A film review by Craig J. Koban



5th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1999, PG, 133 mins.

Qui-Gon Jinn: Liam Neeson / Obi-Wan Kenobi: Ewan McGregor / Queen Amidala: Natalie Portman / Anakin Skywalker: Jake Lloyd / Jar Jar Binks: Ahmed Best / Shmi Skywalker: Pernilla August / Yoda: Frank Oz / Mace Windu: Samuel L. Jackson / Darth Maul: Ray Park / Chancellor Valorum: Terence Stamp

Written and directed by George Lucas

Oxymorons aside, THE PHANTOM MENACE just may be the most popular disliked film of all-time. 

It’s a real paradox.  After its initial theatrical release back on May 19, 1999 the film had grossed an astounding $431 million dollars in ticket sales in North America and eventually became the fourth highest grossing film ever.  The film also grossed nearly a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales.  Clearly, people went to see this Star Wars film and obviously  went back again and again (that much business could not be completely attributed to new viewers each week). 

Yet, at the time, the film was widely panned by some critics and a majority of the series’ fans.  Diehard fans labeled the film as pedestrian, poorly written and acted, and visually overblown.  Funny, one friend even told me that he felt, as a kid, that he loved the original STAR WARS films and thought they were great.  Interestingly, he said that, as an adult, he thought that THE PHANTOM MENACE was mindless, childish entertainment.

Hmmmm…am I the only one that sees the complete leap in logic with his thoughts?

Let’s time travel back, say, 27 years to the original release of George Lucas’s STAR WARS (re-titled Episode IV: A NEW HOPE).  Many devoted fans that grew up with STAR WARS were probably young children when it came out.  The film was an unparalleled visual experience at the time, and it completely revolutionized the movie business.  Lucas tapped into the discontentment that the post-Watergate and post-Vietnam America was feeling and provided the type of wonderful and fantastic escapist entertainment that the country  needed.  His film was like no other, transcending the medium by redefining and creating new special effects techniques that would completely change the face of cinema. 

The film, at the time, was a gigantic smash and became the highest grossing film of all-time.  Everyone around the world saw STAR WARS and went back to see it, over and over again.  Fans were created, merchandise flowed off the store shelf, and a  meager thirty-something director from Modesto, California became a billionaire.  His simple amalgamation of classic, historical and mythological archetypes, combined with good, old-fashioned story telling and filmmaking made for an altogether fresh movie-going experience. 

Lucas created a new mythology (no easy task) and, with its success, STAR WARS became a pop cultural phenomenon.

Now, time travel six years forward to 1983 with the release of STAR WARS' second sequel, RETURN OF THE JEDI.  George Lucas’s series reached its peak and the film concluded the most popular film series of all-time.  After billions of dollars in ticket sales, millions of people seeing the films, and billions in merchandise being sold, STAR WARS fever climaxed, and the diehards could not get enough of it.

Problem:  STAR WARS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and RETURN OF THE JEDI were EPISODES IV, V, and VI respectively.  What in the world happened to EPISODES I through III?  Well, shortly after the release of JEDI, Lucas promised to make the “prequel trilogy” some time in the future. Fans, completely star struck with their rapid appreciation and love of the STAR WARS universe, could not wait.

But wait they did.  They waited, and waited, and waited…seventeen years to be exact.

Perhaps you are seeing where this mini-history lesson is taking you.  Consider the enormous excitement that reached everyone’s mind when, in 1996, Lucas announced that he was finally going to make the new STAR WARS films, seeing as advances in special effects technology has caught up with his imagination.  Fans went berserk.  Just think - they must of thought - what Lucas could do with the advances in special effects techniques and CGI technology.   Casting news was released, as was filming details and production crews.  Finally, in 1997, twenty years after the first STAR WARS film came out, Lucas finally set down to direct his new film in the series. 

Fans were abuzz with contemplation and speculation as to the contents and story of the film.  The Internet, a then growing medium of entertainment news and gossip, only fuelled this speculation.  Fans discussed the new film and pontificated on its details that would put Trekies to shame.  Soon, the mainstream media took a hold of the news of the new film being made, and they only fuelled the obsessive excitement of the fans.  Eventually, no one was talking about anything else.  EVERYONE knew that there was a new STAR WARS film coming out, even if you did not want to. 

When the first teaser trailer came out in the fall of 1998, insane fans went to screenings of MEET JOE BLACK (where it was played) and paid money just to see the trailer and left.  The fever reached epidemic proportions.  Then the merchandise, cross-promotional tie-ins, and endless magazine and newspaper articles rolled out.  Then tickets for the film were announced to be going on sale ahead of time and the anticipation level was at such a crescendo that fans even camped out at the theatres for weeks just to be the first to buy tickets for the new STAR WARS film.

If cinema can transcend the art form and become a cultural event, then name another film capable of doing this to the masses other than STAR WARS?

It was a real exciting time in the movie-going world.  It was also insane; a time when all aspects of pop culture where being pummeled by everything STAR WARS.  A combination of self-inflicted excitement and anticipation by the fans and the exposure and coverage by the media led to one unfortunate inevitability: People, in some sort of self-defeating way, truly thought that STAR WARS: EPISODE I –THE PHANTOM MENACE would be the so-called “second-coming” of modern cinema that would be as great of a film as any in the first series.

The film finally opened in 1999 and something that should not be altogether surprising happened – fans were shocked by how much they disliked the new film, saying that a majority of their displeasure was derived from how much the new film was unlike the old films.  Moreover, they felt like the new film just did not have the same magic, freshness, and energy.

Does the phrase, “you can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice” mean anything?

One of the greatest ironies of THE PHANTOM MENACE is that, at the time, the same inane fan base that built up the film to such unbridled and seemingly unattainable heights were the first to be disappointed in the film.  In hindsight, five years later, was there any doubt of this reaction in the world?  How on God’s green earth could a film with such an unhealthy build-up not lead to an equally large and unfortunate letdown?  The level of STAR WARS congestion in the world fuelled this, truth be told, but this was primarily created by the completely unrealistic expectations of the fan base.  How could any film be successful with such unreachable expectations? People and fans thought that (a) the new film would be the best in the series, (b) that the new film would be just as monumental and fresh as the original and (c) that the film would be one of the best of the year, if not the decade.  They were, in short,  seriously deluding and misguiding themselves. 

There is a big problem with viewing or re-visiting THE PHANTOM MENACE even today…it’s hard for people to watch it in context and with modest eyes.  Most fans of the series today grew up with the films and were, most likely, very young when the first films came out.  Time, of course, only makes memories of our childhood passions only become that much more magical.  The films transcend the years and become something almost spiritual.  Our childhood perceptions see the images of those films on the silver screen with a special type of awe.  Re-creating this magic is absolutely impossible.  Hell, ask any fan who saw the film as a child and they say what classics they are.   Ask that same fan, now thirty, what they thought of THE PHANTOM MENACE, and they’ll say the magic is completely gone. 

Now, ask any child today what they thought of THE PHANTOM MENACE, and they’ll most likely say how much they loved it.  Why do children like this film?  Because they are not battling with the unbreakable childhood thoughts of old, magical memories that could not be duplicated.  For lack of a better metaphor, seeing STAR WARS was like losing your virginity.  Seeing THE PHANTOM MENACE was kind of the same, but clearly not really the same.  Unfortunately, for Lucas and company, fans were unrealistic in their expectations.  They thought that seeing EPISODE I would be like getting laid for the first time again. 

Two words: Get real!

So what are we left with?  Is THE PHANTOM MENACE a bad film?  Far from it.  It’s a great escapist film and one of the great visionary fantasies of the last five years.  Is it as good as the previous STAR WARS films?  Seriously, that’s like contemplating whether wrestling is fake…it’s a concept that eludes common sense.

Roger Ebert, in his review for MENACE, stated “If it were the first "Star Wars" movie, 'The Phantom Menace' would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough.”  This perfectly personifies and defines the film.  THE PHANTOM MENACE would be held in high praise as a watershed film in the arena of fantasy and big budget, special effects filmmaking.  It’s a movie of huge scope and density (much like the previous STAR WARS films) and reveals, at its core, such an audacious level of visual imagination and wit.  

What Lucas has crafted here is a film universe that is so filled with wondrous and awe-inspiring sights - cities that cover planets; strange amphibian aliens that are completely the creation of visual effects; underwater villages that sprawl over ocean floors; vast armies of robots that look like humanoid ants; and Senate chambers  where the politicians float on thousands of pedestals.  This is not small stuff, but big, glorious, bold, and fun stuff.   Something is happening at every corner of every frame through THE PHANTOM MENACE and Lucas knows how to use technology to give his universe scope, breath, and real beauty.  And, when that 20th Century Fox logo fanfare lights up, and the STAR WARS logo blares out into a sea of stars accompanied by the greatest, most recognizable,  and most famous theme music of all-time, you really do feel like a kid again.

That’s what THE PHANTOM MENACE achieves, as did the other STAR WARS films.  In accordance with Lucas original inception, THE PHANTOM MENACE is a glorious homage to the sci-fi serials of the 30’s and 40’s that thrilled Lucas as a child.  The entire STAR WARS saga is really the most expensive B-grade serial ever made, a million dollar homage to FLASH GORDON or BUCK ROGERS, and never were meant to thrill anyone but children.  That’s the key to the film's resonation with kids, and that’s why THE PHANTOM MENACE seemed to fail to amaze adults. 

We see things too literally.  Kids can look at the screen and drink in the visuals with self-referential awe.  That’s what STAR WARS films are really about.  They are not character driven melodramas.  They are essentially space operas intended for audiences to stare at the screen and engage in escapism.  You want human drama and well-defined characters, see THE LORD OF THE RINGS or STAR TREK.  STAR WARS and THE PHANTOM MENACE is about loosing yourself in the visuals and action.  It’s about seeing what the miracle workers of the trade can come up with to entertain and dazzle us.

THE PHANTOM MENACE, in these ways, is a huge success, and a greatly satisfying two hours.  That is, of course, unless you let seventeen years of anticipation and unrealistic expectations eat away at you like an incurable rebel plague.

In a way, Lucas faced a daunting challenge by  revisiting the STAR WARS saga at the beginning and not continuing after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  That is why, as a stand-alone film, THE PHANTOM MENACE feels largely expository, and rightfully so.  Narratively, it essentially acts as the first few chapters of a book, introducing viewers to the who’s, the where’s, and the why’s of the whole STAR WARS sage.  Sure, there are some familiar faces (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, C3PO and R2D2, to name a few) but they are more or less in different form.  THE PHANTOM MENACE does not recreate the same feel of STAR WARS and that’s intentional: its about  different times, places, and characters.

Set approximately 32 years before the events of A NEW HOPE, THE PHANTOM MENACE opens with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) on a diplomatic mission to the planet Naboo, where they hope to negotiate the end to a blockade of the planet organized by the Trade Federation.  This mission goes wrong real fast when they arrive as they find themselves caught in a trap sprung by the mysterious Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid).  He, of course, is making a play to take control of the Galactic Republic, the civilizing universal government body that eventually becomes the evil Galactic Empire of the original films.   After surviving an attempt on their lives in a planet-orbiting space station, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan end up on the planet Naboo and meet and amphibian-like Gungan named Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best).  From here our trio then move to save Naboo's teenage ruler, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) from execution by the Trade Federation.

After fleeing from Naboo, the action moves to the desert planet of Tatooine, where the two Jedi encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).  This slave, of course, has an amazing abilities in the Force (no doubt because he later becomes the evil DARTH VADER of the original trilogy).  After securing Anakin’s freedom from his master, the heroes flee to Courosant, the capital world of the Republic, and finally back to Naboo in a final effort to fight off Sidious and his Trade Federation partners.  All of this, of course, while Sidious and his deadly apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park), track down the Jedi with intentions to eradicate the order once and for all.

The one thing that Lucas actually does well with THE PHANTOM MENACE (and I am in the minority here) is how effortlessly he lays the groundwork and introduces us to the characters and events that will not only segue into the next two STAR WARS prequels, but into the entire existing trilogy as a whole. That is a mighty difficult job, and by starting at the beginning Lucas could have dug himself into a hole, but here he does an admirable job and always keeps the pacing just right.  The film, despite being a two-hour exposition, really serves its purposes well as a stand-alone film.  It has a definitive beginning, middle, and an end. 

Like the existing trilogy, Lucas deals with old motifs of good versus evil.  He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel here, folks.   What he is trying to do (as he did nearly thirty years ago) is to further the type of gee-wiz innocence and whimsical excitement that he experienced as a child watching adventure serials.  THE PHANTOM MENACE is just as straightforward, hokey, campy, and light-hearted escapism that A NEW HOPE was, with clearly delineated good guys and bad guys.  For that, Lucas tells a good story, but viewers should primarily keep in mind that he’s trying to write a “discovery” story, and the key discovery is that of Anakin Skywalker.  There’s no surprising revelations like in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, nor any of the freshness of new, unseen characters that made A NEW HOPE unique.  THE PHANTOM MENACE’s job is to explain where everyone came from, and it achieves its goals.

Obviously, THE PHANTOM MENACE is not an actor’s movie, but were the original films?  Many “fans” complained that the characters in MENACE were overly simplistic, if not (in Jar Jar’s case) even annoying.  Again, if that’s what you’re looking for here, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  The STAR WARS films place more emphasis on big, broad ideas and visuals, and exist completely on the noble concepts of their heroes and villains.  The characters are broadly defined, as they should be in any 1930’s serial. 

Liam Neeson and Macgregor bring a nice, understated calmness and collectiveness as the Jedi who are sworn to protect Amidala.  They not so much realized characters as they are large archetypal figures, kind of like a melding of Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable and the wizards of Tolkein’s universe.  Ray Park does a good job saying little as his role of the antagonist Darth Maul.  He too is an archetypal figure, relying more on look, mood, and action than on dialogue.  Ian Mcdiamird is probably the only character that is defined by his dialogue and mannerisms.  He speaks simply and calmly, but there’s an underlying pathos to his overt and all-too-obvious noble exterior. 

And, yes, there’s Jar Jar Binks, that wacky sidekick accompanies the two troubled Jedi.  Funny, people were so quick to label him as annoying before even contemplating that his personality is to be annoying, a sort of inane comic foil to the earnestness and coolness of the Jedi.  Yes, he’s goofy, clumsy, and speaks in a weird, garbled, and backwards English (ironically, so did Yoda), but at least he’s a realized on screen persona.  Young Jake Lloyd, in the utterly thankless role of Anakin, does a perfectly adequate job, as does Natalie Portman as the Queen.  Terrance Stamp and Samuel L. Jackson are also quite fine in their respective cameos.  For all of the criticism that focused on the “poor” performance of MENACE, it was and remains a satisfactorily acted film.  Oscar caliber? Hardly.  But sufficient to tell the story?  Yes.   No one ever complained about Mark Hamill.

But, let’s be real here, the film’s real triumph and reputation lays in its ingenious and revolutionary use of visual and CGI special effects.  I find it completely flabbergasting that anyone would ever complain about the effects in MENACE, yet fans still did?  Do they not remember what these films are remembered for?  Many complained on the overuse of effects, but they miss the point.  These films are about being shown new things and lots of them.  In that case, MENACE ranks right up at the top of fantasy films.  Its art direction, set pieces, and effects work dwarf anything that came before it.  And years before Gollum became a CGI phenom, ILM created Jar Jar Binks as a completely realized character created by effects.  Yes, he does not look as good as Gollum, but ILM were the pioneers in this sort of work, and the crew of LORD OF THE RINGS had subsequent years to further develop the technology. 

When you think of it, the effects have always been the real stars of these films.  Even in A NEW HOPE the effects and visuals are what people truly remember, and the visual opulence that has sprung from Lucas ‘s imagination is as fertile as ever in MENACE.  He spared no expense at showing us images that are seamlessly integrated with the live action.  Many moments inspire fond and awe-struck memories, like the opening battle, the underwater city covered in membranes, the giant sea life, and the jaw-dropping middle race scene where Anakin engages in a BEN HUR-esque pod race against fellow alien adversaries.  That scene alone is such a virtuoso ten minutes of editing and great visual and sound effects work;  how this film did not win Oscars in those categories is stupefying. 

The final battle scene, which highlights an army of thousands of Gungans battling thousands of battle droids, is also a fantastic creation of visual effects.  The concluding lightsaber battle - a fanboy-drooling three way between Jinn, Kenobi, and Maul - just may be one of the best sword fights of recent memory.  When Kenobi faces off alone against Maul, it truly highlights what a gift Lucas has at fast-paced action and strong, tight editing.  It’s as powerfully realized of an action scene as any from 1999.

So, what’s the bottom line?  THE PHANTOM MENACE is a wonderful, fantasy thrill ride, indicative of the simply drawn and escapist thrills of the old Buck Roger’s serials.  It's light as a feather, cheesy at its core, wooden in its characters, but it nevertheless is a visual tour de force and a terrific piece of imaginative filmmaking.  If you think real, real hard and try to imagine that the original STAR WARS trilogy did not exist, then MENACE clearly would have been praised as a new, vibrant, thematically fresh, and technical masterpiece which reveals the incredible imagination of its creator.  The film is an example of how a filmmaker can demonstrate, with panache and technological mastering of the film medium, how to present to us new myths and stories.   

Remember, the STAR WARS films are really old-fashioned fairy tales set in that infamous galaxy far, far away.  It’s so deceptively easy to take for granted the scope and power of Lucas’s vision and his incredible range to utilize all resources around him to tell the stories he wants to tell.  There is so much strength in the visuals of MENACE, but fans are too quick at dismissing them.  The density of his world is enormous, and MENACE reveals a filmmaker satisfying an urge to further the story of a world that he holds with a certain level of sly and heartfelt reverence.  You just know that Lucas really loves the STAR WARS universe and holds it in high regard, and it is his determined focus, artistic integrity, and masterful use of technology that permeates every frame of THE PHANTOM MENACE.  If only fans from five years ago could time travel into the future and watch this film now without all of the frenzy that precipitated it, then maybe they would modestly appreciate how much the force is truly with this film. 


CrAiGeR's other










And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the STAR WARS sextet:


2. A NEW HOPE (1977) jjjj

3. REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005) jjjj

4. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) jjjj

5. ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) jjj1/2

6. THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) jjj

7. THE CLONE WARS (2008)  jj



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