Has any film in history ever been hyped quite as much as the Star Wars movie The Phantom Menace?


Released 25 years ago on 19th May 1999, George Lucas's long-awaited return to a galaxy far, far away was the cinematic event of the century.

The initial reception upon its release was largely positive. Critics lavished Lucas's prequel with praise while fans lapped up the opportunity to revisit one of the definitive pop culture landscapes of their childhoods.

But then came the backlash.

Driven by the growing concept of "fandom" and the burgeoning world of online discourse, The Phantom Menace would become a byword for on-screen awfulness, the subject of near-universal disdain from the franchise’s ferociously protective fans.

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But were they right? Or does Star Wars' Episode I deserve a little more appreciation? Let's take a look.

Bright, breezy and bombastic

Looking back now, the most startling thing about The Phantom Menace is quite how different it is from any other instalment of the franchise.

The original movies had given us a glimpse of a galaxy under the yoke of an evil empire, a grim and grubby world of outlaws and oppression.

But The Phantom Menace provides an entirely different take on a galaxy that we all thought we were familiar with.

Liam Neeson plays Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace holding a green lightsaber, ready to fight
Liam Neeson plays Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. SEAC

This is an altogether more optimistic setting. Through a journey that takes in a kaleidoscope of colourful civilisations, the sprawling cityscape of Coruscant and the eye-popping panoramas of Naboo, viewers get to experience the Republic in its pomp.

Even the spaceships are buffed to a polished chrome, gleaming with the kind of hope and optimism that’s in stark contrast to the darkness of the original instalments or the impending doom that surrounds the rest of the prequel trilogy.

It’s not just the world-building that’s on point, either. Against this brightly-coloured backdrop, we’re presented with an equally luminous cast.

From Liam Neeson's stoic Qui-Gon Jinn to the understated excellence of Ian McDiarmid’s would-be puppeteer Palpatine, the movie introduces us to characters that have become as much a part of Star Wars canon as any of the original ensemble.

And let’s not forget Ewan McGregor, who not only steps out from Alec Guinness's sizeable shadow but ultimately eclipses him as a Star Wars icon.

Incredible action

For a franchise that has conflict baked into its title, we can’t discuss The Phantom Menace without considering the action.

And though fans may have been fearful when the opening crawl detailed the innermost workings of galactic trade disputes, it’s an area where Episode I undoubtedly delivers.

Unlike the subsequent prequels, where Lucas was given free rein of his CGI sandbox, The Phantom Menace combines practical effects with computer wizardry. The end result is nothing short of electric.

Whether it’s the adrenaline rush of the Tatooine pod race or the discombobulating din of outer space dogfights, the on-screen action is an assault on the senses that’s unlike anything we saw in the original movies.

Three figures engaged in an intense lightsaber battle in a grand hall, two Jedi - Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi – with green and blue lightsabers against a dark-cloaked figure, Darth Maul, wielding a red double-bladed lightsaber.
Star Wars Episode I - Phantom Menace. LucasFilm

Above all, however, it’s the dueling Jedi who elevate the instalment to action excellence. The balletic battle with a dual-blade-wielding Darth Maul is the best lightsaber sequence the franchise has ever committed to screen.

It’s a pulsating encounter accentuated by John Williams's incredible score to deliver the kind of thrill that fans have long since been starved of.

Even the showdown between the Gungans and battle droids passes muster on repeated viewings, offering an upgrade on the tree-swinging shenanigans with which the Ewoks enchanted younger viewers 16 years earlier.

Disney disdain

Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that The Phantom Menace is a flawless masterpiece - the Citizen Kane of space operas, it is most certainly not.

From the problematic patois of Jar Jar Binks (or his very existence, for that matter) to the clunky disposition and incessant yippee-ing of Jake Lloyd’s school-aged Sith-in-waiting, the film is littered with flaws.

But then, so has every other Star Wars movie that has followed in its wake, especially those that have been unfurled during the era of Disney’s ownership.

From the damp Womp Rat that is Solo to the pedestrianly plotted sequels, a number of acclaimed directors have tried and failed to breathe new life into a story that cinemagoers have been dipping in and out of for more than five decades now.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Jar Jar Binks leaning on a doorway
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

At least The Phantom Menace attempts to achieve more than another unimaginative retelling. Lucas isn't flogging a dead Bantha here; he’s unapologetically trying to create something different, a jumping-on point for a whole new generation of fans to enjoy.

It’s bold, bright and breezy - a fresh narrative thread plucked from the comfort blanket of a big screen universe we’re all happy to cuddle up in.

And because of that, it’s far from the affront that many fans paint it out to be. It’s not even the worst movie the franchise has ever spawned. In fact, I’d say it’s not even in the top three.

So, if you’ve not revisited it since first exiting the auditorium in 1999, then why not use the 25th anniversary as an opportunity to rediscover The Phantom Menace? You might just be surprised with how much you enjoy it.

The Star Wars films are available to watch on Disney Plus.


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