Yes, The Phantom Menace Really Is as Bad as You Remember
Earlier this month, I saw a random tweet that said, in effect, that people loved The Phantom Menace when they saw it in theaters and only started hating on it after they got home and saw people complaining about it on the internet. Well, I watched it last night with my boys — we’re making our way through the Star Wars films on Disney+ in preparation for The Rise of Skywalker next month — and hoo boy…
It’s bad, y’all. Really, truly, awfully bad.
Screenwriting was never really George Lucas’ strong point and it was painful to see great actors like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Natalie Portman forced to deliver such terrible dialog. You can practically see the script sucking the life out of their performances (especially in the case of poor Natalie).
Not surprisingly, the movie’s twenty-year-old CGI doesn’t hold up all that well. Though The Phantom Menace’s effects seemed groundbreaking at the time, some parts were so bad that my kids were commenting on how cartoonish they looked, even comparing them to something they expected to see in Overwatch. As for myself, I began longing for a nice matte painting or a couple of hand-animated miniatures.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Phantom Menace without bringing up the two biggest issues that still hang over the movie to this day: midi-chlorians and Jar Jar Binks.
Full disclosure: I don’t think that midi-chlorians are an inherently terrible concept. The idea of the supernatural aspects of the Force having a biological anchor — that a symbiotic relationship exists between the material and immaterial — could’ve been an interesting addition to the Star Wars mythology. But it’s handled so poorly in the film — Qui-Gon’s explanation to young Anakin is so perfunctory, a throwaway scene before they hop on a ship back to Naboo — that the idea is basically DOA.
As for Jar Jar, the Gungan’s clumsy hijinks are still annoying, though in a mostly harmless way. (And really, Spaced has said everything that needs to be said about the character.) Even so, the racial aspects of both Jar Jar and the Trade Federation representatives (with their “Asian” accents) are still pretty awkward to watch in this day and age.
Of course, this being a Star Wars movie, there are some good things, including:
- Ewan McGregor’s channeling of Sir Alec Guinness’ speech patterns is a nice way to maintain character continuity.
- Darth Maul and his dual lightsaber are still as bad-ass as ever, especially when backed by “Duel of the Fates.” (My sons, however, did think that Maul’s flipping and spinning about was a bit ridiculous.)
- Queen Amidala’s wardrobe and makeup are fantastic (not surprisingly, the movie won a Saturn award for best costumes). Indeed, they were so effective, they had my boys constantly questioning whether Amidala and Padmé were the same person or not, which was fun to watch.
Listen, we all know The Last Jedi has its issues. But people who seriously think that Rian Johnson ruined Star Wars (not to mention their childhood) need to re-watch The Phantom Menace and marvel at the fact that George Lucas didn’t torpedo the franchise back in 1999.