The original Star Wars trilogy is regarded as being among the greatest of sci-fi/fantasy films ever made. The prequel trilogy, not so much.
There about as many criticisms of Episode I in particular as there are super battle droids on a CIS ship. Some of them are valid. Some of them aren’t. Let’s start with the main plot itself.
The film basically follows a newly breaking war between Naboo and the Trade Federation. In the process the film’s heroes meet Anakin, but the war between Naboo and the Trade Federation is main crux of the plot. In view of the prequels’ overall mission (to establish Darth Vader and the empire) this seems to be a rather petty way to begin the story.
In fact, most of the movie is spent dumbing Star Wars down. Instead of the high-stakes battle for the galaxy’s soul, it becomes a story enveloped in silliness, starting with Jar-Jar Binks. The Gungans as a whole are pretty ridiculous, and it feels like an effort to market the films toward middle-schoolers. I’m not against making it friendly to younger audiences, but it’s the imbalance that makes it ridiculous.
The jedi have also been changed. Instead of religious space-ninjas, they are diplomats. The action scenes are really cool, but when watching the original trilogy, you would have thought that the jedi would have been much different. Still, it is the two main jedi that make the film worth watching.
Qui-Gon Jinn is simply awesome. He’s played by Liam Neeson so it’s not much of a surprise, but it’s still great. He has an air of calmness, wisdom, and sheer old-man charisma that hasn’t been in the series since Ben Kenobi in Episode IV. Ewan McGregor’s performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi is also great, and balances the previous incarnation of Kenobi with the fact that McGregor’s Obi-Wan is still a padawan.
Speaking of jedi, this is where the movie’s worldview comes into play. The movies have a strong sense of morality in concurrence with Christian morality. The jedi want to save people, as do the other characters. Padme is deeply upset by the slavery on Tatooine, and is deeply affected by the suffering of her people. The jedi are the same, seen as the protectors of the innocent and the keepers of peace. That morality is a very positive thing, but the worldview doesn’t stop there. I mentioned before that the jedi used to be religious space ninjas. In the original trilogy, particularly Episode IV, the jedi and their belief in the force is seen as a religion. Han Solo actually used the word “religion” when referring to that belief (and the fact that he doesn’t believe in it). So their religion is not founded on a being, on some god, but instead is based on a force. The jedi put across a very Buddhist worldview in this regard, even if this is diluted in the prequel trilogy. Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t watch it? I don’t think so. The outstanding morality of the movies is worth noting, and the sci-fi elements are so fantastical that they aren’t inclined to bring one to believe they are truly representative of the truths of our world.
I have mixed opinions about the other characters. I really like Padme in Episode I, and she’s a more believable character than many are. I don’t like the way Anakin is presented. It’s not just the actor (most actors his age aren’t going to win any Oscars), it’s more the way his character is written. When we’re seeing Darth Vader as a child, we’d expect to see someone who’s at least a little troubled, not a happy-go-lucky kid. They tried to make him look more interesting by throwing in a half-hour distraction focusing on pod-racing, but it ultimately fails to add depth to the character, and only adds to the silliness of the movie.
The sith, however, are very much in the spirit of the original trilogy. Darth Sidious is chilling as always, even if he’s shown mostly through holograph. Darth Maul is an even better villain. His silence, frightening appearance, and extreme fighting skills combine to make him one of the best villains in all of Star Wars, the Expanded Universe included. He could have competed with Darth Vader for the most iconic villain in the Star Wars universe if he had lasted more than one movie, which brings me to my primary criticism of the movie.
The movie is mostly disappointing, but there are two characters that stand out. Both of them die.
Qui-Gon provides a wise jedi air that is hard to match. Obi-Wan provides that in later movies, but the series really lost something by not having Qui-Gon, and his death didn’t really provide any extra character development for Obi-Wan. It could have if Darth Maul hadn’t died.
Well, technically he didn’t, but that’s an awkward Expanded Universe storyline that should never have existed.
In short, the movie could have been much better had George Lucas capitalized on what he had with Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. It could have been better, but at least we have the lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. Because it may very well be the best lightsaber fight of the saga.