There are surely few films as loathed as that of George Lucas’ first prequel to his original blockbusting Star Wars trilogy. The seismic disappointment felt among casual and hardcore fans was both immediate and sustained. Even now the name Jar Jar Binks induces a visible shudder in the average bloke on the street.
In any other franchise this would have been a fatal blow, with plans for future instalments thrown in to doubt (or even the bin). But this was STAR WARS. This is no mere franchise; it’s a way of life. Thus, bad word of mouth failed to damage its box office returns, or impede the production of episodes II and III. George Lucas had total artistic and financial independence, such that he was impervious to complaints from fans and critics alike. Indeed, the term ‘critic-proof’ could have been invented to describe The Phantom Menace.
It’s been over more than ten years now since that heady summer of 1999; plenty of time for water to pass under the proverbial bridge. How does it stand up today? Never one to miss a trick, Lucas has given us all the opportunity to reappraise the film by re-releasing it in 3D (not that anyone demanded the opportunity, but still). Plans exist for the entire series to be converted and re-released on a yearly basis.
Let’s deal with the 3D first: it’s ok, but hardly essential. It doesn’t call attention to itself, and it’s certainly not as offensive to the eyes as that Clash of the Titans remake was a couple of years back. Some images even work quite well, but at no point does the film ever feel like it benefits from the extra dimension. A waste of time then? On the whole, yes.
As the film began I braced myself for two and a bit hours of poorly written dialogue, wooden acting and the occasional flicker of exciting action. The opening text crawl explaining the premise did nothing to counter these expectations: talk of trade routes and tax disputes seems totally out of place, entirely contrary to the fairy tale spirit of the original 1977 film.
The other flaws remain glaring: Lucas’ howlingly poor dialogue still clangs to the floor, Jar Jar still grates on the nerves, and the performances are nothing more than perfunctory. The fact that the story hinges on an 8 year old brat is also a problem; none of the characters are as engaging as those from the original trilogy. But hold on to your hat: after a dull first ten minutes or so, the film eventually settles down in to a modestly enjoyable adventure.
Even on its initial release, the pod racing sequence and the lightsabre battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) were widely acknowledged as the highlights, and this still holds true. The pod race certainly benefits from being seen on the big screen, and the fight with Darth Maul (a sadly underused villain, killed off far too quickly) is one of the most memorable sequences of the entire series. The acting remains stiff, but not fatally so. Liam Neeson anchors the film with his now familiar performance as Mentor (see also Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven). I even got used to Jar Jar after a while.
The eye-popping production design is the film’s other chief pleasure. The spaceships are sleek and elegant, while the planets of Naboo and Coruscant are opulant, almost mythical in their beauty. At least here it does nicely pave the way for the more industrial look of the classic trilogy, after the Republic has given way to the Empire. The climactic battle for Naboo shows off its various locations to good effect, and even injects some excitement on to the screen.
And of course, if all else fails, there’s always John Williams’ superb score to enjoy; the composer surpassed himself with the rich array of themes and sounds he used to illustrate the various characters and locations. It’s easily the best of his prequel soundtracks, and a great score period.
So is it time to rehabilitate The Phantom Menace? It’s certainly time to ditch the occasionally hysterical criticism it often receives. There are far worse films out there than Episode I. Yes, it’s flawed, it’s clunky, but it still has a genuine sense of adventure and scale that other would-be blockbusters would kill for. What it lacks is the captivating fun of its predecessors – which, for something bearing the Star Wars name, is more or less unforgivable.