HomeMovies1999 Movie-versaries: The Phantom Menace

1999 Movie-versaries: The Phantom Menace

1999 was a big year for movies. It was the year that The Matrix‘s slow-motion bullet influenced action movies for years to come. It was the year American Beauty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Oscar fans have been arguing about it ever since. It was the year Pokémon jumped from Gameboys and TV to the big screen. And worst of all, it was the year that disappointed a generation of Star Wars fans with the release of The Phantom Menace.

To celebrate that landmark year in film’s 20th Anniversary, The Pop Break continues its year-long retrospective of 1999’s most influential (at least to us) films with staff writer Tommy Tracy giving a (slight) defense of possibly the year’s most maligned blockbuster: The Phantom Menace.

Oh yes, my dear readers, you read that correctly. For twenty years. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace has been coined the worst film in the franchise. Simply put, it isn’t. Bear in mind, The Phantom Menace does not hold a lightsaber to its predecessors and in no way do I believe it is a flawless film, but there are A LOT of things to unpack with this film, both good and bad, and I’m here to say that one character is not a reason to hate the damn movie.  

Let’s not forget that in late 1998 and early-’99, this film was a pop culture phenomenon before it even hit the theaters. Everyone had Star Wars fever again, with new toys being released every week, new promotional material everyday and the promise of the best lightsaber fight of all time, which, lets face it, the original trilogy severely lacks. This entry hyped fans up so much that it made this young, nine-year-old writer almost sick to my stomach in anticipation as I made my parents wait six hours in line to see the thing. The theater was so packed, we couldn’t even all sit together. As the film started and John Williams’s brilliant score began, the theater exploded with generations of fans and their screams.  

Then the crawl hit, and I must admit…what? Taxation? The Galactic Republic? What the hell does that mean? We were in for a political drama (I admit, I was a very savvy child). Then the film began and again…what was happening? All this talk of trade and peace treaties and backhanded politics and senate meetings were very confusing. Yes, the original trilogy had some of these aspects as well, but what was going on? I fully admit, the film does not start well. Fans want to see great heroes, diabolical villains and epic battles, not how to free slaves.  

Yet, it does not take long for the movie to change. The scale of the film is epic, with space feeling endless, the droid ships are massive, and the lightsabers are beautiful. You feel every blast and as soon as our heroes, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) land on Naboo, it becomes a lot more interesting.  

I love the Planet Core chase with all the massive fish. The early battle on Naboo is a lot of fun as the Jedi attempt to save Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman or Keira Knightly, depending on the scene). The heroes barely escape and then find themselves on the edge of Tattooine and if you say you weren’t excited for this, you’re a damn liar. We knew this is where we’d meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who would be the child destined to become Darth Vader.

And yes, yes, yes, I know…there is too much downtime here. A lot of talking and Lloyd’s acting left a lot to be desired (are you an angel?). But did it not fill us with glee to meet C-3PO for the first time, witnessing his first meeting with R2-D2? Was Watto (Andy Secombe) not an interesting and diabolic antagonist who would do anything to keep his slaves? This brings us to the Pod Race, a fifteen minute epic that was fun from start to finish and made you wonder if Anakin would actually pull it off. As Anakin says goodbye to his mother for good, it’s tear-jerking and I’d argue it is Lloyd’s only good performance. Then we get to see an awesome battle between Qui-Gon and Sith Lord, Darth Maul (Ray Park), a precursor to what would come later.  

Sure, we then get bogged down with more trade talk, but this time, it is intercut with scenes involving the Jedi council, which include Yoda and Mace Windu, played very subtly by Samuel L. Jackson. We go on to meet other Jedi that would play roles in future cannon, such as Plo Koon, Luminara Unduli and Yaddle (okay, maybe not Yaddle). I KNOW people call these scenes boring, but they hide so much information that people don’t seem to wrap their heads around. Obi-Wan, still a Padawan, is told he’s not ready to face the Jedi trials! We as fans know how great of a Jedi he becomes, it’s amazing to see a young, even immature character, be shot down so quickly.

And when they meet Anakin, they spell everything out so quietly. He WILL destroy the Jedi and THEN bring balance to the force. They say it! Watch it again. These scenes are so powerful and so integral to the rest of the franchise, it forgives Lloyd’s poor acting. Then we get to the end of the movie, the three-pronged attack on the villains. The soldiers take it to the skies, attempting to blow up the ship that controls the droids that the Gungans are fighting on Naboo.

This is also intercut with one of the best friggin’ lightsaber fights of all time, as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan face off against Darth Maul in the Duel of the Fates (my personal favorite piece of John Williams music). Here, we see the double-sided lightsaber, and again, if you say you didn’t think this was cool, you’re a liar. Twenty minutes of epic battling result in the heroes destroying the ship, the droids and Darth Maul, at the expense of Qui-Gon, who begs Obi-Wan to train Anakin as his dying wish. It’s epic and emotional—all of which Star Wars should always be.  

Let’s not also forget that Neeson is amazing as Qui-Gon Jin and McGregor would go on to become the definitive Obi-Wan (sorry, Sir Alec Guinness). Ian McDiarmid is vicious as Palpatine and Portman I even find serviceable, even though she doesn’t have much to do until the later films. Sure, Jake Lloyd sucks, but he was seven when the thing was shot, and he was given some very poor direction by Lucas. We, as fans, most likely ruined this poor kid’s career and, if you remember correctly, Anakin became SO MUCH WORSE!  

More negatives? Sure, because there are an abundance. The CGI does not hold up, but I attribute that to the over-reliance on it. It looked awesome back then. Yes, the midichlorians are stupid, and I have no answer for those. Watto is offensive. The trade talks are dumb. And yes, Jar-Jar Binks in insufferable. He’s annoying, useless and very offensive, so much so that his massive role in this film was enough to make him cut almost entirely from the next two. I hated him then, but now, I look at him as a joke, someone who makes me shake with anger but also laughing at just how stupid he is, and I ask…is that a bad thing? Probably, but I look at it as a plus.  

Look, The Phantom Menace IS a disappointment, no doubt about that. But we look at it as the worst P.O.S. to ever happen to the Star Wars cannon and it isn’t. There is a lot of good here, all of which I mentioned. And while the film is bogged down by a good amount of boring content, but when the awesome stuff happens, it is awesome, and it is sprinkled in with the boring to at least keep you entertained. I will die by my lightsaber and say that this movie is better than The Clone Wars (the movie, not the show) and a billion times better than Attack of the Clones, which can literally put someone to sleep. Give it another chance and look at it with twenty-years-later eyes, and you might find a lot more to like about it. May the Force Be With You.  



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