“Taxation Of Trade Routes”: Re-Watching The Phantom Menace

A few more joined me on the first dive into the prequel realm, aside from Ashling. Fiachra was back, and so too my housemate April. The Phantom Menace was a film that I was actually looking forward to re-watching a lot, because I thought it might provide a good example of comparison between blurred nostalgia and modern criticism.

Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, I think that it is fair to say that Menace is the most disliked/criticised/mocked film of the saga, for reasons that it would be beyond pointless to rehash. But it didn’t always be that way, or at least that’s how I see it.

I remember pretty vividly the first time I saw Menace. I was 11 years old. My family were on holiday, visiting relations in London, when it was released. And that morning, lacking anything else to do, my father agreed to take me to the local cinema to take it in. I remember being practically alone in the theatre, which made the whole thing feel like a private screening.

And I remember really enjoying the film. Parts of it were dull, parts of it were confusing, but I remember really liking it. Laser battles, robots being cut open, pod racing, that lightsabre duel. Five stars, for sure.

Things changed as I got older. Back in the day, the local video shop was a very limited, probably non-licensed, operation, and its copy of Menace was one that I rented out more than once to balance out whatever my sister had gotten for herself, usually something I didn’t want to watch all that much. So Episode I got plenty of re-watches, or at least the very best bits did. More and more, I found myself less interested in the opening half hour, the Qui-Gon/Watto back and forth, the excursion on Coruscant. And then, at some point, in those cynical teen years, I realised that no, Menace was not actually that good a film. Not as terrible as some make it out to be mind, but not good. It was Red Letter Media that spelled out some of the intricacies of Menace’s deficiencies, but long before I was finally introduced to that I had realised that 11 year old Dave had been swept away on a sea of CGI effects and action sequences.

My friend Fiachra was a bit different. He’s very much a “Leave the memories alone” kind of guy, who saw Menace in full once, upon release, and has never actually re-watched the whole thing since, not feeling the need. He loved the film back then, but now, his honest rating was somewhere in the region of a 4/5 out of ten, same as myself, with much the same complaints as others. April, not a huge Star Wars fan by any stretch of the imagination, couldn’t recall clearly her first viewing of Menace, but had no major criticisms to throw it’s away, aside from her general dislike of the Anakin character. And Ashling too is the kind of person who doesn’t see why Menace is so worthy of the hate the fandom generally pour on it.

Is Menace under-rated then? Is there a degree of group-think in the way that it is so disdained by those that love Star Wars? Is a certain demographic of fan too insulated? How common was my experience?

Common enough as I found out, when I asked around.

First impression as a kid – Yaaaay spaaace!
Years pass without a second screening
Current impression – What? Why?

Yay. Darth maul. So cool! Lightsabers!

This was a recurring theme. Lightsabers have always been free money for Lucasfilm.

The opening minutes were the Jedi corvette is blown up and they fight through the droid ship were great, then I remember getting steadily more bored once they made planetfall, then getting annoyed on tatooine, and by the end the only bits that were entertaining were the scenes of the fight with Darth Maul. No harm to the actor playing Anakin, but it was a toss up between him and Jar Jar over who drained more from a scene from the get-go.
From the start, to me the most redeeming feature has always been ‘Duel of the Fates’…
That said, I was 15 when I saw it first, so my first impressions may be a little more jaded than yours.

Jake Lloyd remains very divisive, this was another common thing I encountered. I tend to be fairly sympathetic to child actors myself.

I have it on VHS still. As a kid I watched Empire more often regardless of that.

I was 20 when I saw it and had grown up with IV-VI. My initial reaction was probably less positive than yours, but I also haven’t grown to dislike it quit as much. While the original trilogy was captivating and has become a part of our shared heritage, the prequels are more meh. Enjoyable but ultimately forgettable. Here’s to the sequels being more memorable.

As a teen – Man that movies shit it’s just made for children, I fucking hate jar jar.
Now – It’s not great but it’s certainly not that bad, kinda meh with a few cool sequence’s.

Clones is by far worse, in spite of Clones actually having a main character.

I had a similar impression to you. I saw it when I was nine, was really excited that it was a Star Wars movie about a kid my age, and absolutely loved it. Also lightsaber fights. I liked it significantly less as an adult.

There is something about Menace that seems to be a bit more appealing for a younger audience, but I personally never really thought that Jake Lloyd was a part of that.

I liked Phantom enough as a kid, it didn’t blow my mind, just a nice movie with cool lightsaber action. Today I still think it’s okay, certainly doesn’t deserve all the hate.

So, it would seem that while most acknowledge Menace’s flaws, it was a film that brought happiness when viewed with younger eyes.

Some other random points that came up during the viewing:

-Padme’s dresses – or the decoy’s dresses as you prefer – were a frequent topic of conversation. I always thought they were bonkers, and at one point Fiachra realised that he had been mistaking a piece of furniture for part of one, but April liked them. She made a good point: if Padme is supposed to be a 14 year old planetary monarch, those are the exact kind of thing she would be wearing.

-I genuinely couldn’t remember if the identity of Darth Sidious was supposed to be a mystery for the audience. I don’t think he was called Palpatine at any point in the original trilogy. But it wouldn’t be all that hard a leap to make: fans of the films would recognise Ian McDiarmid surely, while Menace puts a scene with hologram Sidious next to a scene of hologram Palpatine, and the similarity isn’t hard to see. I don’t remember ever not knowing who Sidious was anyway.

-I still think that the first conversation between Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman is in the top two of Padme/Anakin scenes. The problem is that it isn’t made clear that the difference in their ages isn’t all that great. She’s supposed to be 14, he 10. The actors were 18 and 10, respectively.

Menace really is struggling the second you read the words “taxation of trade routes”. Even though that’s not a huge part of the film at all really, it’s such a mockery worthy opening. To paraphrase Maul VA Peter Serafinowicz: “That’s what kids love, trade embargos”.

– I think that Jar-Jar is such an overly-discussed/hated figure, that people have become numb to him. In most of his scenes there was awkward silence in my house.

-One thing that bothers me about Menace is Liam Neeson’s performance. His character always seems irritatingly unflappable, almost uncaring, no matter what the situation. Fiachra thought this made sense for the character though, and I admit that he has a point. Qui-Gon is very Obi-Wanish.

-If there is one scene that I think sums up the problem with Lucas’ obsession with green screen, it’s that brief conversation between Padme and Jar-Jar on the royal ship. His antics are irritating, and poor Natalie Portman just can’t emote properly towards what is either an X on a green screen or a man in a skin tight suit with balls attached all over it.

-Portman generally is worse than I remembered. Far too monotone, even in scenes where the regal bearing should slip, like when she begs the Gunguns for help.

-I had to actually look it up to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, but I had no idea that Yoda was altered from puppet to CGI a few years ago. What an unnecessary change.

-While’s there’s something potent in Maul’s silence, and the way he paces back and forth in front of that force shield, Fiachra’s right when he says it would have been a good time to give him just a few more lines.

-I still love the pod-race. If Menace is only good for its action set-pieces, it has two great ones, and the pod-race is the first.

-Maybe it was the negative reaction to “midichlorians” that made Lucas balk, but I never thought that the prequels did enough follow-up on the “immaculate conception” angle, it only really referenced one more time, in that opera scene of Revenge Of The Sith. Interestingly, April didn’t see it so much as a nod to immaculate conception – though Sith all but confirmed it was – and thought Shmi might just be saying, in a roundabout way, that Anakin’s dad just wasn’t in the picture anymore.

-Also, the prequels failed to capitalise on the potential for a proper “Obi-Wan fails as a teacher” plot and that was brought home to me in that late scene between Obi-Wan and Yoda. Here the young man is barely having become a Jedi and already taking on a padawan, mostly just out of a commitment to his recently dead master than any great personal enthusiasm. That’s a ripe recipe for a not great teacher. Attack Of The Clones will touch briefly on this, as will Sith, but to nowhere near the extent they could have.

Next time, sand.

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2 Responses to “Taxation Of Trade Routes”: Re-Watching The Phantom Menace

  1. Always entertaining, but I’d like to hear more of the mature informed comment and less of the long-remembered teenage excitement. Otherwise I would feel obliged to blether on about the “Ten Commandments” !

  2. Pingback: Review – Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens | Never Felt Better

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