“The greatest rift in Star Wars fandom opened up 19 years ago this month, and it hasn’t healed over since. Even now, to provoke dark scowls or preemptive defensiveness from lovers of the saga, you need only utter three words: The. Phantom. Menace.
But nearly two decades on, is it time to reconsider George Lucas’ most maligned movie? Clearly it’s not his most dramatically satisfying story, but it’s hardly the worst-reviewed film in history. With 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, it can boast a better reception than, say, Armageddonor The Day After Tomorrow. In terms of box office gross, it remains Lucas’ most successful film.
That’s thanks largely to his intended audience for this most simplistic of origin stories — young kids — for whom nothing went wrong in the tale at all.
The generation who genuinely giggled at Jar Jar Binks’ insufferable antics, who saw themselves in 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), are now in their late 20s. Many of them still view Episode I through the same filter their elders saw the original trilogy: unabashed nostalgia.
To listen to this younger generation, who now form the highly active center of Star Wars fandom on Twitter, is to be reminded of the surprising number of things that Phantom Menacegot right.
For starters, there’s Darth Maul. Played like a whirling dervish by martial arts expert Ray Park, the double-bladed red lightsaber-wielder was easily the most kinetic character in the whole saga. (Yes, Lucas killed him off too quickly. He would later fix that mistake in the Clone Warsanimated series.)
Then there’s the rise of Maul’s boss, Darth Sidious, who schemes his way into power in disguise as Senator Palpatine. His takeover of the Republic, by promising to be a “strong” leader who could break through the bureaucracy to get things done, seems a lot more ominous in the Trump era than it did in 1999. Same goes for Yoda’s most famous quote from the movie: “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
And no one can deny the power of Phantom Menace‘s soundtrack. John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” kickstarted a trend for apocalyptic choirs in blockbuster movies that continues to this day. The original did it best. […]
So does the line delivery suck in Phantom Menace? That’s not surprising. Lucas wasn’t the guy for the job of giving actors chemistry that wasn’t there, he knew it, and he tried to get out of it. Does the dialogue as written suck? That was kind of the point: Lucas was going for a pastiche of his favorite childhood space serial, Flash Gordon.
Watch Phantom Menace back to back with Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and the lineage becomes obvious. Listen to the commentary track on the Phantom Menace DVD and you’ll hear Lucas hope you just let the words wash over you, as if they’re just musical notes in a larger symphony.
“Dialogue isn’t the point,” wrote the late Roger Ebert in the most prominent positive review of Phantom Menace. The movie was about “new things to look at.” Hence the stunning vistas of Naboo, the surprising number of practical effects (none of those ships were computer-generated), the highly experimental forays into all-CGI characters, and Queen Amidala’s iconic outfit, inspired by Mongolian royal costumery. […]
An earlier version of Lucas’ script shows he was fully capable of making Phantom Menace a film with more somber, dark, adult themes. Jar Jar, speaking in complete English sentences, made Buddha-like pronouncements. Anakin was equally wise, reading more like a spooky Force-wielding kid a la The Omen. Obi-Wan was in the thick of the action rather than on its periphery.
It was everything fans wanted from a prequel movie. And Lucas ditched it. It just wasn’t what interested him.
Never forget, this was a guy who loved cars and comic books and wanted to be an animator of kids’ cartoons. On his first Hollywood internship, at Warner Bros., Lucas would have worked for Hanna-Barbera if he could, had the department not just closed down.
With Phantom Menace, Lucas basically jumped at the opportunity to make a big-budget high-tech Wacky Races. The Boonta Eve podrace on Tatooine, where Anakin wins his freedom, sits at the center of the film, and much of what leads up to it feels like an excuse to get us there.
He fills that preamble with Gungan clowning and more scenes with Anakin’s entourage of moppets than you may care to remember. It couldn’t be telegraphed any louder. Lucas is basically saying what he often said about the original trilogy but in a louder voice: this is a fun, special-effects-filled kids’ movie. Don’t take it too seriously. Just enjoy the ride.
As for the old-school Jedi Order fans had longed to see, this movie was just the beginning of Lucas’ long campaign to change their minds on that sanctimonious old order of Force wielders. They began to display the questionable judgment that led to the downfall of their order. This campaign finally found its fruition in The Last Jedi last year, when Luke Skywalker pretty much tore the whole thing down for all the mistakes it had made. […]
Now that The Phantom Menace is a gangly, awkward 19-year-old, perhaps it’s finally time to quit talking about what it might have been. If you really want to understand its place in history, stick a child in front of the screen and ask what they think. “