Star Wars | 25 years have been kind to The Phantom Menace

Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is back on the big screen – and through today’s eyes, fares a little better.

You can imagine the confliction in some people with the prospect of seeing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on the big screen again for the first time in a quarter of a century. George Lucas’ first prequel is hardly burnished on the minds of many as a 90s classic.

I too had my doubts about making the May 4th celebratory pilgrimage to my local Odeon. It was either this or The Fall Guy. Yet something drew me to catch The Phantom Menace once again in this way. My last viewing had been an overall franchise rewatch ahead of The Rise of Skywalker, possibly an even greater nadir for Star Wars than the prequels, and I remember enjoying it at the time more than expected.

Conventional wisdom about the first Star Wars prequel for decades have generally been the following: pod race and lightsaber duel, John Williams’ score all great. Everything else? Disappointing. Jar Jar Binks? Never talk about him again.

You can understand all of those arguments. There is little doubt that the pod racing set piece is the pinnacle of The Phantom Menace (indeed, I’d venture it is one of the best sequences in the entire franchise). The three-way duel also remains hugely memorable and thrilling. None of that has changed.

Granted, too, Binks remains largely intolerable. Poor Ahmed Best. Saddled with a CGI caricature of Afro-Caribbean stereotypes; an attempt to create a modern, computer generated comic relief character in the vein of Threepio. Age has not made Jar Jar any less grating whenever he’s on screen (which is way more than any other Star Wars picture). Lucas’ depiction of the Gungans and the Japanese-sounding Trade Federation villains, or the scurvy Eastern European accented Watto, do nothing to assuage accusations of low-key ethnic racial profiling in a film which did not remotely need to go there.

Can we explain this by framing The Phantom Menace as a movie for children? As it patently is. To a much greater degree than any of the original trilogy. Lucas had decided over the intervening 15 years since Return Of The Jedi that Star Wars is for kids first and foremost, rather than the adults like him at the end of the 70s who grew up watching old-fashioned adventure serials or reading fairy tales in their youth. Star Wars is now their children’s or grandchildren’s product, and The Phantom Menace is designed as such, with naturally one eye on the toy production market.

In this simplicity, does the film intentionally operate reductively around these alien characters to help younger audiences parse their identities? Maybe. It’s also perhaps a cheap cop-out. Why code the Japanese as evil capitalist villains siding with Star Wars’ Devil presence, Darth Sidious? Why suggest Afro-Caribbean/Jamaicans as overblown, loud and gregarious sea dwellers? Perhaps it serves instead more as tone deaf Hollywood storytelling, or even Lucas having too few people in the kitchen telling him the sauce was too rich?

The child-friendly coding is also inherent in Anakin Skywalker, introduced here as a precocious young slave/pod racer/pilot/immaculately concieved Christ figure. You can see why this approach to the character was almost immediately hated. Poor Jake Lloyd. Just Google what happened to him after this and weep. Nevertheless, presenting the future Darth Vader as an innocent young boy, entwined with ancient Jedi prophecy, remains an approach every bit as mythic as the archetypal figures Lucas gave us in 1977. He simply swaps the fairy tale for Judeo-Christian myth.

Oddly enough, this was quite prevalent in 1990s science-fiction. The X-Files and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine both present their heroes as Biblical saviours prophesied to battle their own demonic anti-Christ. Did this recurrent theme strike a chord in increasingly secular times, free of overtly polarised rhetoric? Possibly. The same feels true of the politics within The Phantom Menace, which plays an unexpectedly powerful role in Lucas’ storytelling.

I’ll never forget the collective confusion of the opening crawl not opening with “a daring hero leads a rebellion against…” and so on, but rather “the taxation of trade routes…”. Why had Lucas swapped rescuing the Princess from the tower for economic blockades and knotty Senatorial disputes about trade routes? Hardly the most thrilling of narratives. Yet it feels true to what Star Wars actually concerns – the rise and fall, in cyclical fashion over three sagas, of fascism. The original trilogy played on echoes of the Vietnam War but the Galactic Empire are rooted in pure Nazism, from command structures to uniforms to designations.

1990s science-fiction too was obsessed with the Second World War, moreover trying to reconcile the legacy of it with half a century of distance. Those two aforementioned television shows brew up Judeo-Christian myth making with World War II exploration and reckoning, even at points allegorically. The Phantom Menace is no exception. The Galactic Republic is essentially the Weimar Republic of the early 1930s, with Senator Palpatine aka Darth Sidious an Adolf Hitler crossed with Niccolo Machiavelli. Lest we forget, he is the ‘phantom menace’ of the title. Lucas isn’t hiding just how much the film is about him, and his ascension.

Therefore, while we might have groaned at the technical dullness of the Trade Federation and Palpatine’s gambit to gain power (quite a complicated one that relies on a lot of things going his way), Lucas telling this story makes complete sense in getting to the fascistic Empire.

The Phantom Menace is about a decaying democratic system, entangled in bureaucracy and ever-prolonged political logjamming, corrupted from within by a demagogue who weaponises that democratic weakness against that very system. It’s the rise of the strongman. Not to suggest Lucas was incredibly prescient, but there are perhaps parallels to… well, let’s not dig too deep into modern politics. We need to cheer ourselves up.

For me though, this marks out The Phantom Menace as a product with hidden depths, or certainly narrative and thematic aspects which are ageing better than we might have imagined.

There certainly feels more going on here than in Attack Of The Clones. Liam Neeson might be delivering wooden dialogue but he imbues it with Alec Guinness-style gravitas. Darth Maul is fabulously enigmatic and weird, and we’re all the richer for knowing nothing about him. That pod race is still brilliant and ‘Duel of the Fates’ is still a symphonic masterwork.

Nobody can argue the complaints against The Phantom Menace, which are legion and extensively argued, do not remain valid. They do. It never comes anywhere near the quality of certainly A New Hope or The Empire Strikes Back, or even later The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi. However, there is something charming about The Phantom Menace. Something innocent, simplistic and yet strangely intricate in what it wants to say about democracy, empire and faith. It remains an odd beast and, in some ways, purely auteurist. Nobody but George Lucas would have made this film the way he did, for better or worse.

At my screening, middle aged men like me arrived to enjoy the nostalgia of their youth, while others brought their children to what could well have been their first cinematic Star Wars experience. The long derided prequels are certainly better thought of by younger generations than those past. Time has been kind to The Phantom Menace. Perhaps it’s time many of us older sceptics started following suit.

You can find A J. on social media, including links to his podcasting and books, via here.

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