So, uh, I didn’t hate “The Phantom Menace” this time

Darth Maul, whose character development begins and ends with his evil Southwestern facepaint

GateHouse — Went to see the new, 3Dmafied version of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” this weekend, and I didn’t hate it. I should’ve hated it. I didn’t hate it. What the hell is going on right now.

Like most “Star Wars” nerds and nerdesses, I have a love/hate relationship with “The Phantom Menace,” and by “love/hate” I mean “Just the hate, with a side of grilled This Sucks and a mug of What Is This Horse Poop?” I saw “Menace” in 1999 with a cadre of fellow nerdlingers (and, inexplicably, our fiances) and we spent the next two weeks struggling to think of nice things to say about it, fighting to justify the emotional investment we’d made, an investment that had been returned to us in the form of jokes involving flatulent space horses and the nuanced drama of intergalactic trade route taxation disputes.




“Menace” was the film equivalent of having someone remove your feet with ice scrapers, except not nearly as understandable. There were some froggy Japanese stereotypes whose lips moved wrong despite $800 trillion of computers, and evil bagel-shaped spaceships containing Lego robots that broke when anything touched them.


There was a corrupt Senate led by General Zod, who was made everybody unhappy and as a result, no one knelt before Zod. There was Natalie Portman, who at one point is revealed to be Natalie Portman, which caused much CGI gasping (later the Portman/Portman character fell in love with Anakin, making him the luckiest second-grader alive). There was a Jedi Council containing Shaft and a coneheaded version of Wilford Brimley, who all decided that though Anakin had been potty trained three years ago he was wayyyyy too old to be a Jedi. Oh, and Anakin, a character who would take the interrogation needle to his own daughter in “Episode IV,” was an 8-year-old boy who won a NASCAR race that made him not a slave anymore, because kids’ movies love slavery! At the end someone told Japanese lizard stereotype that he could “kiss his trade franchise goodbye,” which in space is apparently a massively bitchy thing to say, and there was a Ladysmith Black Mambazo song and a frog passed a glowing bowling ball to either Portman or Keira Knightley and the credits rolled and we were like “WHYYYYYYYYY?”

It went on like this. And over the years I became hardened and insufferable, unpleasant and sort of damp. Yet out of some weird musty combination of obligation and optimism I approached each sequel with some dying shadow of hope. I wriggled my way into a top-secret advance critic’s screening of “Attack of the Clones” in Chicago, where I sat five or six rows ahead of the great Roger Ebert. And my sole memory of that movie is a scene early on, in which Obi-Wan is chasing an intergalactic assassin/action figure who is seen holding a poison dart, loading a poison dart and shooting a poison dart at a victim. Obi-Wan then runs over to the victim, bends down to pick out the poison dart from her neck, considers it for a minute and says, and I’m quoting here, “Poison dart.” Ebert, six rows back, lets out a “HAH!” like he’s Nelson Muntz. I have no memories of the rest of the movie.

By the time “Revenge of the Sith” rolled around I’d had a kid and passed enough dispiriting birthday numbers to feel uneasy with science-fiction based disappointment anyway. I caught another critic’s screening at, of all places, Disney World. There was much less security.

But then last weekend, we visited friends who have a daughter about the same age as my son. My kid doesn’t really like “Star Wars” but he does like Ellie, so was excited to see the big-shot fancypants 3D “Phantom Menace.”

And this is where things get weird, because I kind of enjoyed it? I think? Kind of? I mean, 3D Senate hearings are still Senate hearings and I still can’t figure out how anyone could collect the assemblage of Ewan McGregor, Sam Jackson, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley and tell them to remain as motionless and narcoleptic as possible, but, I mean, ehhhh the pod race was sort of fun in 3D? Mostly though my son’s in the kitchen drawing his own pod racer right now, which, I am told, is like Anakin’s but faster. I was planning to go tell him about how the old movies were so much better and how the crappy new ones obliterated  the childhood dreams of an entire generation but it’s almost like he doesn’t even care for some reason.


About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

10 responses to “So, uh, I didn’t hate “The Phantom Menace” this time

  • Chris Holmes

    I always thought those were Chinese stereotypes, a la Charlie Chan.


  • Lokyra Stone

    I called my sister over here and made her stand still while I read the entire column to her. She laughed several times.
    I think I must repost this. Via my parents, I was absorbed into the Star Wars Generation (as well as Bad Kung Fu Movie Generation). I, too, have been witness to the depravity and destruction wrought by the New Star Wars films. I drank away my sorrows, bitching about the wreckage of my hopes and dreams. Sometimes to friends, sometimes to parents, sometimes to the dogs, and at my most desperate, to the walls.

    And I also admit, when I saw the ads for Phantom Menace 3D, I went, “Oooooooh.” Hope once again rose within me.


  • Jeff Vrabel

    She only laughed *several* times? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS SISTER EXACTLY?

    Aw, give it a shot. The last lightsaber fight has always been awesome, right?


  • Lokyra Stone

    My sister is what is known as a “black cloud.” So don’t take it personally.

    That would pretty much be why I would spend the money and time and effort to drive the hour and a half to the nearest 3d theater. THE FIGHT SCENES.


  • Joe Vince

    I thought those aliens were insensitive to Jeremy Lin (TOPICAL!).

    I took Sam–from 3 to 9–to see all of the prequels when they originally came out. You have a totally different perspective when you take your kid. They’re not terrible kids movies, but they’re not “The Incredibles” or “Pinocchio,” which are great kids’ films. Watch the Pokemon and God help me, the Digimon movies, and then you’ll know the true meaning of steaming piles of excreta on the cinematic world. With Sam, he loved “TPM” (had to go to the bathroom during the same point in the pod race each time we saw it) and loved Yoda fighting in “AotC” and was upset that Anakin killed all those kids in “RotS” (also, he almost witnessed a geek riot when the movie stopped right at the end of the Kenobi-Anakin fight during the midnight showing we went to).

    Watching all six movies over Christmas (got the Blu-rays as a present), it’s pretty safe to say that except for “Empire” (which is up there with “Raiders” as a perfect action film), the other two movies are about the same overall same quality as the prequels. The only difference was they were imprinted on us at an impressionable age. You can quibble here and there why one trilogy is better than the other, but honestly, they’re about the same: good kids’ movies that are an magical in their imagination, special effects and set and production designs.

    And that’s why I like Star Wars (concept, not the specific film). It’s the mental equivalent of going to Disney World without all the rules. That’s why I don’t really care that Lucas keeps screwing around with his movies. I’m going to begrudge him for creating the template for something I enjoy? If I don’t like what he’s done, I don’t have to watch/buy/ingest it. Hell, I don’t even have to acknowledge it. One thing I hate more than Tatooinian creature flatulence and feculence is fan entitlement.

    Plus, he owns it, not a corporation. And that’s a good thing.

    God, I think I’ve become one of those Internet people I hate.


    • Jeff Vrabel

      Amen, brother. Jake watched Episode IV, and wasn’t remotely as into it as he was Harry Potter or MythBusters or “How To Train your Dragon.” Found it kind of boring, actually, for the logical reason that the first half of it is kind of boring. But I think it is good to go watch the prequels divorced of your own coolness, and this enjoyable thirtysomething cultural decision that because you watched something cultural as an 8-year-old is it automatically awesome.


  • Kim Bongiorno of Let Me Start By Saying

    Pod racers make everything better. For kids.


  • Jeff Vrabel

    You know what could have used some pod racers? That scene with Natalie Portman and The Cardboard Standout of Anakin Skywalker frolicking around the meadow from The Adventures of Milo and Otis. They would have helped that scene. (That or a freak wildfire.)


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