In 1999, Lucasfilm released the first film of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, The Phantom Menace. For much of the aughts, fans and casual moviegoers widely criticized the prequels. The Phantom Menace itself used to be the subject of ridicule by Warsians, being called stupid, contrived, and “the most disappointing thing since my son.”. However, many fans reexamined the so-called “failures” of the prequels after the failures of the sequel trilogy, starting with the opening chapter. Ultimately, this raises the question of how the film has held up after 25 years.
Generally, The Phantom Menace works is a political thriller, laying the groundwork for the Clone Wars saga. The rise of the Galactic Empire doesn’t start with a grand coup, but with a singular incident, the crisis on Naboo. From a historical lens, this does feel like galactic history playing out. The story of a failed government and rising tensions was something many fans drew parallels for as they grew up. However, many still criticized how this overuse of political jargon distracted from the story. As for the journey, the battles and set pieces make use of their settings, going from high-stakes races to multi-part battles in the climax.
Out of all the elements in the film, the characters have undergone probably the largest evolution in opinions. Firstly, Ewan McGregor gave a stellar performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi, injecting a youthful energy into Alec Guinness’ original take. Yet another stand out is Darth Maul, who went from a thug to one of the more layered villains within the canon. Furthermore, many iconic Jedi such as Mace Window and Qui-Gon Jinn made their intros during the film. Lastly, the largest evolution was for Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. Once a bad performance, it was recast in a sympathetic light with a well-made intro to his character arc.
The Special Effects
When it came out, fans despised the CGI of The Phantom Menace for its overuse. Special criticism went towards several of the creature designs, especially a certain Gungan comic relief. Shortly after, however, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter would further revolutionize CGI to create fantastical worlds. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace helped pave the way for the next era of VFX in film. Additionally, many have gone on to point out how these films actually made extensive use of practical effects like its forbears.
The World Building
One of the most effective ways The Phantom Menace sets itself apart from the OG trilogy is through its setting. Whereas the original trilogy mostly stayed in the outskirts of the galaxy, the opposite is true of the prequels. The Phantom Menace introduces us to Coruscant and many other settings that would become the foundation of the expanded universe. To this day, most of the (remaining) expanded universe owes its lore to what The Phantom Menace established. However, the introduction of midi-chloreans regarding the force sadly cannot be overlooked, which has since been all but forgotten.
To conclude, The Phantom Menace, along with the rest of the prequel trilogy, received a resurgence of fan goodwill. The film ascended from its status as the bane of Star Wars to the beginning of a new era. Everything from the world, to the characters, to the VFX have all been reviewed in a new light. Given how quick everyone, even Disney themselves, was willing to drop the sequel trilogy, this should show how much staying power the prequels ultimately had.
Fans can find The Phantom Menace and the rest of Star Wars on Disney+.