Two decades on, The Phantom Menace remains the most infamously maligned entry in the ever-expanding Star Wars series. Following the beloved saga’s hyped return in 1999 with a monumental and highly marketed sub-title of Episode I, the massive disappointment upon release forged a hardened, enduring resentment in fans the world over. In many cases, the dread may have set in early with that famous opening crawl featuring the uninspiring phrase ‘the taxation of trade routes is in dispute’. For those of a certain age, who’d followed the Skywalker story from the beginning back in 1977, Tim from Spaced summed up just how much they’d been let down by George Lucas.
But here’s the thing: with 20 years of hindsight – including four more Episodes and two “Star Wars Stories” – The Phantom Menace is not the worst movie in the franchise. Attack of the Clones is. It’s awful, with even more laughable dialogue, wooden acting and a distracting reliance on CGI. Even its title is rubbish. And it has no iconic Star Wars moments; Menace has at least two. Time to give the first Episode a second chance.
The many flaws of Phantom Menace have been well-trodden. We covered them in our Citizen Kane of Awful feature, five years ago now, and our Tom was spot-on for the most part – but I will challenge him on one point: the podrace is a great sequence (Ed: It’s not). It’s dynamic, fun, tactile, and feels like a real event with a history. It’s also unlike anything else seen in Star Wars. This underappreciated part of the film has real stakes for the story, and is easily the highlight of the protracted Tattooine section which had, up until that point, mainly involved browsing for spaceship parts. Anakin has to win, not only to help Qui-Gon and Padmé fix their ship and continue on to Coruscant (thankfully moving the plot along) but, unbeknownst to him, secure his own freedom from slavery.
The podracers themselves are superb creations, unique vehicles that are a hybrid of chariot and Formula 1 car, each with their own variations and designs, many feeling like extensions of their pilot’s personality. The on-board camera angles, showing both the hazardous course the pods hurtle through and Anakin in-cockpit, make the action both exciting and easy to follow. It’s also one of the more subtle ways the prequel trilogy shows that the force is strong with the future Darth Vader, after Qui-Gon gives him a pre-race pep talk: ‘feel, don’t think’.
More widely accepted as a truly classic moment is the climactic three-way fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and the “so memorable they clumsily brought him back for Solo” Darth Maul. On that point first, Maul is certainly a great villain who deserved more than the scant screen time he had. He looks awesome, he’s enigmatic and he fights with a double-bladed lightsaber which remains the coolest variant on the noble weapon – sorry Mace and Kylo. As for the sword battle itself, it was easily the best buckling of swashes in the series at that point, a long way from Ben Kenobi and Vader’s laboured prodding in A New Hope and even eclipsing any between Vader and Luke.
Phantom Menace was the first time we got to see Jedi in their prime, and while the early scenes with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan taking out the droid soldiers are cool, it’s the showdown with Maul that really illustrated a new side of Star Wars. Suddenly, saber duels were choreographed, balletic and exhilarating, with Ray Park’s athletic, acrobatic approach to his character adding a whole extra dimension. And, of course, there’s John Williams spine-tingling new addition to the score, ‘Duel of the Fates’. Think of the music of the prequel trilogy and it’s in your mind instantly. That choir part! Chills.
More than that though, it really feels like three people are fighting, with real weapons in a real space, because they are. It’s so much more effective than a CGI Yoda flipping about like Sonic the Hedgehog on a sugar high in Clones or the unlikely lava river fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. And that’s another area where Menace takes some points off its two sequels: it’s closest to the original Star Wars trilogy magic of real sets, costumes and props before Lucas got obsessed with the possibilities CGI could offer. Ultimately, its overuse in Episodes II and III strips away a lot of the heart and soul of Star Wars, something that J.J. Abrams was canny enough to avoid when The Force Awakens returned to the franchise’s lower-tech roots in 2015.
So while The Phantom Menace suffers from a morbidly flabby second act with literally scene after scene of people sitting in rooms talking (the Senate, the Jedi Council, Queen Amidala and her advisors – yawn) and an almost terminal amount of Jar Jar Binks (he really is in it a lot) there is plenty to like about this much maligned Star War. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman all put in decent performances (helped so much by the ability to react to real people, sets and explosions rather than constant green screen) and even poor little Jake Lloyd, on an absolute hiding to nothing with such a crucial, highly scrutinised part, is better than Hayden Christensen ever was.
The podrace is entertaining and the whole Duel of the Fates sequence is absolutely magnificent – better than anything from the dreadful Attack of the Clones. And let’s not forget the wonderful production design on all the featured planets, particularly Naboo and the underwater Gungan city. If you’re searching for the nadir of the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace is not the film you’re looking for.