Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Director: George Lucas
“Now, this is podracing!”
After decades of adoration for the original Star Wars movies –a trilogy which had physically and mentally exhausted its young and ambitious creator– George Lucas returned to direct the Star Wars “prequels” some 20 years later. The intention was to tell the mysterious backstory of young Anakin Skywalker and the downfall of the Republic. It was actually Lucas’s first directorial effort since the first Star Wars film in 1977, over the years much of his career after Star Wars was spent producing films and overseeing his vast empire (no pun intended) of toy merchandise, movie spin-offs, comics, novels, video games, and so on. When exploring the idea of releasing a prequel trilogy, Lucas initially approached Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg to direct the films, however they both, among others, declined the job. Thus it was left to George Lucas to embark on this journey himself.
The Phantom Menace takes place approximately 32 years prior to the original series (Episodes IV-VI). The plot of the film is driven by dramatic irony, the fact that we a know Senator Palpatine’s greedy desire to covertly overthrow the rule of the galactic senate, and we also know that Anakin will fall to the dark side. By this point, peace has been disrupted within the Galactic Republic and taxation disputes are rising. An organization called The Trade Federation has decided to blockade a planet called Naboo as part of a trade dispute over the taxation of trade routes, but this is merely revealed to be a pretext for a full-scale invasion of Naboo under the clandestine support of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a senator who publicly supports Naboo but who is secretly a Sith Lord working under the name Darth Sidious. By now, there is a sense of complacency in the Republic –the ancient Sith Lords (wielders of primordial dark powers) are believed to be all but extinct. Palpatine, pulling strings behind the scenes, orders the Trade Federation to conduct an all-out invasion of Naboo with an army of droids in order to cause a crisis in the senate. The young and naive Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Porman) then introduces a motion into the Senate which calls for a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the currently elected leader, Chancellor Valorum, and instead she supports electing Senator Palpatine in his place. Still believing in the power of diplomacy, the current leader of the Galactic Senate Supreme Chancellor Valorum sends along two Jedi Knights to negotiate with The Trade Federation over Naboo: Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his pupil, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). However, when they arrive at the Trade Federation ship over Naboo, the Jedi are attacked. Why is the Trade Federation planning a full-scale ground invasion of Naboo? Is this truly the best way Senator Palpatine can secure power? Why do they spring a trap on the Jedi? Wouldn’t this only raise further suspicion about their ambitions? Can the people of Naboo truly not survive without supplies from this blockade? Why are they “dying”? Why don’t the Jedi simply flee The Trade Federation and warn the Galactic Senate instead of traveling down to the surface of Naboo in the midst of battle? These questions are never really answered, despite the film’s intriguing premise.
At any rate, the Jedi escape The Trade Federation and flee to Naboo where they happen upon a goofy CGI alien creature named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) and he reluctantly leads them to an underwater kingdom where his people, the Gungans, have made him an outcast. Why do the Jedi visit the Gungans when their purpose for traveling to the surface of Naboo was to merely warn the people of Naboo about the impending attack? The Jedi persuade the Gungans to give them a ship to help the young Queen Amidala of Naboo. They travel through the dangerous “planet core” (why did The Trade Federation land its ships so far away from the city center on the opposite side of the planet?) The Jedi arrive at the city but they are too late; the invasion has already started. However, they are able to rescue Padme Amidala, the fourteen year old Queen of Naboo and they manage to commandeer a ship and flee to Coruscant, the capital planet of the Republic. However, their ship becomes gravely damaged so they land on Tatooine for repairs. Qui-Gon leads Jar Jar Binks and the Queen through the dangerous city (why does he take the Queen?) and they encounter a junk trader named Watto who just happens to possess the parts they need, but they do not have enough credits for the purchase. Here, they also encounter a young nine-year old Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) who works in the junk shop. He is a brilliant engineer (apparently he built C-3PO -which raises other questions related to the original series) as well as other ships and droids, and he is a pod-racer. In a risky bet, Qui-Gon gambles their ship against the junk trader that Anakin can win the upcoming pod-race in the vehicle Anakin built for himself. Qui-Gon also raises the bet to purchase Anakin’s freedom. In one of the better scenes in the film (reminiscent of Ben-Hur), Anakin dramatically wins the pod race, despite being sabotaged by his nemesis, a creature named Sebulba. Thus, they win the parts needed for their ship along with Anakin’s freedom (but sadly they are unable to negotiate his mother’s freedom). Upon returning to their ship, Darth Maul, an unexpected Sith Lord suddenly appears because he has been tracking their ship. Qui-Gon briefly engages in a lightsaber with Maul before they escape. Shaken up, they transport Queen Amidala to Coruscant and Qui-Gon requests permission to train Anakin as a Jedi, which is denied, but Qui-Gon decides to train Anakin anyway, believing him to be the prophesied “Chosen One” who will bring balance to the force. They also discuss their newfound knowledge of a Sith Lord, something the Jedi believed to be extinct for nearly a thousand years. Meanwhile, in the Galactic Senate, Queen Amidala votes no confidence in Chancellor Valorum and requests that her supposed ally, Senator Palpatine, be elected as Chancellor. The Senate becomes mired in bureaucratic discussions and committees, but Naboo does not have time to waste (apparently), so Amidala, in frustration, returns to Naboo to marshal her people against the invading Trade Federation’s droid army. First, she visits the Gungans to plead for help, and they reluctantly agree. In the ensuing battle, the Gungans take heavy losses from the droids, and Anakin accidentally flies an unoccupied ship into battle. He accidentally destroys the main droid ship, thus shutting down all droids on the ground assault, and meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul. In the fight, Maul kills Qui-Gon but then Obi-Wan cuts Darth Maul in half sending him falling down an air duct. With his dying words, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin in the ways of the Jedi. Senator Palpatine is then elected as Chancellor in the senate, and the Trade Federation’s leaders are arrested. Yoda and the council reluctantly accept Anakin as the student of Obi-Wan, though they sense much darkness and confusion in him. The film ends with a parade and a celebration between the people of Naboo and the Gungans. Keeping all of this in mind, is it possible to read Qui-Gon as the ultimate villain of the Star wars saga? His decisions are apparently extraordinarily short-sighted and eventually cause the downfall of the republic and the rise of Darth Vader. It leads me to the disappointing conclusion that the Jedi are perhaps not as great as I once thought.
Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are welcome additions to this film though their characters suffer from poor script-writing. The low points of the film are the introduction of the Gungans (particularly the slapstick character of Jar Jar Binks), the visuals which are excessive (almost the whole film takes place in front of a green screen and the computer generated imagery is highly distracting), Natalie Portman is a great actress however her character has the personality of a block of wood (as does her decoy servant played by Keira Knightly), and also Jake Lloyd delivers a forgettable performance as Anakin Skywalker. Samuel L. Jackson also surprisingly appears in the film as Mace Windu, a great Jedi, but he has very little screen time. The title of the film is apparently a reference to the concealed “menace” of Palpatine and his Sith Lord apprentice, Darth Maul. As with the original series, the Tatooine scenes were shot in Tunisia, and the palace scenes of Naboo were shot in Italy.
In all, The Phantom Menace is a barely tolerable film that captures at least a modicum of the magic of the original trilogy. It is the best of the prequels (episodes I-III) in my view, despite its many setbacks (the Gungans, Jar-Jar Binks, terrible dialogue, wooden and un-relatable characters, complete absence of character development, the introduction of odd new things like midi-chlorians that never appear again, and the bizarre fact that Anakin apparently had no father and simply congealed in his mother, and on and on). The most memorable scenes of the film occur at the outset when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape the trap from the Trade Federation, the pod-race scene, and any scene with Darth Maul. Lamentably, we do not get any more information about Darth Maul and he is immediately killed off (or at least we are led to believe he dies) at the end of the film. I remember how exciting it was when a new Star Wars movie was released in 1999 –finally a Star Wars movie for a new generation! However, even with the sobering benefit of hindsight, this sad installment simply cannot stand up to a critical eye.
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