It is hard, bordering on impossible to describe the hype for The Phantom Menace. Star Wars Episode I was perhaps the most anticipated movie of all time when it was announced. Sixteen years had passed since Return of the Jedi, and in that time several million new Star Wars fans were born. Lines formed outside theaters weeks in advance. Aficionados bought tickets for other movies to see the first teaser and walked out. Reaction upon its release was mixed-to-positive with some outlandish enthusiasm, and though it went on to be the 20th highest grossing film with the biggest box office of the Star Wars series, it would also be considered the most disappointing movie of all time.
If you divorce yourself from the fashionable polarity in which films are parsed as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, you can accept that The Phantom Menace is just okay.
The story begins 32 BBY, or thirty-two years before the culminating conflict in A New Hope, referred to as the Battle of Yavin. The Jedi are plentiful, and two of whom have been dispatched by the Galactic Chancellor to resolve a trade dispute involving the planet Naboo. Unbeknownst to them, their mortal enemies the Sith have corrupted the Trade Federation, eyeing this blockade as the first in a series of chess moves to take power. With Naboo’s ruler Queen Amidala in tow, the two Jedi attempt to return her safely to the capital world of Coruscant, but when they are waylaid on the planet Tatooine, they stumble across young Anakin Skywalker, who is as strong with the Force as anyone they’ve encountered.
Unfortunately, no headway can be made in dissecting The Phantom Menace without mentioning that George Lucas is the worst thing to happen to the entire prequel trilogy. There’s no denying that the world of Star Wars is his, because he did such an immaculate job world-building and pushing the special effects to achieve that world. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas abdicated the director’s chair in favor of someone capable of understanding the nuance of acting, and he even took on co-writers to alleviate his difficulties with character and dialogue. Return of the Jedi didn’t fare as well, but it could hardly be considered a failure.
In The Phantom Menace, George is steering the ship, and he immediately conjures Star Wars at its worst. Liam Neeson is apparently capable of coming away from anything unscathed, Ian McDiarmid is perfect as Palpatine, and Ewan McGregor’s sheer enthusiasm dominates his performance, but Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Terence Stamp, Samuel L. Jackson, and poor Ralph Brown look like they’re in the midst of an audition where they’ve lost their audience before they could even speak. Their attrition is half dialogue, half direction, the latter of which is certain because the majority of them have proven their chops elsewhere.
Unfortunately, time hasn’t been kind to Lucas’ ability with story either, an alarming and terrifying development for the Star Wars series: the less said about the Trade Federation, the better. Their conception works okay as a plot device, but far too much time is spent negotiating their absent politics to make them useful for social commentary or establish them for future films. The same goes for the entire Gungan race, particularly Jar Jar Binks, whose mixture of comic rankling and consumer prostitution would immediately see him considered one of the worst characters in film history. From the midi-chlorian retcon to the feckless space battles, there are dozens of excuses to check out of long passages in The Phantom Menace, and it’s simply because Lucas had become too powerful.
Honestly, how do actors, or crew, say ‘no’ to the man who not only created Star Wars, but also personally finances the films? M. Night Shyamalan has suffered the same fate of becoming too successful too quickly: there’s no legitimate second-guessing or due diligence on a Lucas production, and though the cracks showed in Return of the Jedi, the faults are everywhere in The Phantom Menace. Even the cinematography and editing are bland, although the final lightsaber duel remains a standout.
Speaking of which, it’s important to note that Star Wars is a series of glorified popcorn movies, a saga of epic science-fantasy space operas so direct and simple that they vaporize the complications of the modern movie. The additional resonance conferred by extremist fans goes a long way toward vilifying such populist considerations, and the average Star Wars fan seems to define the nature of fanatical obsession, diving headlong into an ever-expanding mythos while absorbing every ounce of minutiae regarding technical specifications and extraneous lore. Perhaps understandably, being exposed to a vacuous enterprise like The Phantom Menace sent them into fits of righteous indignation.
Though it’s clear much of the film’s pacing could be tightened, there can be no doubting that the pod race scene has the effect of numbing one’s logical faculties in the most delightful of ways. John Williams has clearly not soured with age, turning in perhaps the most haunting theme in the series. The production design is as good as ever, and the special effects, which have admittedly not aged well, were certainly cutting edge for the time. Moreover, Lucas’ instincts regarding the staging of the battle sequences are utterly perfect: thematically, it makes perfect sense that the lightsaber battles between the Jedi and their combatants, be they Sith or droid, should be more like ballet than endurance trials. Indeed, the moment Obi-Wan is freed from the force field and charges Darth Maul is indelibly etched in my mind as one of the most beautifully choreographed moments of the decade.
In the end, the moments of The Phantom Menace may be all you take away; the fleeting sensations attached to Darth Maul juxtaposed by the endlessly vapid antics of Jar Jar, the half-dozen awful performances contrasted with the solid ones, or the withering of the greatness that was Star Wars cast against what it has become. It is neither wholly perfect nor completely detestable. It is an epic science-fantasy space opera that could never measure up to the original.