Even a flawed movie may have its moments. Now that we’ve subscribed to Disney Plus and finished watching The Mandolorian, Stephan and I decided to watch all the Star Wars movies in the chronology of the world rather than the chronology of when the films were released. I am not a fan of the prequels so was a little reluctant at first, but we watched The Phantom Menace last night and I am glad to have seen it a second time, despite its flaws (the first time was when it came out in theatres).
First of all, the bad, which I won’t go into in great detail because lots of people have already probably heard some of these arguments elsewhere. The attempt to reverse-engineer Darth Vader into Anakin Skywalker sometimes feels forced. This is a common issue with prequels—you know where you need to go so you have to make it go there regardless of what else happens, and it is difficult for it to feel organic.
Then there’s Jar Jar and the Gungans—oh boy. Sure, comic relief is great in a movie with lots of dark stuff, but making “primitives—” basically a proxy for anyone non-white and/or colonized—the clowns for everyone to laugh at—that comes across very badly. At some point I want to write a whole separate essay on how authorial racism is always wrong, meaning that if you bother to create a whole humanoid race and can’t treat them with the dignity you would a foreign human culture, it is still racist even if they are imaginary. But let’s leave that aside for now.
Then there’s Queen Amidala, who only really gets to do anything when she is posing as her own handmaid, and it just seems like there is a huge missed opportunity to make a really interesting female character who does more than stand around and talk in a monotone in a ridiculous amount of clothes and makeup. And yes, I realize that most of these scenes were the “stand-in” but what does that say about the Queen herself that this was what an imitation of her looks like? Plus, it’s just creepy that she is almost a mother figure to Anakin and then we know later they will be romantically involved. Yuck.
Naturally there are other things one could nitpick but those are my three main issues.
Here is what I like. Beautiful visual worldbuilding. The relationship of the Jedi characters. The fact that Anakin comes across as a smart-ass brat, so you don’t fall in love with the cute kid too much, knowing what he will grow up to become. Actually, I see it as a cautionary tale about how a child who is very gifted at a young age but not emotionally mature can seriously crash and burn. I’ve seen this happen in real life, though not as spectacularly as Anakin’s fall. When a child is a prodigy early on, there is a tendency to treat that child as a little adult, maybe share things with them that they’re not emotionally ready to understand. I learned to read very early, was part of a gifted program in school, and was frequently told how smart and creative I was, and this was a double-edged sword, because it took me longer than it should have to understand the value of hard work being actually more important than being “smart.” I had an adult’s reading level but a child’s emotions and insecurities. I saw other “smart” kids around me struggle. I can relate to this with Anakin, and see how all the adults in his life, even his mother, failed him miserably, by treating him like an adult before he was emotionally mature enough to make big decisions.
The other thing that I think the film does that is relevant to today is to show how fragile democracy is and how easy it is for little decisions here and there to head down the road to fascism. Yes, some of this is a bit heavy-handed, but it is still a valuable cautionary tale.