It's pretty interesting going back to this movie now and being able to say that it's not the worst 'Star Wars' movie of all time anymore. The whole purpose of these reviews was to see if anything had changed since the release of 'Rise of Skywalker'. For me, 'Rise' replaced this as the worst in such a harsh manner that a part of me is looking at this now in a completely different light.
At the time of 'Phantom's release, it was an incredibly mixed bag. 'Star Wars' fans were still talking about the 'Special Edition' after a couple of years, and fandom was cranked to eleven when this was about to premier. It was to be the cinematic event of a generation, bringing in 'Star Wars' for a new crop of fans while still working to impress the old school fans. It completely dropped the ball, because it ended up being the strangest mixture of a kid's movie and a political thriller.
We open the film with two Jedi knights; Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and our first familiar character, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor); here, a young Padawan under the wing of Qui-Gon, with the name-drop of Yoda. They board a Trade Federation ship, where Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) plans to take the peaceful planet of Naboo after a negotiation failed. With things not quite going as planned, the Jedi escape and head to the planet's surface where they run into Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best); perhaps the single worst character in 'Star Wars' history, pretty well meant to be noisy, clumsy, and appealing to the little kids watching - the problem being that the character is almost insulting to a kid's mind.
Anyway, they eventually get to Naboo Palace in an attempt to warn Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of the incoming attack. However as droids have already started the takeover, they are made to escape with the Queen on board a ship that is carrying another familiar face, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who shows his heroics by saving the ship from getting too damaged. Soon, the two Jedi, the Queen and some of her subjects land on the desert planet Tatooine to continue the repairs on the damaged ship.
Through pure chance, they come across and befriend a young boy named Anakin (Jake Lloyd), who is being held as a working slave along with his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August). Something about the boy has Qui-Gon curious, as he reveals things like being able to Pod Race - an extremely dangerous activity where he's the only human who can do it. This is where the dreaded midichlorians come into play, ruining the lore of the Force. What was once another way to say "God" or "The power of the Universe" was officially brought down to a scientific "count" within the bloodstream - much like a white cell count. Anyway, his is super high, even higher than Yoda's, therefore Qui-Gon eventually frees him, but has to sadly leave the mother behind.
While the group looks for a way to get to Coruscant in order to resolve the ongoing trade dispute, the film's namesake comes into play. Somewhere out there, a hooded figure begins pulling the strings for the Trade Federation, and offers up the idea that the Sith may not be extinct as once thought. Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine appears to be on the side of the people of Naboo, but may very well just be eyes and ears and... oh hell, we all know Palpatine IS the hooded figure. Thus the film is essentially about how Anakin got found, and the first glimpses of the Emperor coming to power, but he has a long way to go here.
Now, to talk about viewing this in a different light. Allow me to be the first to admit that when I came out of this movie after seeing it for the first time, I didn't think it was bad. It was convoluted, had some bad acting, and didn't exactly feel right. But I was able to shrug it off fairly easily, considering there were two more films coming that would bridge the gap. It still had some cool stuff to it, like cool action sequences, a broader look at the Jedi order when they still existed, a solid, new musical score, and even some really good casting; namely Ewan McGregor as a young Obi-Wan was very easy to buy. Anakin, maybe not so much, but that character is NOT Jake Lloyd's fault. And then there's Darth Maul (Ray Park) the most surprisingly bad ass character throughout the whole film providing my senses with what I consider one of, if not the best lightsaber dual of all time.
What separates me from others, as well, is that as far as 'Star Wars' movies go, I have extreme nostalgic ties with this one, almost more than I have with the original trilogy. Not going by the movie itself, but this was the first time I skipped school (sorry Mom), and it was with a group of friends who loved 'Star Wars' - my friends I had gone to the 'Special Editions' with, along with a whole new group we were hanging out with at the time. A bunch of us bought lightsabers to mess around with at parties (mine eventually broke), and I even had the collection of Pepsi cans, promoting 'Episode I' (they were all empty, so eventually they just got recycled).
It's wild to think about, but I now see this with a heavy does of nostalgia. it reminds me of some of the best moments of my teenage years, despite the movie not even being that good. This was the film to make me claim "if you stick a 'Star Wars' logo on it, I'll find a way to enjoy it" - a claim that went right up to 'Rise of Skywalker', then fell apart completely. But more on that when it's time. The truth of the matter is, with this movie, while it's one of the worst, it still gave me some of my best memories off-screen. To this day, I still meet it in the middle, completely. It's laughable throughout most of it, and odd decisions were made. However, I can't deny that there's still a charm to it, reminding me of a simpler time, just over 20 years ago.