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The Geek Life: Phantom Menacing

The Best of the Prequels?

By Robert T. Trate     January 11, 2012


The Geek Life is a weekly look at what is happening in the Geek Culture. Movies, Comics, Books, Video Games and TV Shows encompass more than just release dates and reviews. This week the Geek Life asks: Is The Phantom Menace the best of the Prequels?
There isn’t as much of a hype machine this time around for Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Perhaps it hasn’t kicked in yet but with less than a month until its 3D release, I expected to see something more than a few vintage/ new Phantom Menace toys. Over the holidays I had a chance to sit and chat with a few of my Geek buddies. The talk turned to movies and would any of us see The Phantom Menace in 3D? It was during that particular conversation that I realized all three of these gentlemen and I camped out all day and waited for the midnight premiere of The Phantom Menace. We were Geek brothers with the very same battle scars and yet we still all had a great love for Star Wars. Their opinions were very much in alignment about the film but what I asked them next was, is The Phantom Menace the best of the prequels?
Let me start immediately by saying that this is not a George Lucas bash. Let us just look at the three movies that are the prequels to the original Star Wars Trilogy as a collection of films, themselves. I was astounded that many of my friends preferred Revenge of the Sith to Return of the Jedi. That Jake Lloyd’s singular performance as Anakin Skywalker is far worse than two turns by Hayden Christensen. Thankfully, we all agreed that John Williams’ music is the one true highlight of the prequels.
Personally, I believe that The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequels, which is difficult to write, say, and even read. The memories that come flying back are all about the hype. Everything from that very first trailer on Entertainment Tonight, the midnight toy sale, and even the rain lightly falling outside the theater prompting management to let us in early. Yet this isn’t about waxing nostalgia about seeing the ripe apple first only to learn it was rotten inside. No. It’s a look at the movies.
The Phantom Menace is flawed but not on the level of the other two. Where the second and third movies fail is in the love story. The love story between Anakin and Padme is practically non-existent in The Phantom Menace. In Episodes 2 and 3 it is mishandled by a combination of dialogue, poor directing, and acting which makes all of those scenes unbearable. When it was announced that Hayden Christensen was cast as Anakin Skywalker, no one knew who he was. After Life as a House was released and Christensen was nominated for a Golden Globe for his dark performance of a troubled son, he suddenly looked perfect. Natalie Portman is, well, Natalie Portman so there really wasn’t going to be a problem there (see V For Vendetta, Garden State and Black Swan). In each and every one of their scenes, the two feel awkward, uncaring, and almost robotic towards one another. It was as if someone said “act like you are in love, now act like it” right before they stepped in front of the camera. Their dialogue doesn’t really help these actors either. For all of Anakin’s angst and jealousy over two films, his love for her barely feels present. If it weren’t for a few background Jedi, Portman’s Padme would be the only girl in the world. This forces us to believe Anakin’s love for her even more. She has a soothing presence, looks great in a black strapless dress, and can kick ass in her own right, so what’s not to like? There is just nothing there between them. Watch here:

Oddly enough the Clone Wars macro series, by Genndy Tartakovsky, delivers 30 seconds of this love story and it buries all of the scenes from Attack of the Clones (start watching at 3:01). The looks, though animated, between them are of love and longing and stronger than anything I ever saw between two actors on a stage.

The Phantom Menace is also a complete story on its own where the other two are not. Obviously it is the first installment of a bigger piece but much like its older brother, A New Hope (episode 4), the story concludes. Where Attack of the Clones falters is that it tries to tell a love story between two people on the eve of war. Both have opposing view points and allegiances but a traumatic event in their past ties them together. Exactly what is that traumatic event again? A pod race? A Trade Federation blockade? I fail to see the back bone to their story. Where is the human element that reaches out to the audience and makes it identifiable or even relatable? Throughout the Attack of the Clones the story takes tangents and lacks cohesiveness. Obi-Wan is trying to solve the mystery of the Clones and the Padme assignation attempt, where Anakin is hell bent on revenge for the death of his mother in between falling in love. The second act is very crucial in a three act play. Star Wars has a pedigree of delivering the greatest second act in what might be the greatest second installment ever. Attack of the Clones pulls us all over the place and before we know it Yoda has to come in to save the day after the biggest green screen battle ever.
Finally, The Phantom Menace delivers what a Star Wars prequel should have. In growing up with Star Wars, I loved the back story of Anakin Skywalker and the Clone Wars as told to us by Obi-Wan (see here at 2:48).

The look he gives, not only to Luke but the audience, indicates that there is more to this simple story. That look ignited hours if not days of daydreaming of the time of the old republic. The Phantom Menace delivers on those daydreams. We see Jedi at the height of their power and influence. The Jedi council, the simple day in and day out journey for the Jedi, and of course that incredible final three-way duel delivered in spades.
The villains here also feel like a threat. Darth Maul is not only terrifying to look at but a terror with a double bladed lightsaber. He is also both a pawn and tool used by something much worse just waiting in the wings. In Attack of the Clones, Count Dooku is the villain at the forefront of the story but even the great Christopher Lee himself can’t compare to a Sci-fi devil that has a chainsaw sounding lightsaber. Revenge of the Sith does have one spectacular fight in it and that is between Yoda and Supreme Chancellor Palpatine. It is not between Obi-Wan and Anakin. To this day I struggle with why they were fighting. Anakin was obviously over the edge but Obi-Wan was both friend, mentor, and brother to him. In what way had the dark side taken him over? In Return of the Jedi we witness how Luke’s anger and rage (in protection of his sister) give him the strength to defeat Vader. Revenge of the Sith has a quick few lies from Palpatine and the promise of some incredible new power prompting Anakin to drink the cool aid. Should we go back and see Anakin’s slaughter of the Sand People as his turn to the dark side? I would buy it if it weren’t for the sweet wedding and love making to his wife.
The Phantom Menace is almost upon us, again. In a years time I doubt many of us will rush out to see Attack of the Clones in 3D or Revenge of the Sith. The odd thing is that, if Lucas keeps his promise, in 2016 the line will undoubtedly be wrapped around the block to see A New Hope in 3D.

Robert Trate writes three weekly columns for Mania: the DVD Shopping Bag, the Toy Maniac, and The Geek Life. Follow Robert on Twitter for his for Geek ramblings, Cosplay photos and film criticisms.


Showing items 1 - 10 of 45
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jedibanner 1/11/2012 8:04:33 AM

I'm in the Revenge of the Sith bandwagon because in my mind, the emotions were a bit more precise and the reasoning for what happened was showned a little (obviously not the best way but still present).

Would I dare see this in 3D? Never in a million years. I have the blue ray, that's all I need (3D obviously doesn't add anything so, why bother).

Without going into the whole ''prequels'' suck rant, the adoration and fun I had when PM came out was still a good moment in my life, not the highest but, no other movie has presented such anticipation so I can't deny that.

What's becoming worst now is that the Animated cartoons and now the super great new animated Clone Wars series are rasing the bar so hight as to the SW universe, it's almost a sin to show something so good compared to the prequels.

And the more they do, the more it's easier to forget the prequels and what they presented originally because the acting, the graphics, the stories make way more sense in the new animated series then ANY of the prequels done.

If only the originals weren't re-touched and changed....

rogue188 1/11/2012 8:26:45 AM

Hmm, some very good observations. I truly can't decide between Revenge of the Sith or Phantom Menace as being the better movie. Though I agree with you on some points, Revenge of the Sith did have some great scenes with Palpatine's temptation of Anakin, especially in the opera house. Phantom Menace had too many pitfalls with Jake Lloyd and Jar-Jar Binks, including too much time spent in the waterways of Naboo in the first act. Both movies were rife with bad dialogue for Anakine Skywalker. I can say that Revenge had somewhat more warmth with the love scenes between Christenson and Portman than Attack of the Clones, but they were still very robotic as you said.

All in all, the last 45 minuts of Phantom Menace make it worth it and does have the best lightsaber battle of all six movies. I will have to think more upon your reflections. Great article!


monkeyfoot 1/11/2012 8:43:08 AM

Robert, this is a great article! You have made me think about PM in ways I hadn't considered. It has always been my least favorite of the prequels for the usual reasons people give: less action, long pod race, Jake Lloyd's acting, etc. But your analysis of the completeness of the story it told gives me much more appreciation of it. Kudos!

Revenge is still my favorite since it completed this part of the journey of Anakin to Vader in an emotional and well plotted, and action filled way IMHO. I also enjoyed the plotting of Attack in that it set up the circumstances for the Emperor's rising.  

I think everybody agrees that the greatest flaw in the prequels is the actual dialogue. Lucas is a great plotter but inadequete scriptwriter and the love story is the prime example of it. I think everyone probably agrees that he needed a great re-write or script doctor to make the love scenes work. We all can see how Anakin had a long existing crush on Padme since there first meeting but you can't possibly see where she falls in love with him in the dialogue that was shown.

I always thought the script should have been re-written to show that Padme was herself an irrational, impetuous adrenalin junkie at heart, but her lifelong path of being a politician had forced her into always being reserved and dignified. Anakin could have been the person who was actually like her on the inside- taking crazy chances- and that could have been where an attraction started. Two young people who have to be in control in their jobs who take every opportunity to go buck wild and do dangerous things together.

bennyhill 1/11/2012 8:44:02 AM

  I agree with Rob that the TPM is superior over ROTS. As mentioned, TPM had a complete story arc that didn't feel rushed. The pod race, Liam Neeeson's actiing and Darth Maul were awesome and classic starwars. The score of Dual of the Fates is probably the second best of the series (behind the Empire's March song) and the final fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Maul is the second best of the entire series (behind Luke and Vader's dual in Empire).

ROTS for me was flawed on many levels. Anakin's turn to the darkside during the film felt very rushed. I wasn't emotionally invested in any of the characters, and the transformation of Palpetine (both the look and his change in voice) was awkwardly laughable. The final fight between Anakin and Obi-wan could have been something really great, but the blue on blue saber battle just didn't do it for me.

My ranking:







violator14 1/11/2012 8:51:07 AM

I have a quick question cuz i caught a little bit of Revenge of the Sith last week. In the very beginning scene w/ Obi-Wan and Anakin in the fighters in space, those little robot things that pop off the missle land on Obi-Wan's fighter. Why couldnt he just use the force to throw them off?? My cousin said its cuz they cant use the force through objects (the window of the cockpit)? but that doesnt seem right to me. anyways....

monkeyfoot 1/11/2012 9:14:09 AM

Violator, that is an excellent point! I've got no answer cuz it makes sense. The only thing that comes to mind is that evertime we see a Jedi use a force push in the movies that is their single point of concentration in that instance and maybe Kenobi can't pilot and use the force in that way at the same time. I dunno I'm just reaching..trying to give Lucas a way out of that plot hole...

jackwagon 1/11/2012 9:23:10 AM

Debating which of the three prequel films is best is not unlike comparing three piles of feces and deciding which one stinks the least.  I actually thought the battle sequence at the end of Phantom Menace was super annoying because the first time I saw it, the only section I really cared about was the lightsaber fight between Obi Wan, Qui Gon, and Maul.  The editing was so poor, and what bothered me the most was how Lucas was clearly trying to balance the three concurrent storylines the same way Return of the Jedi had done during its climactic sequence, only Jedi's editing was much tighter (and I actually cared about each storyline too). 

It's pretty ironic that Lucas constantly wants to tweak the original trilogy with each new release of it in theaters or on video, but the real tweaking needed is in the prequel trilogy.

timesobserver 1/11/2012 9:45:05 AM

"What's becoming worst now is that the Animated cartoons and now the super great new animated Clone Wars series are rasing the bar so hight as to the SW universe, it's almost a sin to show something so good compared to the prequels."

Jedibanner, I couldn't agreed with you more. The Clone Wars series is what the prequels should have been like. It has a lot of action and the acting is so much better.

And while I know they would never do it, it would be great if they did an episode of Clone Wars of how Anakin turns from an all-around action star on the edge, with a great dash of humor, to a whiny little crybaby by Revenge of the Sith.

mellowdoux 1/11/2012 9:50:22 AM

 Jackwagon: The only tweaking that could help the prequel trilogy, would involve sending a Terminator back to the late '90s and somehow convincing it that George Lucas is actually Sarah Connor in disguise.

Shellie 1/11/2012 11:15:26 AM

 For ONCE, as a female "geek" I appreciate your observations.   Since I seem to be the ONLY female geek out there in fanboy land, I want to convey this article through a female's point of view.  To say that the cartoon "look" between Anakin and Padme has more feeling than Anakin and Padme is definitely a male view.  You see, WOMEN, take notice of action FAR more than words.  Anakin's actions up to the point when Padme reveals her love - EXPOSED his deep feelings for her - no cartoon can convey that.  Anakin has been so honest about his love that when Padme tells him they "must not go down that road" due to their careers, Anakin actually HONORS that vow.  So, when Padme finally reveals her love, he is stunned as he has been burying his feelings.  Anakin had been ready to leave it where Padme wanted it, even if it cost him the love of his life. 

Now, I agree that ALL of us really wanted to see the clone wars and Obi-wan and Anakin's relationship far more than Lucas showed us in a few scenes of ROTS.  Unfortunatley, we did not write the story nor did we have any input.  To be honest, I just wanted to know how the heck Anakin could be that angry all the time that he would fall to the dark side.  But then, my boyfriend lost his Mom to cancer and I understood that anger.   I "get it" now why Anakin fought Obi-wan with such anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction with his life outcome.  He went from being a slave and his Mom's protector to a Jedi in training - reluctantly by Obi-Wan,  the Jedi council  threw him into the lion's den of Palpatine on a regular basis,  Anakin was "used" for his extensive talents and not viewed as a person (remember his answer to Padme that he wouldn't be called a slave he was a PERSON?),  the Jedi did not foster Anakin socially they left that to Palpatine,  the Jedi allowed constant contact between Padme and Anakin certainly they knew what could happen -  after all Qui Gon had been married why couldn't Anakin be;  Anakin had never been allowed to grow as an individual, only as a fighter, as the "prophesized person to bring balance to the force".  And through all this, all Anakin wanted to do was to protect Padme from death in childbirth as his dream had intimated.  He "sold out" because all his emotions, past - present- and future - came flooding in at the same moment and his focus was Padme...only Padme... she had been the only one who had shown him consideration, care and love.   After all this, why should Anakin care about the Jedi or Palpatine or anyone elsel, they all failed him in one way or another, the only constant in his life had been Padme and he determined to save her any way he could.  So... he believed Palpatine's lie (after all Palpatine had at least given him positive remarks like, "He was the most gifted Jedi he had ever seen", ...and "fell" not for his own sake, but for Padme's protection.

You see gentlemen, there is more to Anakin's fall than you realize.

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