I love Phantom Menace. The coolness of Qui-Gon, Obi Wan, and Darth Maul more than make up for Jar Jar (though I'm nowhere near as annoyed by him as popular opinion is) and the unevenness in the acting of Jake Lloyd, and the special effects and art direction are amazing. It feels like a Star Wars movie, and that's the most important thing to me. Still, I've always found watching it to be a vaguely unsatisfying experience.
Some have questioned what the movie is really about. "A trade dispute?" they ask. "Really?" Well, no. Of course not. That would be boring. The movie's not about the trade dispute. That's like saying that Casablanca is about exit visas or that Pulp Fiction is about Marsellus Wallace's briefcase. Those are just the things that keep the story moving. But the fact that people have to ask what Phantom Menace is about is its major flaw, I think. Because really, just from watching the movie, it's not very clear.
Star Wars (I'm too old and stubborn to refer to the first film as A New Hope) is clearly about Luke Skywalker's leaving his old, boring life behind and setting out to become a hero. But in Phantom Menace, it's a little more difficult to see who the main character is. Obi Wan is the only character who appears throughout the entire movie, but it's really not about him. He's just there to support the other characters who do all the real work, and to be there at the end to pick up for Qui Gon. He doesn't go through any significant change during the movie. Qui Gon's an even less likely candidate since he starts off the movie being perfect and, well, we know he ends up.
The real hero of the film is Amidala. The trade embargo is all about harming Naboo, and Amidala represents Naboo. Several times during the film she makes statements to that effect. "I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war." "I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee." That kind of thing. The liberation of Naboo (and so, Amidala), almost entirely through Amidala's actions, is the movie's real plot. Unfortunately, we don't learn anything about Amidala in the film. She spends all but the final third of the movie in disguise (for reasons that -- let's face it -- are a little vague and weird), so we don't get to know her as a character. In fact, that's a major problem with all three prequels. We get that Amidala is a great lady and we want to know her better, but regretably, we never really figure out what makes her tick. So, as integral as she is to what's going on in Phantom Menace, it's not her story either.
It takes George Lucas' explaining it to figure it out, and it's never a good thing when an author has to step out of the story to explain a major point to his audience. Lucas has told us for years that the prequels -- heck, the whole series of movies -- is Anakin's story. And it fits that he's the central figure of Phantom Menace. It's the story of not only Naboo's liberation from the Trade Federation, but of Anakin's from slavery on Tatooine. And his liberation is largely due to his own actions, so he's also a hero (though his heroism saves only himself and not a whole planet like Amidala). It's his idea to help Qui Gon and company to leave Tatooine, and obviously it's his use of the Force that not only motivates Qui Gon's interest in him, but also wins the pod race and provide the means of everyone's escape.
The problem is that we don't meet Anakin until halfway through the movie. We do get to know him better than we do Amidala, but if it's Anakin's story, what's with all this prologue stuff about the Federation and Naboo? No wonder people lose sight of the movie's point and have to wonder what it's about. Rather than start the movie focused on Qui Gon and Obi Wan, from a storytelling perspective, wouldn't it have been better to spend that time on Anakin?
Or, better yet, spend it on Amidala. Let us see why she cares so much for her people. Let us see why it's a good idea to spend so much time in disguise while a decoy does your talking for you. Let us see why she would have a soft spot for a kid like Anakin.
Either of those would've been better choices than what the movie actually does. By focusing on Qui Gon and Obi Wan, the movie's main heroes -- Amidala and Anakin -- become mystery characters that we have to figure out along with the Jedi. Lucas builds his whole story around supporting, peripheral characters and that' s Phantom Menace's big flaw. It's like telling the story of Rocky entirely from Paulie's perspective, or focusing The Godfather on Tom Hagen.
Don't get me wrong. It's still a cool movie. I'm glad to have been able to see Qui Gon and Obi Wan whup up on as many droids as I did. But, unlike a couple of the other Star Wars films, it still leaves me feeling a little empty inside and this is why I think that is.