The Phantom Menace is a variety show with fantastic characters and beautiful settings, wrapped up in the innovative spirit that makes Star Wars so great.
With the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga, we have a chance to reconsider the nine Star Wars movies as a whole and, in doing so, my lifelong conviction that The Phantom Menace is the best of the bunch is strengthened. Yes, the movie is surrounded by nostalgia which affects my judgment, but the movie really does hold great strengths that make it the best movie in the saga.
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Since its release,The Phantom Menace has been the subject of great controversy that can ultimately be put down to its subversive nature, but this is actually one of its great strengths.
The movie subverts audience expectations in so far as it is wholly different from what came before, which is why it received such a backlash from those who had grown up with the originals. It presents the Jedi as fallen, not the great warriors that Obi-Wan spoke of in A New Hope, it focuses on the politics of the galaxy, rather than swashbuckling adventure, and it makes the protagonist a child, not a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.
But these decisions are among the best in the Saga because by depicting the galaxy as not what we expected, George Lucas highlights to the audience the corruption which pervades it at this point in galactic history.
When seeing the Jedi as fallen and the Senate as corrupt, the audience is meant to be shocked and, through this, realize how broken the galaxy is. This makes the ascendancy of the dark side over the course of the prequels all the more believable and tragic.
What’s more, by subverting audience expectations, Lucas strengthens the creative, innovative spirit that is at the heart of Star Wars. Lucas has been vocal about his love for new, different films and the story decisions of the prequels are the perfect example of this.
Love them or hate them, one has to respect George Lucas for these bold choices.
More than any other movie in the Skywalker Saga, The Phantom Menace is a variety show. And I mean that in the best possible sense.
It has lightsaber combat, political intrigue, podracing, space battles, and comedy throughout, providing something of interest for every viewer. We see similar things in all the prequels, but it was The Phantom Menace that introduced them and did them best.
Whilst some use this as an accusation that the movie is too jam-packed with content, I would resist this argument. There are also moments of quiet throughout the movie (flying between planets, discussions with the council) which allow us to better understand the characters, all whilst preparing for the next big moment.
What’s more, the variety of the movie makes the galaxy seem so much more alive. Wherever one looks, someone is living their life and doing something entirely unusual to us, all of which give us as fans more opportunities to learn about the intricacies of the galaxy we love.
It’s because of this variety that The Phantom Menace and the prequels as a whole have been a source of so much story-telling since. Just look at The Clone Wars, which selected different aspects from the movies of this era to create many more fantastic tales.
Star Wars has always done character well and this is most evident in the great depth and emotional realness of the characters in The Phantom Menace.
From Qui-Gon’s struggles with the rigid rules of the Jedi Council to Anakin’s mix of youthful naivety and great power to Shmi’s wondrous summation of the positivity, which is so inherent to the Star Wars galaxy, the characters in The Phantom Menace are so complex and thus believable.
Which is why the movie gets better with each re-watch. The characters have such depth that to do them justice one should engage with their actions and motivations to truly understand them.
And the depth of character really does extend to anyone. Just look at the world-famous Darth Jar Jar theory which emerged a few years back. This was more than just a frivolous joke, it was a theory that looked at Jar Jar Binks on multiple levels to try and understand his motivations, and the fact that this movie allows us as fans to do this is testament to its strength.
And special mention must be made of Darth Maul, the Saga’s best villain in so far as he epitomizes the dark side completely. His arrogance, hatred, and desire for revenge are the perfect representation of evil.
A final mention must be made for the sheer beauty of the prequels. From the cascading waterfalls of Naboo to the immense grandeur of the galactic senate, The Phantom Menace introduced worlds and settings which are forever ingrained in minds of fans everywhere thanks to the beautiful concept art by Doug Chiang.
The movie gives us a complete view of the beauty of the galaxy, thus making the corruption of the political system and the inevitable rise of the dark side all the more tragic.
The character design is fantastic too, with each member of the Jedi Order, each alien, each podracer having a distinctive feature that has endeared them to fans.
The sheer commitment to detail is evident in the fantastic designs of characters that are on-screen for just a second. In fact, the now-famous character of Quinlan Vos was created from a background character on Tatooine with a distinctive yellow face-stripe, demonstrating just how engaging and detailed every aspect of this movie is.
The Phantom Menace has it all. It perfectly represents the spirit of Star Wars, whilst also giving us something new to engage with and love all over again. It gets better with the rewatch, boasts a wealth of lovable characters, and has something for every fan to enjoy which is why it really does deserve the title of the best movie in the Skywalker Saga.
The Phantom Menace is now available to watch on Disney+, alongside the rest of the Skywalker Saga.