The Phantom Menace is one of the most hated movies of all-time. You really have to dig on the internet to find someone who thinks it is a good movie. (Or, you just have to go to this blog…) After sixteen years, George Lucas returned to Star Wars to try again. It was never going to be well received.
I was 17 when The Phantom Menace was released. I skipped class to wait in line for tickets. My high school vice principal found out when he heard me interviewed on NPR during his lunch break. My mother rescheduled her wedding so I could go opening night. I obsessed in the years leading up to it. I was a regular member on theforce.net messageboards. I had enough Star Wars t-shirts to wear one every day at school.
When I left the theatre on premier night, I was excited. Yeah, Jar Jar was dumb. Whatever. What a cool movie, what promise for the future films! Ahhh! Three more years for the next one?! My buzz lasted all of ten seconds before my angry friends launched into their tirades. There was a real discrepancy in opinion. On theforce.net messageboards, there was a healthy debate. A lot of people at the time liked The Phantom Menace just fine.
I saw it ten times in the theatres. It was the last VHS tape I ever purchased. I most recently watched in in 2013, so I didn’t expect a lot of fresh perspective on the rewatch.
Let’s dispense with what doesn’t need to be said again: there are characters inspired by racist tropes. There is some bad dialogue. (Though no worse than half of the original trilogy.) Jar Jar Binks’ cutesie hijinks interrupt pacing and plot movement at every turn. Natalie Portman is truly terrible. “Yippee!” is said four times in this picture. (Twice by Anakin, one by Kitster, and once by Jar Jar Binks.)
Rants about The Phantom Menace‘s flaws are boring, though. (A special kind of sickness is contracted by people who want to watch two-hour videos about it.) There’s also a lot of groupthink behind The Phantom Menace hatred; “The Phantom Menace is completely terrible!” is more of a meme than a critical opinion. Some people just can’t have a rational conversation about it. And there’s also a dimension of gen-x people denying a younger generation “their” Star Wars.
I don’t think the points above need to be extrapolated. If you can’t carry two thoughts in your head about The Phantom Menace — that it is both awful and brilliant — then I can’t help you. And by the way, before TPM, the last four hours of Star Wars movies — the third act of Return of the Jedi and two two ABC television specials — were mainly about the day-to-day lives of tribal teddy bears. What were we expecting?
What struck me most on the rewatch is how time has harmed The Phantom Menace.
TPM is the only prequel shot on film, and relied much more heavily on real sets and model work than the next two. My recollection before the rewatch was that it was gorgeous. And some shots are! TPM probably has the best cinematography and framing of all but ESB… but the CGI environments and especially the CGI characters look horrible in high-definition digital blu-ray. There were CGI elements I’d never even identified of CGI elements until the rewatch. In theatres, only a few Jar Jar shots stood out as fakey. Now every one does.
A supposed universal truth is that the plot of The Phantom Menace is boring because it’s about tax disputes and bureaucratic maneuvering. That might have been true in 1999, but it’s hogwash now. The swashbuckling story of Robin Hood and his merry men is also, basically, about taxes. Game of Thrones is nothing but bureaucratic maneuvering. In fact, watching the movie, I was struck by how Game of Thrones-esque The Phantom Menace felt.
I’m a big fan of The Phantom Menace‘s wonky plot. If you want to tell the downfall of the Jedi, you have to give them context. Three movies of Darth Vader hunting down Jedi would have worn thin. I like Lucas’ instincts here.
The other commonly accepted truth I’d like to refute is that Jake Lloyd is terrible in this movie. He’s not, really. He acts like a kid, which Anakin is. The bigger issue is the writing is poor and his scene partners, especially Natalie Portman, don’t give him much to work with. I think with better dialogue, Jake Lloyd could have been great.
I still love the opening of this movie. Not only does it mirror the opening of Return of the Jedi, but I just love the darkness of the shuttle ship cockpit and Trade Federation base. I love the mood of mystery. And I love the Neimoidians as clownshoe villains, pawns of Palpatine.
Right from the start, Qui-Gon shows us how he’s both wise and independent of the Jedi’s code. Qui-Gon is the best character in the prequels. For the Republic to fall, the Jedi Order must have a tragic flaw or there’s no story to tell. The Jedi are bureaucratic and eschew emotion for discipline. Qui-Gon’s rebel ways against the Jedi Council, the way he follows his heart, represent what the Jedi should have been. He’s a foil for Yoda, and becomes a shadow as Yoda continues to misstep in the next two movies.
I love how Qui-Gon gambles through the whole movie. He gambles on Anakin to win the race. He gambles that Amidala won’t stand-off with him. He gambles with Watto multiple times, changing the wagers to leverage what he wants. He gambles that the Jedi Council will train the boy. Qui-Gon’s gambling is the sort of rogueish cowboy character behavior everyone wishes was present in the prequels. Guys, it’s there! I mean, he steals a blood sample from a child slave and then later informs the child’s mother he’s taking the boy away, not really asking for permission. Qui-Gon shot first!
(And by the way, Qui-Gon’s contempt for Jar Jar is revealed in every scene they share. Once you hone in on it, Jar Jar is much more bearable.)
Even though TPM is better crafted than the other two prequels (if memory serves!), it does drag after the opening. Otoh Gunga is as boring as it is ugly. (Unfortunate, because the duality of the Naboo inhabitants, gungans and humans, is a cool little sub theme.) Qui-Gon and friends spend a lot of time waiting for the race on Boonta Eve.
About that podrace everyone hates. It’s true, it’s got nothing to do with Jedi or Sith buuuuut I do think it gives young, uncorrupted Anakin a pure heroic victory. It displays his courage and aptitude. It helps justify why he’s later able to pilot a starfighter. It is also a perfectly crafted story-within-the-story. Each lap is a beginning, middle, and end. The pod race is thrilling and, arguably, the most impressive special effects sequence in the whole saga. (Also, the sound editing is, for my money, some of the greatest ever.)
The third act of The Phantom Menace is where it really loses me. The starfighter battle is frustrated by Anakin’s goofy lines. The palace assault feels secondary. (Fending off the droid army and defeating Darth Maul are more pressing than capturing the bureaucrats at this stage.) And the Gungan land battle is the most hideous thing in Star Wars, if not blockbuster movies.
No, really, it’s terrible. The battlefield looks like the Windows 98 default wallpaper. There are no human characters. The CGI textures are pre-vis quality. And General Binks fumbles himself through the battle when, if his character had the proper arc, would have summoned courage and grown into a leader, redeeming himself for previous fumbles.
All of that is forgiven, though, because The Duel of Fates is incredible.
Not just for its spectacle, but because the choreography tells a story and foreshadows the whole trilogy: The appearance of “the phantom menace,” (represented by Maul) the old guard’s heroic attempt to defeat it (represented by Qui-Gon), the tragic fall, and how the future rests in the hands of a young apprentice at the end. Obi-Wan in the Duel of Fates in TPM represents what Luke must achieve later in the OT.
For its pacing and character flaws, TPM is really well crafted. It’s artful in a way the other prequels aren’t, really. The two story-within-a-stories. (Pod Race and Duel of Fates) The way in each of the three Jedi Council scenes, the sun has progressively set. The placement and framing of the camera usually conveys meaning about character. It has some of John Williams’ best music. And it perfectly sets-up Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin, and Palpatine as the central characters of the prequel trilogy.
Contra the “Machete Order,” I came away from the viewing feeling that TPM isn’t the dispensable prequel, but perhaps the only essential one. It adds so much to the original trilogy. It starts Anakin Skywalker from a place of innocence. (If he began corrupted, there’d be no reason to tell the story of his fall.) It reveals the tragic flaws of the Old Republic and the Jedi Order. It adds to original trilogy Yoda by showing his mistaken view that contributed to the downfall of the Jedi. It gives context to original trilogy Obi-Wan, and just what it means for him to take on another Skywalker as an apprentice when Luke arrives. It shows how the Emperor came to power from within democracy.
And most importantly, The Phantom Menace‘s greatest gift to Star Wars mythos: The Only Two Sith Rule. I love it. As a duality, the Jedi have a massive bureaucratic order and the Sith, sly and agile, operate as a special force of two. But what I love is that the Sith apprentice is always doomed to be second banana unless he wants to kill his master. The deception for a Sith apprentice to find his own apprentice, kill his master, and ascend ranks is baked into the secret order! Cannibalization motivated by greed is the chief doctrine of the Sith, and greed is one of the great themes of the prequels that feeds directly into the original trilogy.
The Only Two Sith Rule is going to be a running theme in just about every post.