Day 26 – A Movie You Love That Many Do Not
Movie-watching is incredibly subjective. On one hand, even the greatest films have their detractors; on the other, my roommate actually, sincerely enjoys Dickey Roberts: Former Child Star. Today’s post is a sort of sibling to yesterday’s—rather than hatin’ on a movie that is generally asserted to be pretty good, we’re showing some love to a film that may not be generally well-liked.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
If there’s one thing that’s cool to have on the internet, it’s better-than-thou antipathy, and few movies know this better than The Phantom Menace. The first film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace experiences vitriol the likes of which is generally reserved for discussing the Vietnam War. And while I’m not going to be an apologist for all of the story decisions or Jar Jar Binks, I don’t think The Phantom Menace is nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.
The plot, because structure dictates I recount it. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two members of a peace-keeping society called the Jedi Order, Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to assist the planet of Naboo, which is under siege by the Trade Federation. Their negotiations fail spectacularly, and must flee the planet with Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) in order to seek further assistance. Along the way, they make a detour to the desert planet Tatooine, where they encounter a young prodigy of the Force named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). Qui Gon is convinced that Anakin is the boy of prophecy who will one day bring balance to the Force, and brings him along for training. Together, the party must find a way to liberate Naboo from the Trade Federation’s grasp, and investigate a creeping evil that casts a shadow over the whole series of events.
Yeah, Jar Jar's pretty obnoxious, but this is the one with Darth Maul, so they sort of cancel each other out.
For my money, The Phantom Menace is my favorite of the Star Wars prequels, for the simple reason that it feels the most like Star Wars. As much as The Phantom Menace uses CG and computers for its visual effects, it still utilizes models and actual real-life locations, which gel with the original trilogy much better than Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith’s mostly- or all-digital backgrounds and sets. From a writing perspective, The Phantom Menace feels like it has more quote-worthy lines than the others – certainly nothing on the level of the originals, but there are a few memorable lines, compared to none at all in the other two prequels. The Phantom Menace also benefits from not having Hayden Christiansen, whom I will swap for Jake Lloyd any day of the week.
I also had the unique advantage of being a part of the film’s exact target audience when it was released. Back in 1999, I was a white, pre-teen male whose movie theater-experience was pretty nominal, and the film’s slightly-adolescent tone and incredible imagination resonated with me in a way that carries over to the present. To upshot is that, while I recognize the film’s shortcomings (questionable story decisions, uneven acting, etc.), I still have affection for the thing, and continue to like it even now.
To close, I’d like to offer some perspective: is The Phantom Menace really worth all of the cinephile angst it receives? Of course it’s not as good as the originals, but does that really make it one of the worst films of 1999? For all of the nasty, hyperbolic statements made about the film, is it honestly worse than Jawbreaker or Wild Wild West? If the answer is yes, I would rather like to hear about it in the comments.