Film discussion

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) – Throwback 20

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

We live in an age of Too Much Star Wars. From Episode VII, VIII and forthcoming IX, to Rogue One and Solo, via animated series Rebels, Resistance, and LEGO Star Wars, plus imminent Disney+ series The Mandalorian. We even have two parallel Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge theme parks on both sides of the US. Thanks to the House of Mouse’s buyout, it seems you’re never more than 10 feet away from a Star Wars of some description or other.

But it wasn’t always like this. After 1983’s Return Of The Jedi, all we had was just six-and-a-half hours of movie trilogy, plus the Droids and Ewoks cartoon series, and  two Ewok-centric spin-off TV movies. And that was it. While still part of our modern popular culture, Star Wars had seemed to enter a period of relative dormancy. Sure, there were officially licenced comic books and novels, continuing the story after the last of the films ended, but that was pretty much all there was.

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At least, until 1993, when it was officially announced that George Lucas was going to be starting work on the prequel trilogy, telling the story of the Empire’s rise, and the fall of the Jedi. Before that, however, we were going to get a re-release of the original trilogy on the big screen for the 20th anniversary of Episode IV, in 1997. As well as being the first chance for some to see Star Wars theatrically, it was also a proving ground for technology that Lucas wanted to employ in bringing to life his vision of the prequels.

Hence, we got the controversial Special Edition versions of the beloved classics (along with rabid accusations from some fans of Lucas defiling their childhoods). Along with reports that Lucas had been both burnt and burnt-out by making the first three movies, it was also said that he was waiting for visual effects technology to advance to the point where it could do what he needed it to. The reissue (albeit tweaked) of the existing films helped to rekindle public interest in the saga, and whet people’s appetites all over again.

With Lucas busy working away on what was originally called ‘The Beginning’, all manner of wild rumours ran rife about what we would get. Everything from the young Obi-Wan being played by an actor wearing a blank face mask onto which a CGI version of a youthful Alec Guinness, extrapolated from scans taken from films made in his early film career, would be overlaid; to Natalie Portman completely disrobing for one scene, as well as singing a special ballad; and Liam Neeson playing either Yoda, or Anakin’s father, to name but a few humdingers that were doing the rounds.

By the time The Phantom Menace hit the silver screen, it had been 16 years since the previous Star Wars film; to put that into context, when The Force Awakens had been rolled out, it had been only 10 years since Revenge Of The Sith was in cinemas. We’re also used to having more Star Wars nowadays, but at the time of Episode I‘s release there was a novelty factor associated with being able to see more cinematic adventures from that galaxy far, far away.

To that end, a merchandising onslaught came to dwarf even that of the previous three movies; along with the obligatory Kenner action figures, there were tie-ins with brands like Pepsi, KFC, Cadbury’s, Walkers, Kellogg’s, and pretty much every point in between. Fans were reported to be camping outside cinemas for up to a month in advance of tickets going on sale. Although critically derided at the time, a measure of a film’s reception comes from its box office take: The Phantom Menace grossed over a billion dollars (including the 2012 3-D theatrical reissue), making it the highest-grossing Star Wars film until the sequel trilogy, so someone liked it.

And it’s that critical reaction for which the opening prequel flick is perhaps best (and unfairly) known. The $1 billion question will always be: how good is The Phantom Menace? For my part, the answer to that will always be: not as bad as you’ve been led to believe, nor as outstanding as its apologists would make out. It’s a perfectly serviceable, fun adventure film for the intended family audience, but it failed to tick many of the important fan boxes at the time – something that carried through to the next two instalments.

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It seems that the prequel trilogy has gone through something of a reappraisal lately, due in part to Disney’s continuation of the saga, helping to give far greater context to Episode I, as well as II and III, as we’ve seen the furtherance of the Skywalker story over nine movies by the time we get Episode IX in December. The reaction to the first two sequel movies has helped to reshape the way we look at the prequels; The Force Awakens was seen as being too derivative of the first three movies, whereas The Last Jedi was criticised for moving too far away, and taking the film saga in too different and uncomfortable a direction for some.

At the time of Episode I’s release, Lucas was particularly criticised for his use of ethnic stereotypes: it seemed that he was caricaturing Jews (Watto); Asians (in the Neimoidians); and Rastafarians (Jar Jar Binks). However, Lucas has been reviled too much for this, as there’s no indication he’s racist; instead, it seems to have been an unfortunate tone deafness, based upon his aim to emulate the adventure serials of his youth. In that era, you wouldn’t be surprised to see examples of inscrutable Oriental villainy, which wasn’t viewed as having any wider connotations; Lucas is guilty only of blindly aping the form, but failing to appreciate the ramifications.

It’s probably as well the internet was still in its relative infancy 20 years ago, with Twitter not having even been devised at the time, otherwise, you could envision the angry digital mobs sharpening their twitchforks and getting well stuck in over the apparent lack of sensitivity in some of Lucas’ characterisations. Strangely, in an age of people being increasingly ‘woke’, the last two sequel trilogy films actually saw a backlash from the far-right and incel crowds, who had a major problem with one hero being black, and the other a woman. For some, it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

Despite recent online outrages against characters like Rey and Finn, it’s sadly not a new phenomenon: two decades ago, the knives were particularly out over Jar Jar Binks, to the extent that actor Ahmed Best has since admitted the reaction was such that he’d considered suicide, due to all the abuse. The novel Aftermath: Empire’s End had art imitate life, as Jar Jar was portrayed as beloved by children, but reviled by adults for his part in the birth of the Empire. It seems Yoda was right all along: anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.

The prequel trilogy has attracted so much opprobrium that some fans have ended up doing their very own versions: Mike J. Nichols unleashed The Phantom Edit in 2000, removing around 18 minutes from The Phantom Menace, and excising the most contentious moments, including significantly reducing what Nichols has called “Jar Jar antics”. Not to be outdone, in 2014 actor Topher Grace announced he’d done a cutdown, 85-minute version of the entire prequel trilogy, referred to as Episode III.5 – The Editor Strikes Back. With people going to such lengths, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the prequels were unmitigated disasters.

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So what is it that’s proved to be quite so contentious? Well, an easy observation relates to the fact that the fans were all expecting more of the same. Instead of stories of Princesses, hidden fortresses, and wall-to-wall derring-do, we got The Phantom Menace‘s plot about a trade dispute. While a more grown-up storyline, it definitely came as a shock to the system for some fans: they wanted more escapist action, not Space Brexit. It’s actually an inaccurate take to suggest that Episode I is too far removed from the originals, as there’s still plenty of action to be found here, and the whole Pod Race sequence is particularly thrilling.

So, what are Lucas’ supposed ‘crimes’? He used a lot of CGI? Well, that’s something which has become standard nowadays, so he was actually a trendsetter once again; also, the VFX work still stands up pretty well after 20 years, which isn’t something that many sci-fi films could say. The only things which stand out are the very stilted and unnatural performances at points, as well as Harrison Ford’s truism regarding George Lucas’ scripts: “You can type this shit, but you can’t say it”. But isn’t it time we let bygones be bygones now, and after two decades, give The Phantom Menace another chance? Yes, even Jake Lloyd.

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