This was my experience watching The Phantom Menace: A friend had scored tickets to one of the many midnight premieres across the country. I showed up at the theater in Culver City a few minutes before the lights went down. Clearly they had let in the fans a couple hours earlier, as the place smelled like a locker room. This is not an exaggeration. The stench of body odor was overwhelming. Nevertheless, like the rest of the crowd, I had spent the 16 years since Return of the Jedi believing that I'd never see a brand new Star Wars movie again, and I was excited: George Lucas himself was back in the director's chair!
The lights go down. The place erupts with cheers. Cruelly, the theater forces us to sit through a bunch of idiotic trailers for irrelevant films. But then the 20th Century Fox logo plays. Cheers. Then the Lucasfilm logo appears. More cheers. Then "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." shows up, and I swear you can hear people crying. The brass fanfare that opens up John Williams' legendary theme song blasts us out of our chairs, "STAR WARS" fills the screen, and even I get goosebumps. This is what we've all been waiting for.
And then, within less than five minutes – five minutes – it's clear that something's wrong.
It first happens when we see a couple of aliens – some sort of Trade Federation types we've never encountered before. They are talking to each other... and it's in accented English. Now, any Star Wars fan can tell you that one of the joys of the first three films was that the alien species spoke their own distinct languages, with subtitles. But these two cheap-looking aliens, who look like they belong in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager instead of a Star Wars movie, start blabbering to each other with this dopey accent – some have criticized it as an offensive take on Japanese, but it sounded vaguely French to me – and it's clear that Lucas is not going to give us what we hoped for.
By now, you know the rest. In three (or rather two) words: Jar Jar Binks. But on top of that, there's the talent-free little actor Lucas cast to play the young Darth Vader, nee Anakin Skywalker. Had he chosen a gifted child like, say, Haley Joel Osment, we might have glimpsed some of the inner darkness of the character. Instead, we're forced to sit through this boy's callow shenanigans (he squeals "Yippee!" at least twice), as well as an overwhelming array of slick CG effects that replace the old grit and realism of the first three films with a sterile, video game-like landscape. Even Williams's score is unmemorable.
The Phantom Menace's only saving grace is its new villain, the demonic Darth Maul, with his cool double-sided lightsaber. He's pretty awesome, though woefully underused, and his climactic duel with Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor (as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi) is outstanding. It's a heartbreaking taste of how good this film could have been, without the childish humor and a cast and crew – including, let's face it, the writer/director – that lack vision and conviction.
Although I can see how George Lucas' plan must have looked good on paper – what could be a more dynamic character arc than to have an innocent little boy turn out to be Darth Vader? – in practice, it's a bust. I have never been as disappointed by a movie as I have by Phantom Menace, and I do not think I am alone in saying that.