The Phantom Menace isn’t the lowest-rated of the nine Star Wars movies. It was recently, and narrowly, edged out by The Rise of Skywalker. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker currently sits with a 52% rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The Phantom Menace holds a slightly less disgraceful 53%.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that the first installment in the story and the last would be the lowest-rated considering expectations for the two would have been higher than any other movie in the franchise. But there are far worse things going on with The Phantom Menace than missed expectations.
While The Rise of Skywalker left many fans disappointed, in retrospect The Phantom Menace is more than disappointing: It’s a cinematic disaster, one that probably got better reviews than it deserved because people were so hungry for more Star Wars. The Phantom Menace, not The Rise of Skywalker, is the worst Star Wars movie and here’s why…
The Worst Star Wars Beginning
From the opening moments of Stars Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, one thing is pretty clear and that is that things really aren’t all that clear.
The opening crawl is the weirdly specific and kind of boring, including little nuggets like taxation of trade routes, a greedy Trade Federation, congressional debates and Jedis sent as intergalactic diplomats. The simplicity of the “original” Star Wars is seemingly shattered in these first opening sentences of what was at the time one of the most anticipated movies ever.
What follows is such an utter mess that it nearly undoes all of the love and goodwill built up over the decades for the first three installments of the Star Wars franchise.
I’d argue that The Phantom Menace is so terrible that it isn’t even necessarily a high expectations / low results kind of thing. Even without the anticipation piece factored in, almost every single part of this Star Wars movie fails. Let’s go through some more ways The Phantom Menace is the worst Star Wars movie.
Anakin’s Awful Backstory
Ok let’s start with the things they got “right”. He was a slave and underprivileged kid who was born with extreme powers. That much at least makes sense. He has crazy great mechanical and flight skills, though for some reason he uses these skills to build a protocol diplomat droid in C-3PO rather than, you know, an android that can actually help him work.
But the biggest issue with Anakin’s story is that we “know” what he becomes. Going the ultra-cute kid version of someone who will become Darth Vader is such a crazy, insane disconnect that it’s almost impossible to reconcile why they would have made this choice. Was it because it’s meant to show the actual full turn of an innocent kid into one of the true evil people in the whole galaxy? I guess. But really to have any gravity around the Darth Vader origin story the kid has to be at least a little dark. Not a ton, but just a smidgen. They worked this way later on with the Hayden Christensen version obviously, but to not really dig in on the Jake Lloyd part was a deliberate move and just totally wrong.
Terrible Special Effects
When you consider that The Matrix came out about a month and a half prior in the Spring of 1999, the special effects of The Phantom Menace (often punctured by cringe-worthy music) make the whole affair that much worse by contrast. I get that they are geared towards slightly different audience age ranges, but man. Comparing any action movie to The Matrix isn’t totally fair, but given the resources and money afforded Lucasfilm, that they ended with something so hard to look at is an incredibly bad look.
To be fair, this was sentiment expressed at the time and is not revisionist history. The fight scenes are stiff to an almost comedic level. It doesn’t appear there was any real training in how to effectively hold a lightsaber and the only thing that even a little bit saves it on this front is Ray Park as Darth Maul. Park is the only guy even remotely qualified to be part of the action.
Ray Park so much better than either Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in his movements that when they actually engage in battle at no point should you even suspect the Jedis have a chance of winning. Rewatching these scenes is tough because they look like something out of a high school play.
The Worst Star Wars Character
The hatred for this character is deep and intense and I don’t think I need to sum up all of the reasons, they are that long and that detailed. From a simple perspective: Jar Jar is a total disaster.
The very fact that Jar-Jar made it past the initial drafts of the script signals that George Lucas almost assuredly had only “yes” men and women around him. The character is so insanely bad, comically unlikeable, difficult to understand and utterly nonsensical that his inclusion should have spelled the end of the franchise had its cultural love not already run so deep. If this was a true origin story movie, coming first out of the box for the franchise, they never would have been afforded the chance to make a second and would have needed only to point at Jar Jar as the reason.
Ruining The Best Thing About Star Wars
Usually when any sci-fi or fantasy story introduces a new set of powers or magic we’re willing to suspend our disbelief around their origins or explanations. Magic in Harry Potter just is. The White Walkers in Game Thrones just are. And, up until this point, The Force just was a power that the very few had access to and even fewer could wield effectively.
I don’t think anyone was sweating the origins or explanations around The Force. We didn’t need to know where it came from or even what powered it. And yet, The Phantom Menace decides to jam an explanation down our throats in the form of midi-chlorians. These organisms/atoms/whatever that exist in those who can use the Force were now detected through devices wielded by Jedis who can “sense” them but also then need to, you know, run a requisite test.
Almost even worse than this explanation, is that the existence of these things is brought up in the prequels even though there’s no mention in episodes IV-VI which had already come out. Why even bother with this? It comes so close to ruining the whole concept of The Force as it was masterfully established in the original movies.
Imagine if JK rowling wrote some Harry Potter prequels and decided to use full chapters explaining that people in that world get magic because their white blood cell count is high. Sounds stupid right? Well, that’s basically what they did with midi-chlorians in Star Wars.
The Phantom Menace Is The Worst
From Padme’s outfits to the stiff clone encounters to the dialogue to just everything, this movie is a wreck and doesn’t come close to surviving a rewatch all these years later. Given a chance to tell a truly great origin story about an iconic character with so other opportunities to expand the world, The Phantom Menace blew it big time.
If you think there’s a Star Wars movie worse than this one, jump in for a Jar Jar rewatch and let the real worst Star Wars movie change your mind. The Phantom Menace is the worst Star Wars movie.