"The Phantom Menace" is often criticized as a weak movie.
But Episode 1 is a better "Star Wars" movie than any made in the last decade.
The innumerable flaws in Disney's movies undermined "Star Wars" as a whole
"The Phantom Menace" was called the most "overhyped motion picture of the last decade" upon its 1999 release, but the truth is that all of the most recent "Star Wars" movies released by Disney deserve this title a lot more.
That's not to say that those films in the last 10 years have been terrible. "Rogue One" is excellent, and there are some great moments in Disney's sequel trilogy, too. But George Lucas is "Star Wars," and so too, therefore, is "The Phantom Menace - far more than Disney's polished trilogy.
The movie is also crucial to the wider context of the "Star Wars" universe, and set things up that are now treasured by the "Star Wars" fandom, including a certain red-headed Sith wielding a double-bladed lightsaber.
'The Phantom Menace' has flaws, but none as deep as the sequel trilogy's
It's no secret that "The Phantom Menace" could probably use a good edit. It has pacing issues, and the stilted dialogue the prequel movies are often criticized for is almost part of the fabric of "Star Wars" by this point. And yes, Jar Jar Binks is kind of annoying, but not nearly as much as is now widely accepted.
These are surface-level flaws, creases in an otherwise confident and assured start of a definitive new era of "Star Wars" with believable characters and clear plots.
The three latest Disney movies, meanwhile, feel like a jumbled mess with no cohesion. It's obvious that the planning was poor, hence Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" abandoning all that came in JJ Abrams' "The Force Awakens." Then, when fans voiced their displeasure with Johnson's movie, Abrams was brought back on board for the grand finale of the Skywalker saga, "The Rise of Skywalker," which essentially felt like two hours of retconning and jamming in plots and characters that were jarring and confusing.
The flaws in Disney's movies are not just creases, they were deep-rooted issues that undermined "Star Wars" as a whole. From Palpatine's return to Finn's non-existent character arc to Rey's heritage and her sudden force healing ability, plus the series' betrayal of Luke Skywalker ... nothing felt cohesive, unlike the thoughtful, coherent and deliberate expansion of the universe that "The Phantom Menace" achieved.
'Star Wars' is at its best when it's new and bold, just like 'The Phantom Menace'
"Star Wars" is at it's best when it's offering innovative, bold new stories, as it did with its first-ever installment, "A New Hope" and its sequel "The Empire Strikes Back."
In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2015, shortly after "The Force Awakens" came out, Lucas said of his previous six "Star Wars" movies: "I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships - you know, to make it new."
I walked away from "The Force Awakens" feeling like I'd seen a box-checking tour: Alien bars - tick! A sinister army - tick! A band of rebels - tick! A cute droid - tick! Rather than an innovative experience. As Lucas said himself of the movie: "there's nothing new."
This is why "The Mandalorian" works so well. Yes, it brings back old characters, but we also get to see things in the "Star Wars" universe that we haven't seen before, and it expands upon the lore and legend in a completely different era of "Star Wars." We come away from "The Mandalorian" more enriched by "Star Wars," but I never felt that way after one of Disney's sequels, or "Solo." "Rogue One," thankfully, did achieve originality, but not to the degree of the "The Phantom Menace."
'The Phantom Menace' is vital to the wider franchise and added to the lore of 'Star Wars'
Not only did we get to see a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in action, shading in the life of someone we previously only knew as a wise old man, but we also saw the early beginnings of the boy who would be Vader.
Plus, we learnt more about the mythical Jedi, and got to see them at the height of their powers in a never-before-seen era before their fall. We learnt about the Sith's rule of two and how a sprawling galaxy was ruled before the Empire took over, not to mention the numeral new planets, species, characters, and civilizations we've come to know and be fascinated with introduced by "The Phantom Menace."
We also have "The Phantom Menace" to thank for Darth Maul, one of the coolest villains in movie history who immediately became a fan favorite. Animated series "The Clone Wars" and "Rebels" have since expanded upon him to make him one of the saga's most complex and beloved characters - we have Lucas and "The Phantom Menace" to thank for the creation of the spike-headed Sith lord.
Meanwhile, Qui Gon Jinn, played with perfect serenity, spirituality, and facial hair by Liam Neeson, is one of the most underrated characters in "Star Wars." He is the quintessential Jedi, his longing for peace and calm is exemplified when he kneels and meditates in a pause in battle with Maul in the Duel of the Fates.
Qui Gon's impact is felt across the rest of the "Star Wars" movies - Kanan Jarrus in "Rebels" has more than a hint of Qui Gon about him. And Qui Gon, let's not forget, is the one who found the boy who would become Darth Vader.
Disney's sequel trilogy are meringue movies - they look good but there's no substance
The Duel of the Fates battle between Obi-Wan and Qui Gon and Maul features two Jedi knights at their peak fighting a Sith lord, and the dazzling style of lightsaber combat is riveting to watch.
But in "Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian," Dave Filoni, co-creator of "Rebels" and producer and director of "The Clone Wars" and "The Mandalorian," explains why this fight is so much more than a flashy spectacle.
Filoni said: "He's fighting for Anakin. That's why it's called the Duel Of The Fates, the fate of this child and depending on how this fight goes, Anakin's life will be dramatically different ... it's everything that the entire three prequel films hangs on."
—Adam Hlavac (@adamhlavac) May 10, 2020
Qui Gon's death gives the movie weight. Conversely, consequences feel light in Disney's movies. It's a tired criticism by now but Rey, who has never held a lightsaber before, manages to beat fully-trained Sith lord Kylo Ren in a duel. This betrays the nature of "Star Wars," where skill in combat has always been crucial. The new trilogy doesn't follow the universe's rules that Lucas' movies lovingly follow to create a believable, immersive, and meaningful story.
This is why "The Phantom Menace" is so underrated. It's taken for its surface-level flaws when it has so much more to offer.
Disney's sequel trilogy are meringue movies. They are well made and look good, and are certainly more polished than the prequel series, but they are ultimately lightweight and empty.
But "The Phantom Menace" is one of the most important and thoughtful slices of "Star Wars" we've ever been given, and not even Jar Jar Binks can stand in the way of that.
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