By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 26, 2016
In January, I excoriated the The Star Wars Holiday Special, the worst feature-length production in that fantastically popular science-fiction franchise. Today, I come to examine what is widely agreed to be the property’s second-worst movie. I write, of course, about the much-loathed 1999 release that kicked off the prequel trilogy: Star Wars: The Phantom Menance. (Disclaimer: Completists ought to stick “Episode I” in the middle of that title; feel free to punctuate it to your pleasure.)
Until this past weekend, I’d seen The Phantom Menace once and once only: Shortly after its initial theatrical release, some 16 years after the debut of Return of the Jedi, which had capped the original Star Wars trilogy. At the time, anticipation for the film ran high, thanks not only to the years-long interregnum but to a marketing blitz that included oodles and oodles of — well, stuff. (Mel Brooks, it would seem, got it exactly right in this clip from his 1987 film Spaceballs.)
In case you don’t remember the merchandising onslaught, I direct you to this passage that Libby Brooks wrote for The Guardian in June 1999, a month before The Phantom Menace opened in British movie theaters:
Devotees can choose from over 375 different products. The range offers talking figures of the key characters, including Jedi knight Obi Wan-Kenobi and his foe Darth Maul, double-handed light sabres, computer accessories and costumes, as well as the new Lego Star Wars collection.
Should you be so inclined, fans can wake up in Star Wars pyjamas to the bleep of a Star Wars alarm clock, before brushing their teeth with a Star Wars toothbrush and taking their bus fare from a Star Wars money box.
The film’s director George Lucas, is expected to net almost $2bn from merchandise sales alone.
Lucas has a 7% equity stake in Hasbro, the largest of the manufacturers to which he has licensed his creations.
A similar avalanche of tie-in products was unleashed in the U.S., too. Excitement was so high that in November 1998, when the first trailer for the Phantom Menace debuted, thousands of people bought tickets just to see the one-minute preview.
The movie itself, of course, has an atrocious reputation. But is it deserved?
In a word: Yes.
Yes, yes, yes, yes yes yes, a thousand times yes, yesyesyes!!!
Yes, A Phantom Menace is just as bad as people have always said it was. The dialogue is clunky, the acting is wooden and the film is laden with offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes, superfluous computer-generated imagery, pointless and/or annoying characters, stupid gags and childish behavior.
A few things can be said in the movie’s defense. I have a higher opinion of the plot than most people. Its tale of galactic politics isn’t good, exactly, but at least the movie attempts to tell some new stories. In this way, it compares favorably with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was an outright rehash of the original 1977 Star Wars.
Lucas, for all the muddle that he makes of his story — he not only directed The Phantom Menace, he was the sole writer — occasionally taps into some political currents that resonate throughout history. Although the scene in the Galactic Senate is not good, I was chilled when the unctuous Sen. Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) slyly decried Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit role) as corrupt and ineffectual. This is part of the senator’s byzantine, decades-long scheme to install himself as head of xenophobic galactic empire. While this scheme has no real-life analogue, the contempt Palpatine expresses for the establishment is the very sentiment held by those who believe Donald Trump would be a good president.
A third good thing in the movie is the pod-racing sequence. Again, this isn’t great, exactly, but at least Lucas generates some lively and novel action here.
And… well, that’s about it. Those are the three good things about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that I can list shortly after having re-watched it.
The things that ruin, or at least partially spoil, the pod-racing section are the same things that spoil the rest of the movie. Lucas packs each frame with computer-generated people, places and things that just don’t exist and never engage the viewer’s interest.
Who gives two figs about Ben Quadinaros from the Tund system, or Gasgano in the new Ord Pedrovia, or two-time winner, Boles Roor? We’ve never seen them before and we’ll never see them when this race is over. I didn’t care or find it in any way humorous to see one of these characters panic when his pod-racer failed to start at the beginning of the contest. I didn’t even care when Anakin Skywalker’s pod-racer failed to start, and he’s the character the movie — and this sequence in particular — is supposed to revolve around!
When Lucas puts actual honest-to-goodness people on the screen, we mainly see either anonymous extras pretending to be pod-racing fans or the main characters, who, well, just aren’t that interesting. I don’t care how good an actor you are; there’s only so masterful you can be when you’re spending your time on camera pretending to watch someone else do something.
Lucas also wastes precious seconds during the pod-racing section showing characters and aliens that fans know from the original trilogy. But Jabba the Hutt and his major-domo and the Tusken Raiders don’t advance the plot, so they shouldn’t be taking up time in this poorly paced movie, which runs two hours and 16 minutes.
I haven’t even dug into the very worst part of the movie — the stereotyping that Lucas tries to pass off as alien creatures. The Gungans’ patois is modeled after that of black Caribbean islanders; the accents, dress, mannerisms and character designs of the Trade Federation Neimoidians make them seem like caricatures of greedy Chinese merchants out of some 1940s serial; and Watto the alien parts supplier and slave-owner is very much an archetypal scheming, greedy Jewish merchant. Virtually everything that these alien characters said and did made me cringe.
And Lucas, remember, made a deliberate choice to give one Gungan, the infamous Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a major role as would-be comic relief. It’s only too obvious that this decision was driven by commercial interests and an epic miscalculation as to the character’s charm and comic appeal. The same is true of the role Lucas gives to young Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Bailey, who was 8 when the movie began shooting. The thinking seems to have been that Anakin and Jar Jar would hook the kids, who would therefore become lifelong Star Wars fans who would insist that their parents buy Star Wars toys before going on to long adulthoods as Star Wars consumers.
After the pod-race, we get a short lightsaber battle, which is fun. But then Lucas wanders through a charmless quagmire of galactic politics and Jedi mysticism before he starts building up to the climactic battle on the planet of Naboo. This really tries the viewer’s patience.
Once the final battle gets started, the movie holds out some promise of entertainment. And indeed, the second lightsaber fight — a three-way between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (a sedated-seeming Liam Neeson), Jedi apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (a bland Ewan McGregor) and the menacing Darth Maul (Ray Park) — is probably the best part of the movie.
But Lucas intercuts this action with (a) an orbital battle between the Naboo fighters and the occupying Trade Federation navy, and (b) a ground battle between the computer-generated Gungans and the computer-generated occupying Trade Federation droid army — and my, are these scenes are crushingly bad.
Lucas has done space battles before, in the original Star Wars and in Return of the Jedi, and both of those earlier incarnations were far better. Worse yet, this part is saddled with Anakin saving the day while uttering would-be witty quips. Mind you, this is a child who accidentally winds up in the cockpit of a spacecraft that he’s never before seen, let alone piloted
And let’s not dwell upon the Gungan battle against the droids, in which Jar Jar bumbles his way through a war zone and somehow decimates the opposing force. Or the annoying sleight of hand that Lucas uses to confuse us about the relative importance of characters played by Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley. Or the unsettling crush that Anakin has for Portman’s character. (Portman was 16 when filming began — literally twice Lloyd’s age.) Or the time where R2-D2 taunts fellow robot C-3PO about being naked. Or the scene where Jar Jar Binks gets his tongue numbed at the same moment his hand is caught in an engine intake. Or the scene where a desert creature passes wind at Jar Jar Binks. Or the scene where Jar Jar Binks steps in excrement. Or…
Friends, the great bulk of this mess is truly unbearable. It’s a testament to the goodwill and excitement that Lucas generated with the original Star Wars trilogy that he wasn’t permanently banished from society for the awfulness that was The Phantom Menace.