Why ‘Rise of Skywalker’ is more like 'Phantom Menace' than you think

In a good way.


This will be a day long-remembered when the beginning of the Star Wars saga and its end became balanced in perfect harmony. According to the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus for The Rise of Skywalker is now tied with The Phantom Menace, with both films sitting at 53 percent rotten.

While the obvious conclusion is that both Episode I and Episode IX are equally misguided films, the two movies are more alike than it seems at first glance — and it’s not all bad. Here are three good qualities that The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker share, and why those commonalities could bring balance to the fandom in the years ahead.

Mild spoilers for Rise of Skywalker ahead.

Rey and Kylo Ren face off in the ruins of Emperor Palpatine's Death Star II throne room in *The Rise of Skywalker.*


3. The general public likes both movies more than the internet suggests.

In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan told Luke that “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” When it comes to the folks on the internet using data sets to prove everyone hates a movie, Rotten Tomatoes presents two distinct points of view: a critical score and an audience score.

With The Rise of Skywalker, the gap between the two metrics is immense: the critical score is 53 percent and the audience score is 86 percent. That means the average moviegoer likes the film more than the average movie critic. That’s not especially surprising, but the scores for Phantom Menace point to a bigger problem with our reliance on review aggregation as an assessment of quality.

Right now, The Phantom Menace has a critical score of 53 percent and an audience score of 59 percent, which makes it seem like the general public mostly agrees with critics. But Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist back in 1999, meaning all of this data is retroactive.

Look, I have a bias here (I’m a talking head in a documentary called The Prequels Strike Back) but the extreme hate for The Phantom Menace in 1999 among Star Wars fans has been really overstated. Or, to put it another way, discussions about Star Wars fandom often exclude the people who will be running these conversations in ten years: Children. Which leads me to my next point.

Younglings in 'Attack of the Clones' (2002)


2. Kids loved Phantom Menace. Kids love Rise of Skywalker, too.

I have a toddler, so I know firsthand that kids like all sorts of things that are bad. (Don’t get me started.) Still, tweens and teenagers who saw The Phantom Menace in 1999 did not overwhelmingly hate it. I know this because I was one of them. Yes, I was old enough and savvy enough to be aware that there was a critical backlash against The Phantom Menace, but it’s not like Target stopped selling Jar Jar Binks dolls or the comic book shop wasn’t selling out of the Dark Horse run focused on Ki-Adi-Mundi. Reducing the Phantom Menace to a retroactive 59 percent audience score generated by people who go online to complain about the prequels a decade later doesn’t actually tell us much about the movie’s popularity.

Ditto for The Rise of Skywalker. Nobody is going around interviewing kids about this Star Wars movie and feeding that data into Rotten Tomatoes. (Billy Eichner? John Mulaney? Can you guys make this happen?)

If this data were quantifiable, it would have to be adjusted for temporal inflation. Subjectively, using myself as an example: I loved The Phantom Menace when I was 17, and then as a 33-year-old appeared in that documentary about the Star Wars prequels. Around this same time, I published an essay in my first book called “The Fans Awaken,” defending the prequels and criticizing Star Wars outrage culture.

Now, I’m 38, and though I’m a little disappointed by The Rise of Skywalker on an adult level, I know that 17 year-old-me (or 12-year-old me) loves it. I imagine there’s a lot of kids out there who genuinely love The Rise of Skywalker, and over time all that backlash will only amplify the love.

Darth Maul

Star Wars

1. Phantom Menace and Rise of Skywalker showcase the best and worst of Star Wars

The Phantom Menace and The Rise of Skywalker have quite different narrative structures, but they’re clunky in similar ways. Both movies had a confusing secret plan from Palpatine that needed to be foiled, which required a lightsaber duel to fix everything. And both rely on artificial contrivances to move characters around. In The Phantom Menace this is everything about the broken hyperdrive, Qui-Gon’s bet with Watto, and the podrace. In The Rise of Skwyalker, its the Sith Wayfinders, the dagger, and the weird secret plot of Palpatine. Neither move is really trying to tell a story, but instead set up cool Star Wars-y moments.

Arguably, that mess of Star Wars-y stuff works a little better in The Rise of Skywalker than in The Phantom Menace, because there are more action figures J.J. Abrams can pull out of the toy box. In The Phantom Menace, we only had the prequel era Jedi, but no Luke, Han or Leia. But in Rise, we got all the prequel-era Jedi, all the new characters, and Han, Luke, Leia, Lando, and Chewie.

Neither film represents Star Wars at its most artistic or thoughtful, but when you consider that George Lucas based this entire thing off of kitschy 1930s Flash Gordon serials, suddenly everything about the beginning and end of the Skywalker saga makes a lot of sense. The dead do speak! Turmoil has engulfed the galaxy! And, a series of movies that mostly appeal to teenagers, will always, and perhaps appropriately, have a more than few blemishes. But, just wait until they grow up!

The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.

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