If you’re planning on starting or re-starting the Star Wars series, there is nothing so vital to your understanding of the series in The Phantom Menace.
Here’s the thing about Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace: it hasn’t aged well. It’s not just the most glaringly out-of-date Star Wars film, either. Due to its unruly mixture of live action and CGI, it hasn’t aged well in terms of movies in general. This would be more forgivable if it had an extraordinary plot, but that isn’t the case. In a classic good versus evil story, interesting heroes and villains are a necessity, and The Phantom Menace lacks both. While Darth Maul (Ray Park is an interesting foe in terms of appearance and choreography, he doesn’t have the presence of Vader, and Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has yet to truly reveal himself. This leaves the weight of the storytelling on the shoulders of Ewan McGregor’s young Obi-Wan Kenobi, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn, Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker and the CGI character Jar Jar Binks (whose voice and movement were provided by Ahmed Best). They’re all blandly good, with only Padmé’s feistiness (and hairstyles!) and Binks’ offensiveness adding texture.
The CGI, which apparently interested Lucas more than the screenplay, is quite dated now but is impressively imagined, particularly with regard to architectural and vehicular design. And there are certainly thrills to be had. The famous podrace is still lightning fast and begging for a VR remake. And the beginning of the “Duel of the Fates” between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul is one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of Star Wars, a visually exhilarating and stunningly choreographed three-way lightsaber duel with serious consequences for all involved. There’s also some genuine political intrigue, though Lucas is rather presumptuous about how much the average viewer knows about his universe’s galactic government, which is further complicated for today’s new viewers as Disney has jettisoned much of the Star Wars Expanded Universe from the canon when it acquired Star Wars in 2014.
At the time of its 1999 release, much of the criticism leveled at The Phantom Menace had to do with Lloyd’s performance and Jar Jar Binks’ seemingly Jamaican-inspired accent and movement (made even more awkward by the extreme whiteness of the cast, with a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson serving as the only notable black role in the film). The criticism is unfounded; Lloyd does well, and any problems with the role have to do with its conceptualization and writing rather than the actor. On the other hand, Binks is still offensive and clearly inspired by racist stereotypes, even if the inspiration was unintentional. It’s also funny how 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was criticized as a retread of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope when so many of the The Phantom Menace’s key plot points are lifted directly from the 1977 original.
If you’re planning on starting or re-starting the Star Wars series, there is nothing so vital to your understanding of the series in The Phantom Menace that it could be called required viewing, outside of showing the origins of the Clone Wars and key characters like Anakin, Padmé, Obi Wan and Palpatine, all of which are better fleshed out in subsequent installments. However, there are some fun moments, particularly for younger viewers, and perhaps more important, the film serves as a time capsule of the transition from practical effects to CGI.