This article contains spoilers, you’ve been warned.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a film that, 20 years after its original release, continues to elicit strong reactions from fans and filmgoers. Episode I was a film with a ludicrous amount of hype attached: it was the first major Star Wars output in over a decade, and the first for a whole new generation to behold, and fall in love with the universe.
The film was released in the US 20 years ago today, and it eventually made its way to British cinemas a couple of months later. As a bright-eyed 8 year old in the summer of 1999, who had all but worn out his parents’ VHS copies of the original trilogy in my naïve hopes of secretly being a Jedi or discovering that lightsabers were real, the prospect of seeing a brand new Star Wars film for the first time was like every single Christmas and birthday rolled into one.
Even though it was so long ago, I still remember a lot from that first watch. 8 year old me loved the new, swishier lightsaber battles, the podracing and even Jar Jar Binks. Some restlessness aside from the quieter moments, for my younger mind The Phantom Menace was a hit, and sure enough I played it to death as well once it was released on home video.
Sadly, time wasn’t kind to my perceptions of this or the following prequels, and over the years the film’s flaws became increasingly apparent. Watching The Phantom Menace now feels like an exercise in cinematic masochism. Lucas’ indifferent direction and writing sticks out like a sore thumb against the older instalments, and his actors’ performances range from phoned-in to downright wooden. The action scenes are bloated and overlong, and where the original films had tension and emotional heft in each swing of a lightsaber, in Episode I that’s all thrown out the window for nothing but spectacle, and a showcase for the latest in special effects.
The brilliant thing about the original films is that, while there are narrative through lines and an overarching story for the whole trilogy, you could easily watch The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi without the context of A New Hope and still know what was going on. With The Phantom Menace, it’s so heavily steeped in references and lip service to the original three films that it simply doesn’t work as its own film, nor within the context of the adventure serial throwback spirit in which the original trilogy was made.
Inexplicably, The Phantom Menace has enjoyed something of a second life, thanks – or otherwise – to the advent of meme culture. For some reason, the Internet can’t get enough of The Phantom Menace or the other Star Wars prequels, and a whole subculture of memes has arisen in celebration of these films.
While it’s a short list, there are some legitimately good things to take from The Phantom Menace: John Williams’ score hits some great heights, and “Duel of the Fates” remains a fantastic piece of film music. The film’s set and costume designs are lavishly detailed as well, and while the CGI characters themselves are at best problematic, the technical achievement is really quite incredible. The fact that Jar Jar Binks remains so deeply hated as a character is almost perversely a testament to how convincingly he was realised on screen.
Perhaps its greatest impact, however, was as a cautionary tale in the practice of prequel storytelling. The concept of the prequel is a flawed one fundamentally, as the most important part of the story has already been told, and any tension that a prequel tries to set up is doomed: we the audience already know where the story is headed. With Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and the subsequent films in the prequel series, George Lucas insisted on a narrative path which led nowhere new, and aside from new merchandising opportunities and another wodge of money in Lucas’ pocket, these are films without any narrative purpose, beyond filling in gaps that were neither needed to be filled, or even there in the first place.
The Star Wars saga has since then recovered, and while the franchise’s new owners are learning the prequel issue the hard way, it remains, and looks set to remain, an engaging, fun series to keep up with.
Just so long as they keep the Gungans out of it from here, of course.