Moving Pictures
May 08, 2023, 06:29AM

Was the Fourth With You?

Revisiting Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 24 years after my initial obsession.

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Last Thursday was May 4, an unofficial holiday for Star Wars fans that’s become more and more popular in the last decade, and will likely be a national holiday by century’s end. Why not? George Lucas’ multimedia epic has defined, or at the very least colored, every childhood in the last 46 years. Even if you didn’t like Star Wars, so many of its broad strokes and fine details are just known, as if they’ve always been there—lightsabers, Jedi, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Princess Leia, Han Solo, C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca. In 1999, Lucas added another character to our world’s pop culture: Jar Jar Binks. Like I wrote late last year, I had no idea anyone even disliked the first Star Wars prequel until the next one, Attack of the Clones, came out in 2002.

I was, unlike the super-fans waiting weeks in line and everyone getting paid to write reviews, the target audience for The Phantom Menace: a six-year-old boy. And I must’ve taken every trailer and print ad at face value, because when my brother and I went to a revival of the movie last Thursday, he reminded me that, in 1999, I told him that The Phantom Menace was, “the most critically acclaimed movie of all time”—true if you only counted my opinion. I loved The Phantom Menace, and it’s still the movie I’ve seen most in theaters: nine times, all in its initial release in the summer of 1999. Thursday made it 10, and while I didn’t revisit the movie before I wrote that article in December, I’ve tried to watch The Phantom Menace at home before, but many years ago, with the same bootleg tape that George Tabb got us on Canal St. I couldn’t get through it either time, spread years apart, once in New York later in 1999 and around 2006 or 2007 in Baltimore.

I was really disappointed by that bootleg tape, not because of the quality—it was stellar, letterboxed even—and I didn’t want to admit it, but I realized then in 1999 that Star Wars lost something essential at home. More than the images, it’s the sound design that riveted me those nine times in 1999, most of them at my favorite theater, the UA Union Square 14. I missed the 1997 theatrical re-release of the original trilogy, but we had the tapes, and I loved them, they played great at home. The Charles showed the original trilogy earlier this year, and I realized I’d never seen them in a theater. Great movies, but I still have zero interest past The Phantom Menace. I knew Attack of the Clones sucked when it came out in 2002, and by 2005, the climactic lava battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith was too little too late.

And how could you possibly care? It was all CGI. The original trilogy was obviously all practical sets and effects, and even in an auditorium filled with Star Wars fans, you could feel the air leave the room every time one of Lucas’ CGI abortion popped up in his “remasters” of those first three films (Lucasfilm prohibits any public screenings of original prints or “pre-revision” cuts of the film). Now that I’ve seen The Phantom Menace in full for the first time in 24 years, for the first time as an adult, for the first time as a filmmaker and film critic, all I can say is, I see where you were coming from. This movie is a drag, a poorly-paced slog through boring “exposition” scenes that mean nothing played against mostly CGI sets, backdrops, and characters, removing any excitement or dimension to the film. The original films, along with 1979’s Alien, are the gold standard for space movies. Sets like that aren’t more expensive to build than massive techno compounds.

George Lucas is insane, but he’s an artist, it’s allowed. His films are popular enough that getting your hands on an unsullied copy of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi isn’t that hard. But with The Phantom Menace, now I see. And it’s nothing new: the scenes in Senate, the Jedi council, and much of the beginning are scenes of people talking in ugly looking CGI rooms. The cast is great, but poorly used: how the fuck does Darth Maul, by far the coolest villain in all of Star Wars, have only three lines and less than 10 minutes of screen time? Meanwhile, Jar Jar is practically the third lead, maybe even number two, edging out Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan. Ahmed Best considered suicide after the intense criticism of his character and the film, and he’s barely worked outside of the Lucasfilm empire since, and his characterization is one step away from Stepin Fetchit.

The movie just doesn’t work, but the surprisingly young crowd clapped at the end, more hesitant than usual, but still, this wasn’t a screening full of laughter. Just eyeballing the crowd, they looked younger than the movie, and while I didn’t see any six-year-olds, I wonder what these young people thought of The Phantom Menace today, and how much they know about its history, reputation, and their genuine reactions to the film itself. I get the sense that the extreme ire from Generation X has faded in the last 24 years, and while I did overhear some people complaining that it “really is a slog,” it’s still a proper Star Wars movie, however flawed, unlike the Disney era. These prequels came out three years apart, just like the originals, and there was only a tiny bit of extra in between besides the toys. A movie every year, along with TV shows and web series, ruin the mystique of the only American movie franchise that I really once thought was magical.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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