Darren Franich: I figured that the years would have been kind to The Phantom Menace. I tend to enjoy bad movies more as they grow older, if only because they start to provide an interesting look at faded cultural norms, like the notion that anyone should have a rat-tail haircut. Also, my memory of the movie has been clouded by years of feeling disappointed and betrayed. But that’s all silly, really. Phantom Menace is not an emotionally-distant parent who never showed up to my baseball games. It’s just a movie — surely, it couldn’t possibly justify the decade of culture-wide scorn that followed.
Keith Staskiewicz: Burning George Lucas in effigy is a yearly tradition at the Staskiewicz household.
DF: When we set out to rewatch the movie, I was intrigued by the fact that Phantom Menace is a project created by one creative force. Modern Hollywood blockbusters are assembly-line hackjobs, so I’ve come to value big movies that, for all their flaws, have a genuine personality — like the messianic Superman Returns, or the manic-depressive Quantum of Solace, or even Spider-Man 3, which I’m starting to think was supposed to be a comedy. So I was prepared to give Phantom Menace the benefit of the doubt. And then we got to the second sentence of the opening crawl: “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Oh, the thrills of galactic trade regulation!
KS: I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the idea of the expanded Star Wars universe. To me, the original trilogy was so good not because of the various planets and species and governing bodies and uptempo jazz musicians, but because it combined lovable, just-stock-enough characters with Hawksian storytelling and phenomenal special effects. They were great movies, and I feel that after 16 years of novelizations, video games, TV specials, card games, action figures, toothpaste, and Yoda Soda you can drink out of your Mos Eisley Canteen, that Lucas lost sight of the things that people loved about the originals. Nobody cares about trade routes or a completely nonsensical political system that has a democratically elected queen taking part in a senate meeting. If A New Hope was a space Western, then this is the equivalent of a movie about the transcontinental train company’s financial records. Good versus Evil somehow turned into Dull versus Boring. And for a character billed as the Next Big Bad, Darth Maul is given approximately 1/20 the screen-time as the movie’s true villain, Jar Jar.
DF: We’re coming at this franchise from two very different places, because I grew up in the expanded universe. I read all the books, memorized the canonic chronology from Tales of the Jedi through Young Jedi Knights, played all the Star Wars videogames, could tell you the difference between a TIE Interceptor and a TIE Interdictor. I loved the original trilogy, but to me, they weren’t movies: They were vivid windows into a fascinating universe. (In fact, I don’t think I even conceived of the original trilogy as three separate movies until a marathon viewing session in college. It’s shocking just how obviously bad Return of the Jedi is when you start watching it immediately after Empire Strikes Back.) So, as a recovering Star Wars megafan, I think the biggest problem I have with Phantom Menace is that the film seems utterly unimaginative about its own possibilities. This movie could have gone anywhere…and it went back to Tatooine? Darth Vader was born and raised in the same region of the same world as his son? He created C-3PO? F—ing midichlorians? You can feel an expansive universe constricting to a few boring characters sitting in a series of rooms talking about space politics. And dear god, Qui-Gon Jinn. Jar Jar gets the blame because of the racial stereotyping, but can we all agree that Qui-Gon Jinn is the single worst character George Lucas has ever created?
KS: I can’t help but feel bad for Liam Neeson here. It seems as if his character description was “like Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan but with 60 percent more hair and 90 percent less personality.” We know nothing about him other than the fact that he is a Jedi and so when he dies it’s a bit like hearing that your neighbor’s pet gerbil passed away: Sad in theory, I guess. One of the most frustrating things about Phantom Menace, as opposed to the latter two prequels, is the fact that there really is no main character. Say what you want about Hayden Christensen, but at least by that point we knew who we were supposed to be focusing on. If Luke Skywalker’s narrative arc was taken straight out of the The Hero With a Thousand Faces, this was based on Joseph Campbell’s less popular follow-up A Thousand Faces Sitting Around Talking. You almost wish Lucas had skipped Anakin’s childhood and went straight to his young-adult years, so we could focus on him for more than 5 minutes at a time and he wouldn’t have to save the day entirely by accident. Where Luke underwent an important epiphany, relying on the Force to guide his proton torpedoes into the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port and winning the battle through skill and self-improvement, the grand finale of Phantom Menace comes down to Anakin bumbling around saying, “Hur-dee-dur, what does this button do?”