Star Wars: Episode I (1999) – Review

It’s been almost ten years since I’ve watched the Star Wars prequels for the last time, during uni holidays. At least that’s how I remember it.

The memories are muddled because I’ve heard so much about these movies, and Star Wars in general of course, in the meantime. So it almost surprised me that I felt like watching the first one again after listening to the Radio Nukular podcast about the Star Wars prequels.

I watched it on my old DVD since that is the only access I have. (I also bought a used VHS of the movie but that’s in German only.) I’d say that the DVD is a suitable format, as it hit the market right at the time that Episode I came out. There’s something about watching the movie in that typically grainy quality. (I’d argue that some films are best watched on a certain format, another example being Flashdance on VHS.) Maybe it’s because of that quality that Episode I’s visuals and style oftentimes reminded me of Final Fantasy VIII, which came out that same year. The equally grainy visuals of the PS1 game align themselves nicely with Episode I’s look and feel. The Naboo scenes also remind me of the flowery and romantic art design of Final Fantasy VIII’s world.

Naboo might as well be a location in a Final Fantasy game. (Credit: Lucasfilm)

Having seen all the analytical pieces about Episode I, by famous YouTube critics such as Red Letter Media and especially James Rolfe (who did a great retrospective at one point), I thought to be readily prepared for the famously awkward moments of the movie. But I was still totally baffled by the very first line of the opening crawl. It’s still, after all this time and all the talk, hard to believe that this actually happened.

George Lucas went a bit too far in a few places — the very first words seen in the movie are certainly one of those places. (Credit: Lucasfilm)

Galactic Republic? Taxation? Trade routes? After the first two sentences of the opening crawl, the movie already lost me. When thinking longer about this, I almost assume that this is a parallel dimension where some Star Wars movies sound like business reports. But I guess I’m assuming too much.

These abstract terms the movie throws around in the beginning set the stage for the entirety of Episode I. Critics often label movies passive experiences, probably to differentiate them more from video games. That is ostensibly right, of course, because when you watch a movie, you’re obviously not controlling a character, you just follow the story, as an observer. But then again, good movies (and for that matter, TV shows) integrate the viewer into the story. You feel like you’re part of the story, struggling through the adventure with the characters. In Friends or Seinfeld, the viewer feels like he’s part of those groups. In Star Wars, he pretty much sits behind Chewie and Han Solo in the Millenium Falcon.

Sadly, The Phantom Menace lacks so much focus itself. (Credit: Lucasfilm)

But then, there’s The Phantom Menace. Watching the movie feels so incredibly passive, and not only during the political scenes. It’s a strange feeling watching this movie: there’s seemingly so much going on — political intrigue, galactical stand-offs, Jedi stuff, prophecy stuff — but as the viewer, I kind of feel left out. Important developments appear to be happening off-screen, without me. (One plot point, which is vital not only to Episode I, but to the Star Wars saga as a whole, actually does happen off-screen: the promotion of Senator Palpatine to Supreme Chancellor.)

During the final scenes, after all, I did get to feel some epicness, when Qui-Gon is laid to rest and all the plot points are set up for the sequels. It was a short glimmer of that Star Wars greatness.

A place never seen before: Coruscant made its movie debut in Episode I. (Credit: Lucasfilm)

I still feel some strong nostalgia towards The Phantom Menace. I was in my teens during the late 90s and early 2000s so that time is special to me. Like so many others, I caught the Star Wars bug mainly because of the Special Editions (some genius marketing by Lucas) and Episode I released at exactly the right time. And even though the movie is amazingly weird, some aspects of it still endure. To me, those aspects are mostly visual in nature.* George Lucas really changed the look of Star Wars with Episode I, he went in a totally different direction there, and I absolutely respect that decision. Everything is new: the spaceships, weapons, enemies, many of of the aliens, places and planets (except Tattooine), costumes and so on. Many of these designs have become franchise staples — and rightfully so.

So despite all its strangeness — or yes, maybe because of it — Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace is a movie that still sparks thoughts and discussions, 18 years later and counting.

*Just recently I noticed how overused the old Star Wars iconography is in the context of stories that are not Episode IV-VI. (I have yet to watch the Ewok movies though.) I listened to the audio book adaption of Heir to the Empire, Timothy Zahn’s continuation of the original trilogy. It’s a great tale — but its greatest feature are no doubt the new characters and places.

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Looking at art from the decade point of view.

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