With the levels of global hysteria that had built up around the 1999 release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, it was always destined to disappoint.
Initial reviews of the film were actually sort of positive. Critics picked up on the fact that a story about trade taxation was a bit flat, in the same way a date with a bank manager is a bit flat; that the dialogue was ripe; that Jar Jar Binks – the CGI comic relief intended to give the toy companies something to sell – was, unforgivably, not funny. But it had Jedi, spaceship battles, it looked staggering, and the consensus was that it had set up a fresh trilogy fairly ably. Job done, then. Or so it seemed.
In the months following the movie’s release, opinion shifted. The wow-factor of the CGI rubbed away, revealing the creaky bones of the film beneath. Questions were asked of the relevance of the CGI aliens’ accents, from the Caribbean patois of Jar Jar and the south-east Asian timbre of the Trade Federation Neimoidians to the slave-owner Watto, who was accused of being equally offensive to both Arabs and Jews. (George Lucas strenuously denied any racial stereotyping, making these elements of the film, at best, bewildering oversights.)
Special hatred was reserved for Jar Jar, played by Ahmed Best, and for young Anakin Skywalker (the then nine-year-old Jake Lloyd). In the early days of the internet, both actors were unprepared for the now sadly commonplace levels of abuse the toxic side of fandom can discharge. All of a sudden, The Phantom Menace was loathed. (“I had death threats,” Best said later. “I had people come to me and say, ‘You destroyed my childhood.’”)
It would be impossible to stage a defence of the film without at least addressing its faults, which are certainly legion. Jar Jar is the main culprit, but on reflection, he’s little more than an occasional annoyance. He’s goofy. Kids like him. He’s hardly the film’s protagonist. So it’s no great challenge to ignore him. Likewise, the odd “yippee!” aside, Anakin isn’t half as irritating when seen at a cool remove of 22 years after the fact. He’s merely one of an entire ensemble of characters without a single definable personality trait between them.
Throughout the film, scenes seem to linger for a few awkward seconds after they should, or cease abruptly without any purpose for their existence having been established. There’s also an uncanny weightlessness to much of the CGI. In fact, from editing to dialogue to plotting, some of the nuts-and-bolts film-making on show is, frankly, baffling.
But there is – there is! – a great movie lurking beneath all this. The sheer amount of world-building is remarkable: in one film we are introduced to the whole power structure of the galaxy before The Empire: a Republic, a Senate, a Jedi Council, Coruscant, Naboo and the Gungan city, and we are reintroduced to lawless Outer Rim planets like Tatooine. We see how it all works, and witness actual, jobbing Jedi going about their Forcey business in the inexorable run-up to war. It all whips along at a fair old clip.
And the action set pieces are peerless. The pod race is an astounding assault of speed and noise. The land and space sorties are as good as anything the original trilogy managed, if a little inert in their lack of overall stakes. And the lightsaber battles remain the best of any Star Wars film to date. Darth Maul is the coolest baddie Star Wars ever gave us, and the athleticism he brings to the previously stiff duels has yet to be bested.
Attack of the Clones features some of the blandest CGI action ever filmed, and a love story so lumpenly delivered it makes you wonder whether George Lucas has actually ever met another human being, let alone courted one. And Revenge of the Sith, while bringing the trilogy to a generally satisfying close, is festooned with the hokiest dialogue this side of The Room. (One climactic scene genuinely features the lines “The Sith are evil!” “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”)
The Phantom Menace, though, isn’t bad at all. Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are excellent. It tells a satisfying, enclosed story. Its action is handled with zip and flair. And, from the death of Qui-Gon to Anakin’s mother giving him up, it even manages to tug on the old heartstrings occasionally. Gungans notwithstanding, it is a very solid Star Wars film. Is it a classic? Goodness, no. But if you haven’t seen it since you left that movie theatre in 1999 with your hands clenched in tight white fists of fury, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Don’t be afraid. Remember: fear leads to anger …
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is available to watch on Disney+ in the US and UK