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The Campy Joys of Watching ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,’ 15 Years Later

We knew from the start that The Phantom Menace was not a Great Movie. It wasn’t even a good one, arguably; when it hit theaters 15 years ago today, the prequel was greeted with such ringing praise as “certainly adequate” and “has a lot of stuff.” The movie made tons of money, but then again, the only way it wouldn’t have raked in the cash is if George Lucas had produced two hours of nothing but scrolling, bright-yellow-scripted exposition (or even more bone-dry Galactic Senate scenes, á la a brilliant Simpsons parody that is unfortunately nowhere to be found on YouTube). But the consensus seemed to be that thanks to its eye-popping special effects, Phantom Menace was a wash: bad acting, worse writing, OHMYGOD POD RACING!

That was 1999, however, and this is now. A re-watch of The Phantom Menace through the eyes of someone who’s seen Avatar and The Avengers reveals a very different movie than the one fans queued up for, whether because they’d loved the franchise since the original films or, like me, because they were just kids and therefore suckers for explosions, particularly PG-rated ones set in outer space. The fight scenes, CGI aliens, and green-screen landscapes that were once the movie’s sole redeeming qualities have now shifted to the other side of the pro/con list. This is not, as it might seem, a bad thing. Instead, The Phantom Menace has aged from a merely mediocre space epic into a movie that’s not just crappy, but fantastically, creatively so. It’s reached a status that’s only rarely achieved in film, and never intentionally: The Phantom Menace is now officially So Bad It’s Good.

Take the pod-racing scene, touted even by detractors as turn-of-the-millennium SFX at their best. The action still holds up, definitely better than the “things-crashing-into-other-things” style of superhero standoffs that drag down today’s blockbusters. Things do crash into other things, yet when they do, it’s exciting because the crashing has an impact on the race, and thus Anakin’s freedom. That’s not what sinks the scene — the goofy two-headed announcer accomplishes that all on his (their?) own, with the help of a sprightly young Jabba the Hutt. Then Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman do their best impression of two human beings having an argument/emotions, and the sequence is done for.

The movie’s very premise even borders on self-parody. By the time Return of the Sith rolls around, the prequels manage to work themselves up to genuine life-or-death-stakes. Phantom Menace, on the other hand, reintroduces diehards to the galaxy for the first time in 15 years with… an economic blockade? Light saber battles are nifty, but all the duels in the world can’t distract from the fact that the movie’s main villains are called the Trade Federation. Or that a not-insignificant amount of drama is centered on the sausage-making of the Galactic Senate. That Simpsons parody wasn’t too far off when it satirized The Phantom Menace as a two-hour-long parliamentary roll call.

There’s much more to mock about The Phantom Menace: the forays into the Uncanny Valley, as explained by Frank on 30 Rock; Yoda’s cheesy warning that fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hate, and… you know the rest; the creepy pipe-laying for the future love story between Padme and a character who’s currently a nine-year-old boy. The plot holes, in short, that emerged once the excitement of having Star Wars back in the cultural mix ran up against the movie fans actually got.

My point isn’t quite that The Phantom Menace was underwhelming to those of us who’d hoped Darth Vader would get a less bizarre origin story than an immaculate conception by the Force. It’s that a movie originally disappointing in its mediocrity has come into its own as something that’s exceptional, albeit not in the way George Lucas originally intended. Just as the originals don’t pack the special-effects punch they did in the late ’70s/early ’80s, neither does The Phantom Menace win points for its CGI or nostalgia factor. With the former films, the effect is to allow the acting, writing, and world building to stand on their own. With the latter, it allows fans to have some fun at the prequel’s expense now that the sting of a less-than-stellar addition to the franchise has worn off.

Parts of The Phantom Menace don’t get better with age, obviously; we’ve still got a long way to go, but I’d like to think that today’s audiences and critics would reject the various ethnic stereotypes faster and more unequivocally than those in 1999 did. An economically powerful race of aliens whose voices sound an awful lot like butchered Asian accents is cringe-worthy, but not in the look-it’s-Natalie-Portman-before-she-could-act way. Ditto to whatever was going on with Jar Jar Binks’ pseudo-Caribbean schtick, or Anakin’s money-grubbing owner with the suspiciously large nose.

Whatever its faults, though, The Phantom Menace at 15 has finally matured into something Star Wars fans can watch with amusement, if not pride. With Episodes VII, VIII, and IX on the horizon, it’s also a reminder that even though sequels may not — and probably won’t — live up to the trilogy that inspired them, follow-ups can bring something to the table even if they aren’t The Empire Strikes Back or The Godfather Part II. Time heals all wounds, and once we get over the bummer of swapping out Darth Vader for Darth Maul, we move past the reality that The Phantom Menace doesn’t wow us. It doesn’t have to, as long as it entertains us.

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