It’s rare to find a film as famous, yet universally hated, as 1999’s The Phantom Menace. Even now, the mere mention of the film is enough to attract derision from critics and something akin to pure hate from fans of the original Star Wars trilogy. Why has it attracted so much criticism, and is this justified? Can anything good be said about Star Wars: Episode One? Well, since I always like to at least start my posts by saying something positive, let’s look at ‘The Light Side’. First off there was the trailer, which seemed to promise everything that we ever craved from a new Star Wars film (it’s a shame they had to blow it by adding 132 minutes of padding!). Then there are the backdrops – the grandeur of Theed and the Art Deco wonder of Coruscant. There is the CGI in the first journey to the underwater city – a fine fantasy moment that is truly breathtaking. On a girly note, there is Queen Amidala’s geisha get-up and a range of nice frocks. Lastly, two words: Darth Maul. Unfortunately, we now have to look at ‘The Dark Side’.
Things do not start well. In place of the Imperial Star Destroyer-sized sense of wonder of A New Hope’s opening, you get an apologetic pan of a spaceship with all the cosmic majesty of the 8:15 train to Tunbridge Wells. Then there is the lack of pace and tension. Where Star Wars hurled us into a life or death situation from the get-go, The Phantom Menace basically starts with two all-powerful Jedi passing the time, being offered refreshments by the cringing Neimoidians. Lucas does not seem to realise that having such an imbalance between the heroes and villains creates a lack of tension and it does not help that, with their dreadful cod-Chinese accents, the Neimoidians are a fairly offensive racial stereotype to boot. Then there is the fact that Lucas, for some inexplicable reason, decided to film a space opera about the ‘taxation of outlying trade routes’. A script that contains the words committees, commissions, procedures, debates, delegations, negotiations, ratifications and nominations is overwhelming in its mundanity. With A New Hope we had the wonder of fairy tale; with The Phantom Menace we have the churning of bureaucracy. While the actor can hardly be blamed, Liam Neeson’s Qui Gon Jinn is just plain dull. We needed a wizard – Anthony Hopkins in The Mask of Zorro – but instead we were given a walking, talking fortune cookie. Call the script doctor George!
Apart from the magnificent Darth Maul, the villains in The Phantom Menace are a crushing disappointment after the compelling evil of Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Emperor Palpatine. Heroes tend to be defined by their foes and having weedy Destroyer Droids and feeble Neimoidians is hardly an encouraging start. Then we come to Jar Jar Binks – Oh dear. Lucas is not a funny man, he’s a well-meaning uncle invading your party with his sock puppets, and it really shows with the crude insertion of this ‘comic’ character into the film. The original Star Wars trilogy got the balance between comedy and tension just right with Chewie, Artoo and Threepio, who were endearing, amusing and had the good grace to remain largely in the background. The trouble with Jar Jar Binks is that he is thrust to the fore and rammed down the unfortunate audiences’ collective throats at every opportunity. Another example of Lucas’s inept handling of comedy comes in the form of the Padme/Amidala deception, which any competent writer could have had an immense amount of fun with, creating endless comedy romance out of the double identities of a commoner and royal. By the way, George, a ‘Queen’ isn’t usually elected…
There are several things in The Phantom Menace which just make no sense at all and/or are totally unnecessary. I mean, why have that ‘midichlorian’ nonsense? It’s like someone performing an autopsy on Santa Claus. The Force is interesting when it is an unknowable, undefinable thing – it quickly loses this aura when you start to dissect it with silly cod-scientific explanations. Ditto Shmi Skywalker’s ‘virgin birth’. But the gaping hole in The Phantom Menace is its ostensible star, Mannequin Skywalker himself, Jake Lloyd. Again, the actor cannot possibly bear the full brunt of the criticism for the daft script that he is given but, on any analysis, Lloyd is not up to the challenge of carrying a major Hollywood film. Just look at Haley Joel Osment’s performance in The Sixth Sense, released the same year with a young star of about the same age, to see how far Lloyd falls short. Anakin should have been an angry brat, briefly succumbing to the Dark Side of the Force, not a jolly, heroic young moppet. Although all of these criticisms and more have been put to Lucas on several occasions, his stock response time and time again is that The Phantom Menace was ‘only a kids’ film’. Yes, but so was Jason and the Argonauts, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Antz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Railway Children, all of which managed to have comedy, tragedy, compelling stories, witty scripts and fine acting. Just like a sweet old film called Star Wars: A New Hope.