Beyond the stratospheric expectations, beneath the assaultive marketing campaign and despite the vitriolic (and enduring) backlash, there lies an actual movie, and it’s a grand one. The fourth installment in George Lucas’ sprawling space saga and a prequel to the initial trilogy, The Phantom Menace is nearly identical in tone, vision, theme and special-effects artistry as the earlier, beloved pictures. It’s also equally as corny (with awkward dialogue and wooden acting), and for that the franchise’s now-adult fans were unwilling to forgive it.
Yet what’s good about The Phantom Menace is what’s always been good about Star Wars. There is an unabashed earnestness to this myth – an ingenuousness that borders on innocence – which has only become more precious as our blockbusters have mostly given way to brooding seriousness or winking self-awareness. It’s amazing how well Lucas was able to conjure the same sensibility some 16 years after Return of the Jedi. And by envisioning the innocent youth of the series’ iconic villain Darth Vader – here a boy named Anakin Skywalker – he further plumbs Star Wars’ central theme: how good and evil are often more closely connected than they seem.
Undoubtedly, the overarching legend enriches The Phantom Menace in ways that wouldn’t happen if the movie was forced to stand on its own. There’s a particularly poignant moment when Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) greets young Anakin (Jake Lloyd) for the first time with a gentle smile; as most of us know, Obi-Wan dies years later at Anakin’s hand. Similarly, when Yoda narrows his eyes upon meeting Anakin, trying to peer into the boy’s dark future, we share his sense of foreboding.
Yoda, such a delightfully cantankerous puppet in the earlier pictures, is one of the many computer-generated characters here. And while I almost always prefer the hand-crafted to the pixelated, there’s no denying that the visual work by the artists at Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic is astonishing, whether they’re envisioning alien cityscapes or entire characters. Jar Jar Binks, a comical sidekick who looks like the love child of a Labrador retriever and a snail, integrates seamlessly with the live actors, at one point ducking to avoid the same real-world branch as Liam Neeson’s Jedi. My favorite CGI creature is Sebulba, a pod racer who walks on his arms, steers with his legs and snaps his goggles with a cocky flourish.
This is careful creativity, not the overstuffed CGI chaos that dominates so many similar films.
That pod race might be the picture’s highlight, as little Anakin and a gaggle of aliens speed through the canyons of the desert planet of Tatooine. Little more than tiny cockpits tethered to a pair of giant rocket boosters, the pods zip across the sand like futuristic drag racers. It’s not only a masterful sequence of visual effects and editing, but also of sound design; each pod has its own pulsating thrum, so that we’re oriented to the action as much by our ears as our eyes.
Much of The Phantom Menace’s appeal is in the details. Every scene is packed with so many new creatures, spaceships, gadgets, makeup designs and costumes that your eyes repeatedly race from one corner of the frame to the next. (Modeling much of this is Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala, who at one point sports a gown with fishbowl teardrops along its hem.) During a climactic battle sequence, there’s a menacing moment in which the transport vehicles from the attacking Trade Federation open their doors and extend shining metallic arms. After an ominous pause, the arms begin to unfold like some sort of giant closer organizer, revealing dozens of robotic soldiers stacked together in endless rows. This is careful creativity, not the overstuffed CGI chaos that dominates so many similar films.
Since Vader is still a spunky (and, let’s be honest, annoying) little boy here, The Phantom Menace must look elsewhere for a central villain. And we get a magnificent one in Darth Maul (Ray Park), a shadowy rogue Jedi. Sporting stubby horns, black-and-red facial tattoos and a vicious, double-edged lightsaber, Darth Maul has a climactic duel with Neeson’s Qui-Gon, in which their swordplay is briefly interrupted when a transparent energy shield rises up from the ground between them. As they wait for the shield to collapse, Maul paces back and forth in front of his adversary like an intergalactic tiger waiting to escape its cage. It’s thrilling stuff.
The Phantom Menace is a throwback, not only to the Star Wars movies that preceded it, but to the era of earnest adventures that preceded them. Giving in to the film means reigniting the fertile imagination you had as a child and ditching the hip, ironic edge we’ve developed in order to fend off life as adults. This doesn’t mean being blind to the movie’s faults, but simply recognizing that they’re of a piece with those of the original films. Reviewing The Mummy around the time The Phantom Menace came out, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman wondered if blockbusters had become so glib because “we’re no longer naïve enough to harbor belief in anything as corny as the old monsters. Then again, perhaps we’ve lost the vision to imagine them.” I don’t know if we’d lost that vision, but by 1999 many of us who had grown up on Star Wars were hesitant to once again embrace it. Rather than cater to grown-up “sophistication,” though, the decidedly untrendy George Lucas simply did what he does best: make a state-of-the-art, old-fashioned movie like The Phantom Menace. The kid in me – no, the adult in me – is grateful for it.