Journey to The Force Awakens: Re-watching Episode I

To prepare for The Force Awakens, I sat down with my friends Bill and Jeff to watch the first of the Star Wars prequels, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Released in 1999, The Phantom Menace was the first new Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi and launched the prequel trilogy that would reveal all of the important background on the galaxy we came to love in the original movies. More importantly, the prequels would serve as the story of Darth Vader so we understand where he comes from.

George Lucas hopped into the director’s chair for the first time since the first Star Wars, and people were hyped beyond belief to see him finally present his full vision for the massive universe he brought us into. Unfortunately, the prequels are horrid, stupid and nearly ruined Star Wars completely.

Millions of people have said millions of funny things about how bad this movie is. There’s Eli Roth’s hilarious review, there’s the great Red Letter Media review, and there is Patton Oswalt’s amazing rant on the prequels. Now let me add my small voice to a well-established chorus of dislike for this movie.

The Phantom Menace is one of the shittiest movies ever made and has almost no redeeming qualities. What is good about this movie? It ain’t much. The score is pretty awesome, and the lightsaber duel at the end is ok. Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn is fucking boring as shit, and is only appreciated now since Neeson has gone on to make Batman Begins and Taken. He was not that type of badass back here, but the knowledge that he is one now makes him bearable.

This one still image accounts for about 60% of Darth Maul's screen time
This one still image accounts for about 60% of Darth Maul’s screen time

And no, Darth Maul isn’t cool. Darth Maul’s lightsaber is fucking awesome and he looks cool, but the character is a bum. There’s no way he even has 14 minutes of screentime, and the only notable thing he does is get cut in half. Yes, he comes back in the Clone Wars cartoon, but unless you’re a diehard you’ll never know about that and instead only know him as the guy who says like 40 words and dies.

My relationship with Episode I is kind of funny. When I watched this movie the other night, it was only the third time I’ve seen it in my life. This is significant considering I’ve seen the other movies in the series roughly a billion times each. Take a journey with me.

It was 1999. It was a Shahen family outing to the theater. I remember my family wanted to go see Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. 7-year-old Joe raised a huge stink and cried because I wanted to see Episode I since I loved Star Wars and wanted to support Yoda.

When it was all said and done, my whole family hated it, and I was so confused and bored by it that I didn’t see it again for 14 years. This movie made no sense and was so slow and stupid, there was no reason to ever watch it.

Jar Jar Binks. The character that nearly derailed an entire franchise.
Jar Jar Binks. The character that nearly derailed an entire franchise.

This was the beginning of the saga to show us where Darth Vader came from, but instead of some crazy badass guy, we see he’s a little kid. I hate little kids in movies, and did even when I was a little kid myself. I’m not sure why, but there it is. Then you’ve got Jar Jar Binks and the rest of the Gungan race talking like children, saying people are in “deep doo doo” and things of that nature. It was so childish. And it was so boring. Instead of action there was a lot of conversation about trade routes.This wasn’t what Star Wars was supposed to be like, and young Joe hated it.

In 2013, I finally saw it again. I figured 14 years had passed, I’m much older and wiser, I could handle it and see the good. Holy shit was I wrong. You know it is bad from the opening title crawl. The original movie’s title crawl is about civil war and the “DEATH STAR” in big letters. You know there’s a rebellion and shit’s flying off, then cut to Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers raiding Princess Leia’s ship and destroying everybody. It is crazy!

The Phantom Menace’s crawl is about disputes over taxing trade routes and the greedy Trade Federation. And for some reason the Supreme Chancellor of the Congress of the Republic is dispatching Jedi to resolve the conflict. Why the Jedi are involved in this political plot is unclear, but it is all very boring. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon boringly venture to this ship and then fight some battle droids. And here we really get into what makes this movie so bad.

The rare time people aren't talking about trade routes or the Senate
The rare time people aren’t talking about trade routes or the Senate

Battle droids are one of the worst things ever created. They say childish things and act like silly little machines that have no purpose other than to make little kids giggle and be set pieces for the Jedi to wreck in action scenes. And I don’t understand the Trade Federation. The dispute with them goes on for the entirety of the prequel movies, but I’m not sure why I should care. Their motivation is never explained and it isn’t clear why they are bad.

The originals had the Rebel Alliance against the Empire. From the opening scene of the first flick you see the Empire is this massive, oppressive force, and the Rebels are the plucky heroes trying to free the galaxy. There are battles, the hero’s journey to defeat the Empire, it is exciting stuff!

In this movie, you’re introduced to the Jedi, who are basically political pawns in some kind of trade dispute. And instead of action you’re treated to a lot of long discussions on the balance of political power in the senate. You’re given no reason to care about these characters unless you’re a Star Wars nerd and will already care about this universe.

You’d also never understand that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” the title describes unless you’re a huge nerd or went online and found Lucas’ quote about how Palpatine’s manipulation of the trade situation makes him the phantom menace. If you didn’t know that Emperor Palpatine is in the originals, you’d have absolutely no idea what the point of the title is. It was clear to me that Palpatine is the evil Sith lord manipulating the situation, but if you’re unfamiliar with Star Wars, this movie is so boring that I don’t think you’d follow along and realize that. You’d be asleep or busy drinking drain cleaner.

Shut the fuck up, Anakin
Shut the fuck up, Anakin

And then Vader. We see that Darth Vader is just Anakin Skywalker, a little annoying slave boy who is so worried about his mother that everybody can sense he will be tempted by the dark side. It is absurd. Qui-Gon sees the Force is ridiculously strong in Anakin and frees him, but can’t free his mom. They journey to the Jedi temple, where Yoda, Sam Jackson, and literally every other Jedi tells Qui-Gon that while it is clear Anakin is strong, he’s going to be so emotional that he’ll be dangerous when he gets older. It is safer to not train him in the ways of the Force.

Qui-Gon is like, “LOL, nope, he’s the chosen one,” and keeps the kid around. Even Qui-Gon’s student, Obi-Wan, tells him this is a bad idea, but then at the end of the movie when Qui-Gon dies, Obi-Wan decides he has to train Anakin. Yoda is like, “Fuck it, whatever,” and Anakin starts his training and, as we see in future movies, eventually his emotions get the better of him and he becomes Darth Vader.

At this point Bill said, “So if they just saved his mom, none of this would have happened?” Yes. What George Lucas has told us the story boils down to is essentially the galaxy is ruined by a guy with mommy issues. As much as I hate stories about little kids, I hate stories about guys with mommy issues even more. It is why I hate Everybody Loves Raymond and grew to hate Sons of Anarchy. Episode I really crosses all of the lines.

Just shut up
Just shut up

We’re also introduced to midichlorians, a biological explanation for the Force. LAME. And why the fuck does Padme paint herself up and talk in that absurd monotone voice, but never does it in the rest of the prequels?

This rant is already far too long, but it feels like the surface hasn’t even been scratched in describing this film’s many flaws. As a standalone movie, The Phantom Menace is awful since it is boring, corny, horribly made, and the characters lack any sort of depth and none of them have any sort of real motivation. None of what is happening matters to you or can be understood unless you’re dedicated to the original series.

As the fourth Star Wars movie it is horrible because it lacks everything that made the originals fun and exciting, and it changes elements of the original movies through Lucas’ poor storytelling. When my nephews are older and I introduce them to the world of Star Wars, I will not be showing them the prequels. Or at the very least not Episode I.

I am dreading watching the next two movies. I fear this journey is going to harm my excitement for The Force Awakens rather than increase it.