#772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

GETTING MORE TALE #772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)

If you can believe it, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year.  2019 is a significant year in the history of Star Wars.  It is the 20th anniversary of its return with the prequels, and it will also witness the final movie of the Skywalker saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.  Back in Record Store Tales Part 209: The Phantom Menace, I said I wasn’t “interested in contributing to the background noise” regarding the movie, but I’ve since changed my mind.  Now that George Lucas is out of the picture and J.J. Abrams is helming the finale of the sequel trilogy, it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for 1999, when things were…simpler.

Netflix has different movies available in different countries, but you can sidestep this with some VPN software.  Some countries have no Star Wars, but between them, all of the films are available.  Bahamas is the only territory I’ve discovered so far with the first two trilogies, so I’ve been re-watching from I to VIII.  And for all its flaws, with the benefit of hindsight, The Phantom Menace is still quite enjoyable.

George Lucas had his own ideas about where to take Star Wars, but the fan hate that Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) received took the wind out of his sails.  He laid the groundwork in Phantom Menace, with that talk about the highly maligned midichlorians.  Now, midichlorians were an awful idea.  J.J. Abrams is right to leave them out of the sequel trilogy.  The idea of little microscopic organelles in your blood giving you the ability to tap into the Force?  It creates so many problems.  Like, if you have more midichlorians in your blood than someone else, does that automatically make you more powerful?  Can we therefore rank numerically every character by midichlorian count and deduce who the most powerful is?  Can you get a blood transfusion from a Jedi and steal his or her Jedi powers? That’s the kind of shit that fans hate on.  Why couldn’t Lucas leave the Force alone with all its mystery intact?

Because he was going somewhere with that.  Lucas came up with the name and concept of midichlorians back in 1977; the idea is very old.  Now we understand why.  George was also setting up the final trilogy, the one that J.J. is currently finishing. Episodes VII through IX “were going to get into a microbiotic world,” George Lucas told James Cameron. So, like Ant-Man?  “There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.”  Fans recall that “Whills” is an old word.  The first Star Wars novelization refers to the entire saga as The Journal of the Whills.  In Lucas’ own sequel trilogy, Jedi were to be merely “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in…And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”

Like Ant-Man meets Dr. Strange meets The Fantastic Voyage, maybe.  With lightsabers?  Terrible; undoubtedly awful.  I can’t even fathom how he would have executed this idea.  The fans would have rioted.  You think the hate that fandom gives Disney today is intense?  Imagine if George’s microscopic version got made.

rey and the midichlorians of doom

But at least George had a vision.

Lucas wasn’t about making the trilogies the same.  Having watched both The Force Awakens and Phantom Menace recently on Netflix, it’s clear that J.J. made a better movie that feels more like Star Wars.  Flawed, yes, but it seemed to be setting up some pretty epic storytelling (until Rian Johnson took a shit all over it with his left turn Last Jedi.)  J.J.’s Star Wars is better acted, paced and edited.  The dialogue is far less stiff.  But George’s Phantom Menace has something that J.J.’s Force Awakens does not:  daring imagination.

One of the most successful sequences in Episode I is the pod race.  It’s completely irrelevant to the story, which is one of the many problems, but on its own, it is a glistening example of George’s unfettered imagination.  In 1999, this race was unimaginably new.  The only thing that came close was the speeder bike chase in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primitive as it was.  Lucas broke new ground in multiple ways with his prequels, whether you like his innovations or not, and primitive CG characters aside.  People complain that J.J.’s Star Wars is just a soft reboot.  Well, watch Phantom Menace if that’s not your cup of tea.  The pod race, at least.  Lucas combined his love of race cars with science fiction and directed one of the best race sequences in the genre.  In any genre.  Even little Jake Lloyd shone in that cockpit, confidently flying himself to victory.

It’s a shame that pod race sequence was completely unnecessary.  I mean, you’re telling me Liam Neeson couldn’t figure out any other way to get off that planet, other than a complicated scheme of betting; gambling on a child pod racer?  Liam was supposed to be a goddamned Jedi master.  They keep talking about how much time they’re wasting on the planet, but they wait to see how this damned race plays out?  A race that could have killed a little kid!  Weird choices.  If you were a Jedi, you could have figured out dozens of faster and safer ways to get off that planet, right?

Once they do finally get off that planet, the Jedi arrive home on the capitol world Coruscant.  This was a bit of fan service, something that they wanted to see more of, since it had been such an important part of comics, novels and production artwork.  Cloud City aside, it was the first real time we saw an urban city environment on Star Wars.  True to form, Lucas made the whole planet one environment, in this case a city.  It was also some of the most brilliant visual designs on the prequel trilogy, one which would set the tone for the two movies that followed.

For better or for worse, Lucas spent much of the prequel trilogy defining who the Jedi were.  What they could do, what they couldn’t, and what they believed in.  We learned of the “living Force”, and oodles of Jedi wisdom about attachment and fear.  Jedi couldn’t marry, which was surprising, considering the Skywalker bloodline is the entire focus of the saga.  Yet George was throwing tons of ideas at us.  Stuff that he had been keeping in dusty old notebooks for years.  Nothing in the sequel trilogy comes close to revealing as much about the Star Wars universe as the prequels do.

Though Phantom Menace is the movie with the most cringe-worthy moments, wooden dialogue and shitty acting, there are the odd scenes that George did artistically and perfect.  Take the moment that Anakin and friends arrive on Coruscant, an overwhelming moment for the little boy.  George shot some of the footage from kid-height, allowing us to experience Anakin’s anxiety without clumsy dialogue.  The aforementioned pod race sequence is brilliant, and so is the final lightsaber duel.  For the first time, serious acrobatics and martial arts moves were incorporated into the laser sword battles.  This went on to define how the Jedi normally fought throughout all the prequels:  with a lot of jumping, leaping, and somersaulting.  For all the epic duels in the saga, one of the greatest (if not number one) is Kenobi and Jinn vs. Darth Maul.  From John Williams’ score (“Duel of the Fates”) to the choreography by Nick Gillard, it was focused through George Lucas’ lens into something absolutely brain-melting.  Until Darth Maul lost like a chump.  No excusing that; although remember that George did something similar to Boba Fett in Episode VI.

The droid designs were also pretty cool.  As iconic as a stormtrooper?  No.  But sleek, interesting, new and believable?  Absolutely.  This helped shape the visually stunning Naboo land battle scenes.  J.J. didn’t introduce any new infantry troops in his movie, he just updated the existing ones.

There was one thing that The Force Awakens and The Phantom Menace did equally well.  One very important thing that neither gets enough credit for: they made us anticipate the next film in the trilogies with hunger.  (Until Rian Johnson pissed all over J.J.’s ending, that is.)  Both films’ endings felt like the setup for events we couldn’t wait to see on screen.  The training of Anakin/Rey, for example.  A clue to the truth about the big bad guys (Sidious/Snoke).  The next meeting between good and evil.  J.J. and George both succeeded in creating this feeling of heavy anticipation.

By the time all three prequel movies played out, each problematic with wooden acting and stiff stories, fans were burned out on prequel-era Star Wars.  The Clone Wars TV show did a better job of living in that universe, but fans longed for the old familiar again.  X-Wings and Han Solo and the Empire and all of it.  So that’s what J.J. delivered.  And J.J. Abrams learned what we all know:  there is no pleasing Star Wars fans.

We fans take this stuff too seriously sometimes.  You’ve just read 1500 words, comparing Star Wars movies’ strengths and flaws.  That’s excessive, for both the reader and the writer!  We take this too seriously, friend.  Sure, we don’t go and harass the actors on Twitter like some juvenile delinquents do, but we’ve invested so much time and thought into a goddamn space movie series.  Too late to turn back now.  I think it’s important to take a break, step back and appreciate the movies from a different perspective.  Having done that with Phantom Menace, I can see it has its mitigating traits that still make me smile 20 years later.



  1. The Last Jedi is a crime against cinema and makes the extremely clunky and dated prequels seem like timeless masterworks. Rian Johnson thought he was subverting expectations, but he was really just dismantling what J.J. had set up. I wasn’t a huge fans of The Force Awakens, but at least that one felt like it was going somewhere. Rian just fucked the whole thing up. I’m glad I’m not a huge Star Wars fan, or else I’d feel pretty pissed. I’m really just in awe at how someone could fuck up as badly as Rian Johnson did. And how did the studio give that shithead total creative control to the detriment of the series? I think they ought to retcon the entire movie. Make the whole thing a dream in Jar Jar Binks’ head.

    I feel really bad for the little kid who played Anakin. He was in two of the most universally maligned films of the 1990s. The Phantom Menace and Jingle All the Way. I’ll stick up for Jingle All the Way. It’s by no means good, but Schwarzenegger makes everything at least watchable, and Phil Hartman is pretty funny in it as well. I like it a lot better than Twins. I think it’s a serviceable family holiday comedy. I don’t understand when people say it seems materialistic, it’s a satire of materialism. It’s made abudantly clear that Schwarzenegger can’t buy his kid’s love, and he only earns his admiration by just simply being there for him. The ending is ridiculous with the space suit, but again, Schwarzenegger can save anything. He’s a God among men. I think it would be totally irredeemable without him and Hartman.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So, we were supposed to go and see the new Trek (First Contact) but they were sold out. Went to see Jingle All the Way instead. One of the biggest regrets of my movie life. It’s Turbo time…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Actually I’ll have to amend my view of the third, there’s only so many times you can destroy the Enterprise before it loses it’s affect


      1. It’s shit, but it’s acceptable shit, because of Arnold. “Who told you you could eat my cookies?!”

        First Contact is my favorite Trek film. Going to the theater for that and getting Jingle All the Way probably would have soured me on the movie too.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well I was a big Ah-nold fan at the time. I had an Ah-nold movie collection and everything. I even had Pumping Iron!

          First Contact is my favourite TNG Trek film, but the competition is pretty weak. It’s First Contact, Insurrection, Generations, and then the last one can fuck right off.


    2. “Rian Johnson thought he was subverting expectations, but he was really just dismantling what J.J. had set up.”

      This is by far the biggest problem with TLJ. And the fact that NOBODY from Lucasfilm stepped in? Nobody said, “No, you can’t do that — that’s not how the ending will go”? Lucasfilm need a Kevin Feige at the helm, someone with knowledge and strength and CARE.


  2. I think Jar Jar is the single biggest issue. Along with the cutesy little kid lead it feels way too aimed at children to satisfy a fan base that grew up enchanted by the original trilogy. Would have been good to have Lucas more collaborative- the general plot,m is fine, just needed some toughening and an outside director.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was surprising when George decided to direct all three himself. After all, his reputation with actors isn’t the best. Anybody else could have done better with the talent. I mean, he got a wooden performance out of Natalie Portman, Ewen McGregor, and Samuel L. Jackson?! How the hell do you do that??

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Phantom Menace is easily my least favourite prequel. I also prefer Count Dooku to Maul.

    I’ve also long maintained that The Force Awakens was an awful and completely misguided and disrespectful start to a new trilogy, but I’ll spare you from that essay.

    As for the midichlorians, i do believe we’ve both read the counter argument from ThomasJRock’s site (perhaps the inspiration for this post?)

    Liked by 1 person

        1. You’d be shocked. Egypt is the only Netflix with the movie Ted 2. Canada seems to be the only Netflix WITHOUT Star Trek: Discovery. But between all of them, I can watch all the Star Wars and Marvel films, which is my main interest. This will change of course when Disney starts their own streaming service. I’ll probably subscribe to theirs, and cancel my Netflix when the time comes.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I’m one of the only stars wars fans in the world who hasn’t hated a single one of the films. I’ve been entertained. I’ve been happy. Maybe I’m a simple man.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I will give you points for a fantastic read, but oh how I hated Phantom Menace. I was so disappointed. However, you are right about the pod race, that was really great. Plus the visuals were great with all the locations. The problem was the dialogue and the acting. Such great actors, but even they couldn’t turn shitty dialogue into anything remotely close to smelling good. Some of the worst directing in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The pod race was weak in comparison to the speeder bikes in Jedi. Aliens and a Jedi kid racing in the open desert < humans in a dense forest. Lucas was trying something different in those prequels. It's the execution part where he failed miserably. I went to see Phantom Menace three times in the theatre to convince myself otherwise. I could not get there. I haven't watched it (save for some parts on TV) since.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh dude, I don’t agree at all! I’m not knocking the bike chase, which was brilliant, but the pod race was like George Lucas spewing 20 years of pent-up jizz all over the screen, and I mean that in the best possible way.

      Liked by 1 person

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