Star Wars The Phantom Menace chooses the dark side by plaguing itself in an unrendered CGI extravaganza. The now dubbed "Original Trilogy" features three of the grandest space operas in cinematic history. A family affair that transcended across thousands of galaxies, enticing sci-fi fans and casual audiences alike. George Lucas instantly made a name for himself and was set amongst the brightest of stars. But that wasn't enough. The newly found lovers of the Star Wars universe craved for more lightsaber duels and space flights, and Lucas himself decided to embark on another three-part journey that would answer some of the most fundamental questions raised from the originals. In doing so, he conceived an ill-fated seed, found in the sandy ruins of Tatooine, that was foreshadowed to grow into something greater. That seed is The Phantom Menace. A Jedi knight along with his apprentice is tasked in protecting the Queen of Naboo from the dangers of an interplanetary trade dispute, whilst also encountering a young boy destined to "balance the force".
Star Wars is thick with lore. Lucas isn't just world building, he is universe building. This first episode of the prequel trilogy is the functional core at the centre of the Star Wars universe. How everything came to be in the original trilogy, is all seeded in this very first episode. And just with that element alone, Lucas succeeded in establishing the key plot points that would soon come into fruition. The introduction of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi's apprenticeship and the rebirth of the Sith. The practicality of Lucas' screenplay is the immense use of foreshadowing. Several nods to the previous instalments (release date order, of course...) are hinted frequently, essentially providing Midi-chlorian fluid for those thirsty fans.
The underlying issue with this, is that he didn't leave room for anything else. Characterisation, engrossing storytelling and basic direction are all tossed out of the starfighter. That's the beautiful paradox of The Phantom Menace. It hosts so much technical ingenuity, yet still feels just as vacuous as space. The narrative structure is cleverly devised to contain as many differing scenarios as possible, all for the purpose of merchandising. The most notable of these is the podrace. Now, I have a soft spot for this elongated (and rather pointless) segment. Aside from the incredibly choreographed Darth Maul fight, it's the only other captivating scene. But there's no denying that its inclusion was to simply sell video games and toys. The marketing for potential products was a teething issue I had with this prequel trilogy, and this first episode was the biggest criminal of them all.
However that was not the demise of this film. It was the absence of characterisation. Nearly every single character was lifeless. The actors simply saying their lines, as stiff and stoic as possible, with not a single ounce of emotion or charm. No chemistry between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan resulted in two characters I particularly did not care for. The tedious dialogue involving democracy and other political jargon disabled any genuine character development for the likes of Padmé, Palpatine and the Jedi council members. The only memorable individual was Jar Jar Binks, the quintessential comic relief that stupidly came across as irrefutably irritating with his hyperbolic clumsiness and "mesa speak kinda Jamaican" voice. Lloyd's performance as Anakin was a huge misfire as well, in what is one of the worst child performances ever.
Then we come to the visual effects. Some effects look like works of art, others something one would find in 'Microsoft Flight Simulator V1.0'. Putting aside the frequent noticeable green screen, the backdrops are mostly awe-inspiring. The rural cities of Naboo and dusty canyons of Tatooine especially looked natural. Coruscant seemed to lack that definition, with the effects team settling on a flat plane with a few buildings in the background, subconsciously taking me out of the world that Lucas conceived. The visualised character models may look dated now, but were pretty special back in '99. The only problem with these, is that the actors working alongside them never look directly into their eyes. Qui-Gon loves looking at Jar Jar's nostrils. Anakin isn't even looking at Watto. And Obi-Wan is just unfazed by it all. The humans never react to the movement of the character models, and that comes down to Lucas' bad direction.
The film's final saving grace is Williams' score, which is sublime. "Duel of the Fates" is hands down one of the greatest tracks in cinematic history. Perfectly epic.
It's just unfortunate that The Phantom Menace really is just that. A menace. It is undoubtedly the worst Star Wars film, with about thirty minutes of enjoyment to be had within its two hour runtime (well, over two hours...). Ironically the force in this episode felt forced, with a film that wasn't required. This one can stay on the dark side.