Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 26, 2011)
From one point of view, 1999ís The Phantom Menace was the ultimate ďcanít-missĒ proposition. 22 years after Star Wars erupted onto movie screens, the series remained enormously popular, and the 16 year wait for a fourth entry to finally emerge created an incredible appetite for a new entry. As such, Menace enjoyed a huge built-in audience that almost guaranteed its huge success.
However, with that anticipation came severe expectations, and from a number of perspectives. Financially, Menace needed to earn an incredible amount of money to be considered a hit. Hollywood likes to pretend that $100 million is the benchmark for a success, but that figure became woefully inadequate by the turn of the millennium. During 2000, 22 movies attained that goal, while 21 made it in 1999. By 2010, a full 30 movies had hit the $100 million level.
The situation seemed particularly harsh for Menace because of the pre-sold audience. Happily for its crew, not many really expected it to compete with the all-time best box office gross of 1997ís Titanic. A year earlier, some had touted Godzilla as a potential champion, but I think that flickís relative failure financially - it ended up with $136 million and ninth place for 1998 - chastened many similar ideas about Menace. Nonetheless, expectations remained sky-high, and it seemed clear that the film needed to make a huge amount of money to be seen as a true hit.
Personally, I felt that Menace had to take in at least $300 million in the US before it could be considered an actual success. To be sure, less money would have still left it profitable, especially when foreign markets and video sales are considered, but I thought that less than $300 million domestically would have be a relatively weak showing. Any figure lower than $200 million would have been a total disaster. Godzilla was seen as a flop with its $136 million; how bad would the carnage have been if Menace earned a similar figure?
All of this became a moot point since Menace eventually grabbed $431 million domestically and passed the $900 million mark worldwide. That left it with almost exactly half of Titanicís take, and it barely nudged out 1993ís Jurassic Park for the second spot on the worldwide chart; it was close, as Menace snagged $922 million compared to Jurassicís $920 million. Even for me, this was enough to consider the film a genuine hit financially.
In other ways, however, Menace ran into trouble. Sure, hoards of people flocked to theaters, but how many of them actually liked the thing? Over time, a myth grew that states Titanic succeeded due to hype. Thatís totally incorrect. Yes, we were inundated with Titanic media once the movie became it hit, but it made its box office money on its own. The pre-release publicity was pretty subdued for a major studio effort - especially one that cost so much to make - and expectations for it seemed rather low. Titanic became a success because a lot of people loved it. It went to another level partially due to curiosity - latecomers wanted to see what the fuss was about - but it had already proved itself by that point.
Menace, on the other hand, offered a completely presold phenomenon. Media attention was intense, as the film generated a level of advance interest virtually unseen. I remember some comments along the lines of ďMenace is the most eagerly anticipated film since The Godfather Part IIIĒ or some other flick. Technically this was correct, but the truth was that Menace was the most excitedly awaited movie ever. Never had so many looked forward to one film.
And I was among the fervent faithful. When Star Wars hit in 1977, I was 10, which placed me smack-dab in the middle of the movieís main demographic: dorky young boys. Along with all my friends, we embraced Star Wars as the greatest thing ever, and I maintained that affection pretty much forever after that. Oh, I went through my geek-denial stage in the early Eighties when I tried to pretend I was too cool for silly sci-fi flicks. It didnít take, as my inherent nerdiness rose to the surface.
Long ago I ceased to fight this attitude, and I embraced my affection for all things Star Wars with fervor. When Kenner created a new line of action figures in 1995, I leapt to purchase them, and I continued to collect them for years. (Until Kennerís greed burned out my interest, but thatís a different story.) I purchased more reissues of the first three films on laserdisc and DVD than I care to admit; each allegedly offered something I needed to possess, so I did so gladly.
Frighteningly, by the time Menace hit screens in 1999, Iíd waited literally half of my life to see it. I was 16 when its predecessor, 1983ís Return of the Jedi, appeared, and I was 32 when Menace emerged. Thatís a looong time between movies, and though the publicís appetite for Star Wars diminished for a period in the early Nineties, by 1999 the series clearly had regained its prominence.
That occurred largely due to the reissue of the first three films in 1997. Packaged as updated ďspecial editionsĒ, those flicks performed shockingly well at the box office. The first two sequels in the saga - 1980ís The Empire Strikes Back and Jedi - did nicely for reissues, as they grabbed $67 million and $45 million respectively. However, the original Star Wars really brought home the bacon, as the SE nabbed an amazing $138 million. That meant it actually placed eighth in the yearís top-grossing film chart, an absolutely unprecedented accomplishment.
Would the mania for Menace have reached the same heights without the success of the SEs? Perhaps, but I doubt it. They made the Star Wars saga vital for an entirely new generation, and it became a hit with kids who otherwise might never have encountered it to such a degree. To be sure, any Star Wars sequel created in the late Nineties would have done spectacularly well, but I feel the SEs helped generate a new allegiance.
In any case, geeky aging fanboys like myself would have attended nonetheless, and I greeted the May 1999 release of Menace with fervor. I actually did my best to screen out any information about the film prior to my first screening, which was awfully tough. Still, I did well, and almost all of what I saw was new to me.
Really, all I knew about Menace before that showing came from some negative critical notices. Early reviews absolutely panned the film, so while I wasnít aware of the specifics, I was informed that it inspired a lot of unfavorable opinions.
Those thoughts continued well after the movieís release. Frankly, I have no idea what the general public consensus is, but among the fanboy faithful, the reaction wasnít good. Personally, I felt Menace wasnít a great film, but I thought it had enough going for it to keep my attention and entertain me, which was all I really expected of a Star Wars flick.
Also known as ďEpisode IĒ, Menace falls as the first segment in a six-part saga; Star Wars, Empire and Jedi create the fourth, fifth and sixth installments of the series, respectively, while 2002ís Attack of the Clones and 2005ís Revenge of the Sith act as Episodes II and III.
Menace sets up the story of little Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the boy who eventually becomes Darth Vader. We see his involvement in Jedi training by master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his wary pupil Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). We also meet Amidala (Natalie Portman), the lovely young queen of a planet called Naboo, and that planetís representative at the Galactic Council, Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).
The plot of Menace seems almost inconsequential, as it exists mainly to introduce all of these characters to us and to each other. Menace strongly echoes Star Wars itself, as some similar challenges and situations crop up along the way. Itís not a carbon copy of the first movie, but the connections clearly seem intentional.
One could argue that Menace was doomed to be a disappointment of sorts due to its inherent purpose. It stands as the most expositional of the six films. Star Wars really should take that honor, but because it was the only one that really was meant to stand on its own, it was made in a much more concise manner. Sure, Lucas may have desired to create a longer saga after Star Wars, but he didnít know if this would be possible, so the first film exists as a stand-alone entity in ways the others donít.
Although Menace relates to worlds and characters with which weíre already familiar, thereís enough new to make this movie largely a piece of exposition. Due to that factor, it can be slow-paced and clumsy at times. Much of the second act - in which we meet Anakin - moves at a turgid rate, especially because this part of the flick offers the most background information. A fun podrace sequence enlivens this area, but it remains the movieís biggest weakness.
Otherwise, the first and third acts work pretty well. The opening period suffers somewhat from vagueness and a tentative quality, but it includes some solid action scenes and gets the ball rolling fairly effectively. As for the filmís conclusion, it also provides some scattered focus, especially during a four-pronged climax. However, that area includes the movieís best work, which appeared during a fantastic lightsaber battle. Iíve seen Menace many times now, but that part of the film never fails to give me goosebumps; even if the rest of the flick totally stunk, Iíd still endorse it just for that sequence.
The remainder of Menace doesnít stink, but it remains a bit flat and lackluster. I must admit that the film hasnít endured repeated viewings especially well. I still enjoy it, but the flaws come through more clearly each time I watch it. I just canít get into it to the degree that the ďoriginal trilogyĒ films involve me.
Ultimately that may be the greatest sin committed by The Phantom Menace: itís not one of the first three films. In its own right, I think itís a fairly entertaining and enjoyable film. The movie seems very erratic, but most of it works reasonably well. Is ďreasonably wellĒ good enough for a Star Wars film? Perhaps not, but I continue to find it to offer a fun and engaging experience for the most part.
A few quick comments before I move on to a discussion of the Blu-ray itself: 1) I donít mind Jar-Jar; 2) Jake Lloyd was atrocious as Anakin. While the former received the bulk of the filmís criticism, I thought the latter deserved more. Lloyd was the gaping hole at the heart of Menace, as his thick, ham-fisted performance was painful to watch at times. The boy couldnít act, and he made the film falter consistently.
Despite her longer rťsumť, Portman wasnít a great deal better than Lloyd. Actually, thatís too harsh, but Portman seemed very flat and listless. Perhaps this occurred because so many of her scenes came opposite Lloyd.
Of the remaining actors, both McGregor and Neeson were good but not special. I think Ewan suffered because he didnít have much to do; in Menace, he functioned as little more than Qui-Gonís errand boy. When provoked in Menace - such as during the climax - McGregor came to life.
The only actors I felt distinguished themselves in Menace were McDiarmid and Pernilla August. The latter played Anakinís mother and she brought a wonderful depth and sense of pain to the role; she created an emotional core than her son lacked. As for McDiarmid, those familiar with his role know where heíll end up eventually, and he did a great job of playing with that future. He embodied the slick politician and clearly had fun in the part.
By the way, The Phantom Menace goes by a slew of different names. Some call it Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, some refer to it as Star Wars: Episode I, some say itís Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, while some just name it Episode I. Why do I choose The Phantom Menace? Because thatís consistent with the common terminology for the first two sequels. No one refers to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back or Episode VI. Theyíre The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and thatís that.
As for the first flick, itís Star Wars, not A New Hope or Episode IV. Yes, I realize that this insistence on calling it Star Wars seems inconsistent alongside my other attitudes, but when it first came out, there was none of this A New Hope or Episode IV nonsense - it was just Star Wars, and I refuse to call it anything else.
One more note: the Blu-ray doesnít offer the theatrical cut of the film. For the 2001 DVD, Lucas reinserted some shots left out of the release version. These included some additional introductions prior to the pod race, a little footage during the competition, and an ďair taxiĒ ride when our heroes made it to Coruscant. The Blu-ray also offers a computer-generated Yoda instead of the original movieís puppet. I donít think the Blu-ray makes any other alterations.