It’s not an exaggeration to say that Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is one of the biggest disappointments in cinema history—maybe even the biggest. This was the origin story to one of the greatest villains of all time, in one of the greatest franchises of all time. What could go wrong? The answer: George Lucas. It’s no secret that Lucas went through numerous iterations of A New Hope before finally landing on the finished screenplay we see today, and in hindsight, it’s also not incredibly surprising that Lucas didn’t write or direct Empire Strikes Back. The prequels, however, are 100% Lucas and were produced independently, meaning there was zero creative oversight. The result is, well, kind of a disaster.
But it almost wasn’t—maybe. In a recent appearance on Josh Horowitz’s Happy Sad Confused podcast, filmmaker Ron Howard revealed that he and at least two other filmmakers were approached to direct The Phantom Menace by Lucas himself:
[“George Lucas] didn’t necessarily want to direct them. He told me he had talked to Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and me. I was the third one he spoke to. They all said the same thing: ‘George, you should do it!’ I don’t think anybody wanted to follow-up that act at the time. It was an honor, but it would’ve been too daunting.”
Imagine a Star Wars movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. Now that’s something. Alas, everyone convinced Lucas he had to direct the prequels himself, and we got wooden performances, stilted action, and horrible pacing. But it’s actually kind of nice to hear that Lucas at least tried to get a better director to take the helm, maybe knowing his own limitations, or maybe just wanting to follow the formula he imposed on Empire and Return of the Jedi. The filmmaker admits that he has trouble explaining what he wants out of his actors, and he knew well enough to approach three talented directors before tackling The Phantom Menace himself.
Now the script for Episode I is a separate issue, but I have to believe that with another filmmaker behind the camera it would’ve been guaranteed to be at least marginally better than the film we have today. Regardless, that didn’t happen and Lucas was so soured on the response to the prequels that he swore off directing theatrically released films for good.
How would history be different if Zemeckis or Howard had directed Episode I? Would Lucas have realized Episode VII, VIII, and IX on his own without selling Lucasfilm to Disney, resulting in his original stories being used instead of the ones that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have dreamed up? Would Jar Jar Binks still exist? Endless questions posed by a very fascinating “what if?” scenario.