Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace premiered on May 18th, 1999. I was twelve years old. To give you the full picture, twelve-year-old me wore long cutoffs, black Airwalks, and Peace Frog t-shirts. She devoured The Animorphs and once tripped onto her face rushing home from the bus stop to watch Batman: The Animated Series reruns. She had Christian Riese Lassen dolphin posters and no less than three stuffed wolves on her bed. Twelve-year-old me was awkward, had just discovered deodorant, and was absolutely enthralled with The Phantom Menace.
The original Star Wars trilogy was something of a staple in my childhood. I don’t remember my first time watching the films, but I remember the movies playing on the VCR during visits to various relatives’ homes. I distinctly remember watching The Empire Strikes Back at an aunt’s house the first time I tried iced tea, so the memories of the movies just seem to be braided into my other experiences. I knew who Luke Skywalker was just like I knew who Bugs Bunny was, as if they were simply part of growing up. In fact, my anticipation for Episode I was not unlike my anticipation for, say, Space Jam—I had no reason not to believe that it would be a welcome addition to something I already loved.
I spent the summer of 1999, as I did all summers, at my dad’s, and because of the United States DOMINATING the Women’s World Cup that year, my dad and I ended up watching a hefty amount of television, and were constantly bombarded with trailers or product commercials for Episode I. One wonderful day, he suggested we go see it, and we did. Then, before the visit was over, I casually suggested we see it again on a day when there was nothing to do, and we did. What my dad didn’t know is that I had already seen the movie at home before coming to see him, so my theater screening total was three in one month.
I was slightly too old to go wild on all the toys based on the movie, but I consumed anything else they put out. I drank a near-lethal amount of Mountain Dew so I could collect each character can. I drew an Amidala-esque line down my bottom lip with my mom’s lipstick, force-pushed automatic doors, and dealt with my new and interesting feelings toward Ewan McGregor. I even did a presentation on Ray Park (Darth Maul) for drama class, and was consequently teased by classmates. Then, three years later, Episode II: Attack of the Clones premiered, and I couldn’t be bothered to see it in theaters. I actually can’t say with confidence that I ever sat down and watched the movie in its entirety, only catching parts on HBO. I did see Revenge of the Sith in theaters, but the theater lost power halfway through the film. I ended up using my ticket refund for a different movie, but eventually watched the rest on DVD.
So what happened? How did I go from adolescent obsession to active indifference? I can assure you it wasn’t because I reached some level of maturity, labeling such interests as too juvenile, because I adored the original trilogy (and still do). The reason, I’ve realized upon rewatching the movie, was because it left no lasting impact on me. The Phantom Menace has no memorable dialogue that didn’t originate in the first trilogy or wasn’t some weird, inane thing spouted by Jar Jar Binks (“Okieday!”), something you might remember for the wrong reasons. The cooler scenes are comprised mostly of loud noises and CGI that hasn’t aged well. The plot itself is pretty straight-forward and not terribly deep; characters don’t go through any extreme change or development. I wasn’t so much left thinking about the movie afterward as I was simply replaying it in my head.
The internet and the media have already done the work of beating the dead horse that is everything wrong with this movie, so my rewatch was simply an attempt to rediscover why I loved it as a kid. This was difficult considering I was only two minutes in before something crawled under my skin (“Why do the Neimoidians have to have a thick Thai accent and gap teeth? And why should aliens even have human teeth?”). But unimaginative racist caricatures and groan-worthy dialogue aren’t something kids notice (seriously, go back and watch certain Looney Tunes or Popeye episodes), so I want to try to celebrate whatever it was that enraptured kid-me.
Everyone remembers the podracing scene, and rightly so: it’s mesmerizing. Clocking in at nearly ten full minutes from start to finish line, the scene is packed with edge-of-your-seat action and incredibly satisfying sound effects. By the end, you’ve learned the track, and can match each racer to his pod. It’s more memorable than even the movie’s epic final battle, because the final battle is between the incapable battle droids and the Gungans (meaning the audience’s only stake in the game is Jar Jar Binks who has not done a single helpful thing on purpose). This fight, along with Padmé shooting droids in identical hallways and Anakin accidentally joining a generic space skirmish (where he is the only camera-worthy pilot), feels like climax filler when compared to the showdown between the Jedi Knights and the Sith’s apprentice.
Darth Maul is still pretty impressive to me. His cool but menacing demeanor exudes even in the scenes in which his only action is to walk alongside the important dialogue, though it’s knocked down a peg when he removes his cloak and the audience gets a full close-up of his questionable prosthetic horns. His duel with Obi-Wan in particular is dazzling, fast-paced, and still one of my favorites in all six movies (also regrettably brief). Ray Parks handles the stunts with a kind of fluidity and expertise that makes Darth Maul a worthy adversary. The issue with this final fight, however, is that there’s zero dialogue. None. Two major players are killed and it somehow feels as though nothing really happens, because they didn’t bother to weave in gravitas or meaning. It was simply choreographed combat that was structured in a way to split the two Jedi and allow Obi-Wan to helplessly watch his master die.
Clearly it’s difficult for me not to become cynical of Episode I, even when I’m remembering the good times. All of its best qualities are the ones built on the foundation of the original trilogy, or the flashing lights and colors of shiny CGI, and everything else is either bland or oddly offensive. The strange thing is that my passively negative view of the prequels seems to have strengthened my fondness for the original trilogy, and this is probably true for many fans. It’s easy to appreciate a film when you compare it to something less good. In that same sense, I’m incredibly stoked for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, because J.J. Abrams at least knows how to produce a fun remake and, honestly, how could it be worse than the prequels?
Despite its obvious foibles, the gift The Phantom Menace gave twelve-year-old me was the novelty and excitement of experiencing Star Wars at a movie theater, and for that I am grateful. For one magical summer, I had a wildly fun obsession and a brand new encounter with characters such as R2-D2 and C-3PO, who I already loved. While the movie itself failed to leave an impact, it did feed my love for science fiction and fantasy, opening doors to other life-enriching passions for series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and, of course, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.
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