Why The Phantom Menace is Actually an Ironic Masterpiece

Aatif Rashid
13 min readDec 24, 2019

I was only 10 when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and while I saw the movie in theaters four times, I didn’t appreciate until I was an adult how unsettled it must have made older Star Wars fans feel. It had been sixteen years since Return of the Jedi, and those who’d seen the original films in theaters likely experienced a strange mix of emotions on that May evening in 1999, a heady swirl of excitement and uncertainly as the Lucasfilm logo appeared on the screen, followed by the familiar blue text: A long time ago, etc. etc. And then — the taxation of trade routes? The Trade Federation? Naboo? What on earth? No doubt a little of that excitement was already curdling into queasy anxiety even after just the opening crawl.

Since then, The Phantom Menace has become widely regarded as not just the worst Star Wars movie, but perhaps one of the worst movies of all time. It’s often used as a litmus test for failure: “Well, at least it wasn’t The Phantom Menace.” I often joined in on these jokes, even though my memories of the film were mostly positive — I was 10, after all, and so to me the Jedi were cool, Jar Jar was funny, and the whole plot around rescuing Naboo from the Trade Federation was a thrilling action-adventure. Yet gradually, I came to accept the consensus that The Phantom Menace was a bad film and that my fond memories were just childhood nostalgia.

But after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, the latest in Disney’s god-awful sequel trilogy, I decided to rewatch the prequels and determine for myself whether they really were good or bad films, especially compared to Disney’s offerings. As far as I’m concerned, Disney’s trilogy, directed mostly by J.J. Abrams but with a strange interlude by Rian Johnson, is the worst of Star Wars: a rehash of the plot of the original trilogy made up mostly of fan-service callbacks, with frenetic editing that reduced scenes to a series of close-ups, a ludicrously fast, almost unhinged pace that leaves no room for the visual splendor one associates with a Star Wars movie, and above all terrible, terrible directing, with Abrams in particular ruining Lucas’s signature style of lengthy shots and wide camera angles by substituting sudden zooms and close-ups and quick-cuts and more closeups. Surely this was far worse than The Phantom Menace — a corporate retread designed…

Aatif Rashid

Debut novel PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (2019, 7.13 Books). Writes about politics and literature.