1999. What a year it was. The year of The Matrix, The Mummy, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, The World is Not Enough, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Blair Witch Project and, of course, the first Star Wars prequel. Maybe it was because I was a teenager at the time but I remember that year as one of creative brilliance and wonderful marketing. Sure, not every one of those movies was great, The Blair Witch Project was a particular disappointment, but there was something magical about a year of era defining, hyped up brilliant blockbusters of which The Phantom Menace was going to be the best.
As someone who had Star Wars handed to him by his family through television airings of the original trilogy and the Ewoks movies (yes, the Ewoks movies, which are a brilliant piece of work and I dare you to argue any differently with me), The Phantom Menace was going to be my Star Wars movie. It marked the return to film direction of George Lucas and was going to tell the story of the saga that led to the saga. The hype was in full effect, fans were queuing up outside theatres weeks in advance, this was a genuine event. I remember going to see The Matrix and the trailer for the first Star Wars prequel playing beforehand. It felt epic.
Then the movie happened and amazingly we seemed to be in denial for several months before we came to our senses and realised we were disappointed. Bitterness set in and for the next several years being a Star Wars fan became a somewhat depressing experience, hopes and dreams broken down by stilted dialogue, wooden acting and Jar Jar Binks. You could say the release of the first prequel marked the first moment in time, not to finally end until the release of The Force Awakens, when Star Wars would be a broken-hearted experience. Middling movies, DVD and Blu Ray releases that would see endless changes to the original trilogy, it was a time of dark, dark despair.
The ball for The Phantom Menace got rolling when Lucas released Special Edition versions of the original movies in 1997 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the original trilogy. Deeming that technology had caught up with his vision, Lucas began work on the first of his prequel trilogy, a three-part saga that would detail Anakin Skywalker’s journey from young child to Jedi apprentice to Sith Lord and eventually Darth Vader, ending the trilogy at a point that would lead to the beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope.
In many ways The Phantom Menace could be seen as the last to utilise old school filmmaking techniques in the series until JJ Abrams got his hands on it. There are real locations and it does appear that actual sets are being used. From Episode II onwards the series would seemingly have its production design done by green screen, the CGI going into overdrive. Episode I does see a trip to Tattooine meaning that actual location work was done in Tunisia, and actual sets appear to have been constructed at Leavesden Studios in England where the majority of studio filming work was done, so unlike the two follow-up movies, large parts of this movie do appear to have been done ‘in camera’.
But the cracks in the Star Wars armour were showing with this one, or at least in George Lucas’s ability to bring a movie together. The story is unfocused, meandering from place to place with little or no story telling logic at times. There is no apparent lead character. You could argue it’s an ensemble piece, but it doesn’t have the feel of that either. You could say Anakin is the lead character, but he doesn’t appear until a third of the way through and he’s too young to have major bearing on the story. The performances aren’t great, down more to Lucas’ handling of actors as opposed to bad casting choices. Liam Neeson is an Oscar nominee, Natalie Portman at this point a future Oscar winner, Ewan McGregor had won acclaim for various other roles and in the middle of it all are actors as diverse as Ian McDiarmid and Terrence Stamp, the latter being wasted in his role as a Senator. I mean for crying out loud, the man is General Zod from Superman II. Kneel before Zod!!!
Portman’s line delivery is stilted and unconvincing, the complete opposite to her performance in Leon a few years previously and eventual Oscar winning turn in Black Swan. Ewan McGregor was incendiary in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave and yet here he is incredibly charmless, lacking any of the friendly wistfulness of Alec Guinness in the original movies. Neeson actually does okay, and I’m not just saying that because I’m Irish (honest). He’s very charming and soft spoken and yet I feel as if these qualities are down more to him rather to the character on the page. He frequently uses his Jedi powers to get his own way which feels rather wrong to me. Jake Lloyd took a lot of hits at the time and continues to do so and yet I can’t blame the kid. He was probably a really good actor, but it takes a special sort of director (*cough* Spielberg *cough*) who can get great work from kid actors. George Lucas is not one of them.
All one has to do is look at the sequence where Anakin has to leave his mother behind in order to embrace his destiny. In the hands of any other director the scene would be a genuine heartbreaker. It’s backed up by music from John Williams which is selling the emotion you’re supposed to feel, but it’s not coming across convincingly because Lucas can’t handle a scene like this. He’s often been accused of not being an actor’s director and here it’s evident. His direction and choice of performances from Jake Lloyd and Pernilla August are not great and whilst I get what the scene is going for, it’s not delivered in a way that makes the impact that the story is crying out for. If this was Spielberg or James Cameron, our popcorn would be soggy due to all the tears.
The action sequences are impressively staged, including the now famous three-way lightsaber battle between Qui Gon Jinn, Obi Wan and Darth Maul, although this only goes to showcase how wasted a villain Maul is. Dominant in many of the trailers for the movie, he barely appears, has one line of dialogue, dubbed in by Spaced actor Peter Serafinowicz, and makes little or no impact besides killing one character who isn’t even that important to the series when you think of it.
The movie is probably best remembers now for its hype and eventual disappointment. The lining of up fans outside the theatre weeks on end adding to the sense of fun, but how disappointing it must have been. Sure everyone agreed when they saw it that they loved it, but you can see the look on everyone’s face in the clip below, the pained attempt at trying to convince themselves otherwise.
Like a delayed reaction we all came to our senses and we were more on alert when Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith came to be released and time has not been good to The Phantom Menace. In all honesty it is not the worst film ever made, let’s be clear about that, this is not as bad or as disastrous as a film as Batman and Robin. If anything the film is dull. The pacing is all over the place, the action is spectacularly staged at times, but there’s only so much you can do with Jedi’s cutting down droids like ripping paper. The real star of the movie is John Williams’ music which feels like a score to a completely different movie in many respects. Listen to the score independent of the movie itself and it almost feels as if it belongs to a completely different, genuinely brilliant film.
For all its problems, you could argue that The Phantom Menace was, maybe, just maybe, good for Star Wars. At the time of writing, this reviewer has yet to see The Force Awakens, and yet with its return to core Star Wars values and filmmaking techniques like old school special effects and with the most positive reviewers acclaiming the movie’s performances and story telling. everything about it appears to be screaming about how it’s the complete opposite to the direction the prequels took. Like Batman and Robin leading to Batman Begins, maybe the route Star Wars took from The Phantom Menace onwards had to happen in order to get to the audience and critic unifying front that we are at right now.
We may have been hurt before, but like Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, redemption can be achieved. If you ask me, it feels as if there truly has been…an awakening.