When Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace hit theaters on May 19, 1999, the anticipation levels were so high that, for a generation of moviegoers, it was as if Orson Welles had come out with Citizen Kane II. As someone who'd loved the first two Star Wars movies, even though I never considered myself part of the fanboy/drooler cult for them (back when they came out, I was a lot more possessed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind), I shared that anticipation, as well as the eager question that loomed behind the very existence of Phantom Menace: Could the movie recapture the magic the catharsis of the original Star Wars? The short answer, as it turned out, was no. George Lucas was able to fire up that magic only in bits and pieces, and the disappointment that a lot of us felt was colossal. How could it not be? The essence of the original Star Wars films is that they offered complete and utter transportment. And so The Phantom Menace, with its busy virtuosity and its talky expositional story-that-was-really-a-backstory, seemed a glass half empty, a promise held forth but not really fulfilled.
This morning, when I went down to my local megaplex to see The Phantom Menace for the first time since 1999 (for some reason, Fox decided not to screen the new, digitally enhanced 3-D version in advance for critics), it was, to put it mildly, with a different mindset. I already knew that the movie wasn't going to be Star Wars. Thinking back to my original B-minus review of Phantom Menace (which I purposefully haven't reread), I knew I was going in to see a movie that, bottom line, didn't entirely work. So what I really wondered was: Did it have some virtues I'd overlooked in that initial cascade of disappointment?
The short answer is yes. Watching Phantom Menace again, with my expectations dialed way back, I enjoyed a lot of it, and found even the parts that didn't gel kind of fascinating to look at in hindsight. For one thing, I was all the more impressed by the awesome ambition of the thing. One intergalactic universe, but so, so many worlds! And the digital effects, though 13 years old, have aged marvelously. In the years since, we've all been subjected to so much sludgy CGI overkill (in movies like Clash of the Titans, the Underworld series, and a thousand other mediocrities) that I had a newfound appreciation for Lucas's elegantly sculptured and tactile effects. The pod race, I have to say, is amazing it may feel like you're watching someone else play a videogame, but I, for one, got hooked on watching.
Once again, the opening crawl plunged me into a murk of temporary confusion (the Trade Federation's tax policies? Huh?), but then, when Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, started in on their tight-tipped Jedi banter, then pulled out their lightsabers to slash away at those highly breakable droids with heads that look like hair dryers, I locked right into the crisp precision of the actors' presence. Neeson is especially good; he understates every line and draws you right to him. And once the pair get to Tatooine, and the fatherless slave boy Anakin Skywalker shows up, I was impressed, more than I had been the first time, with how good Jake Lloyd is. Even in his towheaded innocence, he plays ''Ani'' with enough mercurial moodiness to give you a more pungent and convincing hint of the badness to come than Hayden Christensen ever mustered in the next two films. If Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope is shadowed by John Ford's The Searchers (among other films), it really is the scene in Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane gets pulled away from his mother that provides an echo of emotion for The Phantom Menace. Anakin gets to become a Jedi, but he loses his family to do it. You might call the Dark Side of the Force his Rosebud payback.
That said, why is there so much damn sitting around in this movie? On Tatooine, The Phantom Menace basically becomes a story of hanging out and waiting for spare auto parts. And once everyone finally jets off, the war that's being hatched by the Federation brews all too slowly. The movie's tensions are diffuse, its drama a little too gray with information. The icky alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks remains worse than an embarrassment. His dialogue serves so little purpose that each time he opens his rubbery mouth to drop another line in incomprehensible Rasta Pig Latin, he stops the movie cold. (How annoying is Jar Jar? He's annoying even in the middle of combat.) And though Darth Maul, the Sith with the face that looks like the linoleum tile in the bathroom of an S&M disco, is talked about in ominous hushed tones, next to Darth Vader, there's something weirdly emasculated about him. He's too cornily devil-horned, too British, and in the big lightsaber duel near the end, his prancing movements look a little too much like they were choreographed by Pina Bausch.
Yet I was glad, in all honesty, to have seen The Phantom Menace again. At times, even when the drama just kind of sat there, I was at least visually transported by it. The 3-D, at least to my eyes, adds next to nothing, and the new digital Yoda looks just like the old puppet Yoda, but George Lucas remains a genius of technological fairy-tale imagery. Will I now go back to see Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith again, if and when they're re-released in 3-D? You bet. But even when I do, now anticipating a lot less (and maybe, as a result, enjoying them a little more), I hope that George Lucas, somewhere down the line, decides to make another movie that lifts our expectations up to the stratosphere. And I hope that this time, he fulfills them. B