When Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace first came out, I was eight years old. I had already been captivated by a galaxy far, far away by seeing the Special Editions in ’97 so the excitement for seeing the origins of Darth Vader consumed the child that was me. And like any eight-year-old child, I absolutely loved The Phantom Menace. Darth Maul? Coolest guy ever! Jar Jar? Not that annoying! And so. Many. Lightsaber fights. But then we all grew up and we began to see the cracks and the prequel films, in general, began to get a lot of hate for the changes it made to established lore, wooden acting an over-reliance on CGI. Yet twenty years later, fans seem to have warmed up a little to TPM a bit and upon rewatching it a few months ago, I figured now, on May 4th, it’d be a good time to talk about the enjoyment still found in it.
The musical score has always been a big part of any Star Wars film. That’s thanks largely to John Williams, who has scored all of the saga films up until this point (including the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker) and the profound influence he’s had on his peers who tackle the job of composing the anthology films and TV shows. Upon returning to a galaxy far, far away in 1999, fans were treated to something special: some of the best Star Wars music period. Many of the themes and motifs can be heard later on in the Harry Potter films, which include a whimsical joy and appreciation for adventure. But there’s more going on here than meets the eye. The final track in the movie, Augie’s Great Municipal Band, is actually just The Emperor’s Theme from The Return of the Jedi reworked, showcases through music that our heroes are all unknowingly celebrating the Emperor’s victory in positioning Anakin in the Jedi Order, as confirmed in Star Wars Insider #109 and #147. And let’s not forget Duel of the Fates, which may be the greatest piece of music John Williams has ever composed. Accompanying that piece of score is perhaps the most entertaining lightsaber duel in the saga. But recognition should also be given to the Droid Invasion piece, with a roaring horn section worthy of any military march. Can we still forgive them for spoiling the death of Qui Gon in the soundtrack, which was released the movie? Well, if that happened to you, it may still be a blemish as it was a serious ball drop but looking at the score objectively, it’s brilliant.
If there’s one thing we can fault the sequel trilogy on, so far at least, is that it’s lacking in original ideas. They mirror and mimic the original films a bit too much, down to the orphaned child on a desert planet finding a droid with critical information, seeing the death of a mentor, having a trench run, seeing AT-ATs walking in a lined formation against a rebel base. You get the idea. The prequels cannot be accused of this. While many fans resisted what George Lucas was introducing, at least the concepts are original. And even in 2018, George stands by what he’s created, further exploring the concept of the midichlorians, revealing that they were in the first draft for the original film in 1977 and that his original sequel trilogy would have been a deep dive into the Force.
The visual aesthetic as well was completely different than what came before it. Instead of run down and barely operational, we were given a shiny and sleek new design for the prequel films. While this alienated fans, and likely still does for many, when you bear in mind that the Empire hasn’t come to fruition yet and things haven’t decayed, it makes sense that the world would not appear broken and dirty. And for those who like the knock the prequels for having too many digital effects, The Phantom Menace has more practical effects than the original Star Wars did in 1977.
The prequels really did open the flood gates open for what the Force could be and gave us new avenues to pursue what was only implied in the prequels. The animated show, The Clone Wars, set during the prequel time frame, explores the concept of Mortis and life after death for a Jedi, all concepts that built upon these new pillars of foundations established in the prequel films. Other established bits was the introduction of the Rule of Two, which led to the excellent Darth Bane novels as well as the formal introduction to the Sith into the lore. There was just so much new to take in during this film, new lightsabers, faster combat, sleeker ships, no stormtroopers (a first at the time), the Jedi in their prime and so on.
Most importantly though, The Phantom Menace just simply a fun movie. Liam Neeson seems to relish playing a Jedi Master who isn’t too fond of the rules and we all know Ewan McGregor would become a fan favourite with his portrayal of a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. The lightsaber fight with Darth Maul, while lacking any emotional depth, is wickedly entertaining, full of fun, crowd-pleasing choreography and plenty of firsts, including the first double-bladed lightsaber and the first two versus one duel in the franchise. Likewise, the podracing scene doesn’t add much to the plot but it’s such a ride that who cares? It was so fun that it even got its own spin-off video game back in the day and personally, I’d love a current gen remake of it or to see it come back in an animated show.
The Phantom Menace has a lot of problems. Dialogue and acting are not its forte, there are too many poop jokes and in the end, it tells a story that can be considered “skippable” in the grand scheme of the saga. But should you? That depends on your preference and how much you can tolerate but if you simply want to enjoy a fun and slightly dumb romp, I think you’ll be surprised at how much enjoyment there is to have in Episode I. It can be a frustrating experience in some aspects but for me at least, I can have a lot more fun with it and continue to find new ways to appreciate it as the years go on. Who knows, maybe I’ll feel the same about Attack of the Clones, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves! But based on the reaction at the Episode I panel embedded above and that the fandom has begun embracing the film, Ahmed Best (Jar Jar Binks) and Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III) and I think that many people around my age who were kids when the prequels came out are starting to look back on the films and deciding for themselves that they can enjoy the prequel films without relying on the opinions of older, more seasoned fans. For myself, I can put this on and feel like an eight-year-old boy again and just have fun with it.
What do you think though? Have you found appreciation in the prequel films, specifically The Phantom Menace or does the film still do you wrong? Let me know and while you’re at it, check out our review of Long Shot, which has a promo code for tickets on the inside, and our love letter to the first Terminator film.