Star Wars countdown: “Episode I: The Phantom Menace”


Welcome to the “Star Wars” countdown and may the Force be with you. Each week leading up to the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” The Pitt News will retroactively review the “Star Wars” movies chronologically. The countdown begins this week with “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”

As someone who has never watched a “Star Wars” movie before, I wasn’t sure where to begin my journey in a galaxy far, far away.

Should I risk spoiling the franchise with the much-abashed prequel trilogy, or skip ahead to the original three? Should I prepare for history’s most popular space epic, or dive in completely unaware?

With the seventh installment on the horizon, I made my choice to start where most other millennials who didn’t grow up with “Star Wars” will begin: the “new” episode, 1999’s “The Phantom Menace.”

“Phantom Menace” takes place 32 years before the original, “A New Hope,” which is now the fourth film chronologically. It opens with a blockade of Trade Federation battleships surrounding the small planet of Naboo to resolve galactic space trade route taxation concerns.

While the Galactic Senate disputes over how to settle the matter, Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) has secretly sent two Jedis, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), to settle the matter. Sensing the Jedi, Sith Lord Darth Sidious — who is also the Trade Federation’s secret adviser — orders the Federation to attack Naboo with a swarm of battle droids.

As the “first” movie in the series, “Phantom Menace” introduces the majority of the worlds in the forthcoming installments. We see major settings, like Tatooine and Coruscant, and important characters, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Yoda. Some of the characters aren’t essential to this movie’s plot, but it’s certainly helpful for someone like myself who has a shaky grasp of “Star Wars” plotlines.

The main problem with the plot was not that it heavily incorporated knowledge of the original trilogy. In fact, it did a great job of not referencing moments from different “future” installments — too good a job. The gaping plot holes left me incredibly confused.

For example, it’s not clear how Anakin Skywalker — the future Darth Vader — becomes a “gifted” 9-year-old slave working in a junkyard, making and racing Podracers.

Also, why does his mother, Shmi, allow him to even participate in these races? She mentions that she disapproves, but allows him to compete anyway. And if they’re poor slaves, how did Anakin find the money or parts to build the Podracer and his robot, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels)?

Similarly, after his group crash-lands on the desert wasteland of Tatooine on their way back from Naboo, Qui-Gon takes charge to find the parts he needs to repair their ship. He goes through flaming hoops to get the parts he needs, like using the ship, which belongs to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), and Anakin as “prizes” in a bet with the junk dealer, a muppet-like character with wings named Watto.

Qui-Gon could have saved time — for him and the audience — if he had just threatened Watto with his lightsaber, gotten the parts he needed, saved Anakin and his mother and went on his way. That 45 minutes of screentime spent in Tatooine could have focused on more plot-advancing devices, like, I don’t know, not waiting until the end of the movie to save Naboo.

Also, how did Shmi conceive Anakin? We’re supposed to believe that Shmi just woke up one day with a child, the lauded Christ-like “chosen one” of the Force. In a careful, audience-conscious conversation with Anakin, Qui-Gon introduces us to midi-chlorians, which are microscopic life-forms that inhabit all living things and create the Force that impregnated Shmi.

By this logic, there should be countless other “chosen ones” across the galaxy fathered by the ambiguity of the Force — no wonder Anakin turns to the dark side. Even for a sci-fi movie, this detail feels cheap and lazy.

The original trilogy boasts some of the greatest plot twists in American film history — and we’ll say more on that in the weeks to come — but in keeping with the spirit of the whole prequel trilogy, “Phantom Menace” falls flat.

The acting surprised and disappointed me most, particularly with Natalie Portman, who won an Academy Award in 2011 for “Black Swan.” The Force was not with her this time, however, as she delivers some of the most boring and insincere dialogue in recent memory as Padmé Amidala, a stoic teenaged queen.

But Portman’s monotonous performance was offset by the most reviled character of the past two decades: Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best).

I thought everyone was making a big fuss over Jar Jar, but I was so, so wrong.

I want compensation for the screentime he wasted in this movie. He’s supposed to act as comic relief, but the audience has to shoulder his clumsiness and incomprehensible lines. His silliness is immediately obnoxious and out of place, especially because everyone around him keeps a strict composure.

Really, I wouldn’t make even my worst enemy sit through a montage of Jar Jar scenes.

The only respectable thing about this movie was the CGI effects that earned the film its Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Although at times oversaturated, there were moments when the effects were otherwordly, like the above-ground shots of Naboo and the epic lightsaber duels between Darth Maul and the two Jedi knights.

After three decades without a new “Star Wars” movie, the hype during the months leading up to the release of“Phantom Menace” release must have been comparable to today with “The Force Awakens.”

But just as Anakin proved not to be The Chosen One, so too did “The Phantom Menace.” Meanwhile, “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams has promised not to fall into the same traps as Lucas. We will see whether or not he fulfills this destiny.

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