It was May 19, 1999, and my buddies and I were finally getting to see a film we had been eagerly anticipating for months. We soaked in any behind the scenes specials we could on it. Some of us bought numerous movies posters that were released ahead of its arrival & we endlessly re-watched the previous films to make sure we were properly immersed in the stories of a galaxy far, far away.
What film was this, you ask? It was none other than Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. At the time of its release, I was about 14 years old and it was probably my first exposure to highly anticipating a film’s release. The best comparison probably came two years before when The Lost World: Jurassic Park hit theaters. That was a sequel that my friends and I were really waiting for and even though it was exciting to go see it when the film it theaters, a 12-year-old me experienced one of my first cases of being let down by a movie I was really looking forward to.
But that couldn’t happen with Star Wars. In this case, I had three great to really good films that set in stone a solid blueprint of where future films could be headed. The difference between this film and the Jurassic Park sequel was that this wouldn’t continue the story, it would be the first piece of how this immense galaxy was created. At the time we had already seen how the story ended but the road to this conclusion was also a story worth telling and I was game to see exactly how we got there.
May 19, 1999, was a day that began with out of this world excitement and ended with resounding disappointment. While Star Wars: Episode IV-VI captured the very being of my imagination (with Episode V being one of my favorite films of all time), Episode I was missing a heartbeat. It was a series of video game inspired special effects that were tied together by a poor script and lazy direction. 1999 visual effects outweigh those used for the original films but somehow they all felt meaningless and boring. For all of its polish and sleek production values, The Phantom Menace felt lifeless. There were moments of excitement at 2 hours and 15 minutes, they were few and far between. Most 14-year-olds were probably into this orgy of visual effects and lack of a compelling narrative, but I felt crushed by the film’s inability to enthrall me. We all left the theater pretty bummed out that day and one friend, in particular, was so discouraged by the film that he took down his framed poster for the film (the one with a young Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader’s shadow looming in the background) and threw it in the trash.
Maybe that was a tad dramatic but even as years have gone by, The Phantom Menace hasn’t improved much and it hasn’t aged particularly well. Oh yes, it still looks great visually but a lot of it absurdities and shortcomings are more alarming for me at 32 than they were when I was 14. George Lucas proved himself to be a visionary director in 1977 when Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was released but watching the prequels (particularly the first two) would make you think he was a bit of a one-trick pony. There are no knocking his ideas. The Star Wars universe is unique and full of compelling characters but since Lucas was at the helm and behind the writing of the prequels, it shows that maybe he needs others to flesh out his ideas. He cares more about visual storytelling over character development and more about breathtaking space fights over properly directing actors to give engaging performances. His deficiencies as a director and writer are on full display here (and even more so in Episode II but that’s for my colleague to dive into). It’s a shame too because there are scattered moments of fun in The Phantom Menace but it’s a mostly squandered endeavor. I’m sure you’ve seen the polarizing reactions to most of the DCEU films released recently and my personal feelings about some of those films is about how I felt then and now about The Phantom Menace and its attempts to capture greatness that are well beyond its reach.
Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are on a diplomatic mission to the planet Naboo, where they hope to negotiate the end to a blockade of the planet organized by the Trade Federation. When they arrive, however, they find themselves caught in a trap sprung by the mysterious Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid), who is making a play to take control of the Galactic Republic. After surviving an attempt on their lives in a planet-orbiting space station, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up on the ground in the midst of an invasion by an army of droids. After meeting the amphibious Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), they move to save Naboo’s teenage ruler, Queen Amidala, from possible execution. That involves taking her and her retinue (including her favorite squat droid, R2-D2) into space. From Naboo, the action moves to the desert planet of Tatooine, where the two Jedi encounter young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave child with amazing potential in the Force, then to the capital world of the Republic, and finally back to Naboo. Meanwhile, Darth Maul (Ray Park), Sidious’ minion, is tracking the Jedi with dire intentions.
If the plot description sounds a bit heavy, that’s because it is. The narrative is extremely crowded and it’s strung together by a series of dazzling special effects and action sequences with a bit of meandering to potentially bore audiences before the next rousing scene of action. Watching the film again recently, I found myself not caring too much about the journey. From the battle on the planet-orbiting space station to the journey to the desert planet of Tatooine, none of it is particularly interesting. What makes this fact so frustrating is that it could be compelling. We were hinted at so much in Episode IV-VI that this journey could be one to get lost in but a lot of it results in one big shrug. I found myself struggling to care about the characters getting from point A to point B and that is never a good sign.
Honestly, plot-wise, the film borrows a lot, at least in terms of structure, from Return of the Jedi but it isn’t as successful in its execution (even most fans of the original films think Jedi is the weakest of the three so perhaps it wasn’t the best plot structure to follow). There is a rousing opening sequence (it has moments of being entertaining but it’s also a bit by the numbers), things slow down for a while (so slow that you could possibly fall asleep, I know I dosed in 1999). Then, on Tatooine, there’s the somewhat iconic pod racing sequence that certainly wakes you from your slumber but it’s so heavy on effects that it feels more like a video game rather than an engaging sequence in a motion picture. Finally, the film concludes with three separate, simultaneous story threads all building to a climax. The martial arts-influenced lightsaber duel between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon & Obi-Wan is the best that The Phantom Menace has to offer. It’s a jolt of an action sequence that is directed with skill and understanding of what an audience craves from this sort of confrontation (one wishes Lucas put the skill from this sequence into the rest of film). It’s also heavily aided by John Willaims “Duel of the Fates” score which proved the veteran composer could still make an iconic piece of music that would stand the test of time. In the end, the fact that the prequel follows familiar beats only shows that it’s lacking in comparison to what came before it. The scattered moments of entertainment certainly entertain in a compelling way but it isn’t enough to make you ignore a lot of the film’s mediocrity.
Plainly, this is not an actors’ movie and the director, at the helm for the first time since the original Star Wars, is not an actors’ director. Lucas’ forte is in creating worlds and pushing the special effects envelope. This explains why there are a lot of good actors on display not exactly putting out their best work. The best of the bunch are Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. Neeson is saddled with a lot of cheesy lines about Anakin being “the chosen one” but he manages to do it all in a way that makes you by Qui-Gon’s convictions. I don’t credit Lucas’ script or direction for making this happen, this is all Neeson being good enough to turn something sub-par into something worth being intrigued by. McGregor makes a strong case that he could grow into the Obi-Wan we meet in Episode IV. This is a performance that is aided more by charisma rather than compelling character development. A lot of your admiration for Obi-Wan comes from you being exposed to him previously but McGregor comes out unscathed makes you continue to root for him.
The rest of the actors seem a bit out of place. I don’t want to bag on Jake Lloyd and his portrayal of young Anakin
Skywalker (apparently in real life the actor was bullied relentlessly in the years after the film’s release which resulted in some less than savory behavior) but let’s just say he’s out of his depth. Some child actors have natural talent and charisma but Lloyd doesn’t convey the necessary angst to make the character work. Again, this is mostly a script and direction problem. I don’t think Lucas could pull what he needed out of him because his concerns were more focused on special effects. Then there is Natalie Portman, who back then was one of the best younger actresses of her generation. She’s fine here but she suffers from not having much to do and seeming lost, again, from a lack of proper direction.
George Lucas was known for his creation of unique alien creatures but perhaps his most polarizing (veering more toward hated) is Jar Jar Binks. This was a creation that was blatantly included to appeal to kids and sell toys. The character is more grating than funny and you don’t find yourself rooting for him. In fact, you kind of hope he gets taken down in one of the numerous action sequences. Thankfully learned his lesson with this character and didn’t feature him nearly as much in the follow-up films.
There are the usual little stingers that will continue to impress any Star Wars fan. The opening crawl is still goosebump-inducing and seeing familiar faces is always welcomed (we get R2-D2, an unfinished C-3P0, & Yoda in a few scenes) but the film can only get by on so much nostalgia. This is a film that should’ve been great as I was hoping, back in 1999, that it would continue to ignite my imagination for the franchise. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and as I sit here in 2017, The Phantom Menace is still a series of decent moments that don’t really add up to much.