Review: The Phantom Menace

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (and the end of The Skywalker Saga) arrives on December 20th, 2019. That’s Entertainment will be celebrating the next month, until the release of Episode 9. Check out yesterday’s coverage here and Garrett’s review of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

THE PHANTOM MENACE

The Phantom Menace Poster ImageDirector: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd

Editors note: Garrett originally watched Star Wars Episodes 1-6 in numbered order before seeing The Force Awakens. Theses reviews have been posted in release order.

I saw The Phantom Menace in theaters at least three times in 1999, I was 12 years old and Star Wars meant the world to me. I was so excited to have new Star Wars, with “modern” effects, new characters to collect as action figures, and new lightsaber duels to recreate in my backyard. My parents had just hooked up this new fangled ‘puter doohickey called the internet, and what was once fandom became an obsession that birthed all of my creative passions. I learned HTML so that I could make my own Star Wars website with Angelfire, learned Photoshop and Flash so that I could make my own banners and animations for my ravishing new fan site. I started writing scripts for short films that my friends and I would stop-motion animate with Star Wars action figures that we would then post to Newgrounds. The man-boy I am today was nurtured on the teat of Lucas, and for a few, short, glorious years, The Phantom Menace was mother’s milk.

Then puberty came. Not just for me, but for the hive-mind that is the internet. And so with it came the backlash against our youth. We suddenly and unanimously, almost inexplicably rebuked The Phantom Menace, going so far as to invent the reprehensible phrase “raping our youth,” as if George Lucas had forced us to watch more Star Wars, rather than us forcing him to make more Star Wars, which in retrospect seems much closer to the truth.

Did I join in on the hate parade? You bet. How do I think of this film in my memory? Not fondly, for sure. My memory is the “modern” effects look terrible, the script is overloaded with bureaucratic rhetoric, and the performances are across the board atrocious.

As an adult I’ve always qualified my negative sentiments with a wishy-washy rationale of “Well, they weren’t really meant for me. They were meant for a new generation of kids who I’m sure appreciate them.” What a foolish numbskull I must sound like. I was 12! It was for me! And I loved it! But I let the fear of being in the nerd minority in. That fear lead to anger with Lucas which lead to a hatred for the new Trilogy as a whole. And our collective hatred lead to the suffering of the man that filled our childhoods with wonder and adventure.

THROUGH A MATURE EYE

Which brings us to 2015. I’m currently 28 years old, not quite as cynical as I was in my teenage years, and one week away from the beginning of another Star Wars Trilogy. In the hopes of thwarting another personal, existential pop culture crisis, I’ve decided to watch the entire series in Episodic order.

So how did The Phantom Menace fare? Pretty well actually! This isn’t nearly as bad as we, the Padawans turned Sith Lords, made it out to be. First and foremost, the thing that stood out to me is the pace. I remember thinking this was just start to finish boring as all hell. But it actually moves at a very breezy pace, from set piece to set piece, for the first 45 minutes or so. They certainly detour on Tatooine for way, way too long only to go to Coruscant and detour there for a while longer before finally moving into the finale of the film. But, for the most part, it really does briskly move from action sequence to action sequence without getting overly bogged down in the political intrigue at the center of the film. Unfortunately, whenever they do stop to talk it’s boring as hell and all about the politics, but those scenes are apologetically brief compared to my memory of them.

That brings me to the performances, which range from terrible to great. Sadly, a lot of The Phantom Menace‘s leads are who end up in the terrible camp (I’m looking at you Neeson. Seriously, watch him closely in this. If he isn’t speaking he’s literally sleeping on his feet and not engaged in the film at all. Even McGregor and Portman, who are usually great, just can’t deliver this admittedly very stilted dialogue) but some supporting players like Ian McDiarmid somehow know exactly what to do with Lucas’ bizarre dialogue and really make it sing. And honestly, I thought Jake Lloyd was actually pretty good in this. His innocence makes the tragedy of that character really crystallize. And he plays it with a hint of Han Solo-esque brashness that helps foreshadow Anakin’s fate. That’s no small feat for such a young actor.

NOT SO MODERN ANYMORE

And guess what? Nearly 20 years removed from how “modern” the effects work was, this actually looks pretty great. And by great what I specifically mean is it’s starting to have the charm the original Trilogy had when I first saw it. Part of the charm of those movies is that you can tell the effects are kind of old and shambly, yet they’re still effective. That’s how The Phantom Menace played for me watching it so many years after its release. It’s way more practical than I remember it being. The hive-mind often criticizes this Trilogy for being entirely green-screened and populated with CGI characters, but at least in Episode I,  there’s still plenty of rubber costumes and practical sets and vehicles—in addition to the CGI creations and green-screened locales. And with all the advancements we’ve made with these technologies in the years since, the fact that all those elements don’t always play nicely together in this has become oddly charming, at least for me.

The standout scenes from this are still the ones I remember most: the Pod Race and the Duel of the Fates sequence. Car races and swashbuckling are two things that Lucas has always loved and excelled at shooting, and they work great here. One thing I noticed about the Pod Race that gave me a chuckle is that Anakin doesn’t so much win the race through speed and skill as he does survive the race. Literally every other racer explodes and dies except two or three that crash and don’t finish. Anakin is simply the only one to finish the race.

Now here is where I can get into my (mostly for humor) real problem with The Phantom Menace now that I’m watching it as an adult—Qui-Gon is kind of a shitty person. In that race, he puts Anakin’s life on the line to win a bet. He’s a Jedi, a peacekeeper of the galaxy, and yet when confronted by a slave family that invites him into their home and feeds him, he refuses to free them. He only decides to free Anakin after he’s decided Anakin is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that only he seems to believe in. Even Yoda doesn’t seem convinced the prophecy is real, constantly belittling Qui-Gon for being insubordinate. And rightfully so!

BABY SUPER SOLIDER

He’s essentially a crazed religious zealot that wants so badly to be the one to bring this prophecy to fruition, when he meets who is essentially baby Hitler he’s like “Yep, he’s the one. He’s gotta be.” And then he goes out of his way to make sure baby Hitler gets trained as a super soldier. He even sets the boy up to become Hitler;  he gambles the boy’s life away to himself without telling him he’s doing so, then tears him away from his mother, and allows the Queen to be his surrogate mother (creating all kinds of new complicated familial relationships for the Skywalker clan—I think Lucas must have a troubled past of some kind). He helps set the stage that will lead to the crumbling of the Republic at the hands of Palpatine and his Hitler youth.

Yeah, yeah. I know I’m fudging some details for humor. But truly, watch that movie and think about Qui-Gon’s story. He’s kind of an arrogant asshole.

Regardless, The Phantom Menace is better than people give it credit for. It’s certainly not great, but it’s perfectly enjoyable. The only real problem with it is every time the characters stop to talk it immediately gets boring. But that only happens at short clips through most of the movie. Lucas understands what the real focus should be here, we as a fandom just decided to focus on the wrong details.

Looking forward to reconsidering the rest of this trilogy.

The above was originally written in 2015, during Garrett’s rewatch of the series leading up to the release of The Force Awakens.

Score: ★★★☆☆

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Garrett Smith

Comedian of no repute. Co-host of the I Like To Movie Movie podcast and Movie Movie Live! the monthly game show based on the podcast.
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