Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.
Qui-Gon: I don’t sense anything.
Obi-Wan: It’s not about the mission, Master. It’s something… elsewhere. Elusive.
You are not going to believe my Phantom Menace take. I need to prepare you for it gradually. It is simply too incredible. And Star Wars is something people feel very passionate about, so I don’t want to just up and say it without some preamble. You might want to pour a glass of your favorite drink to brace yourself in the meantime.
Back in ’99, the hype for this movie was off the charts. And why not? It was a movie people had been waiting 15 years to see. It was the cinematic event of 1999. Maybe of the whole decade.
And of course it became synonymous with disappointment. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common phenomenon of internet fan backlash. Star Wars fans felt betrayed; violated by the movie’s failure to fulfill their expectations.
Instead of being a new chapter in the beloved saga, it became fodder for endless jokes. See, for example, this Simpsons parody, which really summarizes the whole thing neatly. What was the deal with this Jar Jar character? What was all this about trade negotiations? What the hell were midichlorians? This wasn’t Star Wars at all; it was some twisted perversion of the space opera so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had come to love.
I think I’m describing the film’s reception pretty accurately. I suspect most of you are nodding your heads in agreement.
Now for my opinion of the film. If you’re ready. If indeed anyone can be ready for this.
My opinion is that The Phantom Menace is the best film in the Star Wars saga.
I chose my words in that sentence very carefully. Note that I did not say it is the best Star Wars film. The best Star Wars film would be the one that most accurately captures the fun, pulp-throwback, spacefaring spirit of Star Wars, which in my opinion is, oddly enough… Star Wars. You know, the first one, A New Hope.
Nor did I say it was my favorite Star Wars film. That is, and always will be, Revenge of the Sith, for reasons explained here. So, if you like some other installment in the saga better, well, more power to you.
But my contention is that The Phantom Menace, when considered as a standalone film and not part of the same series, is the best single movie made under the Star Wars brand.
Now, I don’t deny that TPM has its off moments. I don’t hate Jar Jar Binks like most people do, but there’s no doubt he was overused. And the decision to make the film centered around the performance of young actor Jake Lloyd, despite the fact that Lucas struggles to get good performances even from experienced actors, was a major misstep.
But what it gets right, it gets very right. And of all the films, it’s the one with the best atmosphere, and the most interesting plot.
You want evidence? I’ve got evidence. Let us consider some of the film’s plot elements:
- As part of a trade dispute, an unscrupulous organization has seized a planet and forced a young ruler into exile.
- The young ruler flees into the desert along with members of a strange and mystical religious order.
- Realizing that appeals to the conventional authorities are useless, the young ruler organizes a surprise attack against the occupiers using primitive native forces that hardly anyone knows about.
Huh… that’s funny. I appear to have inadvertently also described the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. For added fun, you can insert the young ruler’s initials into that summary and it will still fit both, whether you’re talking about Paul Atreides or Padmé Amidala.
Essentially, Phantom Menace takes Paul’s character and splits it into two people, Padmé and Anakin Skywalker. Which is really interesting if you’ve read the Dune sequels. (Note this should not be interpreted as me actually telling you to read the Dune sequels. Ruined Chapel cannot be held liable for damages incurred while reading Dune books.)
Everyone focuses on Anakin’s character arc. Even Lucas focused on Anakin’s character arc, because the whole concept of the prequels was exploring how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader. Which was a bad idea. You never explain that which is better left to the audience’s imagination.
What was a good idea was exploring the collapse of the Republic. This is the background to Padmé’s story arc, and it’s obviously the more interesting one.
There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. […] The Chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.
So Senator Palpatine tells the Queen when she reaches Coruscant to seek the aid of the government. Civic virtue, the lifeblood of any republic, is gone, replaced only by in-fighting among bureaucratic factions trying to hold on to power.
It’s a great scene, not least because of the aesthetics. Queen Amidala in one of her innumerable ornate gowns, Palpatine in a shimmering robe, and all surrounded by elegant, if baroque, art that characterizes the upper-crust of Coruscant and Naboo. It all screams “late stage Republic.” Reclining into splendid decadence, the Old Republic is now incapable of defending its people.
These were the sorts of political messages the audiences of the ’90s laughed at. Such themes sounded like something out of a history textbook, and have we not said that the ’90s were The End of History? Who needed an Edward Gibbon-esque lecture on the collapse of a republic into barbarism, as the sun rose on a new millennium and Western liberal capitalism bestrode the whole world, triumphant and prepared to give us material solutions to all our problems?
Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. Are the audiences still laughing? And are we so sure, after all, that the sun really was rising?
The ending of The Phantom Menace is simply perfect. Quibble if you want about Anakin’s line delivery or Jar Jar Binks’ comical triumph over the battle droids, but they do nothing to detract from the overall atmosphere. You have four perfectly intercut battles going at once, each matching the other tonally, emotionally, and logically. From the appearance of the Gungan army out of the fog to the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is the best sustained sequence in any Star Wars film. John Williams’ soaring score helps a good deal.
And yet, despite the triumph of the good Queen and her warriors, there is a dark shadow pervading everything. Williams’ soundtrack for the celebratory song in the final scene is a reworking of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi in a major key. What better way to underscore that beneath the effusive and joyous ceremony hide the seeds of corruption, decay, and death?
So ends The Phantom Menace, and so ends our retrospective of ’90s action films. Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. The ’90s didn’t have streaming services, or smart phones, or cinematic universes, but I hope you’ll agree they did have a certain spirit that makes them worth remembering even decades later.