While Episode I: The Phantom Menace is typically regarded as the worst film in the Star Wars universe, I would argue that it is actually not that bad when fairly judged.
With a lowly 6.5 on IMDb, The Phantom Menace is typically considered the worst Star Wars film. The combination of Jar Jar Binks and young Anakin seems to turn fans off what is otherwise a fairly epic first chapter. If you can ignore the often annoying CGI Gungan, the rest of the movie is really quite good, and this is coming from someone who used to spend weekends binge-watching the original trilogy on VHS as a kid and can quote most of the dialogue.
(Equip your nostalgia goggles)
In Defense of Episode I
I’ve talked to lots of Star Wars fans over the years and one of the fastest ways to prove you’re not a ‘real fan’ is to try and defend Episode I. Denouncing the first film is basically a requirement if you want to be taken seriously by the fan base, and that’s a boatload of crap.
In my view, it’s incredibly simplistic to claim that one character ruins an entire movie, especially when that character isn’t even the protagonist or villain. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some moments in The Phantom Menace where attempted jokes and bad dialogue definitely hurt the movie, but if occasionally questionable writing is your reason to write-off Episode I, you’re probably not much of a George Lucas fan to begin with.
It’s also worth considering the release year of 1999 when critiquing the movie, as all other films in the franchise are viewed through the lens of the technology available when they were made. The use of CGI to enhance Episode I may feel clunky in hindsight, but it’s hard to fault them for using the latest available technology. The massive advances in CGI by the Episode II and III cause The Phantom Menace to feel even more dated, but realistically the special effects are far better than the original trilogy, even if they were overused.
With that said, here are the reasons I enjoy The Phantom Menace:
1. The Podrace
The twenty-minute podrace in The Phantom Menace was easily one of the best parts of any Star Wars film. In some respects the mid-movie climax was more exciting than the ending of the actual movie, a dramatic underdog victory for the stranded Queen Amidala. It was highly satisfying to watch Sebulba skid to a stop in view of the finish line, his pod ruined along with his dreams of victory.
The fact they haven’t used podracing at all in any of the four movies since The Phantom Menace is a travesty. A two-hour podrace would’ve been more original than the Death Star rehash plot of The Force Awakens. Luckily, the popularity of podracing wasn’t totally wasted, they still sell LEGO Star Wars podracers and Star Wars Episode I: Racer was an awesome game, but the possibilities are still relatively untapped. Like the multitude of amazing Old Republic plots currently collecting dust, it seems that Disney is content to simply waste the podracing concept for the moment, rather than create a spin-off movie or new game.
FWIW: Since podracing takes place in the Outer Rim Territories under the control of the Hutts, it’s plausible that it would have continued uninterrupted, regardless of the political situation in the Republic/Empire.
2. Darth Maul and The Epic Lightsaber Duel
Arguably the most technically proficient lightsaber combatant in any of the Star Wars movies, Darth Maul is often overlooked because of his short role in the films.
It took two Jedi to take this man down, and one of them was Liam Neeson. The epic battle with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan is the best lightsaber fight in any of the movies, regardless of how much you enjoy watching Sir Alec Guinness touch tips gingerly with Darth Vader. Even his demise was perfect – brought down by his own overconfidence and cut in half by a Padawan with a rat-tail.
3. Liam Neeson
While Qui-Gon Jinn was struck down far too soon for my liking, he will go down as the most badass Jedi in the Star Wars universe apart from Mace Windu. He was wise, calm, and in retrospect, the only Jedi smart enough to realize how fucked-up and political the Jedi Order had become.
In my view, Qui-Gon was as close as we’ve gotten to a ‘gray Jedi‘ in the actual movies, and that made him an infinitely complex and interesting character compared to the boner Jedi who stuck to the rigid code.
4. These Guys
The incompetent Trade Federation leaders were absolutely hilarious in my opinion and contributed some of my favorite one-liners as they tried to kill a Qui-Gon and Obi-Won. They were also the perfect distraction for Palpatine and enabled his rise to Supreme Chancellor, so don’t underestimate these two.
Although, I don’t envy their choice in allies… they were survivors.
5. Hayden Christensen is NOT in it
I said one person generally can’t ruin a movie… well, Hayden Christensen certainly tried his best with Episode II and III. While I believe his whiny demeanor was a callback to Luke Skywalker (it helps me sleep at night), I still can’t stand his acting. Did anyone else feel like Obi-Wan spent two movies babysitting an overpowered baby?
Rather than ushering in a new generation of Star Wars-obsessed teenagers, Christensen’s emo performance sealed Star Wars’ fate as a ‘nerdy’ movie series for almost 15 years. He wasn’t a hero or a heart-throb and the casting decision remains a costly one for the franchise’s reputation with Millennials.
Jake Lloyd’s young Anakin may not have been perfect, but he’s far better than the Christensen version of Anakin, and he certainly didn’t make me never want to watch his movies again (thanks, Hayden). Thankfully, Daisy Ridley and the revamped Star Wars franchise have done a good job resurrecting the series to the mainstream spotlight.
It’s really not that bad…
The Phantom Menace wasn’t perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it has a lot going for it. The plot doesn’t revolve around destroying a planet-sized battle station that can destroy other planets, which is a big plus now that three of the eight movies have that plot. When you add in the podracing and epic lightsaber duel, you already have a solid movie, which is pushed over the edge by the presence of Liam Neeson.
I like the droid armies of the Trade Federation, they were a worthy, but beatable foe, and it was very satisfying to watch them get slaughtered by lightsabers. The Droideka (destroyers) made the fight interesting, and at the very least could withstand more than one blaster round (s/o Storm Troopers).
If the Reddit fan theory about Jar Jar Binks secretly being a Sith Lord happens to be true, it makes Episode I even better, as Jar Jar’s goofy demeanor would have been a facade for a secretly evil mastermind. Either way, it’s high-time we start appreciating the first Star Wars film for it’s good moments, and stop focusing on the CGI lizard that stole the show.