Is The Phantom Menace really as bad as we remember? Yes, absolutely, yes.
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?”
DF: Why make Anakin a 9-year-old? It’s not difficult to imagine an extremely different version of Phantom Menace where we meet Anakin when he’s a little older. He’s a sullen teenager who’s been living his whole life as a slave; he has to fight for his freedom; he’s an angry poverty-stricken young man, not a bored farmer boy like his son will be. It’s like Spartacus in Space. (Side note: I can’t get over how Anakin and his mother are “slaves,” but the Tatooine version of slavery allows them to live in a pleasant Mos Eisley duplex and explore extracurricular activities like pod racing.) In turn, it’s surprisingly easy to imagine a version of Phantom Menace where Qui-Gon Jinn doesn’t exist, because the only hyphenated Jedi we really need is Obi-Wan. The one part of the movie that feels even remotely like Star Wars comes right near the end, when Qui-Gon gets lightsabered and Obi-Wan furiously attacks Darth Maul. It’s the only time in the movie when the stakes are clear and immediate. Obi-Wan has lost his friend and mentor. He wants vengeance. He is actually feeling emotion. None of the actors really rise above Lucas’ horrible dialogue or his utter inability to block a scene, but Ewan McGregor comes close. Conversely, Natalie Portman is all over the map here. I lost track of how many different accents Amidala had, although it doesn’t help that half the time she’s swapping roles with Keira Knightley.
KS: To me the prequels were starting off at a loss simply because they were prequels. We already know the eventual outcome, and setting this in the past, or the future past, or the past of the future that took place a long, long time ago, removes the sense of urgency in the original trilogy. Which premise is inherently more exciting, an underdog rebel force fighting an evil empire in a universe of rogues, deposed princesses, and skulduggery, or a large collection of neutral forces—mostly in council form—negotiating coexistence in a prelapsarian world of rococo interior design and Renaissance maternity wear.
DF: Dear god, this movie looks terrible! Everyone is wearing some variation on the robe that Alec Guinness wore in Star Wars. Every shirt looks like a toga. Heck, even the hats look like togas.
KS: There’s so little that is immersive. Lucas really loves his digital matte backgrounds, and they always look extremely busy despite the fact that nothing is really happening. On Tatooine, people walk around aimlessly, like his only direction to the extras was “slower, and with less intent,” and you start to get the sense that all that floating traffic on Coruscant is on a loop, like in old cartoons. It’s almost as if Lucas felt that the things happening on-screen didn’t have to be interesting just as long as there were enough of them.
DF: I think a big problem is that the production designers didn’t realize the essential appeal of the design in the original Star Wars: Everything was simple. X-Wings. Y-Wings. And the TIE Fighter is just a renegade from a Sesame Street sketch, “Attack of the Killing Letter H!” The aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina were fun because they were basically just humanoids with weird eyes and colorful skin. In this, the visuals of Phantom Menace suffer from what might be termed the J.J. Abrams effect: Everything looks a little bit more “realistic,” and therefore, boring. The aliens are all insectile curiosities that walk on their hands, or frog-people who look like extras from the Broadway rendition of The Little Mermaid. Considering the sheer amount of digital effects used in the movie — really, this is an animated film that happens to star a couple flesh-and-blood actors — it’s shocking just how un-visual the movie is. It’s as if Walt Disney tried to make a cartoon, but limited himself to only using the camera techniques available to the Lumiere brothers.
KS: George Lucas is a lot of things: technological game-changer/special effects godfather, producer extraordinaire, marketing genius, flannel fashion innovator, etc…but he is not a good director by a long shot. It seemed like he had recognized this when he brought on Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand for Empire and Jedi, but over the subsequent years Curious George got curious whether he might be able to pull it off without an assist. Sadly, based on the haphazard array of middle shots that make up Phantom Menace, the answer was “Absolutely nope.”