Original US release date: May 19,1999
Production budget: $115,000,000
Worldwide gross: $1,027,044,677
I’m sure this #ThrowbackThursday will be entirely uneventful and lacking from any provocative statements. After all, that’s how meesa like to do things, right? Oh, Episode I. How we love you. Or do we hate you? Or do we love to hate you? I’m sure the collective Internet hive mind would suggest that it’s the second option, but I’m not convinced. Although, as we’ve all come to discover in recent years, no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans, so maybe I shouldn’t speak so soon.
For the handful of the uninitiated, out there, this particular film is the fourth entry in the Star Wars series when gauged by release date but the first, chronologically speaking. When George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977, blowing everyone’s minds in the process, he started in the middle of the story, stating that that was a personal preference of his, allowing the story to get to the action and excitement, right away. As the property gained more and more fans over the decades, however, it was only a matter of time before Lucas caved and gave everyone what they (said they) wanted: the backstory. Some of it was known, pieced together by information gleaned from the fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes. But fans wanted to actually see it and get all of the details filled in. Lucas relented and he started with this story: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
The film was an unquestionable financial success, but it retains a negative reputation within the Star Wars community, much like all of the other films in the first two trilogies except episodes IV and V do. So, I have to ask . . . are these people even sure they actually like Star Wars? I mean, really . . . are they? They hate Episode VIII, too, and didn’t even bother to see Solo before deciding to hate that one. This is the rare blockbuster franchise that has been overwhelmingly embraced more by critics and casual moviegoers than the so-called diehards. It’s downright bizarre and these diehards will scratch, claw, dig, and nitpick to find anything they can to justify hating a Star Wars film. But, with The Phantom Menace, are they right? Is it really that bad?
In short, no. It’s not spectacular, but it’s no worse than any other standard run-of-the-mill blockbuster. If the diehards could step outside of themselves and their skewed perspective, they could see that for themselves. For example, if you ask these Star Wars fans who hate Star Wars why they hated The Phantom Menace, almost all of them will passionately reply with three syllables: Jar Jar Binks. Now, I’m not going to get on a soapbox and proclaim that Jar Jar is the pinnacle of high art; the face of the franchise; Star Wars at its best. But I will gladly point out that he’s not an egregious departure for the series. He’s the comic relief. He’s silly. He’s juvenile. He completely lacks self-awareness. He’s moderately funny at best and completely unfunny at worst. In other words, he’s the Ewoks. Or, even (GASP!) C-3PO and R2-D2. Granted, 3PO and R2 were/are funnier than Jar Jar, but they serve much the same purpose and aren’t all that far removed from each him. So, to circle back around, if the haters could step outside of themselves, they would see that Jar Jar wasn’t different; they, themselves, were. The viewers grew up and Jar Jar wasn’t aimed at them, like the Ewoks, C-3PO, and R2-D2 were aimed at their child versions, years before. It’s the audience that changed.
That being said, even if Jar Jar isn’t really all that problematic, there are still genuine issues with the film. The dialogue is sometimes stilted, clunky, and unnatural. The introduction of midichlorians is a lazy and uninspired way to explain the Jedis’ inclination towards believing there’s something special about Anakin Skywalker (more on him in a moment). And there’s way too much in the way of politics. Yes, the overarching narrative of the Star Wars franchise has always been about balance between good and evil and politics is an organic metaphor for that . . . but it’s not fun. Lucas didn’t need to remove it entirely, but taking it down a few notches wouldn’t have hurt. However, the absolute worst aspect of the film is incredibly easy to discern and comes down to, not the three syllables that so many others would claim, but two alternate syllables: Jake Lloyd.
Lloyd plays Anakin Skywalker (young Darth Vader) and he does so with all the authenticity of a Kwik-E-Mart hot dog. It can be tough for children to act well as they have so little life experience to draw from. But there are excellent child actors and why Lucas had no interest in finding one will always be a mystery to me. Lloyd’s delivery is painful (including his all-too-frequent “Whoa!”s and “Yippee!”s), his body language is silent and his face seems to entirely lack the ability to express any sort of emotion. He is the worst actor I have ever seen in a major studio film (except maybe for this one). I would like to note that Lloyd had exactly one more acting role following this film, and that was it for his career. This was absolutely the best for all involved – him and us.
But along with the bad, there is plenty of good. Much of the cast is easy to enjoy, even if not all of them get to flex their acting muscles to any significant degree. John Williams’s score is epic and majestic and it is here in this film that he introduces his “Duel of the Fates” piece, easily the third-most recognizable theme in the Star Wars franchise (behind the main theme and the Imperial March). Ray Park’s Darth Maul is deliciously sinister as well as intimidating and, boy, can he wield a dual-sided lightsaber! Speaking of which, the action is innovative and exhilarating, with both the pod race and the handicap lightsaber duel with Maul on one side and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) teaming with Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) on the other are spectacular standouts, not only within this film, but across the entire series. Sometimes, folks, you have to take the good with the bad. But that doesn’t mean the good should be ignored.
Overall, I like The Phantom Menace. I don’t like every aspect of it, but I like enough of it to find it more enjoyable than not. It’s not the best film in the series and it might or might not be the worst. But even if it is, that doesn’t automatically equate to it being inarguably bad. My suggestion to those who are still railing against this film, nineteen years after its release, is to lighten up. You don’t have to like Jar Jar but this hateful obsession with him can’t be healthy. Learn to look past him (as I and millions of others have done with Lloyd) and you’ll find some enjoyable material within Episode I.
Not long ago, one of my recent students told me that, to him, this film is Star Wars. It was his introduction to the property and he loves it like so many others love A New Hope (Episode IV). Star Wars isn’t just for you. There are millions of other fans out there who were exposed to the series at different times and in various ways. Every single corner of this grand, sweeping universe is loved by someone, somewhere, so remember that your personal tastes are not exhaustive or all-encompassing. So, let’s pull back on the venom and vitriol and, if we find ourselves struggling to enjoy this particular chapter, remember that doesn’t mean it’s invalidated or any less legitimate than our personal favorite. After all, your hate leads to the suffering, and that’s not what entertainment is supposed to be about.
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