20 Years Later, 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace' Is Still Terrible
Fandom, these days, has become toxic and icky, and a cultural once synonymous with the celebration of under-appreciated works of art, has mutated into something like a pitchfork-and-torch-wielding villager headed for Frankenstein’s castle. One of the more baffling responses of the torch-and-fork crowd happened in the wake of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a movie that is, objectively, brilliant and beautiful and touching. The response to that film, hated for reasons I still can’t wrap my head around, was that the prequels were way better. The thinking from that group makes their prequel-appreciation understandable; they wanted tons of unnecessary backstory about Rey’s parentage, Snoke, and probably those fish nuns on the island. The prequels were nothing but backstory; three movies that explained tons of stuff that you never questioned in the first place. But it’s also important to remember one thing, on the 20th anniversary of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” the film that started the prequel trilogy and made countless audiences go, “huh?,” And that thing is “The Phantom Menace” is still awful.
Have you re-watched it lately? Have you re-watched it ever in the last 20 years?
This thing is a cringe-fest from the beginning, from the horrid opening scrawl (first lines: “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” Exciting!) to the awkward pacing to the painfully offensive Asian accents of the evil aliens to, well, just about everything else. Even as far as table-setting goes, it’s turgid and uninteresting.
Please remember that, at the time, we hadn’t had a new movie since 1983. Sixteen years is a long time to wait, especially since many of us had to stand outside the theater in rapt anticipation for hours before the first screenings (this was the dark time before assigned seating). And once the theater darkened this is what we’d been waiting for? Sure, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” was disappointing, but at least we hadn’t been frothily speculating about it for the better part of two decades.
From there, things get worse. We’ve all seen “The Phantom Menace” so I probably don’t have to recount them for you, but the whole movie looks flat and unconvincing, the retrograde animation (cutting edge at the time) is blurry and ugly. Jar-Jar Binks is an abomination, equally annoying and offensive (seriously nobody spoke up about this during production?) Jake Lloyd is maybe the worst child actor of all time (“I’ll try spinning, that’s a good trick”). Midichlorians. And the plot mechanics, lumbering from one joyless, overlong set piece to another (yes, this includes the unnecessarily lengthy pod race sequence), never find momentum or excitement. Instead, they’re like a bunch of poorly realized videogame tableaus, occasionally pretty but never emotionally engaging. Never is this truer than in the climax of the film, which unwisely splits its time between four locations/set pieces – the Gungan/battle droid battle, Anakin’s inadvertent space adventure, the castle break-in, and the lightsaber fight with Darth Maul – for maximum eye-rolling banality.
Sure, it’s a product of its time, particularly when it comes to its performances. This was an era, after all, when actors weren’t used to acting alongside imaginary characters, and most of the very good performers (among them: Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) seem genuinely lost or, worse yet, indifferent, when it comes to dealing with Jar-Jar Binks or other assorted CGI-creations. Writer/director George Lucas has never had much sympathy when it came to his actors and he makes that painfully obvious here, both in the dialogue he saddles them with and with his lack of caring when it comes to having them play endless scenes with computerized aliens or stunt people in rubber masks. (The fact that several of the visual effects, including the bargain basement Yoda puppet, have been rejiggered since the movie’s release, is a testament to how unconvincing they were.)
The fact that anyone would claim any of these movies, much less “The Phantom Menace,” are preferable to “The Last Jedi” is laughable, even as these sentiments grow with the glittery glow of anniversary-triggered nostalgia. In the years since the film’s release, elements of it have grown in importance and stature, appearing on Star Tours and in various cartoon spin-offs (and, with that weird Maul cameo, in “Solo: A Star Wars Story”). It has certainly become a thread in the overall tapestry of “Star Wars,” but if that thread was removed from the tapestry, the overall saga wouldn’t be affected. Little kid Anakin, racial and cultural stereotypes aplenty, a CGI parade sequence that would have looked outdated in 1982 EPCOT Center, if they could be deleted forever and nobody would care. Except, I guess, those that took issue with “The Last Jedi.”