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FISH GRIWKOSKY: 20 years on, the legacy of The Phantom Menace lingers — both good and ill

 Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala.
Natalie Portman as Queen Amidala. - Courtesy of Lucasfim Ltd.

Unbelievably, somehow, Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace turned 20 this week: the most controversial sequel, never mind prequel, in entertainment history.

Arriving in 1999 at the same time as the notable rush of fans and non-professional critics onto the ever-widening platforms of the Internet and nascent social media, this sudden amplification of everyone’s unedited opinions and the inevitable bully mobs we now hear daily was coupled with worldwide media paying at least as much attention to fans, Jedi cosplayers and merchandise collectors as anything official Lucasfilm placed in front of them.

Consumers were suddenly the main story, long gone were the days when movie studios controlled the message — especially true in the case of Star Wars, which had ascended to a near religion to its biggest adherents since the first film’s release in 1977.

And after the not-always-loved Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, with its not precisely original Death Star — and especially after George Lucas’ 20th anniversary Special Edition re-edits, including philosophical tweaks like having Greedo inexplicably shoot first (and miss!) Han Solo from two feet away — there was a definite tension in the air leading up to Episode I, enough to give the bloodhound media a sense of where to point the cameras, especially at anyone in a costume that didn’t fit quite right.

And didn’t the fans — with their brand-new Darth Maul tattoos, film unseen — just love the attention? It was certainly the first time I got my face on the cover of a daily newspaper and repeatedly interviewed by local TV — so, yeah, guilty as charged.

It was fun, a feeling of redemption almost, that the world was watching and listening to us babble without embarrassment about robots and space princesses.

But looking back at what came next, it was also the first major Hollywood film where waves of coverage almost joyfully focused on the negative reaction, to a point years later where the film is still name-dropped in reviews and confident commentaries as our Darkest Cinematic Hour.

But was Phantom Menace really that bad? You probably have an opinion and it’s maybe even “hell yeah,” depending on how old you were when it came out in 1999.

If, like me, you stood outside in a long line outside the Paramount in 1980 about to have your mind melted forever by, well, actually everything about The Empire Strikes Back, chances are the scene where cartoon goofball Jar Jar Binks runs up screaming was a second layer of mashed potatoes on your heart as your head was already processing the fact a bunch of robot Snoopys just chirped, “roger roger” at each other in autotune.

I remember that sinking feeling, an almost familial sort of embarrassment, like reading your dad talk about abortion on Twitter, as Qui-Gon Jinn nodded vaguely in the direction of the kinda-there CGI Gungan, saying to Ewan McGregor’s teen heartthrob Obi-Wan Kenobi, “What’s this?”

Oh, you know, just the future of cinema: Gollum, Dobby and Thanos on. Or are we going to pretend that the final battle of Avengers: Endgame wasn’t actually a direct descendant of that skirmish in the Naboo grass where, ahem, the Night King might’ve learned a lesson or two about having your soldiers all controlled by a central computer.

Red Letter Media’s career-launching, 70-minute takedown of Phantom Menace dropped on YouTube in 2009 is a masterpiece of criticism and — narrated by genius obsessive fan and not-surprisingly-also-a-serial killer Harvey S. Plinkett — took a devastatingly beautiful swing at anyone who would care so much about all this meaningless nonsense in the first place.

It’s worth re-watching for that second point especially, as is a recent video by the comedy outfit where a pathetic man child uber-fan dissolves hundreds of vintage Star Wars action figures in acid as a last stand against the Disney-era films. It’s incidentally entirely satirical, and so on the mark of where we are, at least in our peacocking moments: entitled and furious about everything, making boycott threats no one actually cares about as The Rise of Skywalker (calling it now) is going to be the most financially successful film of the year, as well as the most yelled about thing on the Internet — a predictable pattern which was truly first born in the same delivery room as The Phantom Menace.

But as far as that film goes, despite its various flaws, I still love watching it. Ewan McGregor is funny and quotable, as is Ian McDiarmid and the whole Senator Palpatine arc kicking off. Padme would be better used in the subsequent films, but casting her as Leia’s mom was so instinctively correct. Qui-Gon is the Ned Stark of his time, a good and faithful man and thus doomed. And while Darth Maul didn’t say much, those fight scenes, and especially John Williams’ score, and especially Duel of the Fates, are simply iconic.

Overall, Doug Chiang’s art department did an absolutely stunning job — I’d say this is easily the best looking of the Star Wars films of any that came out since (Kylo Ren’s mask, for example, looking like a USB port). And Ben Burtt’s sound design — just wow.

And anyone still whining it was about a low-stakes trade deal gone wrong need look no further than The Force Awakens to see what happens when you just shovel another Death Star into our faces. Of course the stakes needed to be smaller, then rise through the subsequent films! THINK, damn it!

And that scene where we meet R2-D2, heroically making repairs on the outside of a spaceship in a rain of laser bolts? Gold.

Anyway. With Phantom Menace, George Lucas made his Star Wars universe feel 100 times its original size, taking us from the empty backwaters of the original trilogy into the centre of a civilization about to be run by fascists for the next generation or two. So much that directly built on this expansive film was extraordinary, down to an episode of Rebels where not-dead-yet Darth Maul tragically tries a very familiar move on Obi-Wan.

Episode I isn’t perfect, but it takes way more chances — and ultimately has more heart and dimension — than most of the modern Star Wars films. It’s one of the family, and underrated. So once again I say thanks, Mr. Lucas.

You’re missed by many.

fgriwkowsky@postmedia.com

@fisheyefoto

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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