Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.
I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.
There aren’t many observations I can make about The Phantom Menace that haven’t already been made. In fact, I’m far from the only person offering a 20th anniversary retrospective about the launch of the second trilogy in the Skywalker Saga. The Phantom Menace is ostensibly a kid’s movie that’s plot revolves around trade disputes, commercial blockades, and taxation. Much of the acting is wooden, the dialog is stilted, and several characters have been criticized – both now and when the picture was released – for being thinly veiled racial stereotypes.
George Lucas is a visionary when it comes to imagining the big picture universe of his franchise. As a director and writer of specific scenes, he has limitations. With the outsized expectations for The Phantom Menace, Lucas seems to have been overwhelmed with delivering spectacle, which became the all-consuming center of his film.
How else to explain the 10-minute long pod race sequence around which the rest of the movie feels structured? The scene is an homage to the famous chariot race sequence from the 1959 epic Ben-Hur. Many critics attack the pod race for stopping down the whole movie and being terminally boring. On the contrary, this is one of the few sequences in The Phantom Menace that works splendidly. It’s fun, exciting, and still holds its power, even when viewed on a TV screen. Lucas puts a temporary hold on John Williams’ excellent score (another real strength of the film) so that sound designer Ben Burtt’s thrumming pod racer engines can take center stage. The visuals, sound effects, and CGI all work in concert to produce a highlight of the movie.
What’s been overlooked in the two decades that critics and fans alike have spent bashing The Phantom Menace (in many cases with good cause), is how right Lucas gets all the moments of Hollywood blockbuster spectacle. In addition to the pod race is the brilliant Duel of the Fates lightsaber battle with Jedi Knights Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn facing off against Sith Lord Darth Maul. Intercut with that fight is an effective and dazzling space battle that is pure Star Wars.
Of course, for every moment that delivers awe like the ones described above, you have to fight through asinine descriptions of midi-chlorians and the labyrinthine mystery of a trade dispute used for political intrigue that really does amount to a phantom plot. And of course, there is actor Jake Lloyd’s multiple utterances of “Yippee!” I don’t blame the actor, who was 10 when he portrayed Anakin Skywalker. I blame Lucas for not having the good sense to nix each and every one of those exclamations.
The movie also deserves a good kick in the teeth for using the aforementioned midi-chlorians to over-explain and scientifically quantify how the Force works. Lucas somehow fails to recognize about his own invention that leaving it a mystery is so much more satisfying.
So, while the moments of spectacle in The Phantom Menace earn their desired stand-up-and-cheer reaction, the film’s limitations mark it as one of the weaker entries in the Star Wars canon. It’s the flawed if enjoyable movie that relaunched a juggernaut franchise that none of us will ever live long enough to see concluded.