Two decades ago, the legacy of the Star Wars franchise was irreversibly altered. 1999 saw the release of the first installment of a long-anticipated prequel trilogy that forever changed the course of the Star Wars canon and its public perception.
It was 16 years after The Return of the Jedi that we were introduced to a prequel trilogy by George Lucas’ more than welcoming arms. It was a world of racist caricature aliens, stilted emotional performances and an unbearably cringe-inducing shout of “Yipee!” from young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader.
Although audience and critic hatred towards The Phantom Menace is now referenced as much as the film itself, it’s often forgotten just how widely anticipated and subsequently panned the film indeed was. While massively popular in the contemporary nerd culture lexicon, the release of the film and its immediate aftermath left audiences with a bitter taste in their mouths. Something that they had anticipated so intensely had left them wanting more, while simultaneously scared of it.
While the quality of the entire prequel trilogy is up for debate, The Phantom Menace always has (and arguably always will) remain the stand out disappointment. It will always be remembered as the film that dashed all audience hopes straight out of the gate as well as being an early example of a whole new degree of studio interference. A rare redeeming quality of Menace, however, is its evolution into an almost camp classic. Audiences who grew up with this trilogy rather than the original learned to appreciate laughing at this very bizarre attempt at humor. Much of the films forced, Disney-esque comedy is uncomfortable and cringe-inducing. Its sickly sweet humor and portrayal of an adorable young Anakin almost feel like the creators possessed an eerie awareness of the future Disney/ Star Wars deal and were presenting themselves as a viable purchase.
Instead of laughing at Menace and Lucas’ failed attempts at humor in the vein of Jar Jar, we instead can choose to revel in them. Twenty years after the initial wound we can laugh at the ridiculousness and make memes of Jar Jar Binks. However, it is important to remember that the film’s absurdity was never an intentional move made with genuine sincerity by Lucas, but was instead a complete failure to appeal to audiences and studios alike.
Despite this, where Menace shines is in its moments of clarity and gravitas. Take scenes like that between Mace Windu and Yoda, where they discuss Anakin’s fate with an air of sadness. Young Anakin Skywalker’s fate itself is enough to carry the trilogy. The most basic premise of the film holds more weight than the final product ever could. A young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, is discovered by a Jedi Master and his apprentice who take him under their tutelage as a political power grab occurs around them. Rather than rely on this simple synopsis alone, Lucas included a multifaceted blend of nostalgia and new faces to draw in crowds. Racist stereotypes masked as aliens, unnecessary subplots and dragged out pod racing scenes trivialize the tale of a traumatized young man destroyed by a hubris-filled emperor and complacent democrats surrounding him. This was the story that audiences had been waiting to see.
It is, however, unfair to blame all of the films misfortune on Lucas and the film itself. In 1999, Menace faced an impressive roster of box office and critical competition. The year saw the release of enduring essential darlings such as American Beauty and The Sixth Sense, likely causing Menace to pale in comparison. While the film had a built-in audience and has since taken in over a billion at the international box office, it has failed to maintain the adoration and critical appeal of its counterparts.
Rather than be lauded for its artistic merits, Menace has suffered two decades of mocking directed at almost every aspect of its being. These include a gnome-like looking Yoda, bizarre trade subplots and emotionless performances. As previously mentioned, the film is more often referenced negatively than otherwise. A notable common critique of Menace is its reliance on visual stimulation rather than adequately rich characters. The progress of visual effects, as well as the introduction of CGI, allowed George Lucas to mostly go ham on the visuals. If there was something that could be achieved with CGI, Lucas made sure it happened. New droids, planets, and characters were CGI rendered and felt colder than their real-life counterparts both in Menace and the original trilogy.
These CGI characters were simultaneously the most unimpressive and insulting. While many performances and characters have been criticized, a standout is the offensively trivial Jar-Jar Binks. A distasteful caricature of Carribean islanders, Jar Jar, was met with instant disdain. Amongst many audiences, he was hated for both this reason and his complete lack of narrative or comical use. He is also joined by Watto, Anakin and his mother’s seedy slave owner who is a thinly veiled portrait of middle eastern men. Both characters feel like somewhat unnecessary and entirely offensive additions to an already convoluted opening to the trilogy.
The duration of Menace does not follow the simplistic fantasy inspired narrative of its predecessor trilogy. Instead, it meanders in a fashion that suggests little script revision and attention to the basic structure. The entire trade federation narrative thread feels unnecessary at worst and serpentine at best. Twenty years have passed, and still, nobody truly understands what was happening there.
While the film may not have been the epic that audiences were hoping for, it did introduce many beloved characters. The young Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo, was portrayed by a still in high school and pre Oscar-winning Natalie Portman. While her acting skills pale in comparison to her current talent, the young actress’ youthful beauty, natural smile, and blank canvas personality allowed female audiences to project themselves onto her. This is a conventional technique seen today in many teen rom coms, making her a perfect albeit creepy choice of a love interest in subsequent installments.
Despite the apparent hatred for The Phantom Menace, it seems that audiences can’t help but reference and parody it almost as much as other installments. A complicated relationship with the film has caused many viewers to disregard it in the critical sense, yet revel in its camp appeal and iconic imagery.
In the twenty years since its release, public sentiment towards The Phantom Menace has evolved notably. Time has mellowed the initial distaste for the film but has yet to redeem it entirely. Instead, the initial insult has healed and left audiences laughing at their astronomical hopes. Although Contemporary audiences may not have loved The Phantom Menace, it’s impossible to deny the film’s enduring importance in contemporary pop culture. As it reminds us never to let our hopes get that high ever again.