We defend The Phantom Menace (yeah, we’re suicidal that way) . . .
STARRING: Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd
1999, 133 Minutes, Directed by: George Lucas
“Strip this film of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality…”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Like a lot of criticisms of The Phantom Menace. Thin characters, dull plot, a weak link in the franchise. The only trouble is, it’s not a criticism of The Phantom Menace. It’s a review of the original Star Wars, released in 1977. Amazing how little has changed in twenty years. After insufferable hype and fan-fed hysteria, The Phantom Menace opened to the exact same complaints. Only now, the film’s very real assets have been almost completely dismissed. After two decades, we’ve grown so used to this fairy-tale kingdom that we’ve forgotten what was so magical about it in the first place.
And magical it is. While most films have the ability to render anything on screen, few realize that potential as well as The Phantom Menace. Consider the city of Corsucant, a planet-wide capital composed of countless layers of buildings and ships; the Senate chambers, where an ineffective republic debates a seemingly minor squabble with ominous implications; or the underwater vistas of Naboo, filled with fearsome creatures and delicate cities alike. All of this covers territory that three other films have passed before, and yet it still presents us with something new. The universe lives, it breathes, it surrounds us with three-dimensional vibrancy. Every character here has a background, every building a story to be told. Lucas has infused so much detail into his world that it attains a completeness that few other science-fiction films even aspire to. Every shot feels real, no matter how wild or fanciful its appearance.
Against that as a backdrop, any story would be dwarfed. George Lucas has enough sense to keep his simple — he sticks to the celebrated archetypes the series started with, and maintains a proper sense of fun. The Phantom Menace paves the way for the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, discovered here as a little boy by a Jedi named Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). His trials, and the beginnings of the evil that will eventually consume him, are drawn along with high energy, exhilaration, and a genuine sense of wonder. The action sequences are breathtaking (topped by a lightsaber duel that may be one of the best examples of pure cinema I’ve ever seen) but never compete with the story for attention. A more complicated plot would get lost amid these surroundings; here, it’s always on track.
Is the film perfect? Of course not. All of the hype generated expectations that no film could possibly meet. The dialogue does clunk, the story is simple, and no human being on Earth is going to the mat for Jar-Jar Binks. (Jar-Jar’s the only reason I didn’t rate this film higher). That, unfortunately, is part of the package, and was around when the original film debuted. This has never been a series about arch conversations and convoluted plot developments; if you’re looking for those qualities, you’re in the wrong place. Lucas has likened the Star Wars movies to silent films, telling a story visually rather than with words. The Phantom Menace follows the same pattern, and while the script could have been tighter, it’s really not the purpose of the exercise.
And the drama isn’t as thin as it may appear. The best thing about The Phantom Menace is the way it sheds new light on characters we thought we knew by heart. Yoda’s resigned bitterness in Empire becomes all the more poignant after seeing his quiet caution in Phantom; the twinkle in Obi-Wan’s eye is just as clear in Ewan MacGregor as it was in Alec Guinness (we know now why he moved through the first film’s Death Star with such confidence); and there’s something chilling behind Anakin’s face… something that says he’s making a list and all of us are on it. When you look at the Phantom Menace alone, these details are hard to notice. When you look at it as one chapter in a larger story, they bring out nuances that didn’t exist before. For that — and for many other reasons — it deserves our admiration.
I’m not trying to invalidate criticism of the film here: its shortcomings are not insignificant, and the disappointment many people felt has some very real foundations. I hear the complaints, and I note their validity, and I agree: The Phantom Menace could have been better. When I try to respond — when I try to show them the genuine magic that shines through despite the flaws — all I can think of is a little boy I saw in the lobby after my first viewing last May. I don’t generally like kids at the movies: they’re too excitable and hyper to understand what they’re watching. Only this one wasn’t. He was still and quiet, and you could see his brow furrowed in thought. As I walked by, I saw him look up at his father and softly ask a simple question.
“Daddy, can we see it again?”