I’m not gonna bullshit you. I hated the entire prequel trilogy when they were released. In fact, I was seriously tempted just to post the brilliant Simon Pegg monologue from Spaced about just what a betrayal The Phantom Menace felt like to those of us who grew up on the original trilogy and were drooling to see what George Lucas would bring to the table for what would ultimately be the origin of Darth Vader. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

But I digress.

The last time prior to 1999 that George Lucas had written and directed a Star Wars film was the first time, so expectations were high. We were ready for pure, unfiltered Lucas in the same way cocaine addicts who were twenty years clean would feel when told they could dip back into some uncut Columbian white with NO REPURCUSSIONS. We were fucking giddy at the prospect of pure Star Wars going straight into our systems.

There were midnight showings. I stood in line and watched grown men dressed as Jedis perform half-assed lightsaber duels in the parking lot, waiting for their chance to finally see what Lucas had been working on for just over fifteen years.

I was nine years old when Star Wars hit theaters. Nine years old and ready to have my mind exploded by a science fantasy film that would change the world and my life in damned near equal measure. I dressed like Luke Skywalker for Halloween. I collected the action figures. I watched the goddamn Holiday Special with bated breath and instantly fell in love with Boba Fett.

Empire hit in 1980 and 12-year-old me was dumbfounded. What had been pure swashbuckling heroin had grown up and become the darker, seedier world that I didn’t even know I needed at the time. It should be noted that at the time, I had no idea that Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan had written the script, or that Irvin Kershner had directed. I was a child and all I knew was that Star Wars was back and it blew my mind in ways the original film hadn’t even approached.

Three years later, when Return of the Jedi hit theaters, I was older. Wiser, maybe. I was fifteen and in my final year of Junior High. Life was shitty. The friends I had when Empire was released were gone. I had new friends, but they were few and far between. Ultimately, only a couple of them would end up being worth the effort. I was ready for something new. I was in an Indiana Jones kind of period and a little obsessed with Harrison Ford (and Humphrey Bogart, if we’re being honest) and Viet Nam vet vigilante films. And the opening sequence of Jedi was gold. By the time the film was over, though, the luster was fading and at fifteen years old I was well aware of how merchandising and capitalism could ruin anything it touched.

And so it was with Star Wars.

I loved how Luke and Vader came together in the end, but those goddamn Ewoks, man.

Fuck.

It was really those little fuzzy, man-eating bastards that drove home the fact that Star Wars had always been about selling toys almost as much as it had been about telling the story of the Skywalker family. With Return of the Jedi I think that balance shifted and selling toys became the prime motivator for Lucas. I mean, honestly, that was where the money was.

Kenner had turned from a little business in Cincinnati into a global powerhouse in the toy business, all because of a sweetheart deal with Lucas. Check out the Star Wars episode of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us, to get the inside scoop on that. But the fact that Lucas made no noise about making more Star Wars films after Return, and the fact that with no new products to develop, market, and sell, Kenner suddenly had a black hole where enormous profits had been swirling, meant that it wouldn’t be too long before a clause in the original toy contract would void the deal and give Lucas the right to renegotiate a toy deal (or deals) that would be more in his favor.

Oddly enough, once that happened and Lucas was able to start making a much larger chunk of change on toy sales, he suddenly started talking about making a prequel trilogy. Was it all really just a means of boosting toy sales? Not entirely, I’d guess. Lucas still had a love for these characters and the world he’d created.

But damn, man. Damn.

When Phantom Menace was released in 1999 I was ready to dive back into my childhood innocence and enthusiasm. The nineties were rough. Lots of broken relationships, a college experience that was fun but left me doubting whether or not I had a future, explorations of Buddhism, Existentialism, and straight-up hedonism that left me wondering if there even was a future.

Good times.

Then here it was. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace straight and unadulterated from the mind of George Lucas himself. I needed some straight-up swashbuckling fantasy in 1999.

Instead I got trade negotiations, banking drama, political theater, horrible dialogue, an annoying pre-teen Anakin Skywalker, and worst of all, Jar Jar Binks.

Oh.

My.

God.

If the Trade Federation leaders weren’t bad enough with their Asian stereotyped accents, Jar Jar Binks’ Step and Fetchit routine was just painful to sit through (and I sympathize with performer Ahmed Best, who says he didn’t see any racism in the way the character was written, but blamed that impression on the viewers bringing their own unconscious racism to their interpretations, but come on…). The explanation that the Gungan people were inspired by African tribal characters from the old serials of the thirties and whatnot didn’t really cut it. If that shit was racist then, it’s racist now.

And even if we put all that aside, we still ended up with a film that ran for well over two hours and introduced us to a nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker (who was a slave to a monstrous Jewish stereotype, Watto), played by Jake Lloyd – a child actor who really wasn’t what anybody wanted (aside from Lucas) for the character. Although it also drove home the idea that Lucas wanted these films to appeal to children (who will demand the toys) maybe more than the adults who had grown up with the franchise.

Liam Neeson was solid as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Ewan McGregor was perfect in his role as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Natalie Portman, as Queen Padme Amidala, did what she could with a script that didn’t do her any favors. Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious may have been the character who benefited the most from the script, chewing scenery and seeming to revel in his secret evil nature.

But it was the evil Sith apprentice Darth Maul, played to the hilt by Ray Park, who captured everyone’s attention. His design was striking, his performance was filled with menace and dark energy. Here was a dramatic character who immediately captured your imagination and had the potential to be a new Darth Vader for the prequel trilogy.

And then he was dead.

The single best thing about the entire fucking movie was cut in half and dropped down a hole with our new actual young Vader still a goddamn annoying nine-year-old child.

Needless to say, I walked out of that midnight show pissed off.

Well, maybe not pissed off. Definitely disappointed. Heartbroken, perhaps.

In my head, Star Wars meant something special. It was about swashbuckling adventure. It was about fucking up but still overcoming overwhelming odds and becoming a hero. It was about standing up against tyranny (I mean, the Empire wasn’t designed to look like Nazis for nothing). It was a world where life was cheap and on the fringes of society one could find heroes. Even when they didn’t want to be heroes in the first place.

I needed that. We all do.

But instead, we got Phantom Menace.

A film about trade negotiations, racist stereotypes, and good actors trying their damnedest to make George Lucas’ horrible dialogue sound like something actual people would say.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been as disappointed with a film as I was with Phantom Menace.

In revisiting it for this article, I’m sad to say that nearly every problem I had with it initially at that midnight viewing is still a problem. And in the context of the rest of the prequel trilogy (which I will be discussing over the next few days), it really does the least necessary world-building of any film in the franchise, while providing nearly nothing of value moving forward. You could literally cut this 133-minute film down to a half-hour-to-forty-five-minute sequence and be done with it.

And the toys weren’t even that good.

Jar Jar Binks nearly destroyed the toy line as well as the reviews for Phantom Menace. Young children liked him, because he was a stupid character made to shuffle around, clumsily fall over, step in poop, and do silly things to make children laugh and distract them from the godawful boring plot that their parents had to sit through.

Would Attack of the Clones be any better?

It goddamn had to be.


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