The greatest rift in Star Wars fandom opened up 19 years ago this month, and it hasn’t healed over since. Even now, to provoke dark scowls or preemptive defensiveness from lovers of the saga, you need only utter three words: The. Phantom. Menace.
But nearly two decades on, is it time to reconsider George Lucas’ most maligned movie? Clearly it’s not his most dramatically satisfying story, but it’s hardly the worst-reviewed film in history. With 55% on Rotten Tomatoes, it can boast a better reception than, say, Armageddon or The Day After Tomorrow. In terms of box office gross, it remains Lucas’ most successful film.
That’s thanks largely to his intended audience for this most simplistic of origin stories — young kids — for whom nothing went wrong in the tale at all.
The generation who genuinely giggled at Jar Jar Binks’ insufferable antics, who saw themselves in 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), are now in their late 20s. Many of them still view Episode I through the same filter their elders saw the original trilogy: unabashed nostalgia.
To listen to this younger generation, who now form the highly active center of Star Wars fandom on Twitter, is to be reminded of the surprising number of things that Phantom Menace got right.
For starters, there’s Darth Maul. Played like a whirling dervish by martial arts expert Ray Park, the double-bladed red lightsaber-wielder was easily the most kinetic character in the whole saga. (Yes, Lucas killed him off too quickly. He would later fix that mistake in the Clone Wars animated series.)
Then there’s the rise of Maul’s boss, Darth Sidious, who schemes his way into power in disguise as Senator Palpatine. His takeover of the Republic, by promising to be a “strong” leader who could break through the bureaucracy to get things done, seems a lot more ominous in the Trump era than it did in 1999. Same goes for Yoda’s most famous quote from the movie: “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
And no one can deny the power of Phantom Menace‘s soundtrack. John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” kickstarted a trend for apocalyptic choirs in blockbuster movies that continues to this day. The original did it best.
With the benefit of hindsight, many fans spent years outlining how they would fix the plot of the film to make it more palatable to grown-ups. (Here’s one of the better suggestions.)
But hindsight also allows us to understand a good deal more about what Lucas was going for — something that skewed young, way young, and felt far closer to the Lucasfilm kids’ fantasy Willow than the original Star Wars — and to appreciate what an impossible position he’d put himself in vis a vis fan expectations.
So much so that he really, really didn’t want to have to direct it himself — and tried to convince Willow‘s director, Ron Howard, to step in.
“There was no script, no kind of concrete offer, it was just a theoretical question,” Howard told me in a recent interview for his actual first Star Wars film, Solo. “I said ‘no, I think you should do it.'” Lucas also tried to draft his friends Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis, Howard added: “We all told him he was the only one who could tackle it.”
Lucas was rusty, to say the least: it had been 22 years since he’d made Star Wars. That had been a lucrative but highly traumatic experience. He’d sworn off the director’s chair, preferring the producer’s role. Even at the best of times, this inveterate introvert wasn’t an actor’s director. THX 1138, American Graffiti, Star Wars: all were shot in what Lucas called “documentary style,” meaning the actors were left to get on with saying their lines however they felt like saying them.
So does the line delivery suck in Phantom Menace? That’s not surprising. Lucas wasn’t the guy for the job of giving actors chemistry that wasn’t there, he knew it, and he tried to get out of it. Does the dialogue as written suck? That was kind of the point: Lucas was going for a pastiche of his favorite childhood space serial, Flash Gordon.
Watch Phantom Menace back to back with Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and the lineage becomes obvious. Listen to the commentary track on the Phantom Menace DVD and you’ll hear Lucas hope you just let the words wash over you, as if they’re just musical notes in a larger symphony.
“Dialogue isn’t the point,” wrote the late Roger Ebert in the most prominent positive review of Phantom Menace. The movie was about “new things to look at.” Hence the stunning vistas of Naboo, the surprising number of practical effects (none of those ships were computer-generated), the highly experimental forays into all-CGI characters, and Queen Amidala’s iconic outfit, inspired by Mongolian royal costumery.
This is what you want, this is what you get
The hype level for Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which hit theaters May 19, 1999, will probably never be equalled. This had little to do with the then-independent Lucasfilm and its distributor, 20th Century Fox, whose ad budget was relatively modest; makers of merchandise did more marketing than the makers of the film. It had everything to do with the fans.
Expecting the Star Wars equivalent of the second coming, they began lining up outside theaters a month before the movie opened, back when that was a thing people did. Sixteen years had passed since Return of the Jedi. 22 years had passed since the almighty George Lucas directed a Star Wars film. Now he was back.
These were innocent times in film fandom. No one even considered the possibility that Lucas had not the slightest care for their expectations.
Because he really didn’t. Lucas has always done things his way without regard to popular opinion. That’s why he made Star Wars, “a movie for 12 year olds” as he still calls it, rather than take Francis Ford Coppola up on his offer to direct Apocalypse Now — which, in the dour climate of 1970s Hollywood, seemed the more bankable option.
Lucas was a single dad with three adopted kids at this point. That’s who his audience was. That’s where his head was at. He was going to make a movie for 8-year-olds, starring Darth Vader as an excitable 8-year-old, and damn the consequences.
Lucas jumped at the opportunity to make a high-tech Wacky Races
An earlier version of Lucas’ script shows he was fully capable of making Phantom Menace a film with more somber, dark, adult themes. Jar Jar, speaking in complete English sentences, made Buddha-like pronouncements. Anakin was equally wise, reading more like a spooky Force-wielding kid a la The Omen. Obi-Wan was in the thick of the action rather than on its periphery.
It was everything fans wanted from a prequel movie. And Lucas ditched it. It just wasn’t what interested him.
Never forget, this was a guy who loved cars and comic books and wanted to be an animator of kids’ cartoons. On his first Hollywood internship, at Warner Bros., Lucas would have worked for Hanna-Barbera if he could, had the department not just closed down.
With Phantom Menace, Lucas basically jumped at the opportunity to make a big-budget high-tech Wacky Races. The Boonta Eve podrace on Tatooine, where Anakin wins his freedom, sits at the center of the film, and much of what leads up to it feels like an excuse to get us there.
He fills that preamble with Gungan clowning and more scenes with Anakin’s entourage of moppets than you may care to remember. It couldn’t be telegraphed any louder. Lucas is basically saying what he often said about the original trilogy but in a louder voice: this is a fun, special-effects-filled kids’ movie. Don’t take it too seriously. Just enjoy the ride.
As for the old-school Jedi Order fans had longed to see, this movie was just the beginning of Lucas’ long campaign to change their minds on that sanctimonious old order of Force wielders. They began to display the questionable judgment that led to the downfall of their order. This campaign finally found its fruition in The Last Jedi last year, when Luke Skywalker pretty much tore the whole thing down for all the mistakes it had made.
Older fans rolled their eyes at the film’s two cases of mistaken identity: Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) disguises herself as her own handmaiden, while Sidious and Palpatine are clearly the same person — especially to adults who saw him as the Emperor in the original trilogy. But again, Lucas didn’t care. He was making an introduction to Star Wars for the young ‘uns, and assumed they’d watch the films in numerical order.
We may wish he’d stuck to that earlier, darker version of the script, or that Ron Howard had answered the call to greatness, or that Natalie Portman hadn’t been forced to talk in that awful flat monotone (which was deemed necessary for that switcheroo subplot). But if wishes were podracers, we all would have won the Boonta Eve classic.
Now that The Phantom Menace is a gangly, awkward 19-year-old, perhaps it’s finally time to quit talking about what it might have been. If you really want to understand its place in history, stick a child in front of the screen and ask what they think.