In the movie biz, sequels are a risky proposition.
For every successful follow-up (“The Godfather Part II”), there are a dozen, forgettable ventures (“Anchorman 2”) that failed to live up to the standards of the original.
When director George Lucas and company began work on the Star Wars prequels, expectations were massive. After all, if you think about it, “A New Hope” began with a teaser: the tantalizing words “Episode IV” flashing across a starry backdrop.
The hype for the 1999 release of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” was unprecedented. The film ended up grossing $474,544,647 in the US and over a billion worldwide.
Originally, it was perceived favorably by nostalgia-hungry critics. However, the sands of time have sculpted an outlook of a different color.
As filmmaking continues to improve, and taste-palettes evolve, the public began poking holes in Phantom’s proverbial hide – to the point where the film has become sort of the red-headed step-child of the franchise.
Rotten Tomatoes gives Episode I a “rotten” score of 55% (the lowest tally of all seven movies). In fact, the highly-acclaimed “Machete Order”- the recommended viewing order for the first six movies – skips Phantom completely.
Now, I’m not going to bang on the podium and proclaim Episode I was a timeless masterpiece. It is clunky, at times, marred by poor acting at others.
But, despite its flaws, Phantom looks like minor-Scorsese when compared to the second and third legs of the prequels “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith.”
The original trilogy is marked by a prevailing sense of adventure and fun. Of the three prequels, Episode I comes the closest to capturing that vibe. It has a lot going for it:
- No Hayden Christensen
- Cool settings
- Badass villians
- John Williams’ score
The original trilogy provided a diverse batch of settings. Episode I does the same. One of the coolest-looking visuals is Otoh Gunga, the underwater city. Its structure consists of glowing pods that resemble jellyfish lanterns.
The film also introduces us to the majestic cityscape of Coruscant, the Imperial capital, and also takes us back to the desert planet Tatooine, where the saga began.
On Tatooine, the heroes end up stranded at the bustling spaceport, Mos Epsa. Like its counterpart, Mos Eisley, the town was a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
They are there trying to stay one step ahead of the evil trade federation (okay, so maybe not as sinister-sounding as galactic empire) and a mysterious pair of Sith, including Darth Maul.
Darth Maul is awesome. Complete with face paint and devil horns, he’s menacing, even without virtually any speaking lines. His double-sided light saber is about a million times cooler than Kilo Ren’s much-debated “cross” design.
Behind composer John William’s apocalyptic, “Duel of the Fates”, jedi knights Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn battle Maul across the platforms of a massive, reactor chamber (seemingly the only site for such battles, in Star Wars canon).
Ask a Star Wars fan why they hate Episode I, and the most-cited reason is Jar Jar Binks. Sure, he’s a bit over-the-top, but so were the Ewoks (who were written into Episode VI for the shameless motive of selling toys!). At the end of the day, he provides comic relief, something that the stuffy episodes II and III could have used more of.
Episode I was also the world’s re-introduction to the beautiful Natalie Portman. She’d been out of the public’s eye, since starring opposite Jean Reno in “Leon: The Professional”.
Oh, and pod-racing is awesome, I don’t care what detractors say.