How the Failure of “The Phantom Menace” fed my “Star Wars” Obsession

My “Star Wars” obsession began in 1997 when George Lucas unleashed the new editions of his trilogy in theaters. For me it was something of a passing fad that I admired through the fun commercials and the heavy connection to Doritos. I wanted those pogs even if I didn’t know who Luke Skywalker or Lando Calrissian was. A year later, I borrowed the original trilogy from a friend on VHS and consumed the whole series in one sitting over the course of a weekend. I never came back from that obsession, and to this day it’s a hard habit to break. “Star Wars” is a series that kept me hooked for a very long time and I was always looking for anything I could find to read about it, or consume in some form as entertainment.

In 1999 when Lucas aired the first ever trailer for “The Phantom Menace” on primetime television, I rushed home to watch the trailer on video tape, and I must have seen it at least ten times. It looked amazing.

To ring in the occasion, I fondly recall watching the original “Star Wars” trilogy on the special edition VHS I was lucky enough to have been given for my birthday by my aunt one year. I literally saw the whole trilogy every single Sunday for a year and a half, so I’d become very fond of the whole series and what universe it built before us. Even if the novels kind of sucked, I was absolutely ecstatic about “The Phantom Menace” and every moment was anticipation hell.

From there I celebrated the release in every way that I could. I collected pogs, I kept my Darth Maul cup top on top of my television, I watched everything I could about it on television, I had a giant poster on my wall that depicted the Duel of Fates from the movie, and I bought the original soundtrack on CD at my record store which I listened to four times a week. Oh, and you’d better believe I updated my Geocities page with “The Phantom Menace” animated gifs.

The poster that hung on my wall from 2000-2004.

One of my favorite excursions involved collecting the trio of collector’s covers for TV Guide. All three covers shown major events and characters from the movie and I had to collect them all. I’d gone to my grocery store asking for the covers and the tellers were good hearted about it and found it amusing. I placed the TV Guides in comic book plastic bags and hung them on the wall like prizes for years.

Yes, I saw “The Phantom Menace” in theaters and seeing it was kind of a weird transition for me. I was at the peak of my “Star Wars” obsession and while it helped improve my fandom for it, the movie was a weird process. First I loved it, then I liked it despite its faults, then I thought it was passable despites its huge flaws, and now I think it’s easily the worst “Star Wars” movie to date. There are some great elements to “The Phantom Menace” but it’s all bogged down in such a convoluted plot and heroes that are hard to root for. Even Obi-Wan is tough to get behind because he’s primarily a side character who is tasked with doing a lot of technical work while Qui-Gonn plays his role of bonding with Anakin.

The score from John Williams is fantastic, and the direction from Lucas is wonderful, but there’s just so much of “The Phantom Menace” that’s a complete miss or is dead on arrival. I don’t know whether it’s the whole rewarding a droid with a medal, or the shrillness of Jar Jar Binks, but everything just feels off. “The Phantom Menace” spends so much of its time foreshadowing and propping up future story lines that it completely loses sight of its own identity. Everything is so complicated revolving around political intrigue and plots involving trade federations and treaties, which allow Senator Palpatine to squeeze in and claim rule as Emperor Palpatine.

The sad thing is that none of the political suspense works at all, and betrays a lot of the simple space opera serial motifs that Lucas thrived on with the original trilogy. The premise for “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” were simple and easy to sum up in one sentence. Good guys, bad guys, rebels, evil empire, laser battles, monsters, and lightsabers. “The Phantom Menace” props this difficult to follow premise that is guaranteed to confuse its target audience who will spend more time lingering on what they do understand. Hah! Jar Jar’s tongue is numb from the robot. That scamp. Lucas also sets up side plots that have no bearing on future events; pretty much everything covered in “The Phantom Menace” has little to no effect on the sequels.

There’s no reason why we should know that Anakin invented C3P0. There’s no reason why Lucas should have abandoned the spiritualism of the Force in favor of stuff about blood. The pod racers don’t appear in future films, nor are they ever mentioned again. And while Jar Jar Binks has his defenders today, the character is objectively a poorly drawn cartoon character (and horrendous racial stereotype) with a dull underdog story. Not even his own race likes him!  There are the underdogs like Chewie and R2D2 and there are just the clowns that you never really root for one way or another. Jar Jar is the latter, when he could very well have been a fun underdog if Lucas just dialed him down a bit.

Anakin’s whole introduction is undercut by a sheer sense of tragedy, because we know what will become of him, so any sense of excitement feels in vain. Maybe with better writing Lucas could have roped us in to wanting to see how Anakin’s fate would play out but with “The Phantom Menace” and everything else after, it’s fruitless endeavor. Furthermore, Lucas is so committed to appealing mainly to kids that Anakin is shockingly happy go lucky and naive for a kid born in to slavery who toils away endlessly for a rotten shopkeeper who takes advantage of him. His whole “Yippee!” shtick undercuts what should be a more complex protagonist.

Then there’s Darth Maul.

For the life of me I still can’t understand why the focus of a lot of the marketing for “The Phantom Menace” was this scary, skilled new Sith Lord who promised to bring down the Jedi by command of his master, and then he’s only in the movie for five minutes total. The amazing new make up, the dynamic character design, the incredible double bladed saber, Ray Park’s incredible fight work, and Peter Serafinowicz’s excellent voice work is all basically wasted in a hail of wasted potential.

We can never really be sure, but all the tie in comics, spin offs, and appearances in modern “Star Wars” spin offs still can’t really kill the sting of being so excited for Darth Maul only to see him be sliced in half by the end of “The Phantom Menace.” There was hope that he would re-emerge in the sequels, but alas, we only got Count Dookula, and Proto-Johnny Five with six arms. “The Phantom Menace” is forever that sign post up ahead that perhaps Lucas didn’t quite know what he was doing. “Attack of the Clones” is that halfway point where I’m sure the collective fan base threw their hands up and declared “Well we made it this far, might as well finish it.”

Suffice to say, twenty years later, “The Phantom Menace” hasn’t appreciated with age. It’s a pretty monotonous grasp for the magic that Lucas apparently misplaced somewhere during the creative process. To this day people still say “No, I am your father!” with dramatic conviction, while “There’s always a bigger fish” is muttered, even by hardcore fans, with a distinct sense of sarcasm and light snicker. I applaud “The Phantom Menace” for feeding my once insatiable appetite for all things “Star Wars,” but it’s still a dud; a statement about the dangers of over hype, and returning to a series without remembering what made the originals so beloved in the first place.