There’s nothing left to say about The Phantom Menace.
When I decided to undertake this project, Episode I is the film I most dreaded. Not because it’s the worst one – on the contrary, I actually think it’s the best of the Star Wars prequels by a pretty wide margin – but because The Discourse surrounding this movie over the last two decades has become so profoundly played out and tiresome. There’s nothing I can say about this movie, no new insights I can offer, that haven’t been said again and again and again by dozens of other people. There are very few horses deader than this one.
So instead, I’m not going to talk so much about the movie itself, but instead interrogate a bit why it had the impact it did. Why, twenty years later, hatred of this movie is a shared cultural touchstone that’s almost as universal as affection for the original. Because this level of continued vitriol is sort of baffling for a movie as largely unremarkable as this one.
That’s definitely a diss, but it’s also in a strange way a defense. This movie isn’t much more than a middling, kid-focussed fantasy flick; filled with interesting ideas and imaginative visuals, yet plagued by shoddy execution throughout. It’s honestly not substantially worse than something like Labyrinth, and yet our cultural memory of these two movies couldn’t be further apart. Nostalgia is certainly a factor – we’re ten years further removed from Labyrinth than we are from The Phantom Menace, so there’s been more time for kids who saw the Henson/Bowie collaboration at the perfect, impressionable age to carry that childhood fondness into adulthood. There’s also an element of charm inherent in puppetry that helps sell otherwise irritating characters in a way that aging CGI lacks, as well as an iconic weirdo performance by one of the great (and recently deceased) artists of the twentieth century. But that alone isn’t enough to account for the disparity.
No, I think what cemented The Phantom Menace’s place as an eternal punching bag is that it was inextricably linked with the rise of movie blogs, internet fandom, and the mainstreaming of so-called “nerd culture” that still shapes the pop culture landscape all these years later, and it sort of happened by accident. George Lucas began writing the Star Wars prequels in 1994, with pre-production beginning in earnest in 1995. Principle photography on The Phantom Menace lasted from June to September of 1997 and the film was finally released in May of 1999. Coincidentally, that timeline just so happened to mirror the dot-com bubble and the fundamental reshaping of the way the world accessed and consumed media. It was this period that gave AV club dorks the opportunity to be the first wave adopters of the biggest sea-change in global communication since the invention of the telephone, and sites like Ain’t It Cool News improbably became huge players in the rapidly shifting landscape of entertainment journalism. So now you’ve got traditional media struggling to keep up while a bunch of geeks have suddenly found themselves with the keys to the kingdom, oh and also George Lucas is finally making Episodes I, II & III, and what do geeks love talking about more than anything? (Star Wars. It’s Star Wars. I’m gonna be doing this for a full year. Geeks like talking about Star Wars).
It just so happened that The Phantom Menace was there at the dawn of the internet age, and so The Phantom Menace dominated the early internet discourse. Script leaks, trailer analysis, set photos, speculation, all the stuff we’re used to today was all new and all focussed on this one movie. The anticipation for this one picture almost single handedly codified the way we still talk about film. That’s a crazy amount of significance and impact for any movie to have, especially one that hadn’t even been released yet. Even if it had been good, that’s a lot of weight for one movie to carry.
But it wasn’t good. The Phantom Menace was a disappointment. I say that now even as someone who thinks the movie is just sort of medium bad – a film filled with ambition and interesting ideas hobbled by poor direction and a screenplay that reeks of first draft writing. The Phantom Menace is better than its reputation would suggest (I mean, Christ, basically no movie is bad enough to justify twenty consecutive years of screaming), but it’s still not good. And so, the discourse shifted. The gaze of early internet fandom was no longer focussed on anticipation, but the ways the movie failed to live up to expectations, even if a lot of those expectations were grossly unfair. Even now, a lot of people still frame conversation of the movie around what they wish it had been instead of analyzing the film George Lucas actually made. Hell, I’ve been guilty of this as recently as four years ago!
So let me finally talk about this movie on its own terms. The basic idea at the center of this is an interesting one. Looking at the Galactic Republic in an era when it was functioning, but just barely, and outlining the beginnings of a political conspiracy to exploit the weaknesses inherent in the system in order to undermine democracy. When you remember this movie came out more than a year before Bush and Cheney were elected, it’s shocking how prescient this idea was. The problem is that the movie never properly establishes Palpatine’s machinations or the stakes that go along with them. I’ve seen this movie probably a dozen times or more, and even now I can still only guess at what Palpatine’s plan was before the Jedi got involved (which, remember, they were not supposed to). The political chess game only works when you can see and understand the strategy at play, and we’re never given enough information to really understand Palpatine’s angle. It also doesn’t help that the structure of the film – especially in the first half – is extremely episodic without much in the way of a coherent through line. We get an episode with Jar Jar and the Gungan city, we get an episode rescuing the Queen and fleeing Naboo, we get an episode meeting Anakin and finding a way to escape Tatooine, and then, by the time the story finally begins to deal with the actual “Phantom Menace” of the title, we’re already more than halfway through the film. It’s not unlike the problems with The Force Awakens’ second act, but it’s exacerbated here by not having a stellar first 30 minutes to win us over before the plotting gets rough. It also doesn’t help that when the central conflict finally does crystalize, the film pivots its attention to Darth Maul: a nothing character who only exists to facilitate an obligatory lightsaber battle, but one that’s completely devoid of stakes or purpose.
But then there’s the stuff that’s not bad and even sometimes kinda good. Just in terms of aesthetics, this movie is shot on film and is easily the best looking of the prequels (less so on the Blu-ray that has been artificially stripped of its grain in an effort to match the digital look of Episodes II and III). There’s certainly a lot of CGI that’s aged poorly, but there are substantially more sets and models and puppets than I think a lot of people remember. I also think the dynamic between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan works better than its given credit for. There’s a mischievous charm to Qui-Gon that harkens back to Old Ben and Yoda in the original trilogy and serves as a crucial contrast to the cold and stoic Jedi Council. That contrast should have been pushed further in order for it to play better, but it is there and it sets up an important point in Lucas’s storytelling that most people still continue to miss. The Jedi of the prequel era suck, and that’s the point.
The theme Lucas is very specifically exploring here is one of institutional complacency turning a blind eye to evil rising right under their noses. That idea is explored through politics in the Republic senate, but Lucas also takes aim at organized religion through the prism of the Jedi Order. These are people who have become so caught up in their own rules and dogma that they’ve lost their connection to the greater spiritual forces that are supposed to be their entire reason for existence. Again, the execution isn’t totally up to snuff and this idea doesn’t land the way it should, but it is there and it’s an extremely compelling, radical reframing of what we’ve seen before. But beyond all that, there’s also just a sense of excitement and fun in this one that was gradually siphoned out of the other two. Sure, huge stretches of this movie are very boring, but there’s a playfulness and imagination in this that make it endearing in spite of everything that doesn’t work. It’s the only one of these where it feels like Lucas is having fun, not just trying to check off boxes. The problem is that a lot of the stuff Lucas was having fun with is exactly what fans latched onto as “evidence” in the backlash against this movie.
Which brings me to my spiciest Hot Take of this piece: Jar Jar is fine. Grow up. Yeah, he’s irritating, but so are a lot of characters in kids’ movies. Going back to Labyrinth again, like, half the characters in that movie are just as irritating as Jar Jar. Go ahead and @ me. I don’t even care. The same goes for Jake Lloyd as Anakin. Yeah, he’s not great in a way a lot of child actors are not great, but grading on the child actor curve, he’s perfectly serviceable and, frankly, deals with Lucas’s directing better than some of his adult co-stars do. Again, neither of these characters are terrific, but they’re not uniquely terrible in the history of cinema, and they’re not the “reason” this movie is bad. So why did they become the focus of vitriol? Well, maybe it’s the same reason that angry fans also latched onto moments of silliness and levity in The Last Jedi as “evidence” of that movie’s sins. Fandom, especially male fandom, has a problem of taking itself way too seriously. This thing they like is good and important and liking it makes them good and important because it’s serious and mature and for real grown ups, Mom! It’s posturing rooted in insecurity at liking something that was made for kids and anything that reminds them that this thing is intended for children hits an uncomfortable nerve. What’s frustrating and heartbreaking is the way that insecurity manifests in violent outbursts of hostility. Even more maddening is that it took the shit storm of GamerGate fifteen years later before we finally started to confront the toxicity that permeates our fandoms.
Contemporary fan culture was largely invented by The Phantom Menace, and yet we’ve never really had to confront the legacy that we’ve left behind. We’re still happy to use Jar Jar as shorthand for blights on cinema without dealing with the fact that hostility toward that character very nearly drove actor Ahmed Best to suicide. Or the way that Jake Lloyd permanently and prematurely quit acting for similar reasons. Or the way that this keeps happening with new names like Ashley Eckstein and John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran. I don’t care how much you dislike a movie, nothing is bad enough to justify that.
Star Wars fans created modern fandom and they also broke it right there at the start. For as much as we talk about this one movie, it’s shameful that we’re not talking more about this part of its legacy, a legacy of pain and ugliness that we created. Lucas didn’t ruin anyone’s childhood, but we have ruined plenty of lives because we were mad about a dumb space movie.
There’s nothing left to say about The Phantom Menace, but there’s plenty that needs to be said about us.
Leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode IX, I am endeavoring to watch every canonical Star Wars movie and TV show in the in-universe chronological order. Follow along with…