Being born in 2002, I grew up only seeing Star Wars as a 6 episode saga. I never had to live through a “Star Wars drought” (though maybe I wish I was now). I think that even as someone who has only heard about it, the energy that comes with The Phantom Menace release and the hype surrounding it, is something almost out of legend. Just watching videos of endless lines outside theaters and hearing about people’s insane levels of anticipation — they were setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment.
Watching the series as a kid, the prequels were never my favorite. Most of the time when I cracked open the Attack of the Clones DVD, I was more interested in the special features than the actual movie itself. The Phantom Menace was no exception. However, as time goes on, my relationship with the movie has become more complicated. I no longer see the movie as “the one with the cool lightsaber,” or “the one with pod racing.” Nowadays when I think of this movie, I can’t help but think about how much of a missed opportunity it was.
As my life has gone on, my love for movies has turned into a vicious ambition that haunts my mind 24/7. I don’t want to just enjoy the movies anymore; I want to be a part of them. I want to build them. As my relationship with movies changed, I feel my relationship with The Phantom Menace was affected more than any other. I started to see it as a movie I wanted to fix.
From the very beginning of the movie, there is an established diplomatic tone. I don’t necessarily mind it at all. Something is interesting about reframing the Original Trilogy as borderline apocalyptic, with the Empire having then taken over the Republic that we see now. But when they shift so incredibly hard into this tone, it not only loses sight of what worked in the first place, but it quits focusing on the characters and focuses too much on the politics. After all, isn’t the entire purpose of these films to focus on a character’s fall to the dark side?
Imagine a story following young Anakin, mesmerized by some “samurai type” pair of men who wander into town. He quickly learns they are Jedi, a type of warrior Anakin has only heard about, and he does anything he can to get in their goodwill: pod racing, earning money, and eventually leaving his mom. I know that hindsight is 20/20, and I don’t want to pretend that I know better than George Lucas, but as I said, there are undeniable missed opportunities here.
George Lucas managed to create some incredibly interesting characters, and that makes the disappointment so much more poignant. Qui-Gon is a Jedi, but he’s mysterious and occasionally at odds with the Jedi council, so maybe he isn’t totally on their side. Obi-Wan is a young and ambitious Padawan, quickly making his way through the ranks and seemingly not on the same page as his Master Qui-Gon. Anakin is a young scrappy kid, who’s fought to survive in an unforgiving gangster-ridden wasteland alongside his lone mother. Padme is a far too-young but incredibly ambitious Queen, whose decisions force her to be at odds with those more powerful than herself. This is an incredibly colorful universe with deep characters who can be played with and aligned in millions of different ways, and those nuggets of goodness make the final product that much more of a disappointment.
Not to give whiplash, but I don’t want to pretend the prequels are all bad. I actually have an odd affinity for Revenge of the Sith. When watching that movie there feels like an entire tonal shift, and I feel as if that movie carries itself in higher respect. It has confidence and swagger, and the action bursts into the frame as if this is what we’ve been truly waiting for all along.
I actually adore Revenge of the Sith. The longer I think about it, the more this movie is all the things I truly love about Star Wars. The tragic love between Padme and Anakin, the tragedy of brotherhood between Obi-Wan and Anakin, and the incredible action and creativity that Lucas can seemingly bring out of himself at any instance. This movie goes nonstop and doesn’t give you a second to breathe, and I think that’s necessary. Because by the time you have a moment to breathe, you’re dreading the next decision a character is going to make. “Is Anakin going to save Palpatine?” “Will Obi-Wan kill Anakin?” It creates a moral panic and anxiety as you start to ask yourself, “What would I do?”
Revenge of the Sith feels like the prequel that George Lucas wanted to make all along. But when I think about the relationship that the prequels have with each other, my feelings for them start to change, too. Maybe I only love Revenge of the Sith because Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace had to get the things I don’t love out of the way. Maybe my love for this one movie isn’t exclusive, and I only love that one because of things the other ones did.
It was no easy feat to get these movies out, and that risk is what caused the disappointment in the end. By no means do I want this to seem like a condemnation of the movie or the prequels as a whole. If anything, it’s the opposite. Be MORE creative, go over the draft 5 more times, triple-check everything, go bigger. Without risks, we never would’ve gotten the original Star Wars. If 100 risks equal 99 The Phantom Menaces and 1 Revenge of the Sith: TAKE IT. As Han Solo would say, “never tell me the odds.” Just take the risk, and stand by what you created. After all, what’s life if you can’t be proud of what you leave behind.