20 years later: Critics’ reviews of ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’

It's been 20 years since Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi met Anakin Skywalker
Image: lucasfilm

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace hit theaters 20 years ago, on May 19, 1999, and to celebrate we’re looking back at early reactions from critics on the movie that turned the original Star Wars trilogy into something much larger, and in many fans’ eyes, much worse.

While The Phantom Menace is now generally regarded in some parts of the fan community as the worst film in the franchise and kind of a terrible film all around, it took a lot of people a good amount of time to come to that conclusion. Some critics were smitten by the admittedly kid-centric entry in the franchise while others wrote it off right from the start.

It had been 16 years since Return of the Jedi and anticipation was at a galactic level. Some people were swept up in it, with the CGI creatures and settings pulling the wool over their eyes, while others saw right through it all to the soulless shell of a movie underneath.

Here’s what the reviews said about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999.

Star-struck

Andrew O’Hagan, The Telegraph:

The Phantom Menace is probably one of the most deliriously inventive films to have appeared in years: it displays all of George Lucas’s uncommon magic, a wide-eyed genius for adventure narrative that is beyond any ordinary capacity for wonder, and in many respects the latest episode proves itself to be a more finished movie than any of the others. It is daring and beautiful, terrifying and pompous – and that’s just the title sequence. …

“[Jar-Jar Binks] will soon be as loved as Winnie-the-Pooh” 

“Jar-Jar Binks is the new star. …  He raps like a Jamaican gangster and walks like one of the Kids from Fame: he is already limbering up, in his computer-generated way, to be a long-serving Jedi chum in the manner of the howling, hairy Chewbacca. Jar-Jar is pretty useless as a mate: he can’t fix stuff, and he’s always getting into bother, but he lends a load of schlepping good humour to the average task of the young Jedi. He will soon be as loved as Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Roger Ebert:

“What [George Lucas] does have, in abundance, is exhilaration. There is a sense of discovery in scene after scene of The Phantom Menace, as he tries out new effects and ideas, and seamlessly integrates real characters and digital ones, real landscapes and imaginary places. We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes; filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine.”

“As surely as Anakin Skywalker points the way into the future of Star Wars, so does The Phantom Menace raise the curtain on this new freedom for filmmakers.”

Janet Maslin, The New York Times:

“Just as Star Wars became one of the most widely imitated pop phenomena of its time, ”The Phantom Menace” looks like a template for a new generation of computer-generated science fiction. And unlike The Matrix, another film liable to spawn imitations, it is sweetly, unfashionably benign. Whether dreaming up blow-dryer-headed soldiers who move in lifelike formation or a planet made entirely of skyscrapers, Mr. Lucas still champions wondrous visions over bleak ones and sustains his love of escapist fun. There’s no better tour guide for a trip to other worlds. Bon voyage.”

Lack-luster

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter:

“Perhaps because Lucas’ creation has been elevated to such pop-culture deification, Phantom Menace doesn’t come close to the original trilogy’s witty, self-consciously ironic tone. Instead, it vacillates between ponderous solemnity and a distressing tendency towards silly schtick. The original characters, not to mention the actors who played them, are sorely missed, with no one displaying the personality and flair of Luke, Han Solo or Princess Leia.”

“Everyone seems oddly muted”

“Rather, everyone seems oddly muted, as if overwhelmed by the pressure of their soon-to-be-iconic status. Neeson’s Qui-Gon is a solid but semi-boring paternal figure, more a visual than emotional presence. McGregor, who possesses no shortage of charisma, is barely given anything to play, though he provides a skillful suggestion of the young Alec Guinness’ vocal quality. Portman, as the Queen and her look-alike handmaiden, plays the former with Kabuki makeup and an undefinable accent and the latter in a conventional, not particularly enthralling fashion.”

Todd McCarthy, Variety:

“There is certainly enough incident to keep the picture and the viewer going, but the bombardment of elements, names, worlds, creatures and dilemmas may prove somewhat daunting to casual observers unsteeped in Star Wars lore. Beyond that, the new CGI characters are notably lacking in charm or interest other than on the design level; they bring nothing new or special to Lucas’ universe, and in a sense overpopulate it.”

“And if it weren’t for the connections many will make to the story’s known future — that Anakin will eventually marry Queen Amidala and sire Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, only then to transform into Darth Vader — there is little here on the writing or performance sides to draw one close to these characters.”

Harsh words

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:

“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual. …”

“The dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual”

“Phantom Menace, which cost $115 million, lacks the crude freshness that Lucas lavished on the low-budget ($10 million) original in 1977 and the fluid storytelling that director Irvin Kershner brought to The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 – still the best in the series. But Menace is light-years ahead of the uneasy mix of furry Ewoks and Freudian psychology in Richard Marquand’s 1983 Return of the Jedi. As for Lucas’ directing skills, his work with actors still belongs to the ‘Don’t emote, just stand there’ school.”

J. Hoberman, The Village Voice:

Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace may be the first movie to peak before its opening… The movie requires scarcely more than six minutes to wear thin. There is nothing in this noisy, overdesigned bore to equal the excitement generated by the mere idea of the trailer. …”

“Yoda puts in a cameo, but the film’s designated alien is Jar Jar Binks, a rabbit-eared ambulatory lizard whose pidgin English degenerates from pseudo-Caribbean patois to Teletubby gurgle. (Although Jar Jar can be construed as grotesquely Third World and the fish faces talk like Fu Manchu, the most blatant ethnic stereotype is the hook-nosed merchant insect who owns young Anakin.) Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans suck the oxygen out of every scene; their human costars seem understandably asphyxiated.”

 David Edelstein, Slate:

“Those poor souls who’ve been camping out in front of theaters for six weeks: Who can blame them for saying, ‘To hell with the critics, we know it will be great!’? The doors will open, and they’ll race to grab the best seats and feel a surge of triumph as their butts sink down. We’ve made it: Yeeehaww!! They’ll cheer when the familiar John Williams fanfare erupts and the title–Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace–rises out of the screen and the backward-slanted opening “crawl” begins: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …Yaaahhhhhhh!!! Then, their hearts pounding, they’ll settle back to read the rest of the titles: ‘Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.’ Taxation of trade routes: Waaahoooo!!!!

“How long will they go with it? At what point will they realize that what they’ve heard is, alas, true, that the picture really is a stiff? Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll want to love The Phantom Menace so much–because they have so much emotional energy invested in loving it, and in buying the books, magazines, dolls, cards, clothes, soap, fast food, etc.–that the realization will never sink in. In successful hypnosis, the subject works to enter a state of heightened susceptibility, to surrender to a higher power. Maybe they’ll conclude that common sense is the enemy of the Force and fight it to the death.”

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