It’s a truism that blockbusters are predominantly commercial rather than artistic endeavors, cynical entertainments intended for rapid and passionless mass consumption, so it should come as no real surprise that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace feels cold. This is, after all, one of the most profitable film productions in cinematic history, an exhaustively merchandised marketing venture so far removed from traditional craft and artistry that the language of criticism seems ill-equipped to contend with it. Its merits and flaws, the latter here abundant, are on some level superfluous, eclipsed by its earning power. How else to explain the staggering domestic gross of a film that prominently features both convoluted trade taxation disputes and Jar-Jar Binks? Did late capitalism pique? Or is The Phantom Menace simply what happens when you attempt to cash in 22 years’ worth of faith and goodwill as one lump sum?
Its success may be predicated on an enduring, seemingly limitless nostalgia, but the aesthetic overlap between The Phantom Menace and any of the Star Wars iterations which preceded it is minimal, whatever similarities apparent in costume, effects, and production design strained or strictly incidental. A series die-hard might call it “inauthentic”; if you’re feeling generous you could call it “distinctive,” even perhaps boldly so. The world of the film, rendered cold and calculated by its overwhelming (and much-maligned) emphasis on digital effects, has almost nothing in common, visually, with the intensely tactile world of the original Star Wars trilogy, one defined more by its feel than any one look. That tactile quality, of course, was at least partly a byproduct of technological limitations, and though I personally prefer the look of physical locations or sets to environments heavily augmented or created from scratch by a computer, I think it’s safe to assume that the CGI backdrops leaned on throughout most of The Phantom Menace are in fact closer to the original creative vision of the Star Wars universe. The endless revisions afflicted on the originals suggest as much.
In theory, this sounds reasonable to me. One imagines a fully digital creation that exudes a careful, meticulously calibrated sterility, a world like the one employed so evocatively in Lucas’s own THX-1138. “Cold” is an aesthetic mode, one employed effectively in plenty of great-looking films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Last Year at Marienbad. The film might, to paraphrase Thom Andersen, have fulfilled Vertov’s dream of “an anti-humanist cinema of bodies and machines in motion,” a striking vision. The problem is that in practice, The Phantom Menace feels cold and lifeless in a manner which seems at odds with its other excesses. In spaces that ought to look sleek and minimal, backgrounds reveal layers of distracting activity. In quiet, sparely furnished rooms, traffic floods windows on all sides. Establishing shots don’t welcome us to a new location so much as to a miniature anthropological profile, overwhelming us with visual information when we should be awed by the simple beauty of a new world. Rarely does an image show only one object of focus, and even at its most dramatic or pointed the frame is jammed with peripheral movement and activity. Wonder and awe, it turns out, are not possible when you’re inundated with shit all the time.
This visual busyness amounts to little more than doodling, however, as the effort expended in filling in details is rarely brought to bear on anything that needs it. Battle sequences, the film’s bread and butter, feel hastily cobbled together rather than thoughtfully orchestrated, a problem exacerbated by the decision to intercut several interrelated battles at once for the climax. What should be exciting feels incoherent and sloppy as a result, a mess of noise and light spewing from all directions. And when the characters cease fighting in order to discuss arcane political matters we have no reason to care about, the camera just sits there, every interminably dull stretch of talk shot in an identically innocuous fashion. The Phantom Menace has no real visual style, at least not in the classical sense, and if every frame weren’t overloaded with effects it would be virtually indistinguishable from a TV drama. (In fact, in terms of composition and pacing, The Phantom Menace’s influences seem more televisual than cinematic, but that’s carefully masked by budget and scope.)
Every so often, though, the film surprises you with a visual idea that’s both simple and effective: Federation tanks emerging from behind Naboo’s rolling green hills, a podracer running on one engine spiraling through the air before crashing, an enormous Gungan shield materializing around their army. But such ideas are uncommon and fleeting, never left long enough to savor, and they are frustratingly counterpointed by idiocy: a ridiculous-looking fish is eaten whole by an even more ridiculous-looking fish, a Gungan leader chortles messily (twice), Anakin yells “yippee!” on at least two occasions, droids incongruously mimic the Three Stooges. The Phantom Menace is irredeemably plagued by such ridiculousness, and it seems incredible to me that so much stupidity could have made it into a film this expensively and meticulously coordinated. I can accept that a project this large could sink under its own weight, and that its most pressing issues were too fundamental to the material to have been amended through simple suggestion. But how is it possible that of the hundreds of people materially and emotionally invested in the production of this project, nobody pointed out that maybe Jar-Jar stepping in shit did not belong in this movie?
It’s difficult to discern precisely where this all went wrong, and even more difficult to speculate about possible improvements. I’ve felt for a long time that the widely disseminated “Phantom Edit” fan cut is preferable, if not quite good either, but there’s only so much you can do to mitigate problems of this magnitude. In any case, I’m confident that “rereleasing the film in 3D” was not high on many critics’ list of things that could be done to improve the quality of this film, but I suppose to LucasFilm any excuse for profiteering is a welcome one. The best thing one can say about this particular cash-grab is that at least no legacy is at risk of being sullied, as it might well be if (or when) the original trilogy is retrofitted and resold in a similar fashion; few will care that the disappointment of The Phantom Menace is now available with an added dimension. If nothing else, this rerelease provides an occasion for revisiting a unique disaster, a cataclysm as lucrative as it is unforgettable awful. The Phantom Menace will perhaps be remembered as the worst great success ever, the fulfillment only of a monetary vision—one as sleek and gleaming as the world of the film should have been, a gilded digital expanse to get lost in.