I wonder how things could have turned out if you had just said no, Rick. If you had listened to your gut and challenged George Lucas. Deep down you must have known his ideas were contrary to everything that made Star Wars such a beloved cultural institution in the first place. In an ideal world, there would be a whole new generation of Star Wars fans looking back at the prequels with the same level of reverence as the original trilogy. Instead, with The Phantom Menace, we get a baffling nightmare chock-full of half-baked political ideas, characters too thin to even be considered one-dimensional, and zero consistency in the internal logic of the plot.
I understand there's a certain level of redundancy in critiquing the prequels in our post-Red Letter Media world, but I'll ask you to bear with me. Rewatching Phantom for the first time in at least twelve years, what flew over my head as a child served only to confuse and irritate me as an adult. It even got to the point where, an hour in, I had to send a series of increasingly desperate texts to a friend in an attempt to piece together the story. I began to feel like the embattled detective in a film noir, face to face with a massive conspiracy, desperately trying to find a connection between seemingly disparate elements. But instead of having a grand "Eureka!" moment, I came away sad and dispirited.
Here's what I think I know: a conflict has been staged by future-evil-emperor Palpatine in order to gain political power. But, past that, the whole thing begin to fall apart. Why would the Trade Federation, a merchant coalition, be interested in (and even having the means of) launching a full scale planetary invasion? Furthermore, what incentive would the Trade Federation have for attacking Naboo? They don't know that they're inadvertently helping Palpatine, and don't really seem to get anything out of the deal. Why does a disguised Palpatine insist that Queen Amidala sign a treaty legalizing her planet's invasion when that very action foils his plan? (By the way, as someone who studies criminal law, I'm pretty sure forcing someone to sign a consent agreement does not equate to consent—even in a galaxy far, far away). And, most importantly, why do the Jedi let Jar Jar Binks tag along instead of abandoning him the first chance they get?
That covers about the first 20 minutes. I could go on, but you surely get the gist. A weak story could theoretically be overlooked if Phantom Menace's biggest problem wasn't everything else. Consider Liam Neeson, who looks like he wants to crawl into bed every time he's onscreen,and delivers his lines with the enthusiasm of a fast food drive-thru attendant. Or Natalie Portman, who seems like she was injected with animal tranquilizers during the climactic battle.
And what about the mind-numbing action sequences, where our heroes fight cannon fodder without even coming close to being in danger—over and over and over until I began howling gibberish and yanking out fistfuls of hair. If our protagonists look like they can't be bothered when their lives are on the line, than neither can I. Not even the two-on-one fight with Darth Maul excites, despite some occasionally impressive choreography. Since we know absolutely nothing about any of the participants, the whole thing feels like an elaborate Cirque-Du-Soleil performance rather than the life and death struggle it's supposed to be.
George Lucas has seemed to surround himself with people too afraid to raise dissenting opinions. I wish I knew why you didn't make the most of your position, maybe try to salvage some of the wonderment and originality that got buried beneath all the nonsense. Maybe just tell him that having racist Asian caricatures as the villains wouldn't add to the film's lasting appeal. Or that the mess of a story is alienating to both children and adults alike. Or that the whole thing just feels lifeless and lacks the spark that made the originals endure for long as they have.
Sad to say, Rick, some of the blame for how this all turned out ultimately rests in your hands.