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It's so easy to get lost in the world of The Phantom Menace. Many of the (at this point tired) critiques are valid--vague antisemitism, some dated VFX, an imperfect script, out of place references to the originals, Jar Jar's entire character. Yet, where five years ago those would have been what I zeroed in on, I just... care less now. Or perhaps I'm just more aware of what the movie does do well.
Aside from the aforementioned VFX, Phantom Menace is a delight visually. In true Star Wars fashion, the various wildlife and aliens are creative and dynamic. Costumes play an integral role in characterizing the cast. The set design is immaculate, providing a clean, well-kept contrast to the grime of the original trilogy. It's a portrait of the universe before it falls fully into disrepair.
Phantom Menace is also a glimpse into the disfunction that enabled the rise of the Empire. Institutional rot on a galactic scale, the apathy of the governing body towards the lower class. It's telling that the conflict between Naboo and the Trade Federation is treated as a crisis, but the abuses of rights on Tatooine go seeming unnoticed.
Despite the constant chorus of "trade dispute? that's so boring!" you hear from """fans""" of the franchise, the politics of Phantom Menace are the best parts. If anything, I wish Lucas had elected to spend more time fleshing out the inner workings of the Republic. The film seems much more at home in the brief segments where it tries to be a political thriller than it does when aiming to be another Star Wars movie.
It feels oddly refreshing as a result. If I wanted to watch a Star Wars movie, I have the original trilogy right there, three fantastic movies just as awe-inspiring now as they were when I was five. But the beauty of a universe as expansive as this one is the myriad of opportunities it opens for storytelling, many of which are not in line with the swasbuckling space fantasy of the originals. Lucas recognized this, as did Rian Johnson years later. An unfortunately large contingent of """fans""" refuse to.
Ultimately, I'm not as fully onboard the prequel apology train as others on this website are. But I have believed for a little while they're worthy of a reappraisal, one I'm more than happy to give them. The last time I watched Phantom Menace was the last time I thought it was a bad movie. Now? Honestly, I'm ready to say it's legitimately good, and with a slightly different direction could have been great.