I was 12 years old in 1999 when the “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” was released. So, in many ways, I was at the perfect age for this movie – squarely in the crosshairs of the marketing’s target demographic. I had been harvested, in a way, since my true love of the original trilogy developed two years prior, when the films were re-released between January and March of 1997. I was part of the excited up-and-coming generation of “Star Wars” fans who couldn’t wait for history to be made with “Episode I.”
When you’re 12, just about any movie you’re excited about is “awesome,” so I came out of the theater with a big stupid grin on my face. I even kept the ticket stub (it’s the oldest one I still have). I saw it again, I bought the LEGO sets and it was probably the first DVD I ever watched.
Much time had passed before I realized how much of a letdown the film was for most fans compared to its insurmountable hype. Eventually I came to the conclusion (on my own) that the prequels were not on the same level as the original trilogy and accepted that “Episode I” was the worst of the bunch, despite loving the movie as a pre-teen.
But in the last 10-plus years since I’d seen “The Phantom Menace,” one question lingered: What would I think of it now?
I had to know if maturity (and watching hundreds of great, classic films and writing about them critically) would reveal “The Phantom Menace” to be the joke so many said it was, or if nostalgia would color my view and prevent me from seeing it objectively. Then there was the third possibility: could I see it objectively, and like it?
I did find it a little difficult to forget the ways in which “The Phantom Menace” was pioneering. The use of CGI was groundbreaking at the time. The lightsaber fight choreography was unlike anything we’d seen in the original films. Most of all, I was surprised to see how well the podracing scene held up. It is far and away the film’s most masterful sequence, even though it’s a diversion and a way to inject something exciting into the film’s second act.
Narratively, “The Phantom Menace” is a total mess. The conflict between the Trade Federation and Naboo might make total sense in Lucas’ head, but is utterly confusing and in no way plays into the entertainment value of the film. Every component of the story serves to set the stage for the rest of the trilogy. Really focus on the plot when you watch and you can see how desperately he tries to connect and tweak “The Phantom Menace” to fit this bigger agenda and throws in imaginative components just to give the movie something to be about on its own.
In that context, “The Phantom Menace” amounts to first pawn moving forward in the Sith’s evil scheme, whereas the other two prequels actually play out the chess game. Give it a double-sided lightsaber and a podracing sequence, but it’s still just a pawn making the first move.
The controversy Jar Jar Binks caused is warranted. He’s a poor version of a Looney Tunes character who is both unintelligible and seemingly a racist stereotype of Afro-Caribbean peoples. He adds no value to the story and his “clumsy buffoon who becomes a hero purely on accident” routine will entertain no one but the smallest of children. “Childish,” in fact, is definitely an adjective that can be fairly leveraged against “The Phantom Menace.” There is no reason to set “Episode I” when Anakin Skywalker is a kid except to appeal to kids. He could’ve at least been a reckless teenager sort, enough that we could see some shades of the troubled soul who will be tempted by the Dark Side.
Lucas’ flaws as a writer really stand out in “Phantom Menace,” but not necessarily to the point that the film is garbage. He’s an absolute master of imagination and imagination-fueled storytelling, and what he does with the camera keeps viewers engaged and invested in the outcome. That much is present in “Episode I.” What he struggles with, at least in these prequels, is character-driven storytelling. He seems to have a checklist for the plot in terms of what needs to happen, but he doesn’t really think about who these characters are and what they want. They are as empty as the action figures he means to so desperately sell. And the supporting characters? Forget about it.
As much as you can break it apart, however, “The Phantom Menace” is not a disgrace to “Star Wars.” Imagination counts for something, and to be honest, that’s half of what “A New Hope” thrived upon when it became a pop-culture sensation nearly 40 years ago. “The Phantom Menace” builds tremendously on “Star Wars” lore even if it does so with a degree of childishness. It is also a movie that understands how to entertain in audience when it matters most, and that, in essence, is the strength of the entire “Star Wars” saga.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd