplete themselves over a distraction is one of Lucas’s few successful attempts at political commentary. It could never have been as primal as the conflicts of the original movies, but it could have been something perfectly pleasing in its own right.
On the other hand, Anakin’s path to the dark side misfires at almost every turn, starting with his very first scene in Episode I and lasting right through to that horrible “Nooooooo!” screamed by Vader at the end of Episode III (in fact, just about the only good scene in the whole Anakin narrative takes place when it crosses over with Palpatine’s quest for dominance, as the emperor-to-be tells his budding apprentice the tale of Darth Plagueis). Every moment Anakin is on screen in Episode I, the viewer has questions. Why did Lucas think the audience would be OK with a 9-year-old and a 16-year-old (played by someone a lot older than 16) eventually falling in love? Why invent midichlorians? Why did Anakin have to be Space Jesus, born as he was without a father’s seed? Why invent midichlorians? Why cast a child actor so completely out of his depth, and then give him lots of lines like “Yippee!,” “Woo!,” etc.? Why invent midichlorians? Why hearken back to Luke Skywalker heroically destroying the Death Star by having his father blow up a droid control ship on accident? Seriously, WHY INVENT MIDICHORIANS?
Along with Jar-Jar Binks, who can be explained away as a failed attempt to replicate the kid-friendly sidekick goofiness of the Ewoks, the existence of Force-measuring midichlorians is one of Episode I’s most criticized flaws, and with reason. While fans’ rejection of the prequels’ overarching political plot can be seen as an audience unwilling to digest something a little more complex, midichlorians are an example of Lucas fundamentally misunderstanding what makes his world so appealing in the first place. The Force is cool because it’s a New Age concept; it’s about destiny and tapping into the world around you and believing in yourself. Turn it into science, and it loses its mystique. Anakin becomes a member of the X-Men without bone claws or laser eyes.
All that said, there is a lot of good to take in with Episode I’s bad. The Trade Federation plot, though clunky in places, is unjustly rejected by fandom, and the film’s travelogue narrative boasts a more “Star Wars-y” feel than in the next two movies due to more of it being shot on location. The art design is fabulous on all accounts, and the podrace is exciting and a solid tribute to Old Hollywood (and one that is guilt-free, unlike Lucas’s maybe-or-maybe-not accidental racial undertones in some of the film’s aliens).
Then, of course, there’s Darth Maul, undoubtedly the best thing to come out of Lucas’s revisiting of the Star Wars universe. Everything about Maul works: his name, his appearance, his lightsaber, his silence, right down to the design of his starship, swoop and probe droids. Even his death, long regretted by viewers as slaying the golden goose too soon, had the effect of vaunting Maul to the status of the gone-too-soon rock star, the fictional counterpart to hallowed names like James Dean and Kurt Cobain. We never got a chance to get sick of Maul, at least in the movies (he pops up later in “The Clone Wars” and a variety of other media). We were kept wanting more, and the celebrity cult of Darth Maul lives on, 16 years later and counting.
Despite many flaws, it is elements like Maul, the podrace, and the later-discarded choice to keep the battle droids emotionless that elevate “The Phantom Menace” above its peers. While both II and III have good moments, their highs aren’t as high, and their baser instincts are simultaneously more glaring and duller. A decade and a half later, Episode I cannot be called a great movie, but I also cannot call it a boring one. It is at turns well made and inexplicable, and I find new things to enjoy and be confused by in each viewing.