Like many people, I celebrated The Phantom Menace‘s twentieth anniversary today by watching the film. I remain very much so someone on the outside looking in on fandom, but it has seemed to me that fans of the movie have become more vocal in celebrating it over the past five or ten years, and general opinion has mellowed.
I have a bad habit of providing opinions amplified by several layers of hyperbole in person, and so I know over the years that my expressed opinion on the films has changed rather a lot. I was ten years old when the movie came out, and still a fairly new Star Wars fan, and so I was the perfect viewer in that moment. I loved it. In my adolescence, as a result of the combination of vehement criticism from older fans and my natural teenage aversion to anything silly or earnest, I joined my friends in decrying the film–typically in the context of condemning the course of the prequel trilogy as a whole (Attack of the Clones has always been my least-favorite Star Wars movie, so at the time, it felt like the movies were getting progressively worse). It was in college that I started to come back around to the film, returning to it as to an old friend. My opinion today is tempered. I think it’s a fine but flawed film, and it typically lands in the middle of any personal ranking of the franchise installments.
My personal criticisms of the film, despite my broader changes in attitude toward it, have remained relatively consistent. The podrace scene is too long and bogs down the story. It’s unclear why Palpatine’s Sith identity is treated like a secret withheld from the audience, even while the camera lingers over him ominously in many key scenes and everyone who’s seen Return of the Jedi knows how this all turns out. The scatological humor, while not unique to this episode, isn’t funny. Anakin is too young, with too much of an age gap, to take his childhood crush on Padmé very seriously, and to the extent that she reciprocates it (“my caring for you will remain”), it’s just creepy. Despite the increased diversity of the human cast, many of the new aliens pick up uncomfortable racist tropes in their characterization. And while a common complaint is that the plot is boring in its focus on trade route taxation, I’d counter by saying that it’s actually a rather action-packed adventure that expects its viewers to jump right into the setting and come along for the ride, resulting in gaps in exposition that actually make that trade conflict, and the associated governmental and commercial bodies, rather muddled, simply dressing up a MacGuffin to get things going. (In general, one of my biggest complaints about the prequels as a whole is that they provide a lot more complicated galactic society but do a very poor job of properly framing how these complicated pieces actually function and fit together.)
Despite all that, it’s a really fun movie that takes risks both as a film and as an installment in the Star Wars saga, and it feels incredibly invested with the vision of George Lucas. It quickly introduces new characters that millions of people now relate to and admire deeply–including a character like Qui-Gon Jinn, who is given considerable humanity in this one-off appearance through the performance of Liam Neeson. More broadly, all of the performances are effective, and I would push back at those who claim that Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman were stiff or wooden in their roles here. There’s a lot of affection and yet tension between McGregor’s Obi-Wan and his master. Portman is reserved and imposing as Queen Amidala, yet when she dons her handmaiden identity, she often allows herself to be frustrated, angry, affectionate, and engaged. (Furthermore, the distant identity and elaborate clothing and makeup as Queen Amidala allow Padmé to use a handmaiden as her double–and it is impressively difficult to tell Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley apart when the makeup is on.) Ian McDiarmid is always incredible as Palpatine, and here we first got to see the mirage of a warm and endearing politician, even as McDiarmid portrays a depth of hidden meaning in his distant frowns and tiny smiles. If we look at Ahmed Best’s performance, and the special effects work that went into creating Jar Jar Binks, I think we could all agree that it’s impressive, even if you can’t get behind Jar Jar’s goofy slapstick or the uncomfortable echoes of minstrelsy. Ray Park is scary and compelling as Darth Maul, a character with an iconic visual design, and the fight scenes between Jedi and Sith are some of the best in the franchise–especially that final fight set to “Duel of the Fates,” which in turn has to be a franchise highlight for John Williams’s scores. Even Jake Lloyd does a good enough job as Anakin, despite having to deal with ridiculous lines like “Yipee!” His farewell with Pernilla August as his mother Shmi is a heartfelt, beautiful, earned moment that always touches me.
While I’m sure that some fans will look on The Phantom Menace with a special sort of purity, even as others continue to view it only with contempt, I’ll still enjoy it as an imperfect and unique episode in my favorite film franchise. I think, all in all, it’s stood up to the test of time better than many might have expected twenty years ago.