2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Boy, what an event.
From the official anniversary panel at Star Wars Celebration Chicago, to Palpatine apparently rejoining the cast for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX. It feels like everything in this franchise is coming full circle.
I vividly remember the day I watched The Phantom Menace for the first time in theaters, and it’s stuck with me all these years. I was still in elementary school, and it was a hot summer day when the air was thick with the promise of thunderstorms. The grasshoppers were buzzing. I’d never seen a Star Wars film in theaters before that day, and my dad—a geek himself—took me and my brothers to see it at the local venue, which was sitting on the edge of town.
When I first watched it, I was utterly enchanted with The Phantom Menace. My opinion on it began to change as the years went by. After watching the live-stream of the anniversary panel, and revisiting my own memories about it, I started to wonder what it would be like to watch The Phantom Menace again as an adult.
Would I hate it? Dislike it? Would it would be worse or better than I remembered, now that I had twenty years behind me? What would remain the same?
What’s the Same? What’s Worse?
The first thing that really stuck out for me upon my rewatch is that The Phantom Menace would have been better suited as a TV show.
From the episodic nature of each event, to the almost static camera angles and the flat lighting, to the focus on character introspection rather than big events, everything screamed “small screen!”
We also have a good example of how this sort of story could have played out on the TV through the animated classic Clone Wars, which is beloved by fans of all stripes.
Perhaps if The Phantom Menace had followed this path, it would have been better received by fans and critics. There was a lot of controversy surrounding this film when it first came out, and even now I cringe at the memory of it.
My favorite part of the movie was and still remains the podracing. I loved it as a kid because I found it exciting. As an adult, I think I liked it because it’s one of the most dynamic scenes throughout the entire film. It feels better-suited for the theater. This is probably why it’s aged well, even when it comes to the much-lambasted CGI.
Unfortunately, the rest of the CGI in the film still needs a lot of work. I try not to judge computer graphics from the 90s too harshly anymore, because they’re from a different era. Unfortunately when you compare The Phantom Menace to other films that came out around the same time—The Matrix, for example—it doesn’t stand up.
What’s Better Than I Remember?
Upon rewatch, I think I judged this movie too harshly in my angsty teen years when I wanted to join everyone else in thinking it was substandard. The Phantom Menace does deserve a second chance, especially when it comes to storytelling.
The movie is very self-aware for a product of its era, and its opening scrawl about intergalactic corporations is incredibly prescient. The Phantom Menace is also prophetic when, during the opening scrawl, it states that “the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming change of events” in relation to the building crisis. Honestly, how doesn’t that sound like our current political reality? I got shivers thinking about it.
I also think—in retrospect—that I enjoyed the character of Anakin the most. This upsets me, knowing the vitriol that was thrown at the character when the film first aired. I really don’t think it was deserved.
I felt connected to Anakin and his emotional arc in a way that I didn’t feel connected to him when I was a child myself. Consequently, I’m now wondering if it’s because his arc resonates better with an adult audience.
Respecting the Legacy of the Star Wars Prequel
I think we all need to have a greater appreciation for the movie’s overall legacy and how it affected the Star Wars franchise. Through creature and costume design, to introducing the Star Wars universe to a whole new generation of fans, its impact was overwhelming good. I’m glad I got to rewatch it.
Looking to marathon the entire series from beginning to end? Here’s how to watch Star Wars in canonical order.