A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (the cinema behind your local mall that’s since been converted to a BJ’s), you cut your afternoon bio class, picked up a ticket you’d purchased six months in advance, and eagerly settled into your seat. For the next 136 minutes, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace repeatedly, mercilessly let you down. This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the release of George Lucas’s first prequel, which means it also marks 15 years of fans being disappointed by Lucas’s first prequel. Though the movie made more than a billion dollars worldwide, it had few defenders and quickly became the object of scorn among fans — some of whom tried to rewrite galactic history with their own highly imaginative (and wholly unauthorized) homemade versions of the film.
The first major reworking of the film, The Phantom Edit, debuted in 2001, and in recent years, Star Wars die-hards, such as Topher Grace and this anonymous person using Vimeo, have taken Menace (and its two sequels) out of carbonite, with the hopes of creating their own special editions. But shuffling and slashing footage will get you only so far: No matter how much you tweak The Phantom Menace, there’s no getting around the fact that, in the end, you’re still stuck with a lot of scenes from The Phantom Menace.
But what if we were able to travel back and visit Lucas in the mid-1990s — before he had printed a single promotional soda cup or OKed his first Jar Jar lollipop — and whisper some changes into his ear? What would you tell him? Here’s how we would fix Phantom in seven (relatively) easy steps.
Fix No. 1: Make Amidala the rogue
Star Wars fans went into Menace expecting to see some of the same character dynamics that made the original trilogy — with its mix of sly rogues, mysterious sages, and wide-eyed farm folk — so beloved. But almost every heroic character in The Phantom Menace is cut from the same rule-abiding, Boy Scout-ish cloth. It’s like 10,000 Lukes when all you need is a Han.
So let Amidala be a bit more Amidangerous. From her earliest days as a child star, Natalie Portman has been a veritable charm machine. She’s sharp, she’s fun to watch, and she does dryly mischievous (Your Highness) as deftly as she does kooky and unpredictable (Garden State). So, let’s get modern here: Why not let her be the rebel, the winking loose cannon — the Han, in other words. It would let her bounce off the rule-loving Jinn as well as create some possible romantic friction between her and Obi-Wan. (Creepy, yes, but it’s not like Lucas is a stranger to unseemly displays of affection.)
Fix No. 2: Tone down the slapstick
Despite what some Internet contrarians will tell you, you’re right to hate Jar Jar. But as irritating as googly-eyed Gungan doofus may be, he isn’t the cause of your pain; he’s a mere symptom of Lucas’s obsession with hokey slapstick comedy. Yes, the original trilogy was full of quotable one-liners, but they were wisecracks. Wisecracks serve to cut tension in a high-stakes situation. And since this film never met a high-stakes situation that it didn’t immediately downgrade to a mere kerfuffle, all of its wisecracks come off as painfully corny.
Of all the problems with Menace, this is the easiest to solve. First, cut the number of jokes in half. And then cut that by half. Don’t crosscut one of Jinn’s last living moments with a shot of Jar Jar getting hit in the balls; let the drama and gravity of these situations authentically develop. Not only would that lend the film some of the atmospheric darkness that makes Empire Strikes Back such a classic — but it would also cut a good half hour from the movie’s seemingly interminable running time.
Fix No. 3: Give Anakin a darker arc
Anakin Skywalker is a giddy kid who’s really good with machines, loves his mom, and is thrilled about the prospect of riding in someone’s starship — basically, your average all-Tatooinian boy. Which would be fine if he were supposed to grow up to be a guy who manages an accounting firm in a deep-space office park. But there are no hints at all that Anakin will become the most terrifying tyrant in the galaxy. Even after he suffers a number of intense traumas — like leaving his mother or watching people die — he brushes the events off easily. (This is a kid who actually says “Yippeee!”) Not quite the stuff evil space lords are made of.
We’re not asking for him to transform into a bad seed who screams “Yippee” while flicking matches at a wampa. But Anakin should show some gradual changes in his character that make his eventual fall to the dark side feel more inevitable. This could be easily accomplished, using just a few plot shifts, to create a darker character arc for Anakin, one that gives stronger hints about what he will eventually become . It could start subtly enough, with Anakin sulking in his first hours away from his mother. The longer he’s away from home, the more his jokiness tapers off, and by the film’s end, we have a somber, emotionally bruised kid, one who has witnessed death and understands that he’s never going home again.
Fix No. 4: More Maul
At least one of your 11th-grade assessments of this film still stands: Darth Maul is rad. He exudes raw power and looks like the product of a night of clumsy passion between Satan and a Komodo dragon. But our first look at Maul is through a crappy, color-free hologram — wasting the element of shock and surprise that’s clearly an intended part of his character design. This sets the tone for the film’s repeated waste of its scariest character.
But salvaging Maul is easy: We just need to see a little more of him in action. To truly appreciate Maul, we don’t need to hear him talk or watch him chill out around his condo or anything — if there’s one thing we’ve learned from these prequels, is that it’s definitely possible to have too much backstory. Instead, we just need to focus more on how bloodthirsty and ballsy he is. (He’s so scary, in fact, than an entire crowd of people with guns back away from him without even bothering to fire a shot!) One suggestion: Take a cue from A New Hope — which quickly introduces Darth Vader’s deviousness — and open Menace with a scene in which Maul savagely wastes some gun-toting Naboo residents (Nabooians?) trying to stand in Sidious’s way. Let this tension build up from there, so that when Maul shows up in the film’s final confrontation sequence, we truly know that the Jedis are in deep bantha doo-doo.
Fix No. 5: Lose the space battle
Aside from its epidemic case of showing, not telling, one of the (supposed) highlights of The Phantom Menace is the Battle of Naboo, a dizzyingly edited action sequence that crosscuts among four simultaneous conflicts, including one in which Anakin darts through space, shooting down — tax agents from space, or something? It’s a noisy, distracting star war, and a waste of a good opportunity to build up Anakin’s backstory with the Jedis.
So, instead of having Anakin sneak into a ship, why not have him creep into the area where his new heroes — Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan — are battling Darth Maul? You could even incorporate him into the action: Maybe he accidentally distracts Qui-Gon Jinn long enough to let Maul kill the elder Jedi, at which point a guilt-ridden Anakin responds by killing Maul himself. It wouldn’t sell a lot of Jake Lloyd Happy Meals, but it would do half the heavy lifting for your Darth Vader origin myth. We could see the very first stirrings of Darth Vader in Anakin’s angry tears.
Fix No. 6: Force John Williams to chill out
Yes, I know that John Williams and sonic grandiosity are synonymous; I’ve seen the Love Me, Love My Bombast bumper sticker on his car. And in the film’s most dramatic moments — like The Battle of Naboo — Williams’s pomp (exemplified by his Duel of the Fates composition for the film) fits in perfectly, elevating the scenes and making them feel like high-stakes modern myths.
But in this film’s overall score, Williams seemed afraid of letting any one moment stay quiet. Nearly every second of the film is filled with pointlessly tootling woodwinds telegraphing how we should be feeling, even during the simplest conversations between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Save the music for the important moments, so that when we need it to underscore a critical moment of action (like a fight, a death, or a pod race) the music still has some impact.
Fix No. 7: Don’t let Amidala have a happy ending
Sure, it’s kinda cute when all the Naboo and Gungans get together and party like its nineteen-ninety-Ewok at the film’s end. But we’re told throughout the film that the Naboo are suffering, starving, and dying because of the trade ban. What are the odds that, after enduring months of torture due to their queen’s inability to work out a deal with the trade federation, they’d want to bathe her in flower petals? Have you ever been that thankful to a civil servant who eventually got around to kinda-sorta doing their job?
More realistically, the Naboo would consider their child-queen more of a Marie Antoinette figure, scorning her for flitting around in ceremonial wigs and face paint while their society crumbled. An ending where the Naboo tell Amidala “Thanks, but too little, too late” instead of parading her and her new friends through the streets would feel more real and set the scene for the civil unrest that seizes the galaxy in the next film. It would also serve to make Amidala more tormented, wounded, and emotionally confused — leaving her ready to fall in love with a guy who everyone else thinks is bad news. It would provide the perfect setup for Episode II — and give Star Wars fans some much-needed new hope.
Man, fixing Phantom is a lot of hard work. Time for a Tantooine dance break!
Qui-Gon/Jar Jar photo credit: Everett Collection