A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
The time was May of 1999. The place was a movie theater in Baltimore, Maryland. The theater was packed with people waiting to see the most anticipated film of their lifetime. The film was The Phantom Menace, the first prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. For two years, the people in the audience had followed every detail of the film’s production. Some of them had gone to showings of Meet Joe Black and Wing Commander, just so they could see the first trailers for the film.
Sitting out in that audience was one 16 year-old boy who, a few nights earlier, had been standing outside a Target at midnight so that he could be one of the first to buy Phantom Menace merchandise. He bought two Jar Jar Binks action figures because, even before Phantom Menace opened, he suspected Jar Jar would be the most controversial character.
When the lights went down, the audience cheered. At the start of every trailer, someone in the dark theater shouted, “I bent my Wookie!” The audience laughed the first two times. By the fifth time, there were only a few pity titters.
Finally, it was time! The first few notes of John Williams’s Star Wars theme echoed through the theater. Again, the audience cheered as the familiar title crawl appeared on-screen.
The 16 year-old read the opening crawl and he started to get worried. What was all this talk about taxation? Trade routes? Trade Federation? Blockades? It seemed more appropriate for Star Trek or even Dune. Except for the mention of Jedis at the end of the crawl, it did not sound much like Star Wars.
Things started to look up as soon as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor made their first appearance as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan’s first line was, “I have a bad feeling about this.” A few people in the audience clapped. “I bent my Wookie!” a familiar voice shouted. Nobody laughed.
When a hologram of Darth Sidious appeared and told the Trade Federation goons to kill Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, everyone in the audience knew that Darth Sidious was Palaptine, the future Emperor, and the excitement was palpable. When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fought off the battle droids and escaped to the besieged planet of Naboo, the audience started to relax. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as the critics were saying.
Then Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan met Jar Jar Binks and the whole movie went to shit.
In the months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, everyone had heard about Jar Jar Binks and how he was a totally computer-generated character. Jar Jar Binks was the future of movie technology and, from the minute he first appeared, the future was fucking terrifying. Jar Jar was a Gungun, an amphibious creature who was characterized as being clumsy and cowardly. He shrieked in a high-pitched voice and spoke in an indescribable dialect. As much as the audience tried, there was no way to avoid or ignore Jar Jar Binks. He was not in the entire movie but he was at the center of every scene in which he did appear.
As Jar Jar led Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to the underwater city of the Gunguns, a voice in the dark theater shouted out, “I bent my Wookie!”
“Shut the fuck up!” the 16 year-old snapped back.
The 16 year-old was not sure if anyone heard him but the voice was silent for the rest of the movie.
No sooner had the audience recovered from their introduction to Jar Jar then they met young Anakin Skywalker. Anakin’s story was the whole reason that The Phantom Menace had been made. The audience knew that the prequels would show how Anakin Skywalker would grow up to the greatest and most evil badass in the universe, Darth Vader. But in Phantom Menace, he was just a 9 year-old slave on the planet of Tatooine, conceived by immaculate conception. Even before Phantom Menace was released, the word was out that Jake Lloyd, the child cast as young Anakin, was not exactly the best actor in the world. But even though they had been forewarned, the audience was not prepared for just how terrible little Jake Lloyd was in the role. There was no darkness to Jake Lloyd’s cutesy performance. There was no sadness or toughness. Jake Lloyd came across like the type of hyperactive child who would end up in the ensemble of a Christmas play, breaking character and waving to his parents during the Crucifixion. Not only could the audience not see him growing up to be Darth Vader but they could not imagine him as a slave living on an inhospitable desert planet.
Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, Queen Padme (Keira Knightley), and Padme’s handmaid, Amidala (Natalie Portman) were stranded on Tatooine when they first met Anakin. Qui-Gon felt that Anakin was “the chosen one,” who would bring balance to the force. It was hard for the audience to believe him when they heard Anakin shout, “Yippe!”
For that 16 year-old who had stayed up past midnight to buy two Jar Jar Binks action figures, that “yippe” was the final straw. He had watched the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS tapes. He had gone to the re-releases. He loved Star Wars and he wanted to love The Phantom Menace. Instead, he felt so let down by the film that he could barely look at the screen.
The 16 year-old wondered why C3PO and R2D2 were in the film. Phantom Menace revealed that they were built by the future Darth Vader. R2D2 would even help Anakin in the film’s final battle. It made no sense. The 16 year-old wondered if anyone else in the audience was as confused as he was. He wondered why, if he could see that this made no sense, George Lucas could not understand the same thing.
Anakin won a pod race and was allowed to leave Tatooine. The film’s action was moved to the Coruscant, a planet that was covered with one huge city. Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Mace Windu and, when he stared out at the audience, he seemed to be saying, “I fucking dare you to yell anything about bending your motherfucking Wookie!” There were scenes set in the galactic senate, presumably to appease everyone who wanted a meticulously detailed portrait of how a galactic Republic would be governed. Padme turned out to be a fake and Amidala was revealed as the real queen. There was a final battle between the forces of the Republic and the Trade Federation. Qui-Gon was killed in a duel with the evil Darth Maul (Ray Park) but Obi-Wan promised to train Anakin in the ways of the Jedi. Palpatine promised that he would be watching Anakin’s development.
And, of course, there was this:
For many in the audience who truly loved the original trilogy and who had spent the past two years scouring every corner of the Internet in search of news about The Phantom Menace, the midi-chlorians was the point that they give up on the movie. The Force added a hint of mysticism to the original trilogy. Because it was so mysterious and its origins so deliberately obscure, fans of Star Wars could imagine that The Force was inside of them as well as Luke and Darth Vader. “May the force be with you,” was more than just a catch phrase to those fans. It was a reminder that, even in a galaxy far far away, there was still mystery and faith. When Qui-Gon talked about midi-chlorians, fans realized that not only did they understand the appeal of Star Wars better than George Lucas but George Lucas did not even care why they loved his film. For those fans, the midi-chlorians not only ruined The Phantom Menace but cheapened the original trilogy as well. The Force was no longer special or mystical. Anakin might as well have just been bitten by a radioactive spider.
For the 16 year-old, it was somehow even worse that, before asking about the Force, Anakin apologized to Qui-Gon for causing so much trouble. Sitting out in the theater, he knew that the boy who would grow up to be Darth Vader would never yell “yippie!” and he would never apologize for causing any trouble.
At the end of the movie, the audience did not know how to react. The 16 year-old talked to his friends as they filed out of the theater. Everyone was in a state of denial. They knew that they had seen something very disappointing but, after all the excitement leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, they did not want to admit how disappointed they really were with the actual movie. They talked about what did work. They talked about the pod race, which had been fun. They talked about the exciting light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul. Being teenage boys, they also talked about Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.
They tried not to talk about Jar Jar Binks, beyond agreeing that he sucked. They tried not to talk about Jake Lloyd as Anakin. It was too painful to know that Star Wars had been reduced to Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd. They did make fun of the “I bent my Wookie” guy. In the face of grave disillusionment, it was all that the 16 year-old and his friends could do.
Today, enough time has passed that it is easier to laugh about Jar Jar Binks and The Phantom Menace. Though the initial trauma may have faded into memory, it all came rushing back to me as soon as Lisa asked me if I would be willing to review The Phantom Menace for this site. I cautiously agreed and hoped that, since I already knew what I was getting myself into, The Phantom Menace would not be as disappointing the second time around.
It was a strange experience rewatching The Phantom Menace. While I remembered how bad the movie was, I’d forgotten how equally boring it was. Jar Jar Binks was even more annoying than I remembered and Jake Lloyd was even worse. Of the film’s best scenes, the pod race went on too long and the duel with Darth Maul was too short. For such a badass villain, Darth Maul was underused for much of the film, as if George Lucas did not understand that the kids he claimed to have made the film for would be far more interested in the dynamic Darth Maul than the histrionic Jar Jar Binks.
Worst of all, the entire movie felt even more pointless the second time around. When the prequels were first released, George Lucas always said that all three of them should be viewed in the context of the larger story that they were telling. But what do we really learn from The Phantom Menace or any of the prequels? Did anyone really want to know about how trade was regulated before the Empire? Did we really need to know the exact details of how Anakin became a Jedi? Watching The Phantom Menace, the answer is no.
I was especially surprised by how bad the CGI looked. When The Phantom Menace was first released, the CGI was often the only thing that was critically praised. Critics may have hated Jar Jar Binks as a character but they all agreed that it was impressive that a major character had been created by a computer. It is easy to forget just how big a deal was made about The Phantom Menace‘s special effects. At the time, we had yet to take it for granted that an entire movie could be made on a computer.
But seen today, the CGI not only seems cartoonish but, like the midi-chlorians, it feels like a betrayal of everything that made the original Star Wars special. The universe of New Hope and Empire Strikes Back felt lived in. It was imperfect and real. It was a universe where even the most fearsome storm trooper could accidentally bump his head on a doorway.
But the CGI-created universe of The Phantom Menace was too slick and too perfect. There was no chance for spontaneity or anything unexpected. The universe of the original Star Wars trilogy was one in which you could imagine living but the universe of The Phantom Menace seemed only to exist in the computers at Lucasfilm. With The Phantom Menace, George Lucas seemed to be reminding those who loved his films that the Star Wars universe belonged to him and him alone. Our imagination was no longer necessary.
As for that 16 year-old who first saw The Phantom Menace in that Baltimore theater, I still have those Jar Jar Binks action figures. I keep one of them on my desk at work and I enjoy the strange looks that it gets. If you push down its arms, Jar Jar sticks out his tongue.
It just seems appropriate.