The crushingly inevitable Star Wars group chat email thing: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Ali Gray,
Matthew Looker,
Rebecca Suter,
Luke Whiston

28th November 2019

It’s a year with a 2 in it so you know what that means: it’s time to talk about Star Wars again! With Episode IX of the Skywalker Saga on the horizon, we thought it was the perfect time to engage in the ‘group chat’ style communal analysis that has served us so well in the past (that one guy on Twitter seems to like it, and heck, it’s easier than actually writing a proper feature). Over ten movies we will engage in the kind of witty banter and strict discipline that saw us complete 65% of our Marvel rewatch. Now, let’s... ‘Make it so!’.

Ali: I mean, this was always going to happen, wasn't it? You can't release a new Star Wars movie and expect dickheads like us to sit here and do nothing. I feel like that kid with bursting forehead veins in that meme: I SIMPLY CANNOT LET A STAR WARS THING PASS WITHOUT COMMENT.

Look, obviously I love a good opportunity to rewatch the Star Wars movies. I have a very odd relationship with them, but I find them all absolutely fascinating from all perspectives - as a fan, as a parent, as an observer of film history, as a lover of car crashes. But Christ alive, the prequel trilogy has not aged well. It hasn't even aged well since the last time I commented that they hadn't aged well.

I think The Phantom Menace holds the record for the movie I have failed to finish most. Every time I pop the disc in, I think of the good stuff - the amazing artistry involved in production, set and costume design, the music, the visuals, the cool bits - and I think 'It can't possibly be as bad as I remember', and then it starts and it takes about 45 seconds for the full horror to dawn on me once more. I have mugged myself off again in the name of Star Wars.

Becky: "I have mugged myself off again in the name of Star Wars" sounds like a dreadful euphemism.

Ali: I'm waiting for the essay which I assume Matt is currently writing. I think I'd prefer it if he just told me to fuck off.

Luke: Obviously The Phantom Menace is terrible, and there I don't care. Which is why I'm going to contribute to a long email thread detailing exactly why. Whinge about nothing to exist: The Curse of Modern Film Commentary.

Ali: I have found new depths to its awfulness, though. I was always aware of the terrible dialogue, but I had been blinded to a lot of its other deficiencies. One thing I picked up on this time was that it's just so empty. There are so many scenes across the prequel trilogy that are set in grand locations that have maybe 3 or 4 mishapen people milling about the in background. I have serious questions about the architecture of the Jedi Temple, for example. It feels like it was made at the wrong scale, like the Spinal Tap Stonehenge monument writ large.

Lots of this is because The Phantom Menace was in many ways a pioneer in the realms of bluescreen. It's the perfect template on what not to do in a modern blockbuster movie, and I genuinely think it sucking so hard has made this generation's Star Wars so much better.

Becky: I'll say this, Duel of the Fates is an absolute banger of a theme.

Matt: I have a hard disagree about a lot of what’s been said, but I’m out all day and night. My essay will be forthcoming tomorrow.

Ali: No - speak now, or your absence is a tacit admission that, actually, Star Wars is bad.

Relationship goals.

Matt: Watch out guys, the prequel apologist is logging on...

Look, I'm not going to pretend that Phantom Menace isn't a giant Gungan turd dressed up in robes, but I do think that 20 years of film fandom declaring it the Hitler of movies has led to it not getting due credit for the things it does well. The costumes and set designs ARE fantastic, that final lightsaber duel is the most thrilling across all the movies (and the way it cuts with the other two final set-pieces makes for a genuinely exhilarating finale) and the music is incredible.

Ali: The costumes were great! The music was great! This is the language of someone going out of their way to praise something that does not really deserve praise. It's like on 30 Rock, where Liz compliments Jenna's stage play by telling her the programmes were really easy to read. You don't get a pass for not fumbling the basics!

Matt: More importantly for me though - and I admit that this is a subjective take as a Star Wars obsessive - is the job this film does in terms of world-building for a part of the saga that had previously only ever been a mystery. I can't watch the film without remembering how I felt when I first saw it, having my mind blown just by the fact that I was watching a NEW STAR WARS FILM that's actually telling me a history I had always wondered about. It's imagining of the Jedi Council as an established body, the shiny look and feel of a pre-rebellion Galactic Republic, the establishing and positioning of key players... it might not be to anyone's liking, but you can't deny that the film totally nailed its main objective, which was to completely rewrite the rules of the Star Wars universe. It does a phenomenal job in that respect.

Becky: Whatever ‘works’ in this film doesn’t overshadow the fact they do not as a whole make up for its shortcomings. I too remember the excitement of seeing a new Star Wars movie, but I always remember the crushing disappointment coming out of the Port Solent Multiplex, feeling like I should have liked it when I didn’t.

Ali: Any film's main unspoken objective should be to be watchable, or at the very least, tolerable. This does not pass. Yes, you can argue it achieves its objective of widening the universe, but at what cost, Matt? AT WHAT COST?

Matt: It's just utterly fucking mental that the story details that Lucas chose to do this with include trade route taxation, a cartoon frog clown and the entire movie being based around the Jedis' ship breaking down like it's a Vauxhall Corsa trapped on the hard shoulder of the M5. For me, it comes down to that obvious conclusion that George Lucas is a great visionary for the saga, but he sucks as a writer and director. It's obvious that he really worked on the parts of the film that he actually cared about - the technical achievement, the epic vision - but couldn't even be arsed to, for example, get decent takes from any of his actors.

And just on your point about the giant empty sets, Ali, this is part of the stage-setting for me. The whole film is supposed to feel utterly grandiose. It's a deliberate far cry from the cramped hovels and tight corridors of the original trilogy for a reason. This is the galaxy at its peak, it's supposed to be grossly expensive and 'established', and this use of exaggerated space within buildings is a clear visual cue to create differentiation. Lucas fucks up many, many things in this film, but I fully believe this is a deliberate filmmaking choice that works.

Ali: I am enjoying the dynamics of this discussion, in which I have forced you to defend The Phantom Menace, safe in the smug knowledge that I cannot possibly lose this argument. I am Obi-Wan with the high ground and you are little whiny bitch Anakin, and I'll chop your fucking legs off with my discourse.

The Discourse Moderators will allow this.

Becky: It lacks any warmth or humour, and the over reliance on CGI for EVERYTHING from the sets to Qui-Gon’s hairline gives it a full, lifeless look and smacks of Lucas’s lazy assumption that the technology will do all the work with the world building. Saying that he was creating these vast yet empty spaces to make a point about the ostentatious nature of the Republic is a reach, particularly when this is a film clearly aimed at kids, and yet goes way off target. They LOVE politicking about taxation routes, can’t get enough of it!

Luke: The prequels have always struggled with two things: 1) working with a series that already struggled to make three films without ripping themselves off (RotJ being a port of ANH and proving everything you need to know was already wrapped up succinctly with enough drama and mystery and feels to create the Star Wars phenomenon in the first place by 1983), 2) who the fuck are these aimed at? They look like children's things, but actually a man gets violently cut in half and we see it all.

Mind-boggling. It's only with the new trilogy we've got that mix of adults taking their children. 1999 was too soon.

Matt: I too am enjoying the dynamics of this discussion in which you seem to have positioned yourself as the editor of a film blog who doesn't think it's possible to praise individual elements of a film you don't like as a whole. Who even needs a grading scale for reviews! Let's just declare all films either 'GOOD' or 'BAD'! If the dialogue and acting is shit, then everything else is shit by default! This definitely makes for a solid basis of a film discussion.

So... that's decided then. Shall we move on to Attack Of The Clones? We're going to make excellent progress at this rate.

Luke: Do you agree it's slightly dull to watch stories where we already know the conclusions? The MCU was always forward-facing - new adventures to be had and unknowns to be revealed. The prequels, as much as they expand the universe in terms of material things to exist, are always leading up to "where did Uncle Owen get his farm" and "how did Vader get wrekt" - details you don't really need to know. You don't need to see everything. Was it an easier or clearer path for Lucas to get a film out before the turn of the millennium?

Matt: Honestly, I don’t see that argument applying here. This isn’t a connect-the-dots film in the way that, say, Solo is - a film that literally checks boxes on the 'Things We Know About Han Solo' list. I think there's a good argument that this film expands the Star Wars universe more than it limits it. There’s no precedent for Qui-Gonn, there’s no precedent for Darth Maul and there’s certainly no precedent for Jar Jar. Yes, it is reasonable to think that, in unravelling the mysteries of the original trilogy, these films do a disservice to the saga as a whole because they populate that space with plot details that aren’t very good or aren't very well executed, but I think that’s different to saying that film is dull because you know where it’s going. I don’t believe you do until you get to Revenge Of The Sith, which really is just building a bridge to A New Hope at that point.

Luke: I am prepared to accept The Phantom Menace as mindless event cinema - just we were expecting so much more. That still excites me. I have a good anecdote for Revenge of the Sith, which I saw at a midnight screening despite having seen the first two prequels.

Matt: I think this is where I’m going to come off badly in this chat. I’m no advocate for the film - I have a personal fondness for it but that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognise its many horrible flaws - but you’re all going to position me as the guy who defends Phantom Menace no matter what. Really, all I’m trying to do is make sure that we’re criticising the film in the right way rather than just throwing shit at it because it’s easy to do so. I don’t think your point there, Luke, is quite right, but that doesn’t mean I’m trying to convince you all that the film is brilliant. It obviously very terrible in many ways.

Becky: Matt, I will never fully understand why you are such an apologist for bad films. You’re like the judges on Junior Bake Off trying to point out the semi-decent bits in the kids’ sunken cakes, trying to spare George Lucas’s feelings before he goes off home crying clutching his cuddly Chewbacca.

Matt: Here’s a question: some people make the argument that this film doesn’t need to exist and parts of it could just be explained in the crawl for Attack Of The Clones instead. I’ve always pretty much agreed with that. What do you all think? What is this film really adding to the saga as a whole?

The discourse heats up.

Becky: I’m always reminded of Patton Oswalt’s At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas with a Shovel, how he describes going back to visit Lucas in the past and how he has absolutely no desire at all to see Darth Vader as a little kid. It does nothing to help build the story because it’s the least interesting part of Anakin’s story. I don’t think it’s always dull to watch a story where we already know the outcome, but at least start it a bit where it starts to get good and his actions actually have an effect on the inevitable conclusion. One of film’s greatest ever villains has been reduced to a whiny brat who misses his mummy, in an attempt to what - humanise him? We know he’s already responsible for wiping out half of the galaxy, so just focus on the pivotal point that turned him to the Dark Side rather wasting hours on his time in kindergarten. Let’s just jump straight into the Clone Wars ffs.

It’s all exposition and no plot, and completely unnecessary. Even the Bible missed out Jesus’s tweenage years before he started healing people, because who cares? Maybe we all got caught up in Millennium fever, but we were ready to welcome another Star Wars film however long the gap. I just wish Patton had managed to build that time machine.

Luke: Who'd have thought a big empty soulless mess would have been a perfect introduction to the 21st century?

Matt: Ok, clearly you are all just fucking with me now. Or maybe I'm doing a terrible job of explaining myself. "Whatever 'works' in this film doesn't overshadow the fact that they do not as a whole make up for its shortcomings" - I couldn't agree more! This exactly. But also, I feel like it's worth pointing out what DOES work in this film, because it doesn't usually get any credit for those things. But yes, no argument here from me. We are in agreement. We concur. This is a consensus to which we have reached. Seriously, the score though - it's the tits.

And yes, this argument about not seeing Anakin as a kid is exactly what I was saying. The Phantom Menace doesn't really make a significant narrative contribution to the whole saga, so just take some elements and add them into Attack Of The Clones' opening crawl. That's where Anakin really starts his journey to become Darth Vader (although, as we'll get to, even that is badly mishandled). I can only assume that the point of showing Anakin as a child was to try to track his journey from complete innocence to dark overlord of evil, but we don't actually need to see him as a child to get that, do we? And what it leaves us with is a confusing back story about an immaculate conception, an annoyingly whiny performance and the ruined, troubled life of Jake Lloyd to occasionally gawp at on shit internet listicles.

Ali: Hard agree that the vast majority of Episode I is unnecessary, and that seeing Darth Vader as an innocent kid does not in any way colour what we know about him as an adult. It's just a massive bust conceptually. Attack of the Clones is equally terrible, albeit in different ways, but at least that's got a bit of drive to it, an end point it's working towards. It's hard to look back at The Phantom Menace and go, yes, this was definitely a story that needed to be told, regardless of any interesting developments that it may have introduced.

Matt: I think that a good plot point that this film introduces is the fact that Obi-Wan ends up training Anakin before he is really ready to do so. I think this is an interesting development that is supposed to indicate in some way that Anakin's training as a Jedi was flawed from the start. He was too old to enter the academy and he was trained by someone too inexperienced. Really he was just let down by the system. As we all are by this very film existing.

Now please, tell me I'm insane for even suggesting that there is an aspect of this film that I find interesting. Please.

Ali: You're not allowed to like anything, Matt. That's the whole point of this feature: we gang up on the Star Wars nerd and mock you for your heart-felt beliefs. How dare you enjoy parts of a movie that everyone hates, YOU CLOWN. There are bits I appreciate. Duel of the Fates SLAPS. Everything Ben Burtt the sound guy does is iconic. It's a great movie to watch with your eyes closed.

Matt: But if you watch with your eyes closed, you'll miss out on Amidala's incredible costumes...

Do you guys think all the CGI is terrible? It hasn't all aged well, obviously, but I think that's true of a lot of films of that period and, actually, I think some of it still holds up quite well - the battle droids, some of the pod race and the location backdrops as opposed to, say, Jar Jar, the Gungans and basically anything that interacts with somebody living. I also think the CGI isn't as overused as it is in Clones and Sith which were basically cartoons in that respect so on the whole, this one has a better mix of practical effects and real, tangible sets and characters in there too.

Ali: Generally I am not overly fussed about the horrible revisionism forced upon the Star Wars movies, but I remember being really pissed that they eventually replaced practical Yoda with CG Yoda. The muppet Yoda looked so good! It's a slap in the face of the Henson Company.

Becky: The CGI is not bad considering the time, but there’s so much unnecessary CGI that it dates the film even more. For example, at the beginning when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan land on the blockade ship, the doors that close behind them are computer-generated for no discernible reason. They shut in a way that a physical space-ship door would, so why go to all the bother of rendering it?

Matt: The doors on the blockade ship are weird. They have that strange motion blur on them, which is such an odd thing to fuck up when you consider how painstakingly realistic the lighting appears on completely CGI characters.

Just the Jedi, having a normal one.

Becky: They also do this strange Jedi-rush thing where they suddenly dash away from the droids, which we never saw in the originals and they never do again, even though it would help them get out of loads of scrapes eg on Naboo. If they’d just used their space-rush then, they probably wouldn’t have picked up Jar Jar.

Matt: The space rush thing is one of those issue that gets answered by fan logic like "it uses too much of the Force so they have to use it sparingly" but of course it makes no sense. You'd just use it at all times, wouldn't you? What's the point in walking literally anywhere if you have the ability to scoot around at 70mph? The Jedi Council should be filled with everyone just doing this down the corridors.

Ali: I like the idea that the Force is something that has to be used sparingly, kind of like a phone battery. You can't spend all day on 5G watching full screen video and then expect to have enough Force left to play Pokemon Go, guys, you just can't.

Becky: Also, all the ships just look weird. The one they’re on that breaks down looks like a massive silver cock and balls. One of the things I loved about Episodes IV-VI was the amount of detail on the ships as the camera tracked across them: lots of little valleys and sticky-out bits that apparently served a purpose. The ones in Phantom Menace just look like they've got an Insta filter.

Matt: I like the silver cock and balls ship! I think it looks great - a slick, shiny silver dick in space. That's the intergalactic vehicle I want to see in the future.

Becky: Another thing I’d like cleared up: how are Anakin and his mum slaves? From what I see, they both have say jobs where they get the option of being let off early (Watto sends Ani home, leading to the infamous "Wahoo!"), and they have their own home where they can seemingly come and go as they please? Shmi can even work from home - I'd love to be able to do that on the regular. Granted it doesn’t look like a great life, but there aren't any signs of horrific oppression, it doesn’t really scream, "We're being forced to work against our will". And what was stopping Qui-Gon taking Shmi with him? He obviously had a thing for her as well...

Matt: Anakin and Shmi being slaves in name only, I just put down to the concept being dumbed down for kids. That's never bothered me, to be honest.

Becky: I will say that the pod race stands up pretty well, but it’s pretty much lifted wholesale from Ben-Hur so loses points for that. I can’t believe we’ve got this far and not discussed Jar-Jar Binks. I bet you loved him, Matt.

Ali: I still remember when a work colleague of mine referred to Jar-Jar Binks as "Bah-Bah Janks", which is objectively hilarious.

Matt: I mean, obviously I fucking hate him, but I do wonder if he really does resonate with kids in the way that Lucas has suggested? That at least would be a reason to allow it. Otherwise the best-case scenario is that it's a performance choice that everyone took a gamble on and it just didn't pay off in the worst way possible. Like that famous story of Johnny Depp suddenly doing his Jack Sparrow schtick on set and making every exec nervous, only it ends with him completely bombing the entire Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise before it started and utterly ruining Depp's career.

Ali: The Jar-Jar thing got much more difficult to hate on once I found out that Ahmed Best tried to kill himself. That kind of puts it all in perspective, really. The first time I watched Episode I with my eldest son, he was about 3, and he was visually delighted by Jar-Jar. But, you know, kids are stupid.

Matt: There are loads of other little logic issues in the film though, right? Any more? One issue I can't get out of my head is - going back to Ali's point about having the higher ground over me and chopping my legs off - is that logic gets completely undermined at the end of this film. Ali, I think you'll find you're actually Darth Maul with the higher ground, and my charmingly misguided fondness for Phantom Menace is going to lurch up, double-flip over your head and cut you square in half.

Ali: I'm tired. Fuck off.

Becky: You’re both Jar-Jar.

Luke: Why did I agree to this?

Well quite. See you for Attack Of The Clones, we will! (That's a Yoda reference).

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