Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Director: George Lucas
After decades of adoration for the original Star Wars movies –a trilogy which physically and mentally exhausted a young and ambitious director– George Lucas returned to direct the Star Wars “prequels” some 20 years later. It was actually Lucas’s first directorial effort since the first Star Wars film in 1977. He had initially approached Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg to direct the film, however they among others declined.
The Phantom Menace takes place approximately 32 years prior to the original series (Episodes IV-VI). The plot of the film is driven by Senator Palpatine’s greedy desire for a covert power grab in the galactic senate. Peace has been disrupted in the Galactic Republic and taxation disputes are arising. 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 a pretext in preparation for a full-scale invasion. With the clandestine support of Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who publicly supports Naboo, however he is secretly a sith lord under the name Darth Sidious. He 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 and a naive young queen (Queen Amidala of Naboo) will then motion for a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Chancellor Valorum, and hopefully place Palpatine in supreme power. 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: Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his student, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). However, when they arrive the Jedi are attacked on The Trade Federation’s ship. 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 thus raising 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 Naboo in the midst of battle? These questions are never answered.
The Jedi escape The Trade Federation and flee to Naboo where they happen upon a goofy alien creature named Jar-Jar Binks who reluctantly leads the Jedi to his underwater kingdom where his people, the Gungans, have outcast him. Why do the Jedivisit the Gungans when their purpose for traveling to the surface of Naboo was to 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 on the complete opposite side of the planet?) They arrive at the city but they are too late; the invasion has already started. However, they are able to rescue Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), the fourteen year old Queen of Naboo and they all manage to commandeer a ship and flee to Coruscant, the capital planet of the republic that appears to be a giant city. However, their ship becomes gravely damaged so they land on Tatooine instead to repair their ship. Qui-Gon leads Jar-Jar Binx and the Queen (why does he take the Queen?) through the dangerous city and they encounter a junk trader who just happens to have the parts needed for their ship, but they do not have enough credits for the purchase. 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) and other ships and droids. He is also a pod-racer. In a risky bet, Qui-Gon bets his ship against the junk trader that Anakin can win the upcoming pod-race in the vehicle he built for himself. He 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 pilot nemesis, a creature called Sebulba. Thus, they win the parts needed for their ship along with Anakin’s freedom (but sadly not his mother’s freedom). Upon returning to their ship, Darth Maul, an unexpected sith lord appears because he has been tracking them. Qui-Gon briefly battles him before they escape on their ship. They take Queen Amidala to Coruscant and Qui-Gon requests permission to train Anakin as a Jedi, which they decline, but he decides to train Anakin anyway, believing him to be the prophesied “Chosen One” who will bring balance to the force. They also discuss the rise 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 Vaolrum and requests that her supposed ally, Senator Palpatine, be elected as Chancellor. The senate gets bogged down in discussions and committees, time that Naboo does not have (apparently), so Amidala, in frustration, returns to Naboo to marshal her people in arms against The Trade Federation’s droid army. First, she goes to 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 a ship to take part in the battle. He accidentally destroys the main droid ship, thus shutting down all droids on the ground assault on Naboo, and meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan battle Darth Maul. Maul kills Qui-Gon but then Obi-Wan cuts Darth Maul in half who then falls down a massive 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 leadership is arrested. Yoda and the council reluctantly accept Anakin as the student of Obi-Wan, though they sense darkness and confusion in him. The film ends with a parade and a celebration between the people of Naboo and the Gungans. Is it possible to read Qui-Gon as the ultimate villain of the Star wars saga?
Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson are welcome additions though their characters suffer from poor screen-writing. The low points of the film are the introduction of the Gungans (particularly the character of Jar-Jar Binks), the visuals are overwhelming and excessive (almost the whole film takes place in front of a green screen and the computer generated imagery or CGI 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. The title of the film is in reference to the concealed “menace” of Palpatine and his sith lord apprentice. 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 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 midichlorians 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 the battle scenes 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 was released in 1999 -finally a Star Wars movie for the next generation! However, even with the sobering benefit of hindsight, this sad installment simply cannot stand up to a critical eye.