In the final lines of their (four-star) review of The Phantom Menace, Empire Magazine noted that “after a 16-year wait, it turns out it’s only a movie after all”. As we approach two decades’ worth of vitriol aimed at the film by many passionate fans, it might be worth spinning (which is, after all, a good trick) that line to suit its current status: after 18 years of being held up as a crime against cinema, it turns out it’s only a movie after all. And a fairly solid one at that.
To be clear from the off: it’s not a perfect film. But its reputation as one of the worst blockbusters of all time is unfair. (For one thing, it wasn’t even the worst blockbuster of 1999 – take a bow, Wild Wild West.) In this writer’s eyes, it’s not even the worst Star Wars film (Attack of the Clones anyone?) The Phantom Menace feels, for better or worse, like exactly the film Lucas wanted to make, and that should be applauded. At one time this director was regarded as the most experimental of a group that included Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and it’s far more interesting to see a flawed piece that’s entirely his vision than more reactionary, compromised films like Episode VII.
But “It’s not as bad as (blank)!” is no real argument for a film’s quality, so let’s list The Phantom Menace’s good points, starting with the obvious: the lightsabre duel. Vicious, balletic and visceral, it’s the best of the franchise, topped off by one of John Williams’s greatest pieces, Duel of the Fates. It’s not only thrilling but it contains great, wordless character moments – Qui-Gon’s meditation and Maul’s prowling. Maul, of course, is another highlight of the film; the shot of him igniting his dual-bladed lightsabre is one of the saga’s iconic images. The film also gave us Qui-Gon, a perfect example of why the order held such mythological status in the pre-Empire years, as well as Darth Sidious/Palpatine (played by Ian McDiarmid, whose performance across the trilogy would be a highlight of the prequels).
For all its advancement in special effects and CGI characters, the film also respected the old ways of doing things. Shot on 35mm, it featured model work, aliens created with prosthetics and proper location shooting. The design work of the film is fantastic, from the C-3PO puppet that’s a walking mass of wires to the sprawling planet of Coruscant. The film attempts to maintain a steady pace: within twenty minutes we’ve seen the start of a planetary invasion, visited an underwater city, been attacked by a giant Brian Blessed fish and saved the queen from a troop of killer robots. It slows down once we reach Tatooine, but that’s to allow us to see Anakin, his life, where he came from and what he leaves behind. How much one gets from these scenes may vary according to how much one enjoys a yippee-ing eight-year-old Vader, but the focus is important for the trilogy as a whole.
And of course, there’s the pod race. The second biggest set piece of the film, it comes across as The Phantom Menace in microcosm. Loud, flashy and full of special effects, it’s a little too long and drags a bit in the middle, but it’s fun in places with nice touches, and it feels like, for better or worse, no one else could do this. Admittedly, both the pod race and the film itself feature running commentary from a certain Jar Jar Binks, something which is a little harder to defend but… Nope. I can’t do it. I can write a piece on why The Phantom Menace is a harmless, fun and interesting piece of cinema that does nowhere near the harm its reputation suggests, but I can’t build a defence for Gungan City’s most notorious resident. Messa sorry.Book now to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi at Picturehouse Cinemas