(Foreword: All screencaps courtesy of http://starwarsscreencaps.com/. This was originally supposed to come out on another website, but I am posting it here instead. It serves as a companion to my Movie Club articles on Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, so it is probably fitting that it goes here.)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is criticized sometimes for its visual style. Being a prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy, it seems to have more advanced technology and a cleaner society, both of which seem contradictory to the idea of it being a prequel in the first place. Moreover, many lamented the absence of the original trilogy’s “used universe” aesthetic design, where everything looked worn-down, and something that would exist in everyday life.
As for the technological development, that is a discussion left for the people who read all the side material that goes into the technical details of every single starship or blaster. But why everything LOOKS so high-tech compared to the original trilogy can be attributed to a purposeful thematic decision: The visuals of the worlds in The Phantom Menace are meant to look cleaner and shinier than the original trilogy, because it depicts a better time in the galaxy. And not only that, but the movie uses these visuals on Naboo and Coruscant to contrast itself with Tatooine, which is completely reminiscent of the “used universe” of the original trilogy, and show how the Republic is at its sunset.
Naboo was always a very beautiful planet, especially on Theed. The city is filled with gorgeous architecture, and looks like a place a real royal family would live (which is good since it was filmed on-location in the Palace of Caserta in Italy). However, that’s the problem, it seems– it looks like a place for royalty, and not somewhere that “normal people” would ever inhabit. This is because Naboo represents the “innocence” or the naivety of goodness that is left in the Republic. The planet is filled with all these beautiful cities, untouched forests, and a population of both humans and Gungans that are able to (uneasily) coexist in the same world. All the while, the planet is powered by clean plasma energy extracted from the core (we see the extraction process going on during the final lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul takes place).
Even the forests sees very little like the forests of the Endor Moon from Return of the Jedi; the giant-sized trees and man-eating treehouse teddy bear natives give off a much more inhospitable atmosphere than the Gungans, who have a beautiful underwater city of their own, and an apparently-vast civilization with a great history, if those ancient statues are any indication.
Naboo is the perfect, peaceful world– that just so happens to be under invasion (literally) by a corrupt bureaucracy that is the result of a Republic in its death throes.
Tatooine, on the other hand, is very much the typical Star Wars world, which makes sense considering it appears in five of the six movies.
It is the epitome of a “used universe”, as almost everything is worn-down, second-hand, or otherwise partially broken. Queen Amidala’s starship, with its sleek chrome plating, sticks out like the sorest of thumbs when juxtaposed with the impoverished Mos Espa.
The movie goes even further by placing half of the action that we see in Tatooine either in Watto’s junkyard, or in the slave quarters. On Tatooine, we see what the common people of the the galaxy live like. It is not the peaceful, lavish lifestyle on Naboo. No, it’s a hard life in a hard galaxy.
Coruscant, the place where the sun literally sets on the Republic in that iconic shot as shown above, is the most fancy of them all. In Episode I, all we see are the high-class areas of the planet, and boy, are they high-class. Everything looks absolutely rich as possible, to the point where, upon first seeing it, little Anakin must have had a complete culture shock. The contrast between Tatooine and Coruscant is even greater than that of Naboo and Tatooine; here on Coruscant, we actually see the place where the bureaucracy is in control, where an overbloated Republic, one that is mired in inaction and greed, is on the verge of collapse, but doesn’t even yet realize it.
Coruscant and Naboo, the two most prosperous planets we see in the entire saga, are much different than Hoth, Cloud City, or Endor. In fact, if there’s a place in the original trilogy that could most accurately be compared with Coruscant, it would probably be the Death Star, which was clean and sleek, albeit with a much darker color palette. That is enough symbolism that I probably don’t even need to elaborate, there.
The Phantom Menace’s visual style is much different than the rest of the Star Wars movies. This can potentially throw people off because of how strange it seems, but it is all part of the visual progression of the saga from Republic to Empire to New Republic (and eventually to First Order, but we’ll discuss that one later). That progression is probably the Star Wars saga’s strongest point, honestly.