Seven Days of Star Wars
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
(PG, 133 minutes, 1999)
(PG, 136 minutes, 2001)
This is the fourth installment in a series of looks at each of the wide-released theatrical Star Wars films leading up to the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This includes each of the films that comprise the saga’s story after the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by the Walt Disney Company and the April 2014 canon reset.
Day one examined 2008’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Day two looked at Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Day three was dedicated to Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Today is all about Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, which is set 32 years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope.
The hype was strong with this one. Not counting the Special Editions or the Ewok TV movies, sixteen years had passed since the last film installment of Star Wars. To say that The Phantom Menace was highly anticipated is an understatement.
I had discovered Star Wars sometime around 1985, but really got into it sometime around 1992 when I started reading Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy. The only way I had seen the films was on pan-and-scan VHS tapes or edited television presentations, and after the experience of the Special Editions in 1997, I was stoked for a new story on the silver screen. All I knew about the story of how Anakin became Darth Vader was from the scant lines in the movies and the one-line description of the lightsaber duel “over a volcano” from the Return of the Jedi novelization.
When the trailers came out, I asked a friend of mine who had a CD burner to make a copy for me, which I watched almost every day in what could only be described today as terrible resolution. I bought tickets as soon as I could for opening weekend, and on my meager wage as a part-time elementary school custodian, I treated my family to a new adventure in the galaxy far, far away.
Despite all the hype, I was not disappointed.
I’m not an apologist fanboy, and as one can see from the last three days, I don’t love this franchise unconditionally. I get the anger over the prequels. They weren’t what die-hard fans who had been with the franchise since the summer of ’77 expected. Darth Vader’s a morally good and cute kid who likes to race and loves his mother? The conflict is about the politics of trade disputes instead of good vs. evil? The Force is really microbes in your cells? Jar Jar Binks!?
The crux the matter is that the movie those fans expected didn’t happen, and that infuriates them. It makes them believe that George Lucas destroyed their childhoods or tainted the three movies that became a legend. It’s fueled the careers of people like Simon Pegg who take every chance they get to complain about the franchise. It prompts supposed “true fans” to exclude anyone who doesn’t think exactly like them. It makes them cheer when Patton Oswalt suggests going back in time and killing Lucas with a shovel.
It justifies parents actually teaching and wanting their kids to hate. Think about that for a minute.
It also makes some fans think that Star Wars belongs to the public because it has so permeated pop culture. I can’t begin to describe how ridiculous that sounds to me. The ideas and discussions and interpretations certainly belong to the public, but the intellectual property still belongs to the artists who created it. Consider franchises that have been around longer than Star Wars – Doctor Who, Star Trek, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and so on – and ask why this one is special enough to be fan property instead of Lucasfilm property. Answer: It’s not.
Don’t get me wrong: The prequels weren’t great movies, and I do place a lot of that at the feet of George Lucas. It’s well known that he didn’t have a lot of opposition in the prequel era. Sure, he’d directed before – American Graffiti, THX 1138, the original Star Wars – but each time he’d had a producer like Francis Ford Coppola acting as the angel/devil on his shoulder pushing him to think a little differently here and there. He was also still hungry to make a name for himself and defy the Hollywood establishment. By 1999, things were different.
George Lucas is a wonderful dreamer, a fantastic innovator, and a great experimental filmmaker. But for mainstream film like Star Wars, he needs a counterbalance, and I don’t think he had one strong enough for the Prequel Era. Those films needed tightening and more polish, and that’s what hurt them in the end.
Also, that “younger” Yoda puppet? That was painful. As much as I adore Frank Oz, I’m so glad they replaced it with a CG Yoda in the Blu-Ray releases.
So, despite the flaws, what makes this movie work for me?
A Gateway to Fandom
Star Wars is, at its core, a children’s story about families and people, the choices they make, and the consequences of their actions. In particular, it’s a story about the Skywalker family. That’s not a dismissal of the story’s complexity, which attracts fans of all ages and drives them to analyze every corner of the universe, but it’s based on the movie serial adventures that inspired George Lucas as a youth.
In the same way that the original 1977 installment inspired young fans – today’s parents – The Phantom Menace inspired young fans in the Generation Y and Millennial sets, and it’s readily apparent in how the Star Wars juggernaut keeps rolling. If The Phantom Menace had been as crappy a movie as people claim, Star Wars would have died at that point. At the very least, it would have been relegated to cult status like so many ‘80s films.
But it wasn’t, and that’s amazing to me. The ‘80s got the Original Trilogy, the ‘90s got the brunt of the Expanded Universe, the 2000s got The Prequel Era, and the 2010s got The Clone Wars, Rebels, and the beginnings of the post-Disney Big Bang. Every generation gets a new vision of Star Wars, and the mythology and the fandom carries on.
Fan expectations determined that The Phantom Menace’s version of Anakin Skywalker should have been what we got in Attack of the Clones: a reckless Jedi Knight flirting with the Dark Side. Instead, we all got an adorable slave boy with a deep respect for family.
And I’m okay with that.
The Darth Vader we met in the Original Trilogy was a dark and evil mustache twirler who gained depth over the course of three movies. There was no doubt in A New Hope that he was evil: He had a deep, menacing voice, wore all black, and killed people on a whim. He was ruthless, a concept that was built upon in the Expanded Universe as he slaughtered every remaining Jedi and Rebel he could.
But in our history, darkness wasn’t readily apparent in childhood. Even Hitler wasn’t born as a genocidal maniac.
If the episodic Star Wars films are truly about the Skywalkers, then it makes sense to know about Anakin before he becomes a Jedi. The trilogies run in similar narrative styles – if you have the time, take the plunge into Mike Klimo’s Ring Theory – and Luke was also introduced before he discovered the Force. It also provides a greater dramatic pedestal from which Anakin can fall.
I mean, it’s not entirely necessary for the redemption story, but it makes Anakin’s story a little sweeter for me. It also struck an emotional chord for me since The Phantom Menace came out around the time I was considering leaving home for college. When Anakin leaves and his mother tells him to be brave and not look back, I cry a little for the eight year old.
On the dark side of this topic, a lot of people criticized the film and its inclusion of a young Anakin by attacking Jake Lloyd. He was ten years old when the film came out, and he got smacked with a bow wave of negativity and threats, and he doesn’t like talking about his role in Star Wars to this day.
Some people say that it’s just how the internet is, but these are the same people who had no problem bullying a ten-year old kid online for something that wasn’t really his fault. It’s inexcusable.
Qui-Gon Jinn and the Nature of the Force
As I mentioned with Attack of the Clones, the Prequel Era came with the unspoken promise that we would see the Jedi in their prime. The Jedi in The Phantom Menace, with the exception of Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, were effectively monks in thoughtful seclusion on Coruscant. That made Qui-Gon Jinn a breath of fresh air.
In this adventure, Qui-Gon bends the Jedi Code because he believes in a cause. He remains dedicated to the Order, but sees the nature of the Force in a different light than his peers, which (for better or worse) prevents him from moving beyond going from mission to mission around the galaxy.
The Jedi at large focused on the Universal Force, but Qui-Gon paid more attention to the Living Force. Amusingly, this appears to have affected Yoda later on as he discusses more elements of the Living Force when he trains Luke in Empire Strikes Back. The Jedi Order played with the Living Force a little bit with the concept of midichlorians, which I see as more of an attempt to use science to explain spirituality and mysticism. At the height of the Republic, so much of everyday life was about technology and science that it makes sense to apply it in all aspects. By the time of Luke’s training, the Order was as much a legend as the Library of Alexandria in our culture. Midichlorians don’t bother me because they don’t stick around long in the saga.
Qui-Gon saw (and lived in) the shades of grey on the galaxy around him, and saw worth in every soul he met. I deeply admire the character, and believe that had he been Anakin’s mentor, things would have turned out so much better for the Skywalkers, the Jedi, and the Republic.
Jar Jar Binks
Qui-Gon Jinn is exactly why I don’t have any problem with Jar Jar Binks.
Yes, he was a misguided comic relief to a movie otherwise waterlogged in political games. Yes, he was silly, which was out of place in Star Wars to this point in time. But he was also valuable to certain messages from the film. He introduced the heroes to the other side of Naboo’s symbiotic relationship, and eventually prompted Queen Amidala to seek peace with the Gungans.
I never picked up on the racism that others saw in him, and wondered from a behind-the-scenes perspective if Ahmed Best, a black man, would portray and advertise a racist character in a movie even if the pay was good. I doubt that he would.
On the topic of behind the scenes movie magic, Jar Jar Binks is also responsible for the motion capture technology in modern cinema. Filmmakers in the last 15 years have built upon the foundations that George Lucas built to make Jar Jar Binks interactive with the actors. Without that character, I don’t know that we’d have character interpretations like Gollum or the Hulk.
Jar Jar Binks also held a message for me. Much of my youth was spent in isolation from my peers, mostly because I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t dedicated to the majority religion in Utah, and didn’t run with typical in-crowd. I placed academics over dating, and I spent more time writing and reading than anything else. When The Phantom Menace came out, I was coming out of some of my darkest years. It was a period where I nearly always felt cornered, alone, and angry, and I sometimes wondered if the world would even miss me.
Jar Jar Binks actually gave me hope. He was an outcast – a “pathetic life form” – who wasn’t a hero, but someone who was appreciated for what he had to offer to the heroes. He taught the heroes something about the worth of common people in the galaxy who weren’t Jedi or politicians.
I’m not his biggest fan, but I place some value on what he brought to the story, and it makes me sad that he ended up being an ignorant stepping stone who thought he was doing the right thing during Palpatine’s ascension.
The Lightsaber Duel
Before The Phantom Menace, lightsaber fights were styled after battles with broadswords. In the Prequel Era, they became something we had never seen before, and the energy they imparted kept me engaged. In the years since, the three-way duel has waned as one of my favorites, but at the time it was both energetic and heartbreaking.
Unfortunately, it has also spawned an entire generation of lightsaber builders who think that swordplay is all about spinning blades and acrobatics.
The Phantom Menace was also a pioneer in modern Star Wars music, which carried over in several re-used sequences for the following episodes. When people think about music in The Phantom Menace, they start with “Duel of the Fates”, which is a great piece, but not one of my favorites.
“Anakin’s Theme” was a fantastic reflection of the character with its light and gentle airiness that speaks of young Anakin’s empathy. It also foreshadows with the subtle hints of “The Imperial March” in its DNA, telling you that tragedy is in the young boy’s destiny.
The other piece of music that I love from the film is “Augie’s Great Municipal Band”, which plays over the peace ceremony. The part that I love is how it tells you who the phantom menace truly is, and it does it with the voices of the children who will suffer in the future. When you slow and pitch down the children’s choir, it reveals the theme of Emperor Palpatine. I find it cool and so very, very creepy.
Tomorrow brings the Original Trilogy with Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
My Rating: 7.5/10
IMDb rating: 6.5/10