A few years back, I was leafing through some old diaries, and in the 1999 one I came across the entry where I'd stumbled into a cinema on Leicester Square and watched The Phantom Menace. (My recollection is that it was actually the day it came out in the UK, but that despite this the cinema was virtually empty. I digress.) My little reviewlet of the time noted that I actually rather enjoyed the film.
Now, within a few years I'd adopted a more traditional view, to whit that the prequel was rubbish, and The Phantom Menace the most rubbish of the lot. That's the widely accepted view, as exemplified by Simon Pegg's character Tim in Spaced. But whilst I think I'd have to agree that The Phantom Menace is the weakest of the Star Wars films, my honest feeling, after having a marathon of all seven films (albeit a marathon that's lasted nearly three weeks and, in places has involved watching 15 minutes of a film whilst eating a meal) is that, y'know what, it's not really that bad.
Certainly, The Phantom Menace has two major weaknesses. The first is what I can only describe as casual racism. Most of the non-human characters in the film speak in accents that are clearly derived from various real-world ethnic minorities, and sound horribly like a gathering of '70s comedians trying out their least PC accents (think Jim Davidson and his "Chalky White" character. If you can bear to think of Jim Davidson at all). This contrasts horribly with the original trilogy, where sound design supremo Ben Burtt took the time and trouble to create credible-sounding alien languages from an amalgam of created dialogue and sounds and actual languages, which the non-human characters proceeded to speak, sometimes but not always with subtitles. Lupita Nyong'o tells of watching The Return of the Jedi with a friend and both being rather exultant at hearing one of the characters delivering a line in Kenyan, because it meant that they felt included in the Star Wars universe. It's sadly difficult to think that anyone would feel included in the ethnic stereotyping on display here.
The second big problem with this feeling is some very misguided attempts at humour. Don't get me wrong - humour has always, and continues to be, a part of the Star Wars universe, but in the original films it was mostly (not exclusively) an organic thing, emerging from the characters and their reactions to the situations they find themselves in. Be it Han's "one thing's for sure, we're all gonna be a lot thinner," Han's "and I thought they smelled bad on the outside," C3P0's "it's against my programming to impersonate deity," or Han's "you're cold?!" there've always been funny lines in the films (and often from Han...). But here, rather than arising from and being complementary to the sometimes life-threatening situations our heroes find themselves in (and let's at this point mention another of Han's lines - "boring conversation anyway..."), the humour is farcical slapstick that detracts from the drama.
These two problems come to a head in - and we're going to have to mention him eventually, so here goes - the character of Jar Jar Binks, arguably the most pointless and misguided character in the Star Wars films. Between his offensively racist accent and his silly antics, it's very difficult to find anything favourable to say about him, and it's a relief that his scenes were fewer in the subsequent instalments.
I will, however, recommend familiarising yourself with the "Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord" theory, which is a fascinating redemptive reading of the character, fits with what we see on screen, and provides some interesting "what ifs" for where the trilogy might have gone if a.) this really was part of George's plan and b.) he'd stuck to his guns. Someone really needs to ask him about it...
Sticking, briefly, with the negatives: Midichlorians. Admittedly, the notion that the Force, an energy field that binds the universe together, may be a result of special cells within certain individuals isn't so much inconsistent with the information presented in the original trilogy as simply presenting a different aspect of it (and it's an idea that Lucas obviously didn't entirely abandon, since they get a mention in Revenge of the Sith too), but it jars rather, in that it strips the mysticism from the Force and presents it in a rather more mundane, prosaic and technobabble way.
And this is a theme in my relationship with certain iconic Star Wars characters, but Darth Maul...really isn't all that, is he? I mean, okay, the twin bladed lightsaber is pretty cool, but we hardly get to know the character - he has all of half a dozen lines in the film.
So, that's the negative out of the way - how about the positive?
Well, for me, at least a couple of the positives are my more redemptive readings of things other people have criticised, but...firstly, whilst the opening crawl, with its talk of trade disputes, sets a somewhat different tone to that of the original trilogy, it's entirely consistent with the prequel trilogy which, although it doesn't shy away from the Star and Wars aspexts of the Star Wars films, is as much concerned with the behind-the-scenes machinations that lead to the wars being fought as it is with the wars themselves.
And young Anakin...I like him. I find it rather pleasing that we're shown a side of the man who would become Darth Vader which probably wouldn't even have occurred to us from seeing the original trilogy. The young, wide-eyed, enthusiastic innocent is entirely plausible, and considering his youth, Jake Lloyd plays the part well.
There is, additionally, much about The Phantom Menace that can be enjoyed in its own right. Ewan McGregor and Samuel L Jackson are great additions to the regular cast; Liam Neeson lends gravitas to his part as Qui-Gonn; and it's great to have Ian McDiarmid back as Palpatine to show his journey to becoming the Emperor.
And the action scenes fit solidly in the Star Wars tradition - they're exciting and energetic. The duel-for-three between Darth Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn is thrilling and beautifully choreographed (although however many times I watch it I still don't understand what's going on in that bit with the force shields). I think the Pod Race may well exceed any of the action setpieces from the original trilogy - it's certainly got a sense of scale unlike anything we've seen before.
In summary, whilst I agree that The Phantom Menace is not the best Star Wars film, may even be the worst, and I can understand how fans who grew up with the original films would feel disappointed by it, it does, nevertheless, have a lot to recommend it.