The Revolted #4: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

| April 22, 2018


Some things just don’t work out.  Sometimes the intention overrides the execution and what you come away with is a misstep that, if you’re lucky, you can easily get over.  When it comes to movies, sometimes the misfires come in gargantuan proportions.  Enter: The Revolted, a bi-weekly examination of big-budget, highly anticipated movies that, for whatever reason, went down in history and came right back up.  Are they worth the venom?  You decide.

Star Wars Phantom Menace

Was there a more anticipated movie in the history of movies than Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace?  Can you think of one?  Even one?  Star Wars was a phenomenon that Hollywood had never seen before and, in many ways, has never really seen again.  The vision of a ridiculously talented director who emerged from The New Hollywood of the 1970s and made three films that were so unbelievably successful that four decades later, Hollywood is still trying to catch up.  Seventeen years after the final leg of that journey, the children who grew up on The Star Wars Trilogy finally got to see the fabled origins of its diabolical adversary, Darth Vader as the kind of little kid that makes you roll your eyes when you see them running unsupervised through a grocery store.  The response was less-than stellar.  Millions came away with feeling that Mr. Lucas had been out of touch with his audience far too long.  They felt that he shot for the moon, missed, and hit the audience squarely in the butt.

They might have seen it coming.  By May of 1999 the solidarity between George Lucas and the movie going public was already coming apart,  Two years earlier, he put his ILM team to work retooling the old trilogy with new special effects and sticking them back in the theater.  While the films were welcomed, the results of his alterations have been mixed ever since.   But the grievance coming from the audience over the alterations were minor compared with the gnashing that awaited him when they saw the new trilogy.

The Phantom Menace did not meet the overreaching expectations of a cynical audience, most of which were too young to even remember the elation of first seeing the original trilogy upon its initial release in a theater. For them (but not all) the disappointment over The Phantom Menace made it trendy to make fun of Star Wars.  So how does it play out today?  Is it any better?  Well, yes and no.

The movie works best in its technology.  One of the most legendary aspects of the Star Wars movies was the way in which it created new places, new worlds completely within itself – this is one of the rare science fiction series that disregards our own universe.  Plus there are the action scenes All of Lucas’ films from THX 1138 to American Graffiti to Star Wars to the Indiana Jones pictures contain at least one breathtaking vehicular chase. There is no denying that the pod race sequence, a death-defying race through the rocky terrain of Tatooine is thrilling. The advancement of those scenes, which now employ the innovation of computer generated imagery are far gone from the Death Star trench-run on the original. Plus, there’s something new in the advancement of the hand-to-hand combat. The lightsaber duals of the original film were based on classic swordplay. Here they seem based more on martial arts. Watch that lightsaber dual at the end again – it’s thrilling.

And yet!  Around those incredible achievements must also be wrapped a story and well-defined characters, and that’s where the movie comes apart.  The distance between the characters in The Phantom Menace and the audience is so vast that they might as well have been shot from a distance.  The new characters pack little to no punch at all.  We forgive young Obi-Wan Kenobi, young Anakin Skywalker, Senator Palpatine and R2D2 and C3PO only because we know that they are characters who will flower over the course of the series.  But new additions like Qui-Gon Jinn, Padme Amidala and Shmi Skywalker seem oddly empty as characters. Their personalities seemed dusted upon them lightly like dew.  They are mired in a plot that doesn’t have time for them to flower as complex human beings. Most disappointing is the relationship between Anakin and his mother, which you might expect to have a little more weight. When a gamble over the pod race leaves Anakin free and his mother still a slave (a concept that is played out as disturbingly casual), she is forced to let him go. Yet there’s something empty about her reaction – her son is leaving her! The scene in which the two depart feels like little more than a student leaving his school teacher at the end of the term.

As far as the story goes, one of the biggest complaints was the way in which Lucas reworked some of his lore in a way that seemed to take the guts out of it.

A New Hope lassoed an idea that was relevant, functional and eternal, the idea of The Force, an energy field created by all living things that bound all living things together.  It suggests that The Force is not inherent, but is a Zen-like skill that can be learned by anyone willing to be dedicated to it.  The Phantom Menace however, tosses that idea right out the window.

Enter: Midi-chlorians, a microscopic lifeform that apparently lives inside the cells of every living being acting as a conduit through which The Force makes itself known to those who are sensitive enough to hear it.  This lifeform is the reason that a person can tap into The Force and also the reason that a person can use it to cheat death.  It can also be manipulated.  Both The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith heavily suggests that Anakin Skywalker was conceived through a manipulation of this microscopic lifeform.  Perhaps this is what lends to The Force being hereditary in the Skywalker bloodline (and the reason that Shmi didn’t seem to have it).

The reworking of this concept might have been fatal to the series as a whole if Lucas hadn’t responded to critical gnashing and, over the course of the next two films, basically washed the concept of Midi-chlorians right out of the story.  They are mentioned briefly in Revenge of the Sith and apparently nowhere else.

Speaking of things deemed fatal to the story . . . let’s talk about the elephant Gungan in the room.

A discussion on The Phantom Menace cannot take place without the film’s chief blunder: Jar Jar Binks, surely the single most hated creation in film history.  Nearly two decades later, time hasn’t improved him.  A little of him goes a long way and Lucas’ chief mistake was allowing him so much screen time that his antics take over the picture.  Obviously, he was created to appeal to little kids, fine.  But there are moments in the movie in which his clumsy act virtually destroys the forward momentum of the larger narrative.  He’s a large part of this movie, but he’s not a character that you want to spend a great deal of time with.

Lucas, it appears, responded to the gnashing of fans over Jar Jar because his presence in the rest of this trilogy was limited – he got two scenes in Episode II and a fleeting, wordless cameo in Episode III. When the film was re-released in a 3D format in 2012, Jar Jar was eliminated from the ad campaign all together.

Does the movie earn its place among The Revolted?

Yes and no.

Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is an even balance.  For everything that works, there is something that doesn’t.  But the blunders stay in your mind in a way that feels unsettling.  We know that the original trilogy is flawed in its logic (especially that scene when Luke gets thoughtlessly mopey over Ben’s death while being comforted by a woman who just lost her entire civilization), but they were so much fun that it was hard to grouse.  Here, the problems feel more like stumbling blocks, and that’s something that’s hard to overlook.

The Fallout

The best thing to happen to the reputation of The Phantom Menace was Attack of the Clones.  The second entry in this prequel trilogy was so maligned and so hated for so many reasons that the public derision over Episode I seemed to lessen by comparison.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
Filed in: The Revolted