Happy 20th Birthday to “Phantom Menace,” the Terrible Star Wars Movie That Changed Everything

Happy 20th Birthday to “Phantom Menace,” the Terrible Star Wars Movie That Changed Everything

20 years ago today, millions of Star Wars fans settled into movie theaters to experience a movie that was about as anticipated as any pop culture phenomenon can be. As they thrilled to the iconic appearance of the classic logo and John Williams’s stirring fanfare, they must have desperately hoped they weren’t setting themselves up for one of the most epic disappointments in 20th century movie history.

The Star Wars prequels don’t work. I experienced that a few years ago, when I threw a party for a marathon screening of episodes I-VII. As long as the prequels were on, the TV was just background. People chatted, snacked, played card games. As soon as the original Star Wars started, the background became foreground — and the series held everyone’s attention right up until Rey confronted Luke on Ahch-To.

Ultimately, though, the prequels got a thumbs-up from the most consequential reviewer of all: Walt Disney. When George Lucas sold his franchise to the entertainment giant, Disney cleared the decks by declaring that hundreds of books, games, and other media existing in a carefully maintained continuity beyond the original films were no longer canon. They kept, however, Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Jar Jar Binks is still officially part of the Star Wars universe.

As Chris Taylor points out in his 2014 history How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, in all their awkwardness the prequels successfully mobilized a new generation of Star Wars fans. Millennials now felt invested in Lucas’s world, and conversant with a vastly expanded continuity. Buttressed with animated TV series, the Clone Wars went from a quick mention to an expansive struggle chronicled in the kind of detail that would impress a West Point historian.

This despite the fact that, at the end of the prequels, it’s revealed that the Clone Wars were entirely built on a fiction crafted by Palpatine to justify the transformation of the Republic into the Empire. At the height of their powers, the Jedi were essentially punk’d. For all their praise of democracy, they were vulnerable to exploitation because they pledged themselves to serve a government that became corrupted at its core.

That’s not a very rosy view of representative government, and in that sense the prequels speak to their era. The liberal Lucas was deeply disillusioned by the deceptions and abuses of the George W. Bush administration, inspiring lines like Padmé’s ominous, “So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”

It was inevitable, of course, that the prequels would be darker than the original trilogy. They expanded the story’s tonal range, developing shades of light and dark that the first three movies only gestured at. The Republic is the Empire, and the Jedi struggle with an ancient debate as they watch a galaxy vote away its own freedoms. Did the Republic need a philosopher-king?

That way darkness lies, as Yoda might say. The need for a single wise leader is precisely the argument Palpatine makes to Anakin, and it’s the young man’s loyalty to individuals rather than principles that ultimately dooms him. Through the fall of Anakin, Lucas develops his argument that effective public service is hard because it must be selfless.

Anakin is not a great character, both because of Hayden Christensen’s broadly brooding performance (the less said about Jake Lloyd’s “little Ani,” the better) and because the plot of the prequels requires him to be utterly obtuse regarding Palpatine’s machinations. While the pain of losing his mother is well-established — the scene where he tells Padmé about murdering the Sandpeople is perhaps Christensen’s best — we basically get one spooky dream as the straw that breaks the Jedi’s resolve in Revenge of the Sith.

What if, instead, Lucas had Anakin realize the wars he’s been heroically fighting have all been a farce? If anything could make you lose your faith in the Jedi order, it would be the fact that a Sith lord cleverly disguised as the most obvious suspect has tricked the wise and peaceful Yoda into leading a clone army, and everyone’s just now figuring this out.

Just as Anakin sacrificed himself to save Luke, though, Christensen walked so that Adam Driver could fly. Lucas often spoke of the Star Wars movies as being variations on a theme, and the fascination of Kylo Ren is the fact that he’s perpetually frustrated at not being as powerful as Darth Vader — when in fact, he’s a far more sophisticated operator than Anakin ever was. What he’s bad at, where Vader excelled, is being a pawn.

Even in his big Empire scene (“Luke, I am your father”), Vader is just telling the truth. He probably wanted to tell Luke earlier, but the Emperor made him play it a little cooler. His grandson, on the other hand, proves to be a master manipulator: watch him deceive Han on the catwalk, and later both Snoke and Rey in the throne room. We don’t know what Kylo will do, which makes him a more truly disturbing character than the pliably malevolent Vader.

As Lucas intended, Vader’s character development in the prequels makes the Return of the Jedi climax all the more powerful. The Emperor’s assessment that Luke’s faith in his friends is a weakness reveals Palpatine’s own fatal flaw: he assumes that an apprentice who stood by while a planet full of people were destroyed won’t balk at the death of a single man, even one who happens to be his son. Luke’s faith in his friends — and family — turns out to be very well-placed indeed.

(Even so, the story of Darth Vader helps inform Luke’s disillusionment in The Last Jedi, and Yoda’s acquiescence in the tree fire. The inability of the Jedi to stop the rise and reign of Darth Sidious demonstrates that their order alone cannot keep the Force in balance.)

Lucas’s frustration with the prequels’ poor reception is understandable. In his mind, to make the prequels he just repeated what he did with the original trilogy, except with far better effects technology. Why the hate?

There are a lot of answers to that, and they’re all very readily accessible on YouTube and in other corners of the internet. One thing the success of the post-Lucas sequels made particularly clear, though, is the fact that Lucas made the prequels while looking backward: backward at his own films, and at the early serials that inspired them.

The original trilogy may have started as an homage to those serials, but they also captured the zeitgeist of their times and were so well-crafted that they achieved a life of their own. Flash Gordon was not a reference point for most of Lucas’s audience in 1999, and J.J. Abrams understood that wooden dialogue wouldn’t come off as an homage…it would just come off as boring.

After the prequels’ outrageously athletic lightsaber battles, it’s telling that the Force Awakens battle — a messy, desperate fight between untrained civilians and a Sith warrior who’s badly wounded — is more involving than any of them. The weight of the confrontation comes not from its pyrotechnics but from its symbolic heft.

With the success of its live-action remakes of its animated classics, Disney has certainly learned to appreciate the appeal of a remake. Would the new Lucasfilm ever remake the Star Wars prequels? If it did, would that be the ultimate heresy, or the ultimate compliment?

– Jay Gabler