For the first time in five years, there’s a Star Wars movie in theaters.

It’s not a new one, though. This year, Disney and Lucasfilm used May the 4th to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars prequel. (Yes, The Phantom Menace is older today than the first Star Wars was when The Phantom Menace opened in theaters. 1999 itself is now a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.)

To call The Phantom Menace’s legacy complicated is an understatement. It arrived in theaters with more hype and anticipation that maybe any other movie in history. It made hundreds of millions of dollars, but within a few years fan sentiment turned against it and the other prequels, and even against George Lucas himself, the man who had created all of Star Wars in the first place. 

By the 2010s there were documentaries about Star Wars fandom and their hatred of Lucas; people (it feels weird to call them “fans” in this context) wrote songs about how much they despised what Star Wars had become and blamed Lucas for ruining their childhoods. (They also used a much less nice word than ruined that I will not repeat here.) As hard as it might be to believe today, when Lucas sold his company to Disney and they announced they were reviving the franchise without his creative oversight, the reaction amongst fans was mostly elation. 


READ MORE: Every Star Wars Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best

Then Disney’s Star Wars films came out, and the pendulum began to swing back in the other direction. Now many fans blame Disney for “ruining” the franchise, while Lucas’ prequels are seen as misunderstand by many younger fans who grew up watching them endlessly. Ewan McGregor recently reprised his role as the prequels’ young Obi-Wan Kenobi in a television series; Hayden Christen appeared as Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader on that show, then made an even more positively received appearance on Star Wars: Ahsoka.

In other words, nostalgia for The Phantom Menace has never been higher, which made this an ideal moment for Disney to re-release it in theaters and for fans to reassess the movie with fresh eyes. How does it look separated from all that hype and all those massive expectations? Is it really a misunderstood gem?

I don’t think so. While I did enjoy getting to see it on the big screen for the first time in decades, unless Disney decides to re-release The Phantom Menace for its 30th anniversary, it could be a very long time before I watch it again.


Certainly, The Phantom Menace has some standout sequences, all of which are enhanced in a theatrical environment. Even Phantom Menace haters concede the “Duel of the Fates” finale involving a three-way lightsaber battle between McGregor’s Obi-Wan, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ray Park’s Darth Maul is special. On the big screen, it’s spectacular. The same goes for the long podracing sequence where young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) competes in alien NASCAR in order to win the parts Qui-Gon needs to repair his starship and help embattled planetary leader Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman).

From a story perspective, the podrace is way too long; the whole film stops for nearly ten minutes while Lucas unfurls this race in real time, lap by lap and turn by turn. From a spectacle perspective, the podrace is precisely what Star Wars needs: Pure excitement with incredible visuals, dynamic editing, and incredible sound design — the latter of which is particularly enhanced in a well-equipped modern theater. When Anakin’s rival Sebulba roared by the camera in his pod, the entire auditorium shook with every distinctive buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh rumble of his massive engines.

The podrace and “Duel of the Fates” are both The Phantom Menace standouts for another reason: They’re largely wordless beats in a film where so many lines are incomprehensible, cringe-inducing, or both. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both fine (and Neeson and McGregor are both sturdy presences who keep a straight face even when surrounded by absolute schlock) but they keep picking up cutesy comedy relief sidekicks like kid Anakin (who likes to pepper his dialogue with yelps of “Yippee!”) and, of course, the eternally exasperating Jar Jar Binks. The film keeps bouncing between genuinely cool characters and moments (like Darth Maul who, not coincidentally, barely speaks) and literal poop and fart jokes.


The Phantom Menace is full of dichotomies like that. Lucas’ defense for Jar Jar and “Little Ani” and all of Phantom Menace’s endless comic relief has always been that it was intended as a movie for kids, and kids love that sort of stuff. He’s not wrong about that, either. But if that was Lucas’ goal, why did he make a movie for kids with a plot so labyrinthian and inscrutable that even their parents can’t explain it? I have probably seen The Phantom Menace a half dozen times, and every time that opening text crawl opens with “the taxation of trade routes” my eyes glaze over.

The broad outlines of the story involve a scheme by a sinister Sith Lord named Darth Sidious (a holographic Ian McDiarmid) to gain control of the Galactic Senate by engineering a crisis on the planet of Naboo. He convinces the Trade Federation to blockade the planet, and in the ensuing chaos, Sidious (in his alter ego as benevolent Senator Palpatine) seizes dictatorial power.

That aspect is reasonably trenchant about politics, both when The Phantom Menace was made and 25 years later. And yet every single specific of Palpatine’s plot beyond the broad strokes is illogical, confusing, or downright dumb. (The whole Sith plan was clearly conceived subtext first, with the actual plot mechanics considered much later, if at all.)

Naboo, for example, is presented as a verdant alien utopia teeming with magnificent buildings, lush forests, and all sorts of life forms. The Trade Federation (a federation of traders, I guess, that also inexplicably commands a massive army of thousands of droids) blocks trade to Naboo, and it is instantly on the verge of total collapse. Meanwhile, Tattooine, the desert home of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars (and Anakin Skywalker in this one), still seems to be getting by just fine even though the place has no water and no obvious food sources without a massive space blockade. What does Naboo not have that is so essential for their survival that they so desperately need?

The Phantom Menace Star Wars Qui-Gon

Individually, these elements might qualify as nitpicks. But there are so many nits to pick in this story. Here are a couple more.

  • Qui-Gon is fixated on Anakin being trained as a Jedi because he believes he is a prophesied “chosen one” who will bring “balance to the Force.” But as The Phantom Menace begins the Force is fine. The Jedi don’t even realize the Sith have returned until very late in the film. So why does it need to be in balance? How is it unbalanced? What could Anakin possibly do to help matters?
  • Amidala is referred to as the “queen” of Naboo, but she’s actually elected for that position. But she’s only 14! Do the people on Naboo only live to 25? Who elects a 14 year old to run an entire planet? No wonder the place is in so much trouble!
  • Amidala uses a decoy to protect herself from spies and saboteurs. (Famously, a young Keira Knightley plays Portman’s regal body double.) But in one very weird scene Knightley’s decoy orders Portman‘s actual queen (disguised as one of her handmaidens) to clean a filthy R2-D2 for no other reason than I guess a desire to screw with her boss at a time when she can’t do anything about it or risk blowing her own cover?

Together, all these little issues they add up to an enormously strange film, filled with great excitement and great boredom, supposedly designed for children and yet so unbelievably convoluted that no adult can possibly make sense of it.

The Phantom Menace never ruined Star Wars, but that doesn’t mean it’s some overlooked masterpiece. It has moments of wonder and grandeur, and it does play better in a theater than at home. But I’m also fairly certain that if this had really been Episode I of this story — if the 1977 Star Wars had not been made and The Phantom Menace was the way audiences experienced this property for the first time — there never would have been an Episode II.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is now playing in theaters. It is also available for streaming on Disney+ — sign up here.

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