Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace returns to theaters on Friday in 3D -- 13 years after its original release. In 1999, anticipation was high for what was the first new Star Wars installment in 16 years -- a film that would introduce us to young Anakin Skywalker, who was prophesized to bring balance to The Force. Today, The Phantom Menace serves as a reminder not of the balance of The Force but of the balance between expectations and reality. Such a reminder that (back by popular demand) IFC's Matt Singer and myself decided that an obsessive chat was necessary.
Mike: So, Matt, where do you stand on The Phantom Menace?
Matt: I guess I'm of two minds about it: On the one hand, I think it's a terrible movie, and on the other hand I kind of love that it exists specifically because it's a terrible movie.
Mike: That sounds like something a person on pot would say.
Matt: I love pot. Potty pot pot. Down into my belly, etc.
Mike: My dad calls it dope. "Michael, if I ever hear that you have smoked dope ... "
Matt: I've never smoked weed. I'm the biggest nerd in the world. Or I figured I was until I read your pieces about Star Wars and I now realize it's a horserace between us. Is there a Star Wars drug?
Mike: Well, there's blue milk. Also, Han Solo was a spice smuggler.
Matt: Code for drug smuggler?
Mike: I'm not sure we are 100-percent sure what "spice" means.
Matt: Maybe he smuggles a feed from a mid-90s pay-per-view porn channel? NOT THAT I WOULD WATCH SOMETHING LIKE THAT.
Mike: I think it is still in existence. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW THAT FOR ANY REASON.
Matt: ME NEITHER. So, yeah, The Phantom Menace. Here's what I like about it: I like the fact that George Lucas -- arguably the most vocal and visible advocate for the auteur theory, which holds that the director of the film should have the autonomy to make whatever he wants to make free of interference from studio executives and money men -- made maybe the best argument against the auteur theory in cinema history.
"I must have the freedom to make what I want!"
"Oh man, we love 'Star Wars' -- make what you want!"
"Here it is!"
Mike: OK, to your point ... I don't know what happened to Lucas in the years between 1983 and 1999, but when he was making the original trilogy, he was smart enough to let other people direct the sequels while he handled the production side.
Matt: Well, it didn't work out 100-percent great for Return of the Jedi, but I see your point.
Mike: I'm under the impression that Lucas wasn't a huge fan of Kershner's Empire ...
Matt: Because, really, why would he be?
Mike: Exactly. And from what I've read, Lucas had quite a bit more influence on Richard Marquand's Jedi than he did on Empire. He was basically the second unit director. On Empire, he directed only one scene: the one in which the medical droid 2-1B asks Luke to "be careful."
Matt: And then steps in CGI poop.
Mike: Which Star Wars are we supposed to be discussing?
Matt: I thought The Phantom Menace. Do you pretend it doesn't exist? Have you blocked out all of 1999 like an abuse victim?
Mike: I feel like that loon in A Christmas Story saying, "I like Santa Claus" and "I like The Wizard of Oz" but ... I like Darth Maul. Why that movie doesn't give us more Maul is beyond me.
Matt: Well, he's probably the best part of the movie. And I suppose he does fulfill the Boba Fett role of "Star Wars villain who looks cool but has no real character beyond looking really cool."
Mike: I get the impression that Lucas doesn't really like his "cool" characters much: Boba Fett, Darth Maul and even Han Solo, to an extent.
Matt: I suppose, though Han Solo talks a lot more than either of those other two. And his face isn't masked or covered in makeup and horns. Though I would love to see Harrison Ford in red makeup and horns. Now, I mean. With the earring. Someone Photoshop that for me.
Mike: While he's saying something cranky.
Matt: Exactly. How do you think the movie has aged?
Mike: Poorly. Put it this way: I think its legacy is terrible. I mean, when this movie came out in 1999, it was a HUGE deal. From a nostalgia standpoint alone, there should be more buzz about the re-release. That was a genuine event.
Matt: That's interesting -- Lucas always argues that the movies are for kids, and I always hear that the generation of kids who were our age when we saw the original trilogy consider Episodes I-III the equal of IV-VI. Where are those people, now in their late teens, freaking out about seeing it again in the theater the way I freaked out about the Special Editions?
Mike: A friend of mine, who has a son, says that his son and his son's friends love Anakin. They all want to be Anakin when they play Star Wars. This makes me sad inside. I mean, he's a bad guy. Don't they know that?
Matt: You should go and break their Anakin toys. That would teach them a real lesson about the Dark Side.
Mike: So, young children apparently still love the prequels. But they grow up and are replaced. Just like clones.
Matt: Mmm, profound.
Mike: But they grow out of the films. Whereas people our age didn't.
Matt: That's probably a good thing -- for them, I mean.
Mike: For the record: I never believed this "Star Wars was always for kids" argument. The Empire Strikes Back is not meant for kids.
Matt: Kids love behandings, Mike. Love 'em. They love sleeping inside dead animal carcasses to stay warm. LOVE it. They love vague sexual intrigue between brothers and sisters.
Mike: Look, THAT's only natural.
Matt: That's the blue milk talking. To me, The Phantom Menace has aged worse than you'd expect. As bad as it was, it's worse now. Because the one thing it absolutely had going for it -- the incredible technology -- now looks average at best, dated at worst. In 1999 you could gorge on spectacle and convince yourself it wasn't terrible. Now, I just get caught up in the nonsensical plot.
Mike:The Phantom Menace has aged better than Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
Matt: I don't know that I agree, but I'm willing to hear your argument (and then mock it).
Mike: Only because a decent part of The Phantom Menace was shot on location. So actual sets were used. At times.
Matt: Ah, interesting. Whereas Attack of the Clones, especially, is Blue Screen City. (Blue Screen City, by the way, is one parsec over from Cloud City.) Mike, are the Jedi purely good guys or are they kind of covert jerks? They seem somewhat jerks in this movie. They use their Jedi mind tricks on people, they gamble, they gang up on a guy in an unfair fight.
Mike: They are jerks. At times.
Matt: If I asked you to explain a plot point of this movie, do you think you could do it? Why does Qui-Gon need Anakin to pod race?
Mike: I think this goes back to the Jedi being jerks aspect. I mean, it was to win a bet for the parts for the Queen's ship. But I'm guessing that you're getting at, "Why didn't they just take the parts?"
Mike: I think the Jedi are willing to bend the rules -- like with mind tricks or by using the force to affect dice -- but they won't resort to criminal activity.
Matt: So being a douchebag is okay. But being a criminal, that's the line they won't cross.
Mike: Honestly, I think that's exactly it. If no one KNOWS that they are cheating, it's fine. But they won't just publicly commit crimes.
Matt: Also: if they ARE heroes, and they ARE working on the side of good, why don't they free Anakin and his mother? Forget buying them. Isn't slavery, y'know, bad? I feel like slavery is something a Jedi should be fighting against.
Mike: I think slave is a strong word. And I know they use it in the film, but I think "ward of" is the more appropriate term here. I mean, they seemed to come and go as they pleased.
Matt: They're slaves! Watto owns them!
Mike: Anakin's friend has braces!
Matt: Is that Kit Fister? Kid Fisto?
Mike: Kitster. But it's not him. The girl has braces.
Matt: Kitster. Oh, OK, I'm getting these children who had no lines and no purpose in the story confused.
Mike: I remember that there was a rumor that Kitster was going to become Boba Fett.
Matt: Don't you wish that rumor were true in retrospect?
Mike: Actually, yes.
Matt: This picture of Kitster, by the way, is amazing.
DON'T MESS WITH KITSTER. HE WILL STERNLY FOLD HIS ARMS AT YOU.
Mike: "Am I Boba Fett someday?" "Um ... sure, Kitster."
Matt: I WILL NOT UNFOLD MY ARMS UNTIL I AM PROMISED THE ROLE OF BOBA FETT.
Mike: For the record: I do not condone Tatooine's slavery laws.
Matt: You kind of did.
Mike: I'm just saying, the Jedi had enough going on that day.
Matt: Even if they can't afford to free Anakin's mom in the short term, after the Trade Federation is defeated, why don't the Jedis go back and buy her afterwards?
Mike: "Hey, Anakin, you're a hero!"
"Yippee! Can we go get my mom now?"
Matt: They were too busy buying styling products to maintain their two weird rat-tail braids to afford to free slaves.
Mike: Didn't she marry Cliegg Lars before Attack of the Clones? She wasn't a slave anymore anyway. Also, I'm sure that marriage happened honorably.
Matt: I literally have no idea who that is.
Mike: He's in Attack of the Clones.
Matt: The Metallica dude?
Mike: From the Star Wars wiki, "He purchased the slave Shmi Skywalker from Watto and subsequently freed and married her."
Matt: He's not nearly as cool-looking as Kitster. So in other words this guy, who can't even afford a razor, apparently could afford to free this woman whom the Jedi could not. For shame, Jedi. For shame. He's a moisture farmer on Tatooine, which is totally dry. So he's broke. But he could scrounge up the money to buy Anakin's mother.
Mike: And drinks blue milk. You know ... if Palpatine had told that to Anakin in Episode III, "The Jedi could have purchased your mom. But they didn't. Join me!" I would have bought that. "You know, Chancellor, that's a really good point."
Matt: If Yoda didn't have such outrageous salary demands, all this could have been averted. "Brown M&Ms in a mason jar, you will have waiting for me. Company car, you will provide me. Four-door sedan, it will be." And that's why I love The Phantom Menace: Terrible to watch, super fun to talk about.
Mike: After all this, I did love the movie the first time that I saw it. I admit, I got caught up in the hype. And it did look pretty.
Matt: After reading your piece about it, I tried to think back to my original reaction.
Generally, though, I think you're right. As opposed to people having built it up so heavily in their mind that they were destined to hate it -- which is what you'd have expected to happen -- people had almost brainwashed themselves into loving it at first. But then the rose-colored glasses came off.
Mike: And there were enough cool moments to sustain a, "Oh, man, this part was great" post viewing conversation.
Matt: To me, "The Phantom Menace" is like a Jenga game in the last move before the game ends. With all the excitement of the game, you don't notice how flimsy it is. And as soon as you pull any one piece out, it all falls apart.
Mike: And then you take a toak of pot. Or, toke.
Matt: Isn't it "toke"? YOU'RE SUCH A NERD YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO SPELL IT.
Mike: That's proof on how much I toke. OK, last thing: Are you going to see The Phantom Menace in 3D? They are not screening it for critics.
Matt: Oh good, I thought I was just left out.
Mike: Then again, you can probably just turn on Spike.
Matt: At this point, probably not. In New York City, what are the tickets? Like $18?
Mike: Yes, they are.
Matt: That's literally the price of a Star Wars Blu-ray. Unless people see it in 3D and say that the experience of seeing it in 3D is akin to seeing the face of God, I can't see myself doing it.
Mike: Perhaps the face of God is eerily similar to that of Jar Jar Binks?
Matt: Wow, wouldn't that be the kicker. Show up at the pearly gates and God's all "MEESA, SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!"
Mike: And then God steps in CGI poop.
Matt Singer has contributed to IFC, Sundance Channel and Time Out New York. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter