George Lucas Worried Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Was Just 'Jerking People Around'

The public's consideration of George Lucas' 1999 film "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" has dipped and swerved like a roller coaster. Those of us who were alive in 1999 are likely astonished to have witnessed "Phantom Menace" go from being one of the most successful films of all time, to one of the most disappointing franchise movies of all time, to one of the most outwardly hated blockbusters of all time, to one of the most unjustly maligned films of all time, to finally being considered a vital (if clunky) part of a long-running sci-fi saga with its share of highs and lows. 

In truth, "The Phantom Menace" is rather bad. Lucas' dialogue is dry and dull, his characters staid and bland. It's the stiffest, most mannered sci-fi blockbuster one might ever see, lacking in personality, wit, humor, fun, or excitement. The story of "The Phantom Menace" infamously surrounds a trade route blockade and galactic taxation, a bureaucratic plot that isn't exactly conducive to the space battles and laser sword fights that the series had become known for. "The Phantom Menace" does feature a technically impressive race sequence and a well-choreographed swordfight, but they are weighed down by the unfocussed busyness of the film overall. 

The above-mentioned swordfight was part of the film's four-fisted climax wherein a quartet of story threads all conclude simultaneously. Lucas cut wildly between these four climaxes, hoping to bolster the action and keep the audience's eyeballs full. Instead, the fourfold action sequences are confusing, rotating dizzyingly between tones and events, not allowing audiences to get a sense of the power or the tragedy of any of them. 

In the 2001 documentary "The Beginning: Making 'Episode I,'" Lucas admitted that he may have gone too far in a few places. 

'I may have gone too far in a few places.'

One of the four climaxes was a swordfight between the demon-looking Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the two Jedis Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gonn Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gonn is killed. The second climax was an infiltration sequence wherein Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) led a charge into the Naboo castle. The third was a space-bound dogfight wherein the 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) fires weapons at a droid-control vessel. And the fourth was a comedic ground battle between the newt-like Gungans, including Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and an army of battle droids. It's a mess. 

In "The Beginning," Lucas and the film's head crewmembers are shown right after viewing the first rough cut of "The Phantom Menace," and the camera captures the stunned disappointment on everyone's faces. Even Lucas seemed to recognize that he hadn't turned in his finest work. It was, in the filmmakers' defense, only the first draft, but there is a distinct "oh crap" mood in the room. 

"It's a little disjointed," Lucas admits. "It's bold in terms of jerking people around, but I may have gone too far in a few places." Lucas' editor, Ben Burtt, points out exactly what went wrong, saying to the director: 

"In a space of about 90 seconds, you know, you go from lamenting the death of, you know, a hero, to escape, to slightly comedic with Jar Jar, to Anakin returning with his little kind of tag. It's a lot, and really it's in a very short time."

Lucas groaned, knowing that Burtt was kind of right. However, knew he had painted himself into a corner.

But you can't cut anything

Lucas acknowledged that he simply had to live with his decisions; to clean up the climax would require re-writing the entire scene and reshooting everything from scratch, hardly a practical solution when the rough cut was already complete. Lucas struggled:

"It boggles the mind. I mean I've thought about this quite a bit, and the tricky part is you kind of can't take any of those pieces out of there now. Because each one kind of takes you to the next place and you can't jump because you don't know where you are." 

So the climax was busy, but every single moment was required for basic clarity. Plus, each sequence required extensive special effects, and throwing a completed quarter of the film's climax would have been wasteful. Later, when Burtt and Lucas were discussing the movie, Burtt reminded Lucas of the simplicity of the 1977 "Star Wars" film he directed, and how trim it was in terms of action and plot. Lucas said that he feels "The Phantom Menace" was merely an "extreme" version of the first "Star Wars." 

"It's stylistically designed to be that way," he said, "and you can't undo that. But we can diminish the effects of it." 

The above quote has become notorious among "Star Wars" fans, as it was Lucas admitting that his extreme style didn't work for "The Phantom Menace." The YouTube channel Red Letter Media famously quoted Lucas multiple times, showing their viewers that Lucas kind of didn't know what he was doing. 

For the record: "The Phantom Menace" is still bad. It was well thought-out and Lucas knew it. It's not the worst blockbuster of all time, but it's certainly not good either. It may be a little over-hated, but we can diminish the effects of it.