How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Phantom Menace

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace, and that seems to me a good excuse to look back on Episode I and its place in fandom, especially my own.

I am among the first generation of Star Wars fans and the return of Star Wars to the larger pop culture landscape in 1999 was a very big deal indeed. The movie’s cast was overflowing with well-known and well-regarded actors, and the marketing push was enormous. I’d never stopped being a Star Wars fan even after Return of the Jedi faded from memory, but the prospect of seeing a brand new Star Wars film on the big screen was something I’d given up on. It’s so very different today when it feels like Star Wars will never go away.

However, even before the movie’s premiere, there were murmurs of discontent, and after release some fans had strong negative reactions to the movie. I won’t belabor the point and subject you to a two-hour long video essay breaking down in excruciating and tedious detail all of the problems with The Phantom Menace. Honestly, the movie’s shortcomings are on the surface and obvious for all to see, and I basically agree with the criticisms we’ve heard over the last two decades. To this day, I’m baffled by some of the creative choices George Lucas made in the prequels.

But I also don’t care. Even now, I can sit down and watch Episode I and have a good time. The pod race is daft and fun. The lightsaber work throughout is among the best in any Star Wars production. Liam Neeson brings a noble presence to the role of Qui-Gon, a character whose actions don’t always seem that noble. Ray Park took a brilliant character design and imparted into it a wonderful physicality that brought to life one of Star Wars‘ best villains. Everything you need to know about Darth Maul is right there in how he looks and how he moves.

But among my friends and many of my fellow first generation Star Wars fans, The Phantom Menace was a disappointment. I think my reaction was tempered by the fact that I’d never stopped watching Star Wars. Since the original trilogy became available on home video, I’d rent all three from Blockbuster once or twice a year, and in between marathons there were countless comics and novels and games to discover as well. Upon repeated viewings, it became clear to me that the original movies are not without their flaws. The lightsaber fight in the first is not good at all; it’s cringeworthy every time Luke and Leia kiss, and, boy, Harrison Ford doesn’t seem like he was trying too hard with what little he was given to work with in Return of the Jedi.

And that’s not counting the Expanded Universe. I love so many of those original adventures that filled the gaps between movies, but plenty of those stories weren’t my cup of tea, to say the least. As far as I was concerned The Phantom Menace was a damn masterpiece compared to Splinter of the Mind’s Eye or Shadows of the Empire.

I make no bones about it: I grade Star Wars on a curve. In spite of Episode I’s flaws and because of its ships and costumes and music and alien worlds, it still feels like Star Wars to me, and that counts for a lot, indeed, it probably counts the most. Not everyone judges movies the same way. That’s cool.

As a Star Wars fan who is more on the fanatic side of the spectrum, I’ve engaged with the movies and fandom in ways different than others whose appreciation is more casual. I watched the backlash to the prequels turn to anger at people who were just trying to make a kid’s adventure movie. Anger at people who most certainly did not deserve it.

I’ve become frustrated with friends when discussing The Phantom Menace. Their complaints are nothing I haven’t seen, heard and read a hundred times already. I don’t think anyone is wrong or unjustified for disliking the movie, but when the reactions are so strident and filled with bile years or decades after the fact, I start to wonder if something else is going on. I think George Lucas’ cardinal sin may be that he failed to make a generation of jaded 30 years olds feel like they were 8 again.

I have also chatted about The Phantom Menace with younger fans who grew up with the prequels the way I grew up with the original trilogy, and their reaction is often quite different because they sometimes feel like they need to temper their enthusiasm with embarrassment because older fans hate the prequels. Now I see the cycle of conflict repeating between fans of this new era of Star Wars and followers of the older ones. And this all just makes me sad. No one should be embarrassed for liking something.

One of my great pleasures over the years has been watching new people discover Star Wars for themselves. Each generation has their own era:the Original Trilogy, the Expanded Universe, Prequels, the Clone Wars-Rebels-Ahsoka cycle, the Sequels, Rogue One/Andor, the High Republic, and on and on. I love that what Star Wars means to me is different from someone else. My nephews could rattle off the names of every clone who fought in the Clone Wars; I draw a blank after Rex and Cody.

Seeing that kind of enthusiasm for different parts of Star Wars lore makes me want to see what I’m missing. I don’t connect with it all by any stretch of the imagination, but because of my nephews, I gave Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars show a second chance, and I’m glad I did. Star Wars is better with Captain Rex, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Doctor Aphra, Luthan Rael, Rose Tico, Ezra Bridger, Satele Shan and Geode in it. And, yes, Star Wars is better with Jar Jar Binks in it.

It’s not my position that The Phantom Menace is “good, actually” or that it’s above criticism. It is, at best, a shaggy dog of a film, but isn’t every Star Wars movie? What I’m saying is this: don’t turn that dislike into resentment. There are bad actors out there all too willing to harvest that resentment to feed the algorithm and force their tastes on everyone else. Just because you loved Star Wars as a kid, doesn’t mean you have to love it years later. It’s okay to move on and let Star Wars become something different for new audiences. Just don’t be a dick about it. No one likes hipsters who tell people they’re wrong for liking the things they like.

In the end, I think the closest that Star Wars can actually come to making you feel like an eight year old again is to see it through someone else’s eyes. Let their discovery of it remind you of your own, even if it’s not the same as yours.

 

7 Comments

Filed under General Star Wars, My Artwork

7 Responses to How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Phantom Menace

  1. Yeebo

    I have found myself appreciating the prequals more and more as I have gotten older. The flaws don’t go away, but you also come to realize how strong the visual designs and the music are. Judged as a piece of art rather than a coherent movie, it’s not bad.

    However, what really put me over the top were the sequels. Rise of Skywalker was so absolutely abysmal that it made me better appreciate the prequals. Episode one, arguably the one with the most major structural flaws, is a Shakespearian masterpiece for the ages in comparison. It’s the only star wars movie I don’t own and will never own or watch again if I can help it. And this is coming from someone that actually really liked Rise of Skywalker.

    A bit of an aside, but if you have access to all the stuff that got left on the cutting room floor in Episode II and pause to insert those scenes as you view it, there is a move that makes a hell of a lot more sense than what we got in theaters on offer. For example, Obi Wan does more to investigate than go and talk to a short order cook and a bunch of children, like a sane and competant human being would have done. There is some real chemistry (or at elast more than what we got) between Anikan and Padme is some of the cut scenes as well.

    Unfortunately, to have access to all of it you need to have two entirely different releases of the film. The best material never made it into the Blue Ray, for unknown reasons.

  2. Yeebo

    To clarify RoS is the only one I will never own. I have Ep I VIII on blue ray, aldong with solo and rogue one. I also own all of Clone Wars and Rebels.

  3. I don’t actually remember how I felt about TPM when it came out, as this was one of the rare times in my life when I didn’t actually keep some sort of diary. I think I liked it though? I definitely didn’t hate it. I do remember that my interest in Star Wars dropped off with Revenge of the Sith, which ironically many people hold up as the best of the prequels. I just remember being really disappointed by the ending, the iconic “nooo” scene and hating how Padme just died from sadness after having been an utter badass throughout the whole trilogy. But still, I didn’t go on the internet to moan about it, I just kinda lost interest.

    Generally I agree that everything Star Wars has always been a very mixed bag. I always raise my eyebrows at people who hold up the EU as this pure and wonderful thing while declaring all the new stuff bad. Few things are more quintessentially Star Wars than oscillating between brilliance and nonsense. 😄 People just need to not get so hung up on the stuff they didn’t like and be quicker to move on from it.

    • This Week in Aurebesh

      One of the games I like to play with Star Wars hot takes is to remove the specific character or line of dialogue being roasted and ask myself if the complaint could apply to any Star Wars era. “Star Wars has thin characters, awkward dialogue and doesn’t seem fully planned out? You don’t say!” As big a deal as Star Wars was to me as a kid, I’ve long since decided to not let that attachment keep me from trying the new flavors it has offer. I’ve always liked the salad bar analogy. I take what I like, and don’t worry about the rest.

  4. Gonzo

    I too was raised in the original trilogy of Star Wars. I too have fond memories of Phantom Menace. I have a huge fanboy man crush on Darth maul. He is my favorite Star Wars villain. I have great respect for Ray Park and his portrayal of the role in addition to the fact he outranks me in the same martial art and the fact that I could not hold a straw to his abilities as a martial artist. All of that said, I have had a love for Star Wars for as long as I can remember. I loved seeing the new trilogy come out for this new generation. One of the fondest memories I have of sharing anything with my sons is sharing Star Wars with them.

    • This Week in Aurebesh

      I love to hear stories like that! I also cannot hold a candle to Ray Park. Or even a match!

  5. Kurt Stoffer

    When I saw the original Star Wars in 1977, I was 10 years old. My best friend’s mom took us on opening weekend. Needless to say, it was a life changing experience. The Eastwood Theater was a 1 screen cinema. Star Wars was the only show played at that theater for over one year. The crowd would line up all the way around the building to see the next show. I saw Star Wars four times during summer of 77.

    When Phantom Menace came out, I went to see it with my sister, we watched it twice back-to-back that same day. To me, it was Lucas telling the Origin story that needed to be told. The special effects had certainly leveled up since the original trilogy. Wow, such eye candy, and the Soundtrack… Duel of the Fates! an Epic piece of music. Phantom Menace should have won the Oscar for Best Soundtrack that year.

    I know a lot of people didn’t like Phantom Menace, but it had great action, a great pod race, a fantastic Lightsaber fight with Darth Maul, and legions of battle droids at war. I really liked it. I was glad that Star Wars had a breath of new life.

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