"Star Wars: Episode I" returns to theaters today, in 3D. But let’s flash back for a few moments to May 19th, 1999 – the day “The Phantom Menace” was originally released. If you were a die-hard “Star Wars” fan, like I was, you were going to see this movie regardless of what the critics wrote about it. You ached to hear, once again, that familiar yet exciting 20th Century Fox fanfare before reading the opening crawl. You may have camped out on a dirty sidewalk for hours, days, weeks even, just so you could be one of the first to experience it.
But if you weren’t one of “those” fans, you might have waited and checked out the reviews before making the decision to see “The Phantom Menace.” The following is a sampling of what you’d have read.
“The plot has something to do with a trade embargo being waged against a small planet called Naboo, an embargo that turns out to be a disguise for a planned full-scale invasion. We’re never told what this tiny planet could possibly be worth to the enormous Trade Federation (the way we understand, in the first “Star Wars,” what the baddies stand to gain from the elimination of the rebel forces), so the story’s basic conflict has no weight.” – Charles Taylor, Salon.com
“There are new places here--new kinds of places. Consider the underwater cities, floating in their transparent membranes. The Senate chamber, a vast sphere with senators arrayed along the inside walls, and speakers floating on pods in the center. And other places: the cityscape with the waterfall that has a dizzying descent through space. And the other cities: one city Venetian, with canals, another looking like a hothouse version of imperial Rome, and a third that seems to have grown out of desert sands.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Yoda puts in a cameo, but the film's designated alien is Jar Jar Binks, a rabbit-eared ambulatory lizard whose pidgin English degenerates from pseudo-Caribbean patois to Teletubby gurgle. (Although Jar Jar can be construed as grotesquely Third World and the fish faces talk like Fu Manchu, the most blatant ethnic stereotype is the hook-nosed merchant insect who owns young Anakin.) Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans suck the oxygen out of every scene; their human costars seem understandably asphyxiated.” – J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
“Based on what we see here, it doesn't seem like such an ineffable mystery that this kid will end up a wheezing, intergalactic power-mongering control freak. A slave boy who already fashions himself a Jedi knight, Anakin is a precocious brat -- the kind of kid who, in our own galaxy, might commandeer a playground and run everybody else off the jungle gym. If the psychological richness of the Star Wars movies is grounded in Darth Vader's movement in and out of the light, then it may be high time to create a new myth -- i.e., a new franchise.” – Peter Rainer, New York Magazine
The Final Word
“Nothing could live up to the hype of this film. Nothing. "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is a movie. It's not the Second Coming. It's not even the First Coming, depending on your religious stance. It's just a movie. ... And while I'm saddened to report that it's a deeply flawed film in terms of both story line and character development, I'm happy to note that visually it's a marvel.” – Paul Clinton, CNN.com