It is hard to believe that The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year. In the decades since we first met Jar Jar Binks, Anakin Skywalker and those weird cod-Japanese blokes from the Trade Federation, fans have found umpteen new targets to obsess over – not least the current trilogy of Star Wars movies, overseen by Lucasfilm’s not-so-new owner Disney.
These days super-fan outrage – such as that currently aimed at the final season of Game of Thrones – has become the norm. But it was Episode I that perhaps ushered in the era of fan power, of amateur bloggers capable of turning an entire franchise on its head, of careers and lives derailed (in some cases before they even got going), of CGI-phobia and anti-marketing wrath.
To this day it is astounding that Lucas himself doesn’t understand what went wrong. The original trilogy and the prequel trilogy have much in common: both are set in a fantasy galaxy populated by wise, laser-wielding space monks and exotic extra terrestrials. Both feature youthful protagonists whose characters go on a three-movie journey. But where 1977’s Star Wars and its sequels ushered in the blockbuster era and awakened Hollywood to the potential of boys’ own space opera, the prequels destroyed Lucas’s reputation as a film-maker.
Two decades on, can we see the movie in a different light? Those pod-racing scenes on Tatooine are still thrilling, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn would surely make most acolytes’ list of the top five Jedis, and his battles with Darth Maul feature some of the finest lightsaber play in the saga. Ewan McGregor is perfectly serviceable as the young Obi-Wan and Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala is given some splendid outfits. Ian McDiarmid is compelling as Senator Palpatine, the future evil emperor. The scene in which Qui-Gonn and his apprentice fend off laser-fire from the Federation’s Droideka using only their lightsabers has rarely been equalled in Star Wars.
Moreover, the original trilogy left so many questions unanswered that a prequel series felt like the logical next step. How did Anakin fall to the dark side? What was the galaxy like before the Empire raised its flags? How did the Jedi go about their business as guardians of peace and justice for an entire civilisation?
The Phantom Menace answers all these questions, and it does so plausibly. There is a pleasing narrative arc from our first encounter with the young Anakin to his final transformation into Vader. Lucas had thought all this stuff through, and the prequels make sense of the world we saw in the original trilogy.
The problem is that they also remove much of the sense of mystery and enigma that surrounded those early films, as well as the classic adventure-serial veneer that made them so alluring. The Phantom Menace’s preference for digital cityscapes over unearthly terrain, and CGI aliens over charming puppetry, marked it out from its predecessors. Lucas’s determination to render the political bureaucracy in excruciating detail meant endless scenes of the Galactic Senate and tedious discussions at the Jedi Council.
No six-year-old ever asked for scenes like this. It is as if Lucas could not decide if he wanted to deliver an Asimovian tale of a civilisation in decay or record-breaking merchandise sales. Perhaps that was why he felt the need to introduce Jar Jar, as a kind of comic relief apologia for all that grownup chat. If so, it’s fair to say the ploy failed.
Nor should it be forgotten that this is also the movie that managed to make Samuel L Jackson boring and distinctly uncool (despite the purple lightsaber), introduced the preposterous concept of midichloreans to “explain” the Force (as if space magic needed explaining), and gave us such enduring characters as Gardulla the Hutt, Watto the slave owner and Jar Jar’s pal Boss Nass. So no: it is not time to forgive Lucas for his crimes against cinema, and it probably won’t be even in another 20 years.