Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best
Writer: George Lucas
Director: George Lucas
In a few short weeks, we will reach the 20th anniversary of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Originally released in May of 1999, Phantom Menace was the long-awaited start of a brand new trilogy of Star Wars movies.
And two weeks after its release, nearly everyone turned on the franchise that invented the blockbuster.
Recently, thanks to discovering and listening to back episodes of Griffin Newman and David Sim’s fantastic podcast, Blank Check, I have found myself rewatching this cinematic enigma multiple times in the past week. And after four viewings in just as many days, I am still fascinated by this trainwreck.
The most obvious culprit to blame is fan service. Frankly, the movie barely works as presented, so if you remove the context of the original trilogy, you are left with a few cool set pieces and a movie with no theme. Not a single character in the movie grows from their first scene. Qui-Gon is defiant throughout the film. Obi-Wan is sidelined until the ending battle. Padmé makes promises that turn out to be empty gestures. And Anakin is just … around.
The main takeaway is that the writing is bad, and this movie doesn’t hold up as a stand-alone film, or as a Star Wars movie. So what does it do right?
Anything Natalie Portman and Kiera Knightly wear is astonishing to look at and is worthy of awe. I was fortunate enough to catch a traveling art exhibit a few years ago, Star Wars and The Power of Costume, which focused mostly on the Naboo Queen’s extensive wardrobe. Sure, the exhibit had some props and costumes from the original trilogy and the sequel trilogy, but the amount of artistry and work that went into Padmé’s wardrobe is unparalleled, even 20 years later.
Another glimmering sign of life in an otherwise lifeless film is the Boonta Eve Classic Podrace. After all, Lucasarts, the gaming division of Lucasfilm, turned a 15-minute sequence into a 25+ hour racing game that sold over 3 million copies on the Nintendo 64. I would honestly watch an entire movie of just podracing. The sequence is incredibly easy to follow, not rapidly cut together like a modern action film, and it has some fun twists and turns. This part feels like it’s the movie George Lucas wanted to make.
Oh, and the transfer of this film to Blu-ray is gorgeous, Jar Jar notwithstanding (we will get to him). This was the last Star Wars film, pre-Disney buyout, that was shot on actual film, and it is evident from the first scene. The models used for the various vehicles look awesome, the sets look real, even if it is just a small section that is digitally expanded on earlier, and you can tell most of the actors are in the same room together. The one exception to this is Jar Jar, and it isn’t because of the character at all! Jar Jar sticks out because he was made using state of the art technology from 20 years ago. The lighting looks weird, his body has some odd pull to it, and the effects look fake compared to what we are used to today.
But the actual character of Jar Jar? Stunning and brilliant. Two main moments make me think this above everything else. First, after Jar Jar, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn leave Ooth Gunga, there is a brief exchange in which Obi-Wan exclaims, “We are not in trouble, yet.” Jar Jar, in his trademark hyperactive fashion, responds perfectly reasonably with “What ‘yet’? Monsters out dare. Leak’n in here. All sink’n and no power? Whena yousa tinkin wesa in trouble?” The second moment is right before the podrace, where Jar Jar gets his mouth stuck in a power line, causing it to go numb. These are genuinely funny moments! It is okay to laugh at them!
Sadly, you cannot discuss Jar Jar without discussing the way the actor who played Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best, was treated by fans. The man was plucked off the Broadway hit Stomp and was pioneering a new form of performance before Andy Serkis gave us Gollum.
Fans hated Jar Jar so much, Best was close to committing suicide. This is bad fandom and should not be encouraged by others who claim to be fans. Always remember your words affect others, and with the firehouse of bile being spewed online between people who disagree with each other, it doesn’t surprise me that Best ended up in the situation he was in. Thankfully, most of the toxicity surrounding the role has died down, and he is now revered and respected by the Star Wars community, even getting a standing ovation during a panel at Star Wars Celebration 2019 just a few weeks ago in Chicago.
Nearly everything else about the movie doesn’t work, though. Qui-Gon comes off as a standoff-ish prick. Yoda becomes a generic fate spinner that doesn’t push anyone to be better like he does in Empire. Darth Maul, one of the coolest characters ever made, gets cut in half. Anakin is introduced way too early and gives an incredibly flat performance. Midichlorians. The weird close up shots. All that said, though, every time I see this image…
All I want to do is to crank up the music and watch some awesome lightsaber fights. And sometimes, that’s all you really need.