When J.J. Abrams was employed to shepherd Star Wars: The Power Awakens to the massive display, his duties amounted to a single, extremely troublesome activity: Don’t screw it up. He didn’t essentially need to make an excellent film — and from a purely cinematic perspective, the chances that he would handle that have been just about nil. All he needed to do was make a great Star Wars film, one which reignited the emotions of childlike journey that the unique trilogy impressed. This wasn’t an act of creation, however of restoration. And for its faults — it’s nonetheless troublesome to work out how the Starkiller Base truly capabilities — it’s arduous to disclaim that The Power Awakens was, in actual fact, a Star Wars movie.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, alternatively, was the exact reverse. The truth is, it’s the rationale — together with its two sequels, Assault of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — blockbuster synthesist like Abrams was wanted to resuscitate the franchise within the first place. On this, the 20th anniversary of the The Phantom Menace’s launch, there are facets of the movie worthy of reward, however there’s additionally so, a lot to bury. Regardless of being the non-public brainchild of creator George Lucas, The Phantom Menace took almost each component of Star Wars that made it a pop cultural touchstone and chucked it out the window. Lucas is on the report as disagreeing with the course that Disney and Abrams took with The Power Awakens — that he thought they might have higher been served taking the franchise in new instructions, relatively than revisiting the beats of the unique trilogy — however The Phantom Menace stands to this present day as a considerably baffling monument to what can occur when new instructions find yourself main a beloved franchise down the tubes.
It confronted the identical primary drawback as each prequel: The viewers already is aware of the ending. When Jedi grasp Qui-Gon Jinn (a somnambulant Liam Neeson) encounters the gifted younger Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) on the desert planet of Tatooine, even informal followers of the franchise know that younger “Ani” will someday develop as much as be the galaxy’s favourite heavy-breathing last boss Darth Vader. Even when the great guys win the day — defeating the evil Commerce Federation and liberating the bucolic planet of Naboo — the victories are simply one other stone on the backyard path to Emperor Palpatine’s rule. Assault of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are intermittently in a position to make use of that inevitability to their benefit, leveraging the viewers’s expectations towards them and whipping up a way of encroaching dread, however The Phantom Menace doesn’t have that luxurious. The occasions of this movie mark the start of the top for the Jedi, however the endgame remains to be too far past the horizon to glimpse.
However the largest issues with The Phantom Menace aren’t associated to prequel-itis alone. In making an attempt to create one thing new for the franchise, Lucas principally succeeds in jettisoning every thing that made the films nice within the first place. Earlier than he was to make Star Wars, Lucas wished to adapt Flash Gordon serials to the massive display. And when he couldn’t safe the rights, he determined to create his personal model. That’s why Star Wars: A New Hope is an journey movie, a great mix of area opera, samurai flicks, Westerns, radio serials, and Joseph Campbell literary idea. It’s a film for teenagers that permits them to think about themselves within the footwear of daring, dashing adults like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.
With The Phantom Menace, Lucas made a number of key miscalculations. For one, it was a film that mistook motion pictures for teenagers with motion pictures about children. As such, Anakin Skywalker feels as natural to the remainder of the movie because the Commerce Federation’s scorpion-like Droidica robots, innovations which virtually scream “toyetic.” George Lucas has by no means been referred to as an actor’s director, however when his principal solid members have been Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill, this wasn’t an issue. When constructing his whole movie round a younger and principally inexperienced performer like Lloyd, it grew to become a significant one. Given the movie’s broader deficiencies of character improvement, and Lucas’ personal within the writing division, not even high-quality actors like Neeson and Ewan McGregor are capable of decide up the slack.
One other consequence of the movie’s family-friendly method is that the political wrangling central to the movie will get far too little room to breathe. The Phantom Menace was meant to chronicle the decline of the democratic Outdated Republic right into a tangle of sclerotic parliamentary maneuvers and runaway bureaucrats, a failure of democracy that paves the best way for Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine to finally seize energy and declare himself emperor. It’s a noble purpose, however one solely at odds with the truth that this movie is, once more, supposed for kids. The result’s a film that depends significantly on political intrigue, however has completely no urge for food for spending precise time with that intrigue.
The technological second through which the movie was made likewise gives scant assist. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas had free rein to carry his imaginative and prescient of the franchise to the display, aided in no small half by advances in CGI that allow him construct whole cities and characters out of pixels. The result’s a film that appears airbrushed to inside an inch of its life, buying and selling within the weathered worlds, automobiles, and characters of the unique trilogy for brand-new ground fashions that sit lifelessly on the display. The movie seems to be like one million bucks — over 100 million, truly — however that isn’t sufficient to purchase it a soul. The work that Lucas and his group at Industrial Gentle & Magic did in these movies is an important forerunner to the the CGI of at present. So whereas he actually can’t be blamed for the way far CGI has come since 1999, the diploma to which The Phantom Menace relied on early digital results was finally his alternative. For sure, Blu-ray isn’t this movie’s buddy.
With all of that stated, the 2 sequences on this movie which have stood the take a look at of time depend on extra than simply spectacular CGI — they usually include virtually no dialogue. Anakin’s pod race on Tatooine is genuinely thrilling, managing to seize a few of the life-and-death vitality that infused the unique movie’s Dying Star trench run. And the climactic three-way lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and the Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) is well-choreographed and realistically staged, foregoing the CGI-aided aerials that mark the lightsaber battles of later installments. It additionally has the great luck to be accompanied by one other a part of the movie that holds up: John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates,” a beautiful piece of movie scoring that additionally shamelessly rips off “O Fortuna.”
For the youthful half of the millennial era and Gen Z, opinions on The Phantom Menace typically appear extra favorable, which is smart. Scientists have a reputation for this phenomenon: The Area Jam Corollary. When you preferred a film once you have been younger, the idea goes, you’ll most likely prefer it once you’re older, even when it’s dangerous. However with the prequels having been firmly supplanted within the cultural consciousness by the newer movies, it’s price contemplating the methods through which The Phantom Menace and its sister movies have been distinctive, even often admirable. For higher and for worse, it’s unlikely we’ll see something fairly like them ever once more.
The rationale that The Phantom Menace failed on so many fronts is similar cause movie prefer it might by no means be made at present: These have been George Lucas’ movies, and he made them to his personal specs. One of the invaluable franchises and items of mental property within the recognized universe was depending on the whims of a solitary creator. Whereas Lucas had allowed for enlargement by way of the “Expanded Universe” novels from writers like Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson, any Star Wars motion pictures to be made have been going to be made by him, or in no way.
Lucas had additionally taken a 22-year break from directing by the point he stepped as much as tackle The Phantom Menace. The rust reveals, as does the hubris. And but it’s the hubris of a single man, as an alternative of a bunch of executives whose main concern is their fiduciary duty to shareholders. It’s not as if Lucas was a ravenous, disease-ridden poet scribbling away in his lonely garret throughout that point, however he additionally noticed motion pictures as one thing greater than strains on a steadiness sheet. Working example: As soon as he completed the story in Revenge of the Sith, he was achieved.
In 1999, there was nothing in Hollywood fairly like Star Wars, and Lucas bringing the franchise again with a completely new set of movies was with out precedent at the moment. (That The Phantom Menace went on to turn into the yr’s highest-grossing movie was of little shock.) The unique trilogy was one thing of a miracle, however The Phantom Menace confirmed how even deeply mediocre movies might turn into huge hits, each on the multiplex and the toy retailer, if audiences had a earlier reference to the fabric. However this was the second when studios began catching on. By 2001, the top-grossing movies could be The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In 2002, the 4 top-grossing movies included extra Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, along with the primary Sam Raimi Spider-Man film and — sure — Assault of the Clones.
When Lucas lastly offered Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, Star Wars formally ceased to be a singular outfit, and as an alternative grew to become the most recent weapon in Mickey Mouse’s arsenal. A brand new trilogy begat spin-off movies begat new tv reveals — each animated and live-action — and now two new units of trilogies, one from Recreation of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and David Weiss, the opposite from The Final Jedi author/director Rian Johnson. Lucas’ second trilogy spawned a world through which trilogies now are available in trilogies of their very own. It’s all a couple of particular person might have managed, nevertheless it additionally ensures singular imaginative and prescient like Lucas’ is unlikely to return round once more.
It’s not solely too daring to say that with out Star Wars, there could be no Marvel Cinematic Universe or Unbelievable Beasts and The place to Discover Them or Jurassic World or Logan. However whereas most would attribute that affect to the unique movies’ artistry, it’s The Phantom Menace whose legacy they need to be hailing, not less than from the enterprise aspect. Artistically, The Phantom Menace nonetheless doesn’t have a lot to supply; Lucas’ imaginative and prescient is way too milquetoast and his execution far too muddled for that to be the case. However in the case of the enterprise of creating motion pictures, it bestrides the world like a colossus. Motion pictures like The Phantom Menace are why J.J. Abrams may need been introduced in to save lots of the Star Wars franchise, however The Phantom Menace is why additionally there was a franchise for him to save lots of within the first place.