20 Years Ago: ‘Star Wars’ Returns With ‘The Phantom Menace’
The world of Star Wars looked a lot different in 1999 than it does today.
Even though the level of anticipation audiences around the world had for a brand-new film taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away was through the roof, Star Wars was not remotely as dominant in the culture as it is now. There had been just the original trilogy released in theaters between 1977 and 1983, a couple of supplemental TV films in the mid-'80s, some in-universe books and the Special Edition re-releases in 1997.
But now there was going to be a new movie, Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace, the first installment of a prequel trilogy that would document how young Anakin Skywalker turned into Darth Vader. The film’s teaser poster, in which young Ani (played by Jake Lloyd) has a familiar, ominous silhouette, teased at the possibilities.
The Phantom Menace was one of the most eagerly awaited films of all time, but almost instantly after its release on May 19, 1999, it became a cinematic punch line due to Jar Jar Binks, the whining Anakin (both as a child and adult), a cringe-worthy romance and many other aspects.
It’s fascinating to see where The Phantom Menace went wrong, even if you can understand why George Lucas, back as the sole credited writer and director for the first time since the original Star Wars in 1977, made the choices he did. But ultimately, The Phantom Menace failed for three main reasons: storytelling expectations, an over-reliance on special effects and poor casting.
The story of a farm boy named Luke Skywalker who longs to become a hero in a galactic war against a fearsome empire tapped into plenty of kids’ imaginations. It seemed like a new concept, possibly because it was set in outer space, but Lucas used storytelling tropes from many sources.
The basic structure of the film mirrored Joseph Campbell’s book Hero With a Thousand Faces, which documented the common three-act style of adventure storytelling; some of the fight sequences were inspired by dogfights in World War II films; and Luke’s desire to become a Jedi Knight, like his father, was a classic hero’s journey straight out of a film by Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa.
What Lucas did with Star Wars was brilliant, working within familiar storytelling structures to deliver an epic that felt fresh even though it was just a smart reconfiguration of ideas already visible in culture. The movie became a massive hit, exceeding everyone’s expectations. Lucas had presumed Steven Spielberg’s own sci-fi epic of that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would outperform his; they bet on it with each film’s profits up for grabs. Spielberg won the bet, and has been raking in 2.5 percent of Star Wars' profits ever since.
But The Phantom Menace arrived with the audience's built-in knowledge of the story of the first three movies. The ad campaign for Phantom Menace was built around a very clear concept of seeing how a guileless little kid turned into one of the most terrifying villains in cinema history. Whatever happens in The Phantom Menace, as young Anakin meets the Jedis Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as well as pretty Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), everybody knows that, when all is said and done, Anakin will become Darth Vader.
The original Star Wars introduced both Darth Vader and the idea that Luke Skywalker’s father was murdered by the black-masked baddie. But, of course, it’s not until the end of The Empire Strikes Back that we learn Luke’s true parentage. (In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan admitted that what he had told Luke about Anakin's death was metaphorical, not literal.) The prequel trilogy is different — from the start, it’s clear where the films will take us, culminating in a bloody, fiery battle between a grown Anakin and Obi-Wan, leaving the former disfigured and healed in a pitch-black bodysuit and mask.
We know that Anakin’s two children will be hidden away from him to avoid his wrath, and that he’ll more fully ally himself with the evil Empire. In this case, knowing isn’t half the battle, it’s losing the battle. The predestined course of the prequels is part of what makes them more lifeless; there’s only so much that can happen in these films, and Lucas’ writing isn’t up to par to make them feel as exciting as the first film.
However, The Phantom Menace does have the two best action sequences of the entire prequel trilogy. There’s the Tattooine-set pod race in which Anakin is triumphant over a slew of distinctively designed aliens, and a climactic lightsaber battle among Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and the spiky-headed Darth Maul. It’s in these two sequences that Lucas’ most obvious change between trilogies — using more computer-guided effects than practical ones — serves the story well. The scenes push beyond what the original Star Wars trilogy was able to accomplish without diluting the impact of the these films' world.
But those are exceptions to the rule. Just as Lucas had done with the Special Editions of the original trilogy, there’s a sense of computer technology being an overriding principle of many of the aliens. One of the great things about that first trio of films is that the world it depicts feels very tactile. Yes, it’s a world of fantastical aliens and spaceships blowing each other out of the sky. But from the Mos Eisley Cantina to the Millennium Falcon, what excited audiences was the thrilling idea that all of these places could be real.
The Phantom Menace, though, began the shift for Lucas to go into an entirely digital space. While that technology has appealed to many directors of his era, from Spielberg to James Cameron, the use of CGI in the prequel trilogy overwhelms the actors and sometimes destroys their performances simply because viewers can't help but to focus only on the computer technology.
The casting of the prequel trilogy was the last straw, however, at least with The Phantom Menace. While many of the actors in the film had plenty of notable credits beforehand — McGregor burst onto the scene as the star of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, and Neeson was the main character of Spielberg’s heartbreaking Holocaust drama Schindler’s List — they’re still working with a script as old-fashioned as the serialized adventures Lucas grew up with.
Harrison Ford, on the set of the first film, famously excoriated the script by saying, “You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it!” Whatever poor dialogue was on display in the first movie works because Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Alec Guinness figured out how to make it work. Neeson, McGregor and Portman, on the other hand, aren’t capable of making their dialogue sound natural; it’s almost as if they’re too talented and removed to help.
The two biggest points of criticism fans have had for years, though, are focused on Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best, as Anakin and Jar Jar Binks, respectively. They’ve both spoken about how the criticisms toward their work in The Phantom Menace damaged their careers. But they had only so much control over their performances. Lloyd was just 10 years old when the film was released, so being placed in such an iconic role at such a young age is almost a losing situation. For Best, he was at the mercy of both computer technology and bad writing. Yes, Jar Jar is an annoying character, but Best didn’t design him and he didn't come up with lines like “Me-sa your humble servant” and “How wude!”
Who knows if The Phantom Menace would have succeeded creatively (because financially it was very successful with more than $430 million at the domestic box office) if the movie stayed away from CGI. Lucas felt that the way of the future was in computers designing the galaxy far, far away. That step, along with leaning into more of a kid-friendly script with jokes, is part of what bothered Star Wars fans for so long.
They’re kinder to the participants in the film now: Best even showed up at the Star Wars Celebration event in April 2019 and was given a standing ovation. But The Phantom Menace hasn’t aged as well as the original Star Wars. Some films are always timeless; others will always feel like a missed opportunity.