STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE 3D, to give it its fully identifying title, has the distinction of being the most successful movie ever made that is generally agreed to be terrible. Over $900M in tickets have been sold for Phantom Menace since its opening in 1999 (that number will go over $1B when the current re-release is taken into account), which doesn’t even begin to include revenues from homevideo, merchandising, television licenses, etc.–and aside from admiration for the film’s special effects, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything good that’s been said about it.
The dreadfulness of Phantom Menace didn’t stop anyone from going. It was a colossal pop culture event when it opened, bigger even than Harry Potter or Twilight or Lord of the Rings chapters, because it was the first new entry in 16 years in what was, title for title, the most successful motion picture franchise in history. One simply couldn’t fail to see it. I attended a 3:30AM show–that is not a typo–at Grauman’s Chinese on opening day, and we got in the ticketholders’ line almost 3 hours early just to get good seats (there were hundreds of people already there ahead of us). When the movie ended and we exited, rosy-fingered dawn was just beginning to touch the sky above Hollywood Boulevard, and the only real question was how we’d managed to stay awake.
And now it’s back. George Lucas, the Scrooge McDuck of American cinema, fondled and squeezed his stupendously valuable intellectual property until he realized there was more revenue to be shaken out of the pockets of moviegoers, and Phantom Menace is just the first of what will be re-releases of all 6 Star Wars films in 3D. (The Phantom Menace 3D is reasonably high-quality, as transfers go, but since the movie was never conceived for the technology when it was made, it has none of the imagination or visual excitement of recent 3D movies like Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin or Hugo. Plus the glasses inevitably make the images darker and more grayish, resulting in a visual experience that’s overall less enjoyable than the original version.)
This compels us, 13 years after the fact, to take another look at The Phantom Menace and how it stands up as a movie.
It’s instructive to glance at George Lucas’ filmography. He is, depending on how one cuts the numbers, one of the most–if not the single most–successful men ever to work in motion pictures. But it’s impossible to think of another filmmaker with a 40+ year-long career whose work is limited by such a narrow set of boundaries. In the past 35 years, Lucas’ only films as a director are the Star Wars features. And as a producer, only twice in the past 2 decades has he stepped away from the Star Wars or Indiana Jones franchises, with the forgettable Radioland Murders in 1994 and this year’s unimpressive Red Tails. (Lucas periodically claims that he’s going to devote the rest of his career to low-budget “indie” projects, but he doesn’t have a lot of credibility on the point.) Despite having the financial resources and clout to create literally anything he might have wanted to on film, Lucas has chosen to do… more of the same. It’s actually sad, in a way. Lucas, unlike fantasy filmmakers such as Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron or Sam Raimi, to name just a few, made his life’s work the richest McDonalds ever.
Also sad are Lucas’ shortcomings as a director and writer, and nowhere is that clearer than in Phantom Menace, which was his first piece of direction since the original Star Wars 22 years earlier. For those who’ve lived in a cave since 1999, Phantom Menace begins the Star Wars saga by introducing the 8-year old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who in the course of the movie meets Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda and Pademe (Natalie Portman) who will become the love of his life and the mother of Luke and Leia. While one can see in the later movies the seeds Lucas was planting in the saga with this view of Anakin as a child, he would have been better off sticking with adults.
The Phantom Menace script, for which Lucas takes sole credit, is a tedious and often all-but-incomprehensible hash of taxation issues, blockades and mysticism, conveyed with dialogue that was either dreadfully expositional, childish (as opposed to believably child-like) or flat-out embarrassing (the latter would include every word out of the mouth of Jar-Jar Binks). Sadly, although Lucas has been known to tinker with his movies prior to re-release, he hasn’t seen fit to remove the messianic undertones from Phantom Menace: hints of Anakin Skywalker’s possible virgin birth and discussion of his genetic superiority. (These plot points were toned down considerably in the later prequel chapters.) The somewhat queasy pre-romance between Padme and the 8-year old Anakin also remains. (This from the filmmaker who also gave us what turned out to be a semi-incestuous brother-sister undercurrent in the initial movies.)
It can’t be a coincidence that Portman, Liam Neeson (as Obi-Wan’s mentor), Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson (as a senior Jedi), all of whom have more than proven their great talent elsewhere, give utterly wooden performances under Lucas’ direction. (Let’s speak only in passing of Jake Lloyd, who never had a career post-Phantom Menace, and thus can only be remembered for one of the worst child performances ever put on film.) It’s also not a coincidence that the only sequence in the movie that really worked in 1999 and still does now is the pod race, because it involves no dialogue and almost no acting.
What Phantom Menace did have in 1999 was a then-revolutionary expansion of the role of digital special effects. Lucas had re-invented special effects with the first Star Wars, and he all but did it again here, with settings, sets, spacecraft and entire characters like the loathed Jar-Jar residing in computers. It was all quite extraordinary, an entirely new palette for filmmakers to use in creating cinematic worlds, and whatever else one can say about Lucas, he deserves full credit for his visionary development of the technology. Unfortunately, in 2012 these effects have come a long way from their 1999 standard, and these days–through no fault of their own–many of the Phantom Menace effects look rudimentary and old-fashioned.
There’s no question that Phantom Menace will continue to make money on this go-round, and so will the subsequent Star Wars re-releases. Lucas has the ultimate good thing, and the movies, along with the innumerable spin-offs, prequels, games, products and additional ancillaries, will sell forever. In the case of Phantom Menace, however, that didn’t–and doesn’t–make it any good.