A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the evil Trade Federation threaten the peaceful planet of Naboo. Jedi knights Qui Gon-Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) arrive to negotiate, but are instead ambushed. Fighting their way through rampaging battle droids, the Jedi escape along with goggle-eyed alien goofball Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and manage to rescue plucky, young Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her small coterie of brave handmaidens, footsoldiers and droids, just as Naboo is invaded by an unstoppable robot army. En route to the Galactic Republic capital on Coruscant, our heroes are ruthlessly pursued by fright-faced Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and stranded on the obscure desert planet of Tattooine where their only hope lies with a young slave boy named Annakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).
Remember the first time you saw that trailer? After sixteen years of rumours, false starts, substandard imitators and lousy paperback sequels, suddenly an explosion of interstellar colour, THX sound and ILM wonderment set to that soaring John Williams score that defined your childhood dreams. There was even a hint of Akira Kurosawa-coloured artiness about the thing suggesting, with a captive audience in his grasp, George Lucas might try something as audacious as a multimillion dollar art movie - the elusive Holy Grail of filmmaking.
Nothing could bear the burden of those sky high expectations and inevitably, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace fell short of being the greatest movie ever made. And so the dust settled. "Serious" film fans moved on to Middle Earth or Hogwarts. Sequels were greeted with polite disdain. Simon Pegg built his career wisecracking about his disillusionment with Lucasfilm. And one leading British newspaper went typically overboard by decrying The Phantom Menace as the all-time cultural low point of the twentieth century. And yet as years went by, even as fans continued to gripe and moan, people kept rewatching the film. More so than they revisited those pretentious sequels to that far more celebrated science fiction adventure of 1999: The Matrix. And while the haters grew more vociferous thanks to the internet, lately it has become not uncommon to stumble across a brave band of rebels. Kids whose first experience of Jedi, wookies, lightsabers and the Force happened not at the cinema or even home video but in CGI form on the Cartoon Network. For these kids the over-earnest heroes and over-abundance of digital trickery were no hindrance, as they had the chutzpah to admit they kind of enjoyed The Phantom Menace, maybe even loved it.
For years fans worshipped the original Star Wars trilogy without reaching common ground over what they were about. The over-zealous saw it as a secular religion. Smart-ass cinephiles said it was a western in space, a simple shoot 'em up between black hats and white hats. Others maintained it was an allegory about America's eternal struggle against facism with allusions to World War Two and the war for independence. On a personal note, one would argue Star Wars is a compendium of all myths, all fairytales, distilled ingeniously into the essence of cinema at the speed of light, yet also subversive in that in contrast to typical hero's journey, Luke Skywalker triumphs by sacrificing rather than achieving.
Turns out George Lucas was as uncertain as the rest of us as to what the heck it all meant. So he threw it all in there: childish hi-jinks, politics, nods to Kurosawa (the whole Padme/Amidala subplot riffs on Kagemusha (1980) and reflects the film's core theme), Fifties drag race culture, western motifs, New Age philosophy, allusions to Arthurian romance and the fall of Camelot, zany pseudo-science (Midi-chlorians?). The Phantom Menace is a whiz-bang mish-mash that repeatedly hints at broader concepts without pausing to ponder them as they shoot by at lightspeed. Therein lies its failing, but also its genius. You take away what you bring, which explains its burgeoning appeal among the interactive generation, who grew up unaware of the earlier Star Wars phenomenon.
"There is always a bigger fish", says Qui Gon-Jinn as the opening chase sequence masterfully articulates The Phantom Menace's key themes. An often overlooked aspect of the film is its thematic consistency, repeatedly stressing duality and surface illusion hiding deeper truths. A little boy is the future dark lord of the Sith. A humble servant girl is really the Queen of Naboo. A genial old minister is secretly the darkest threat to the universe. Of equal importance is the symbiotic relationship that binds all living things, whether it's the Gungans living beneath the surface of Naboo, or the midi-chlorians somehow birthing Annakin Skywalker as a potential saviour of the universe. Not that things turned out that way. For all the gleeful conviviality of what often feels like a multimillion dollar Saturday morning cartoon, The Phantom Menace is a space pantomime where the heroes remain blissfully unaware of the darkness on their doorstep. In fact they invite it in, as Queen Amidala and her alien friends (watch out for that delegation of aliens from E.T. The Extraterrestrial!) give Chancellor Valorum (an underused Terence Stamp) the boot and bring Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to power. The whole adventure is one last giddy burst of childish fun before the onslaught of the grim. Viewed in hindsight the film is almost a warning to a complacent America with 9/11, hurricane Katrina and economic disaster in its future. If that sounds like over-analyzing, don't forget Lucas placed these concerns centre-stage in episode two.
Where Lucas fails is in having characters repeatedly describing things he ought to be showing us: e.g. the "catastrophic" death toll on Naboo, Obi-Wan's alleged "recklessness." He seems curiously diffident about engaging us emotionally, as if embarassed by his own fantasy. Now and then though, thanks largely to a seemingly frustrated cast of good actors, the odd affecting moment seeps through: Ewan McGregor's anguished rage in the midst of his duel with Darth Maul; Liam Neeson's dying plea that Annakin should be trained as a Jedi; Natalie Portman, her luminous beauty and precocious talent almost buried beneath some misjudged kabuki makeup (although our first glimpse of Queen Amidala provides the film's most iconic image), pulls off one grace note in her forelorn discussion with Jar Jar.
Speaking of poor, much maligned Jar Jar Binks. At the time celebrity agitators like Spike Lee held him up as a racist caricature, a sort of space age Stepin Fetchit in CGI garb. He isn't. Like the quasi-oriental Nien Numb from Return of the Jedi (1983), Jar Jar is simply a goofy alien clown with a silly voice. His rasta mannerisms arose solely because the actor playing him happens to be African-American. A bigger problem is he contributes little beyond comic relief. Chewbacca and C3PO had their slapstick moments but were faceted, useful personalities. Jar Jar is a child's clown, inoffensive but superfluous, at least until Lucas threw a sly curveball in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002). Problems that still plague the film: those ineffectual Trade Federation bad guys; comedy combat droids whose antics occasionally amuse but strip them of menace; the dreary midsection that bogs our heroes and consequently the plot in a Tattooine sandpit (Luke was right to get the heck out of that backwater planet); Jake Lloyd's happy-go-lucky Annakin - perfectly serviceable for a children's film, but not quite the future Darth Vader. Let us discuss the infamous mention of "taxes" and "tariffs" that many thought ridiculously inappropriate subject matter for a supposed children's films and led some to remark Lucas must have concocted the plot one morning after feeling particularly irate about filing a tax return. But the fact is, taxation is only once mentioned in the opening title crawl and rarely discussed in the film itself. What is more the effect of harsh tax laws upon the populace were widely acceptable plot generators in the countless samurai films to which Lucas was undoubtedly alluding, from classic Kurosawa fare to Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (1972) and Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (1969).
Reasons to love The Phantom Menace: the opening outer space to underwater chase sequence wherein, for once, the eye-popping CGI effects do deftly convey the whole subtext of symbiotic relationships, worlds within worlds, co-dependant environments and lurking menace; the first (re)appearance of R2D2 (a moment that gladdens the heart like the return of an old friend); George Lucas' oft-overlooked ingenious use of editing and sound (close your eyes and you can see the whole movie inside your head); the pod race - a truly great cinematic set-piece that blows pretenders away with its pulse-pounding excitement; Pernilla August valiantly transforming a poorly written role into a believably anguished, flesh and blood person; the greatest lightsaber battle in the entire Star Wars series to which John Williams' "Duel of the Fates" imparts true grandeur.
Perhaps the most unsettling thing about The Phantom Menace is how often its comic book plotting and near nerdy devotion to the minutiae of its fantasy world resemble countless faux sequels young fans dreamt up with their Kenner action figures in playrooms around the world. Maybe that's why Lucas rattled so many twenty and thirty-something fans. He didn't make it for who they are, but who they used to be.