The Empire Strikes Back was... The Phantom Menace?
I suspect that most of my readers are big enough Star Wars fans to have heard of the "Machete Order" approach to watching the saga. If not, the short explanation goes something like this: audiences are sophisticated enough these days to accept "nested flashback" narratives. (And come on, you've all seen these movies anyway.) Right after Empire's revelation about Luke's father is the perfect moment to flashback and show the story of how he transformed. Then you complete the original trilogy with Return of the Jedi. All "surprises" in the overall narrative are preserved. It seems like pretty compelling logic to me.
Of course, Machete Order also argues that you should skip The Phantom Menace entirely, stating that it provides nothing of importance to the story that isn't reiterated early in Attack of the Clones. Setting aside whether that's true, my goal here is to watch all the existing Star Wars movies, so leaving one out wasn't an option.
So then... The Phantom Menace. It's been many years since I'd last seen it. Watching it again, I feel it was a touch worse than I'd remembered. It honestly might be hard to tell whether that's because originally, I was fighting to wring enjoyment out of it... or whether now I'm so jaded on the prequels that it has retroactively infected the first movie even more.
It's just so easy to pick nits with this movie. Is the trade dispute with Naboo "alarming," as the opening crawl claims, or "trivial," as Qui-Gon Jinn says not three minutes later? How does a girl of 14 become an elected official, and why is she called a Queen? Why are those Galaxy Quest-esque force field walls there during the lightsaber duel (or, for that matter, the massive empty room just outside)? But I think these are the details people would overlook if they'd otherwise been emotionally engaged with the film in the first place. The bigger distractions are the ones that inhibit that initial investment.
Everyone says that CG visual effects are over-utilized (in this and all the prequels). But it's lack of emotional resonance with the CG that causes the worst moments. The Gungan battle with the Trade Federation, for example, is all CG, but isn't a terrible element of the movie. Jar Jar "battling" a pit droid inside Watto's shop, however? That's like a scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the soul surgically removed. Or the fact that CG Jabba doesn't look like Return of the Jedi's puppet Jabba? That doesn't necessarily mean the CG is bad... because Phantom Menace originally had a puppet Yoda, and it didn't look anything like original trilogy Yoda either. (The CG Yoda Lucas later inserted feels somewhere between the two.)
Using Jar Jar Binks as comic relief doesn't feel inherently awful to me. But the movie tells us to dismiss him, because that's what Qui-Gon Jinn (a character we immediately know we should respect) tries to do the moment they first meet. And frankly, the fact that you can't understand half of what Jar Jar says annoys me far more than anything he does.
Is young Jake Lloyd too unskilled an actor to be the focus of the movie? Perhaps, but the script deals far more damage to Anakin than the acting. We're supposed to believe it's "love at first sight" for him and Padme. But the age gap between them is pretty hard to overlook, and the fact that he doesn't recognize her when she switches into the Queen Amidala outfit seriously undermines that narrative. We're perhaps supposed to believe that Anakin's success in the final space battle comes from instinctual use of the Force. But the fact that his scenes are intercut with Jar Jar's antics in the ground battle make both look like it's merely dumb luck at work.
But all that said, I truly don't think the movie is awful throughout. Liam Neeson is solid as Qui-Gon Jinn. Ewan McGregor is a lot of fun as this more brash Obi-Wan Kenobi, like a Jedi with a touch of quippy Han Solo stirred in. (It's a shame Kenobi is sidelined for so much of the plot.) The final lightsaber duel is a feast for the eyes (even if Darth Maul is rather easily dispatched at the end of it). The pod race sequence is pretty engaging -- one of those cases where CG does its job, and actually the greatest triumph of sound design in the entire Star Wars saga.
Also, John Williams' score for this film is exceptional. His music for the final lap of the pod race ratchets the tension up to the highest degree. Then there's "Duel of the Fates," the most iconic piece of music from the prequel trilogy, as widely recognized as his best work from the classic films. And speaking of those classic themes, the way he twists some of them for use here is absolutely brilliant. Anakin's Theme is a sweeping, emotional melody whose final five notes evokes Darth Vader's Theme. The triumphant parade at the end of the movie features children joyously chanting the same melody that an ominous mens' choir drones as the Emperor's theme.
The bottom line? The Phantom Menace isn't great. Or even good. But set aside the disappointment of this being a Star Wars film, and I've actually seen a lot of movies that are a lot worse than this. I mean, it's a freaking masterpiece compared to Wing Commander, that terrible piece of crap a lot of us went to see in 1999 just to catch the first trailer for this. (Ah, the olden days, when trailers didn't instantly leak online.)
I'd grade The Phantom Menace a C-.