Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) Director: George Lucas
After decades of adoration for the original Star Wars films in the late ’70s and early ’80s -a series that really wore down George Lucas mentally and physically in the process- Lucas returned to direct the “prequels” 20 years later in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It was Lucas’s first directorial effort since the first Star Wars film in 1977. Lucas had approached Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg to direct the film, however they declined (among others).
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. The Trade Federation has decided to blockade the planet of Naboo in preparation for a full-scale invasion (with the covert support of senator Palpatine, a public ally of Naboo, however he is also secretly a sith lord, under the name Darth Sidious. He orders them to conduct an all-out invasion of Naboo with an army of droids). Still believing in the power of diplomacy, Supreme Chancellor Valorum sends along two Jedi to negotiate with the Trade Federation: Qui-Gon Jinn and his student, Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, they are attacked on the Trade Federation’s ship. They escape and flee to Naboo where they happen upon the goofy Jar-Jar Binks who reluctantly leads them to his underwater kingdom where his people, the gungans, have outcast him. The Jedi persuade the gungans to give them a ship so they may go to help the Queen and her people at Naboo. They travel through the dangerous “planet core” and arrive at Naboo 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 flee to Coruscant, the capital planet of the republic that appears like a giant city. However, their ship becomes gravely damaged and they land on Tatooine with the hopes of repairing their ship and speedily heading toward Coruscant. Qui-Gon encounters a junk trader who has the parts for their ship, but they do not have enough credits for the purchase. He also encounters a young nine-year old Anakin Skywalker who works in the shop. He is a brilliant builder (apparently he built C-3PO) and other ships and droids. He is also a pod-racer. In a risky bet, Qui-Gon bets his ship that Anakin can win the upcoming pod race in the vehicle he built 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 Sebulba. Thus, they win the parts they need for their ship as well as Anakin’s freedom (but sadly not his mother’s). Upon returning to their ship, Darth Maul, an unexpected sith lord, appears as he has been tracking them. Qui-Gon briefly battles him before they escape. 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, 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. In the ensuing battle, the gungans take heavy losses from the droids, and Anakin accidentally flies a ship into space to take part in the battle. He accidentally destroys the main droid ship, thus shutting down all droids back down 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 and he falls down a massive duct. With his dying words, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to train Anakin. 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.
Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson deliver terrific performances. The low points of the film are the introduction of the gungans (infamously the character of Jar-Jar Binks), the visuals are overwhelming and excessive unfortunately (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. The title of the film is in reference to 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 an entertaining film that captures at least some of the magic of the original trilogy. It is the best of episodes I-III, despite it setbacks (the gungans, Jar-Jar Binks, terrible dialogue, uninteresting character development, the introduction of odd new things like mediclorians and the fact that Anakin had no father and so 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, in the pod-race scene, and in the battle scenes with Darth Maul. Lamentably, we do not get any more information about Darth Maul and he is killed (or at least we are led to believe he dies) at the end of the film.