Star Wars – The Phantom Menace: still terrible after all these years? (2024)

Can it really be that there are Star Wars fans who see George Lucas’s Episode I The Phantom Menace, once considered the emblem of everything that went wrong with the long-running space saga, as a bona fide classic ripe for rehabilitation 25 years on? As the much-derided 1999 film returns to cinemas this weekend, there are rumblings in the ether that millennials, and perhaps those even younger, are completely unaware of just how much of a disaster it was. Then again, perhaps those of us who remember its debut in cinemas should be prepared to listen to voices from a new generation. Was it really so bad after all?

Part of the problem is that where it was once a rare blot on the galactic landscape, a Star Wars movie that failed to live up to the glories of the original trilogy, these days it’s far, far away from being the only rubbish film in the canon. In fact, it could be argued that when considering movies such as the execrable The Rise of Skywalker, the middling Solo: A Star Wars Story and the two painful prequel follow-ups, The Phantom Menace is closer to the mean average for the saga than it is to the bottom of the Dagobah swamp.

Where once we were shocked that something so tonally misguided, blithely racist and prosaically bloodless could be tagged with the famous title, we now have the Star Wars Holiday Special to remind us that it can get worse. Back at the turn of the century, few of us were aware that 70s and 80s misfires like this even existed – see also Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure and Ewoks: The Battle for Endor – it being the pre YouTube era when all but the most studious of geeks were blissfully ignorant of them.

Star Wars – The Phantom Menace: still terrible after all these years? (1)

In the early 80s, when I first learned of Star Wars, the only way to see the original trilogy was to catch it at the cinema, or hope against hope for a catch-it-or-miss-it TV broadcast. Yes, we had VHS or Betamax but everything looked terrible when recorded off the box, and it wasn’t possible to watch the home video editions of the full trilogy until 1986. The result is that the saga had an air of extraordinary grandiosity, as if we were all breathing rarefied Tatooine air every time it came on the telly.

This meant that when The Phantom Menace finally hit cinemas, 16 years after Return of the Jedi debuted in 1983, it took a while for some of us to realise that this was a different sort of Star Wars. Yes, the original trilogy had always been relatively child-friendly, with its fun, knockabout space larks, teddy bear aliens and only vague, retrospective references to potential incest. But this time the main protagonist seemed to be an actual child (albeit one who was destined to grow up to be Darth Vader) with an annoyingly stereotyped comedy sidekick, as if this was not so much a play on the 1940s matinee adventure serials of Lucas’s youthful fever dreams as an irritatingly cheesy 90s TV knock-off of the same.

Many of us had spent decades imagining what Anakin Skywalker might be like underneath that shiny black, gothic carapace. I bet very few ever imagined that his journey towards evil would begin as a whinging brat with a penchant for shouting “yippee” and telling weird angel stories.

Nor did we expect the story of the galactic republic’s decline to be so tedious and technocratic, involving trade embargos, boring speeches to the senate and hideous CGI robo-battles. Even Yoda lost all his sparkle when engaged in portentous Jedi council navel-gazing, while Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi had the worst rat tail since the breakup of New Kids on the Block.

There are few obvious racialised cliches in the original trilogy, yet the horribly cod-Caribbean Jar Jar Binks, offensively antisemitic Watto the slave master and those ghastly pan-Asian peeps from the Trade Federation are all unforgivably twisted caricatures. It is impossible to understand how Lucas went from making a starry-eyed paean to the Japanese masters in the late 70s and early 80s to a ridiculous reimagining of space fantasy populated by the worst stereotypes known to the cosmos just a few decades later.

I rewatch The Phantom Menace through my fingers, pinpricks of detail feeding through to the cerebrum. If you squint hard enough it’s possible to recall only a movie that features the greatest lightsaber battle of all time (Kenobi and Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn against Ray Park’s demonically balletic Darth Maul), some wicked podracing scenes and the opening scene in which the Jedi coolly see off a pair of lightning-quick, rapid-fire droidekas, as we finally get to see how impressive the order was in its prime.

But a handful of thrilling set pieces do not a classic Star Wars movie make. If you are seeing it again at the cinema this weekend, a warning: it’s just as bad as you remember.

Star Wars – The Phantom Menace: still terrible after all these years? (2024)
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