Retro Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Retro Review: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Phantom Menace killed off a large part of my Star Wars fandom. What if I gave it another go 20 years on?

Star Wars, as a child born in the 1970s, was a huge part of my life. I first watched Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back on home video when my father picked it out for me from the man who rented out VHS tapes from the boot of his car.

I remember going to the local cinema with my mother and for reasons I still don’t understand, she took me to see Octopussy. This was frustrating as I knew practically nothing of James Bond and that the screen next door was showing Return of the Jedi as well!

After Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, it all wound down and went rather quiet on the Star Wars front. Rumours still came and went now again of further Star Wars adventures as interviews with its creator, George Lucas, revealed the whole saga was either a six or nine episode adventure (depending on the interview).

Then 1991 saw the release of the first book of the Thrawn trilogy, Heir to the Empire, by Timothy Zahn. The Star Wars machine was coming back to life once more with a steady stream of new Star Wars books.

Late 90s and a popular British television video game magazine, Bad Influence, told us that George Lucas was working on special editions of Star Wars with brand-new films to come in later years.

I was never 100% sure about this until I bought the first issue of a new US magazine from my local comic shop, an official Lucasfilm publication, Star Wars: Galaxy. Within its pages they confirmed the story.

Off to a good start! It’s definitely a Star Wars film!

During 1997, Lucas released the Star Wars Special Editions, the original trilogy of films with various fixes and enhancements using the latest CGI technology. Lucas wanted to release the films the way he always envisioned. In reality, this was also a test to see if he could create environments and creatures for a brand-new Star Wars film.

In 1999, Star Wars fever reached a new high point with the imminent release of The Phantom Menace. This was the first Star Wars film in sixteen years. I remember downloading the first trailer in a high-quality QuickTime format over a dial up connection and then watching it on repeat.

Why such a long introduction to this review? I can’t really convey what a special time 1999 was for Star Wars fans and then how it all came crashing down with a large bump.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace wasn’t a box office flop, it has generated over $1 billion at the box office, it’s because it was such a disappointment. It could never live up to the hype and levels of excitement in our minds.

I saw the film twice at the cinema and imported the US DVD as soon as it became available. But I think I’ve only watched the film two or three times on disc. Since then over the last twenty years, I’ve never watched it again in full as it left a bitter memory.

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Very recently, I finally picked up a copy of the entire Skywalker Saga, well, as it was back in 2011. Six films with a plethora of extras on Blu-ray, second hand, for just £15.

So, almost twenty years later, I sat down and watched it again.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is the first part of the Skywalker story beginning with the introduction of Darth Vader as a young child named Anakin. He is a slave to Watto, a junk shop owner. Anakin lives with his Mother on the planet of Tatooine.

But stop there, because before we even get to this point, we have to set up what is the main plot thread for the film and frankly, it’s a little boring.

Possibly the best part of the whole film?

The film starts off with an argument between people over what is effectively a tax dispute. Now that I’m a lot older and understand politics a lot more, I can see where the plot was actually going. It’s all about one person’s manipulation of the system to become more powerful. However, this doesn’t make it an interesting storyline, especially for a Star Wars film.

It’s a very important plot point to the entire saga, the rise of Palpatine, but for young kids new to the saga, it’s way over their heads. Therefore, there’s more pressure on the Anakin plot line to keep the film interesting along with Jar Jar Binks to provide much needed comic relief.

Unless you were there in 1999, I don’t think you understand the hatred that came out for Jar Jar Binks, a creature known as a Gungan who was one of the first all CGI creatures that had a prominent role in a film. The widespread criticism of the character almost led to the suicide of Ahmed Best, the actor who played him on set for reference and provided the voice.

I admit my initial thoughts were one of annoyance. A second viewing I remember thinking he wasn’t so bad. On this recent watching, I found Jar Jar to be amusing at times but there’s an over reliance on him. Jar Jar is always clumsy and always causing accidents which usually benefit him in some way, especially in the final battle. As this runs throughout the film, it becomes a tiring.

So that leaves us with the remaining characters, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn, his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala, the ruler of the planet Naboo.

Qui-Gon Jinn is played excellently by Liam Neeson and frankly is the one person who comes out best of this whole show.

His apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi is played by Ewan McGregor who is performing a subdued impression of the late Alec Guinness who was the same character in the original trilogy.

There’s plenty of lightsabers and blaster action!

Jake Lloyd was Anakin Skywalker, someone who I was never really pleased with on my original viewing. In fact, the excellent documentary on the original DVD revealed the audition process with the final three original choices of young boys. I was always convinced that one of the other three would’ve made a better Anakin.

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Time has passed and my opinions have changed, slightly. Lloyd is quite a good child actor and I think I was too harsh on him. The only problem I have with him now is when he shouts for joy, “WHOOPEE!!”, “YAYY!!” etc. It never sounds convincing.

Finally, Natalie Portman plays a stiff unrelenting Queen Amidala who becomes more animated as the film progresses, especially as she keeps switching roles with a then unknown actress, Keira Knightley.

I almost forgot about the secondary villain who’s so criminally underused, you forget he is even in the film throughout, the Sith apprentice, Darth Maul.

Played by martial artist Ray Park and voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, even though he only has three lines during the entire film, Darth Maul was a visually interesting character who also had a Star Wars film first, a double-bladed lightsaber.

But poor old Maul only gets one and a half fights, the first was cut down in editing, and is then killed by the end. It such a waste of an underused character, he should have at least carried over into another episode.

What about the rest of the film? Set just over thirty years before the original Star Wars film, nearly everything has a clean, brand-new appearance. This takes away from some of the Star Wars charm which had a used universe look about it.

Oh Darth Maul, in 1999 we hardly got to know you!

The film still looks great with some beautiful design work in there including the not so intelligent battle robots and the sleek chromed Naboo star fighters. The costume work is also top-notch with Queen Amidala wearing some impressive outfits throughout the film.

The films visual effects also come under scrutiny as this is now twenty-year-old technology. To be fair, its pretty good and holds up fairly well. There is a good mixture of ground breaking CGI technology and good old practical miniature effects work. The pod racing sequence is still a thrill to watch all these years later and is probably the big highlight of the film.

Interestingly, this Blu-ray edition also has the inclusion of a new CGI created Yoda who has replaced the original on set puppet. Now I’m usually someone who despises these constant updates but to be honest, the Phantom Menace Yoda puppet never looked quite right. This new CGI version actually looks better and fits in well.

So, twenty years later, how do I feel?

In all honest, I think I enjoyed it a little more after all these years and how it sets up the main plot for the saga. Despite that, the film is still very much a mixed bag. It does make you wonder what could’ve of been If Lucas had controlled the story elements but let someone else direct.

3 out 5

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace twenty years on was better than I remembered but still has many drawbacks. – 3/5


John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves film, and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990s. Whilst that website became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. He's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.