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Retro Review: Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

Back in theatres whether you want it or not – 25 years after its initial release and 12 years after its 3D re-release went down the memory hole because the 3D was so bad. Is it time for a reassessment of the film that gave us Jar-Jar Binks? We think not.


Star Wars Phantom Menace Retro Review: Reconsidering the film 25 years later

In retrospect, the most amazing thing about Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is that nobody ever really liked it, but they bought tickets anyway, whether out of loyalty to George Lucas or a desire to get the rest of the prequel trilogy made. Looking back after two and a half decades, there is no reason to reassess our initial reaction; it is, however, sadly interesting to see some otherwise intelligent critics pretending that the perspective from today’s vantage point has somehow erased the film’s many obvious faults.

It is sad because Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is the kind of film that always seemed deliberately designed to test audience loyalty. (You thought the Ewoks were silly? Well, get a load of Jar-Jar Binks!) Not only is the story plodding and dull. The world-building is over-stuffed with unnecessary detail that detracts from rather than adds to the original trilogy. The staging of the character scenes is simplistic and mechanical, and most of the action set pieces are overblown and goofy (e.g., the pod race). Only the admittedly well choreographed light saber battle at the climax overs any relief, and even that is only from a strictly technical perspective; the scene lacks the sort of dramatic impact that made the duel between Darth Vader and Obi Wan worth watching even if the actual action was far from spectacular.

All of this might have been saved if the film had an ounce of charm, but alas, no. The dialogue is so flat that even talented actors like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor seem barely able to engage the material. It’s like watching actors rehearse a project that took for a paycheck.* Ultimately, the film is just plain dreary.

One other point worth mentioning in regard to any 25th anniversary reassessment is that this is not the first chance we have had to revisit Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace on the big screen. Does anyone else remember that 2012 re-release  in 3D that was supposed to launch 3D theatrical screenings of the entire sage up to that point? That turned out well, didn’t it?

*Apparently we have reassessed the film, even if only unconsciously: a glance at the review below reveals we were not so negative towards the actors when we first saw Phantom Menace during its initial release.


Star Wars Phantom Menace Original Review: Watching the film in 1999

This is the review we wrote for Cinfantastique magazine back when the film originally opened.

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the first film in the so-called “Prequel Trilogy,” which provides the back story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the cybotic villain seen in the original STAR WARS trilogy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by the fact that its very existence is unnecessary: nothing in it tells us anything we need to know in order to appreciate STAR WARS (1977) or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) or even the lamentable RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). The story seems padded out from a few scraps of ideas, with little significant exposition, and the meagre information given seems contradictory to what was established in the earlier films. Overall, more effort seems to have gone into juicing up the film with a handful of special effects highlights (the pod race, the three-way light saber duel) and with reintroducing familiar characters (the droids, Obi-Wan, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda) whether or not the film needed them.

Clearly, there is something wrong with a film, when the loudest applause occurs as the curtain goes up, in anticipation of, rather than response to, what is being seen. That is the case with STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, the highly hyped prequel that gives 1998’s GODZILLA a run for its money as an over-anticipated disappointment. The audience (after a masterfully orchestrated promotional campaign, after months of trailers and weeks of commercials and cover stories, after waiting in line for days to buy tickets and for hours to get a seat) has been led to expect that this is the major event of the year. With that kind of build-up, the excitement in the theatre is almost palpable as the lights go down. There is only one problem: the film has to deliver.

THE PHANTOM MENACE falls short in this regard. It is not a completely terrible film, at least compared to the disaster that was RETURN OF THE JEDI. But in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, more creativity has been lavished on getting you into the theatre than on pleasing you once you get there. The story starts off well enough, with the Trade Federation’s blockade of planet Naboo; for a time, it seems as if Lucas is taking a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his handling of political machinations in a science-fiction context. Soon, however, trouble arises from the fact that the audience is well ahead of the characters. We already know that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” of the title, manipulating the Federation to his own ends — despite the fact that Lucas keeps his face hidden when he appears as a Sith Lord to his Federation stooges.

Despite this built-in predictability, the film maintains initial interest thanks to Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who make as dashing a pair of Jedi Knights as one could wish. But after they sneak the Queen off of her besieged planet, the momentum drags. The problem is that Lucas now has to tie these events into the storyline of the original trilogy, so he spends time introducing characters (R2D2, Jabba the Hut, C-3PO, and of course Anakin Skywalker) who contribute little to this new story. (In a rare surprise, C-3PO turns out to have been created on Tattoine by Anakin. So why doesn’t he recognize his home planet when he lands in STAR WARS? Presumably Lucas will offer an explanation later, about as convincing as Obi Wan’s “I was telling you the truth” speech in JEDI.) In effect, the plot becomes a mere prologue, relying for its impact not on anything exciting in itself but on the connections to STAR WARS. Thus Obi Wan promises to train Anakin as a Jedi, and Palpatine promises to keep an eye on his progress — trivial scenes that are supposed to resonate deeply because of the story we already know.

But lets face it: no one expected great drama; we wanted all the exuberance of flying through space and battling evil that $100-million could buy. In this regard, the film delivers — at intervals. Space ships and interstellar travel are portrayed to excellent effect, but the momentum never builds, thanks to a screen time padded past two hours and ten minutes — a lethargic pace that lags behind the original’s quick tempo.

Elsewhere, the ubiquitous computer effects are meant to be impressive for their own sake: as each new creature appears, we are supposed to react in awe: “Look, another digitally created character!” However, these animated actors look too much like what they are: computer-generated cartoons. It’s as if ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE were trying to pass off their outtakes as part of a live-action film. Aggravating matters, these technical marvels strike a decidedly juvenile tone that falls far short of Lucas’ alleged mythic aspirations. The villains are mostly robots, so no one will be offended at seeing them blown up by a little boy. And Jar Jar Binks, the film’s equivalent of Chewbacca, is merely exasperating, his comedy relief gibberish supposedly funny just because it is gibberish. As with Chewbacca, this saves Lucas from having to write coherent dialogue. We always knew what the Wookie was saying, however, thanks to Han Solo’s responses. With Jar Jar, we are left shaking our heads, even when we do catch the occasional recognizable phrase.

Having not directed since STAR WARS, Lucas has lost whatever touch he had with actors. With solid professionals (including Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit), this causes no problem, but the younger cast suffers. Jake Lloyd is a stiff. Natalie Portman is regal in her Queen regalia but lifeless when posing in her alter ego role as the Queen’s handmaid. (And what’s up with those ridiculous outfits that suggest not a galaxy far, far away but a Halloween drag parade in West Hollywood?)

Not surprisingly, the film comes to life mostly when characterization takes a back seat to action. Highlights include Anakin’s triumph in the pod race (a science-fiction update on BEN HUR’s famous chariot race); and the final light saber battle against Darth Maul is outstanding. But even the visuals are often derivative: for the second time, the devilish villain falls to his death down a bottomless tunnel; and for the third time the climax involves an aerial attack that explodes a massive enemy target in outer space. Even the exciting moments (and there are a few) fail to lift the film above mid-level quality. The applause as the curtain goes down has an obligatory air, as people try to convince themselves that they have not been too disappointed. But they deserved much more than they got. They deserved a great movie designed for the ten-year-old in us all, not a film designed for ten-year-olds.

Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski

Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)
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Rating Scale

1 – Avoid
2 – Not All Bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See

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Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace is currently in re-release nationwide, with multiple engagements in the Los Angeles area, including Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Credits: Written and Directed by George Lucas. Produced by Rick McCallum. Music by John Williams.

Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.