The Phantom Menace Might Be My Favorite

Or, how I learned to stop hating George Lucas so much

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My earliest memory of Star Wars is from the late 90s when my Dad got the new Special Edition boxed set for Christmas. It was 20 years after the original Star Wars film was released in 1977, and George Lucas had decided to celebrate by Frankensteining a bunch of (at the time) modern CGI into the films. To quote Douglas Adams, “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Making changes 20 years later is a tough sell for any film, but for a film like Star Wars that was famous for its special effect techniques, the new visuals felt like they were from a different universe. The old and new never really gelled. Unsurprisingly, kicking off a new trilogy just a couple of years later stuffed with digital effects felt like another attack on the films that people fell in love with in the first place. The Phantom Menace was has remained a favored punching bag for the fandom ever since.

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I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the prequels as a whole. I was young enough when The Phantom Menace came out that I didn’t have a critical bone in my body. It wasn’t just a movie either, the staying power of Star Wars has been its ability and willingness to flood the market with licensing deals. Darth Maul’s face was plastered on every consumer product imaginable, half of our toys were somehow associated with Star Wars, and I made it about 15 books deep into a series about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan that was set before Episode I. Prequel Star Wars was the air that I breathed, but somewhere around the release of Attack of the Clones it started to sour. There were so many cringey lines of dialogue, and it was becoming clear that Lucas had no idea how to write young Darth Vader as a compelling character. (At the time I just blamed Hayden Christensen for being terrible, but I don’t think he was entirely at fault.) The whole thing was understood to be a train wreck and none of us could look away. Star Wars became a punchline, and The Phantom Menace became shorthand for everything that was wrong with the series. Yet I find myself in the strange position, 20 years after The Phantom Menace first graced the screen, of regarding it with incredible fondness. If you hate it I don’t feel a strong need to argue you out of that opinion, but I do think some of the most common criticisms are misplaced.

The most frequent gripe about the film seems to be the use of computerized effects, a criticism the new Disney films nimbly try to avoid by stuffing every behind-the-scenes photo with as many physical props as possible. It’s not a complaint that’s ever carried much weight for me though. Remember, I didn’t start watching Star Wars until after Han stopped shooting first. I still, to this day, have not seen the original films in their unaltered analog glory. I’ve just seen the comparison clips of a windowless cloud city and a barren looking sarlacc pit. Most of my experiences with Star Wars have included weird computer graphics, at least in the prequels the special effects stay fairly consistent. And in 1999, it made sense to embrace the latest technology available. Star Wars was a revelation in the 70s and 80s precisely because it pushed the envelope visually. While the digital additions to the original trilogy feel jarring and unnecessary, I don’t think embracing new technology was the wrong decision for The Phantom Menace.

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Even now, it’s only the small details in the effects work that I really find distracting: the flat-looking plains of Naboo or cityscapes that seem too simple. Big set-pieces like the pod race are still thrilling, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how satisfying it still is to watch digital battle droids get carved up like butter. Even Jar Jar feels like less of an egregious error than he did then. In a world where Gollum, Dobby, and Groot are household names, it’s hard to remember a time when a digital character with a weird voice was such a novelty. He deserves much of the ridicule that he has received — the weird speech pattern is annoying and he has WAY too much screen time — but the impulse to create a digital character wasn’t a complete miscalculation. It’s hard to imagine the pitch meeting where naming a muppet with a speech impediment the greatest Jedi sounded like a good idea either, yet weirdly that one worked out for them.

And where do people get off complaining about the plot being boring? Yes, the fact that the opening crawl literally begins with “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute” is still unintentionally hilarious. But the movie is not about trade policy, it’s all just a cover for planetary invasion. Qui-Gon remarks in in the opening scene that he senses “an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.” QUI-GON SHARES YOUR DISREGARD FOR TRIVIAL TRADE DISPUTES. This is a story about Natalie Portman being an awesome queen and taking back her planet from an overwhelming opponent. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are a Jedi’s Jedi dream team, and two of the most exciting characters in the entire trilogy. Even if I have problems with how Anakin is handled in the prequels, that’s largely the fault of the later films. His virgin birth origin story and subsequent invention of C-3PO still drive me crazy, but if you want to get rid of the pod race you’ll have to pry it from my cold, lifeless hands. There’s a definite loss of momentum when our heroes travel to Coruscant, but Senator/Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine also ends up having a more satisfying character arc across 3 films than Darth Vader does, so maybe it isn’t time wasted after all. And the climactic three (four?) pronged assault to retake Naboo is fantastic, give or take some Jar Jar Binks.

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Star Wars is at its best when it inspires wonder. The Phantom Menace did that for me. Darth Maul’s second lightsaber blade blew my mind. The activation of the battle droid army was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Liam Neeson made sticking a lightsaber into a blast door feel like a spiritual experience. Even Jar Jar’s stupid comic relief moments are as burned into my memory as any other line in this film. I watched The Phantom Menace when I was still too young to question it, and it was mine, and to a certain extent that never goes away. When watching it with my 4-year-old this week, he blurted out just after the pod race, “Anakin Skywalker can fix things! And when he grows up he can be a Jedi!” and I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, things will eventually take a tragic turn for Anakin (from both a character and a casting perspective) but in this moment the world feels young and alive and full of potential. What’s not to love about that?

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