Andy Markham makes his case...
I sometimes think Star Wars fan culture has a sort-of unspoken list of commandments that we all follow - opinions so apparently obvious and widely held that we treat them as fact, such as "the prequels have too much CGI", "Jar Jar sucks", and "The Phantom Menace is the worst one". As for the first two, yeah fine, fair enough. But The Phantom Menace as the worst instalment? Yeesh, I wouldn't agree with that. As my first Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace holds a special place in my heart and I will defend it to the death. And I've noticed in recent years that people are starting to come around to the idea that not only is The Phantom Menace not that bad, it's actually better than Attack of the Clones, which pleases me greatly. Let's take that opportunity to explore why The Phantom Menace knocks Attack of the Clones out of the park in nine simple categories.
We start with a very simple one - The Phantom Menace has Liam Neeson in a leading and highly bad-ass role as legendary Jedi Master and moustache-wearer Qui-Gon Jinn. Liam Neeson is without doubt one of the best things about The Phantom Menace, delivering even the most banal lines with a certain cool twinkle, and carrying the film almost single-handedly at times. Attack of the Clones is a worse film without him, and as Neeson's CV proves, if you want a middle-aged action man, there's no substitute for old Qui-Gon.
John Williams' score
One aspect of The Phantom Menace which everybody loved was John Williams' score, particularly the iconic "Duel of the Fates" which is one of the most famous and utterly awesome pieces of music in the whole Star Wars saga. The score also includes the ingenious Anakin's Theme, which wavers in and out of the Imperial March in a melancholy way, and a whole host of action cues which any Star Wars fan will instantly recognise. In comparison, Attack of the Clones doesn't live up to this score, and amongst aficionados of the Star Wars scores, Attack of the Clones is generally seen as one of the weakest. Another point to The Phantom Menace!
I'm going to admit right off the bat that this is a subjective one - there are of course tons of people who absolutely hate the podrace, and think it best exemplifies the overuse of CGI that we all love to go on about. But I remind you once again that I came to this film as a wide-eyed 7 year old who'd never seen a Star Wars film - or any mega-blockbuster like this - before, and at the time the podrace was quite simply the most heart-stopping thing I had ever seen. 16 years on it still looks absolutely cutting-edge and it's utterly awesome to watch.
Divisive again, perhaps, but what child didn't love Darth Maul? Emblazoned from head to toe with unexplained, demonic tattoos, also has horns on his head, uses a double-edged red lightsaber, needs barely a line of dialogue, and quickly dispatches Liam Neeson, and he's on-screen for about 15 minutes maximum, most of which is taken up with the most acrobatic and awe-inspiring duel of the whole trilogy. Yet he's by far the most iconic character from the film and probably from the whole prequel trilogy. Count Dooku, as wonderful as Christopher Lee is, has a very, very tough act to follow in Attack of the Clones, and can't hope to match the sheer fierce impact of Darth Maul.
No hideous love story
Okay, there is that whole "are you an angel?" bit, I'll grant you. But other than the mostly platonic back-and-forth between Anakin and Padme on Tatooine (they are aged 9 and 14, after all), there's no romance in this one, because there's just absolutely no place for it. And actually, there's no place for a long-winded love story in Attack of the Clones either, but there's a huge one, and one that drags down the whole movie and to some extent the whole trilogy. The Phantom Menace doesn't bother with all that schmaltz, largely ditching the Anakin/Padme relationship after the Tatooine section and mostly focusing on the friendship and camaraderie between the ensemble cast. So much more appropriate for these already overly melodramatic films.
Location filming - and lots of it
Did you know that The Phantom Menace has only one shot that doesn't include any CGI? You may well do, seeing as that's a favourite anecdote of those who like to label The Phantom Menace an awful load of tosh. Well, guess what? The other two prequels don't have ANY shots without CGI. Yes, it's rather ironic that one of the most common criticisms of The Phantom Menace is that it relies too heavily on CGI and unreal environments. But in fact, this film has more location work and "real" filming than the other two put together, by a long long way. Almost all of the Naboo scenes are filmed in a real Italian palace; the Tatooine scenes are all done in Tunisia; and that's a real British forest that the Gungans are hiding in. Meanwhile there are plenty of scenes in Attack of the Clones in particular where the actor is the only real thing present. For those who like to beat the prequels with the "too much CGI" stick, The Phantom Menace is absolutely not your target.
Threepio and Artoo's roles
You could almost forget that Threepio and Artoo (especially Threepio) are in The Phantom Menace at all, and that's because they're one of the rare aspects of the film towards which Lucas shows admirable restraint. The two droids are only present when the plot needs them, and Threepio dips in and out as makes sense - with their roles mostly consisting of light background fluff as they wait for their part in the story to arrive three films later. It's done very well and is a shining example of how to use your "legacy characters". However, come Attack of the Clones, Artoo is sprouting more gadgets than a swiss army knife whenever there's a tricky situation, and Threepio is getting up to comedy antics in the middle of a war zone and generally making a spectacle of himself. The two droids are utterly tedious in Attack of the Clones, and it's a shame when you consider that The Phantom Menace makes much better use of them.
The light-hearted tone
You know what would be my main criticism of Attack of the Clones, aside from the appalling dialogue and love-by-script-committee? It's too moody and grim. Yeah, Revenge of the Sith has all the slaughtering but that was a necessary part of the story. Attack of the Clones doesn't need to be quite so severe and angry all the time. Obi-Wan's attempts at being a comedy character are always unsuccessful amidst the bleakness of the thing. Anakin cries about every tiny thing, Padme smiles precisely once per half-hour, and even Jar Jar brings about the fall of the Republic! The Phantom Menace doesn't take itself so seriously, revelling in the lighter moments and always keeping in mind that this film is designed to entertain us, not just throw drama at us. And in doing so, it feels much more like a Star Wars film to me than Attack of the Clones ever will.
It has an ending!
So, in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan and Anakin fight in the inital battle of the Clone Wars which has broken out for.... reasons (?) and then they fight Count Dooku who is basically a stranger to them both. They lose miserably, Yoda reunites with his old apprentice but without any kind of context to it, and they duel with no result. Count Dooku escapes, the war keeps going and then... nothing. That's it. No end, not even a cliffhanger, just "see you next time for more of this". It's not that satisfying, is it? The Phantom Menace has a triumphant ending, as the droid control ship is destroyed, Anakin takes a step closer to his destiny, Qui-Gon goes down fighting, Obi-Wan takes his place as Qui-Gon's successor, and Naboo is safe, as everyone has a big party to celebrate. Now that's an ending. And a good one, too!
So there we have it, The Phantom Menace is better than Attack of the Clones. The motion is carried. Next!
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the