It’s been almost 13 years since Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace was released, and now, on the event of its return to multiplexes as the latest attempt at a 3D experience meant to woo people out of their house and away from Netflix, it’s finally possible to see it for what it is. So much of the discussion in 1999 about the film’s many failures and minor successes revolved around its place within the Star Wars canon. That’s an understandable approach, given the films’ place in the pop culture pantheon and the way they’ve been referenced and woven into hundreds of other sources in the past 35 years. In some ways, everyone’s a Star Wars fan, or at least conversant enough to know Yoda from Chewbacca. Yet while critical and cultural consensus was that Phantom Menace wasn’t quite the Star Wars we expected, the film still earned $430 million domestically and another $513 million overseas. It was less a film than an event. With the benefit of time, though, it’s easier to see that Phantom Menace isn’t (just) a disappointing Star Wars movie; it’s a dull and uninteresting movie, period. Were it not for the production empire built by writer-director George Lucas, it’s unlikely the film would have been made, or rather, it would likely have been subject to more editorial input along the way. When you stop thinking about it as a Star Wars entry and just look at it as a dramatic sci-fi action movie, it’s stunningly obvious how bad it is. The plot is murky and uninvolving, the dialogue feels as if it was run through a number of foreign translators before being returned to English, and the actors are directed to stand as still as possible and deliver their line readings with the bare minimum of effort or emotion. It’s also a total tonal betrayal of what Lucas claims it to be. Phantom Menace is, chronologically, the first chapter in the Star Wars saga, but Lucas makes no effort to sell it as such or to establish this filmic universe as something that exists in its own right. At every turn, he relies on nostalgia, cheap references, and broad music cues to make people remember movies they’ve already seen that spelled out stories that haven’t happened yet. This is supposed to be the movie that brings us into the Star Wars world, but it’s too self-involved and clueless to remember that. It’s a true prequel, something that can only exist if you’ve seen what comes later. If this wasn’t a Star Wars movie, we wouldn’t even be talking about it.
Interestingly, although the film is now easier to see for the generic wreck it really is, it’s being touted as more of an event than ever. The posters for the re-release aren’t the soft-focus artworks used in 1999, but cheaply compiled graphics that eliminate all but two human characters and remind people all about that one villain who was in that big fight scene with the nice music that was pretty OK. This is slick and obvious, but also reasonable, given that the film’s final action sequences — including the lengthy lightsaber battle in which Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) face off against Darth Maul (Ray Park) — hold up better than everything else. Lucas was always fond of pretending the original trilogy of films was about the human cost of warring nation-states and not a solid good-vs.-evil showdown, so Phantom Menace finds him wrapped up in badly plotted and poorly explained political squabbles involving a Trade Federation being guided by a Sith Lord Sidious to blockade and invade the planet of Naboo, an act which will allow Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to persuade Naboo’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) to publicly call for the resignation of the Republic’s slow-acting chancellor and clear the way for Palpatine to take control of the Senate. Palpatine, who is also Sidious, essentially plays two sides off each other to take control of the Republic’s government and move one step closer to controlling the whole thing as the Emperor of the later films. As anyone could guess, watching this all play out is not that interesting, at least not the way Lucas scripts it. There are great ideas hidden in there about power and duplicity, as well as the true nature of evil, but they’re smothered by a story with no clear goals, characters, or drive. Ostensibly, the film is about the efforts of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to help Amidala regain her planet from control of the invaders, but it’s also about Qui-Gon meeting a boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) on his travels and realizing this boy is one whose coming has been prophesied and who might be able to restore balance to the Force. (How the Force became unbalanced, and what the ramifications of that situation might be, Lucas never discusses. One assumes it’s bad, but then, we’ll never know.) This is the film’s biggest flaw: Lucas never figures out what he wants his central story to be, and so he settles for just muddily cutting between the two in hopes they’ll tie together.
The film is also hobbled by some astoundingly off-key character choices from Lucas, most notably in the comic relief of Jar-Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), a CGI character who speaks in a quasi-Jamaican pidgin that’s thoroughly embarrassing to experience. The Star Wars films are no stranger to alien characters with unusual linguistic tics, but while Yoda was content speak in somewhat backward sentences, Jar-Jar and his fellow creatures say things like “Ex-squeeze me” and “Ouch time.” Lucas’s humor is sophomoric throughout, and he often breaks up scenes by having Jar-Jar fall down or having an animal break wind. Worse, he asks too much and gives too little to the character of Anakin, giving Lloyd nothing to do but awkwardly pout, cheer, or generally act like no child has ever acted. (Anakin is possessed of superhuman emotional control to be able to be taken away from his mother with no more than a half-misty, “I will come back for you.”) When the film shifts to space battles or chase sequences, it can be energetic. The instant it begins to rely on its characters, it falls apart. Lucas, ever the technician, doesn’t know how to make people seem real.
The film’s re-release is so viewers can see it in 3D, but this being Lucas, the film is also different than what it once was. Yoda, performed with a puppet when the film was shot, has been replaced by a CGI version to track with the one featured in the next two prequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. (This change was also made on the recent Blu-ray release.) The problem with such changes isn’t that they alter what we’ve seen; rather, it’s that they reflect Lucas’s focus solely on the aesthetics of the film at the expense of narrative, character, and so on. For Lucas, these films are simply delivery devices for a story, and he would much rather you admire the package than what’s inside it. Yet 3D almost always makes for a terrible viewing experience, and Phantom Menace is no different. The deserts of Tatooine appear gray and filtered, while underwater scenes on Naboo are so murky all you can do is hope they end soon. The 3D processing brings no extra flair to the process, and it certainly doesn’t make the film more entertaining. All it does is make you squint a little harder.
If there’s a broader lesson to be drawn from watching Phantom Menace again after all these years, it’s that the film’s central theme of power breeding corruptibility could best define the film itself. That is to say, Phantom Menace is (if you cut it some slack) about a man willing to do whatever it takes to position himself as the supreme ruler of the galaxy, while Lucas comes across as a filmmaker equally committed to hearing no argument and giving no thought to consequences as he burrows ahead to fulfill his vision. His empty presence is everywhere in the movie, from the non-jokes to the choppy dialogue to the plastic nothingness forged from the blend of CGI sets and dead-eyed actors. He’s fully committed to a world with no definition, spirit, or spark. It was appropriate that, at my particular screening of The Phantom Menace 3D, the coming attractions featured an ad for Wrath of the Titans (coincidentally starring Neeson), a sequel to 2010’s Clash of the Titans that looks just like Phantom Menace. The sets are rendered in a computer, the effects are the star, and it’s going to play in 3D. Let that be Lucas’s legacy: he set the standard for smoke and mirrors.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.