May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day thanks to it acting as perhaps one of the most fitting and amusing puns ever devised (“May the Fourth be with you” in place of the traditional “May the Force be with you”). The first and most popular of what can easily become a three day celebration of the influential science-fiction series, the day stands as the perfect excuse for Star Wars fans to celebrate the beloved franchise in a variety of ways and, this year, I’ll be celebrating with a three day review of the Prequel Trilogy!
Released: 19 May 1999
Director: George Lucas
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $115 million
Stars: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Ray Park, and Ian McDiarmid
Thirty-two years before the Original Trilogy, during the era of the Galactic Republic, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) are assigned to protect Queen Padmé Amidala (Portman) during an interplanetary trade dispute. In the process, they meet Anakin Skywalker (Lloyd), a slave boy with an unusually strong connection to the Force, and find themselves under attack by the mysterious return of the Sith.
Since its debut in 1977, George Lucas’ science-fiction “space opera” has become a near-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that includes numerous sequels, prequels, spin-offs, novels, videogames, comic books, and more. Following the conclusion of the Original Trilogy, Lucas had little desire to return to the franchise; however, the success of the “Expanded Universe” series of books saw a revitalised interest in Star Wars and Lucas began developing the backstories he created for the saga and its characters back in 1977. Simultaneously, he produced “Special Edition” versions of the Original Trilogy in 1997 to be refamiliarise and prepare audiences for his new films and to refine the digital effects that would become so prevalent in the prequels. Infusing The Phantom Menace with themes regarding destiny and faith, Lucas also deliberately sought not only to appeal to a younger demographic but to bog the narrative down in political debate while, paradoxically, also containing some of the best action scenes in the entire saga at the time. Although many took issue with the film’s racial undertones and the script, The Phantom Menace was proof that Star Wars, as a brand, is destined to always be successful as, despite a myriad of lacklustre to average reviews (and even criticism from star Ewan McGregor), the film made over $1 billion at the box office.
It’s easy to forget now but The Phantom Menace was a big deal back in the day. When I was a kid, I was aware of Star Wars but I hadn’t really ever seen it as the films never seemed to be on television so when the Special Edition versions of the Original Trilogy came to VHS, it was quite an exciting time for me to finally experience Star Wars and the long-awaited first entry in the saga had a great deal of hype in the playground. Merchandise (mostly all marketed simply as Star Wars: Episode I) was all over the place and I remember anticipation being at a fever pitch for it. And then the film starts and, once the opening crawl appears on screen, things get a bit weird almost right away; talk of taxation, trade routes, and politics leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth but there’s no denying that finally seeing the “Episode I” title crawl past had a real impact at the time.
The Phantom Menace introduces us to young, fresh-faced Obi-Wan Kenobi; at this point in time, Obi-Wan is a Jedi Padawan and still learning the ways of the Force during a period when the Jedi Order is at the height of their powers. Far from the wise mentor of the Original Trilogy, he is somewhat headstrong and defers to the council of his master, Qui-Gon Jinn, who is an advocate for the “Living Force” (i.e: being aware and in tune with the moment rather than being distracted by the past and future). Though a capable warrior, Obi-Wan is still young enough that he lets emotions such as anger and pride influence his decisions, and is somewhat dismissive of his master’s predication for befriending “pathetic lifeforms” such as Jar Jar Binks (Best) and young Anakin Skywalker, seeing them as mere distractions compared to more immediate threats. Qui-Gon’s teachings push Ob-Wan towards being more mindful of the potential and capabilities of other individuals and their society, and many of the events of this film serve to shape the man he would eventually become.
Qui-Gon is every bit the wise and benevolent Jedi Master; a sage voice of wisdom, his views on the Force put him at odds with the Jedi Council and he’s very much a rogue and trend-setter in his own way. He believes so strongly in Anakin’s Force potential and destiny as the “Chosen One” that he basically threatens to separate himself from the Jedi Order to train the boy, and even Obi-Wan finds his master’s stubbornness exasperating at times. A capable negotiator, Qui-Gon is a master at influencing others (through both his words and the influence of the Force) into assisting him by speaking in clear, logical tones. When faced with the avaricious Watto (Andy Secombe), Qui-Gon is forced to rely on the will of the Force and Anakin’s unparalleled podracing skills rather than his manipulative abilities and is still able to tip the odds in his favour by taking advantage of Watto’s greed. Though an older man, Qui-Gon is more than capable in a fight; it’s clear that his intense battle with Darth Maul (Park) takes a toll on his body but he is able to employ meditation techniques to restore his energy. As much as I enjoy a bit of Liam Neeson, and Qui-Gon’s character, I do think it was a mistake to have him in the film; I think it takes away from Anakin and Obi-Wan’s overall story a bit and it would’ve been far better to focus on Obi-Wan, though there’s a clear indication that many of the subsequent events happen because Qui-Gon set an impossible example for Obi-Wan to follow.
Since he lacks a father and idolises the Jedi, Anakin becomes immediately attached to and besotted with Qui-Gon; despite having grown up a slave on the desert planet of Tatooine, Anakin is an enthusiastic, energetic little child who is a capable pilot and masterful mechanic. He is absolutely devoted to his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), and willing to help others with no thought of reward; he is immediately enamoured by Padmé and, though it breaks his heart to leave his home and his mother after Qui-Gon arranges for his freedom, he is nevertheless excited to be out in the galaxy and on the path to becoming a Jedi. Sadly, though, I don’t really agree with showing Anakin as an annoying, wide-eyed little kid and think the movie would’ve been better served with him as a cocky, Han Solo-esque teen, especially as Jake Lloyd is so cringe-worthy in this film with his talk of “angels” and endless chattering. As for Padmé, she is a stoic and logical monarch who spends the majority of the film defying Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) and Rune Haako (Jerome St. John Blake) of the Trade Federation and masquerading as her own handmaiden. Despite the fact that Lucas somehow manages to absolutely waste Natalie Portman and draws a stilted, wooden performance from her (and many of the actors), Padmé is a strong and forthright character who cares only for the safety and well-being of her people and has little time for the impotent bureaucracy of the Galactic Senate. However, despite Padmé being adamantly anti-war, isn’t afraid to take up arms to take up arms, but is adamantly against endangering her people with all-out war.
As you might expect from a Star Wars movie, there a number of other supporting characters to help bolster the film and add to Lucas’ unique sci-fi world. Many of these are political figures who drone on endlessly about bureaucracy but we also get to see the Jedi Order at the height of the powers, with figures such as Yoda (Frank Oz) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) basically lording up their position as peacekeepers and advisors to the Senate. They are, however, far too comfortable in their unchallenged position, which leaves them constantly blinded to the darker conspiracies (hence the title, the phantom menace) at work behind the Trade Federation. The film also features the first meeting of R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels); for some reason I’ll never understand, Lucas made the odd decision to have Anakin be the one who built Threepio despite the fact that he could have easily just been Padmé’s protocol droid or something, though he’s barely in the film so I guess it doesn’t really matter. Of far more consequence is Jar Jar Binks, a contentious character to say the least, Jar Jar is no Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) that’s for sure and I think would have greatly benefited from being either cut or completely rewritten especially considering how his role was significantly downplayed in subsequent films.
Since the Galactic Empire has yet to be created, The Phantom Menace’s main antagonistic force is the Trade Federation, who command an army or quirky droids who are little more than terrible comic relief and cannon fodder to be smashed into pieces without fear of an unreasonable body count. The Trade Federation are, however, merely a distraction for a greater, far more subtle threat orchestrated by the mysterious Darth Sidious, who is clearly Senator Sheev Palpatine (McDiarmid) in a thinly veiled disguise that fools the characters in the film but never the audience. Like the film’s political sub-plot, though, this is clearly intentional; the idea is that all the endless debating of the Senate has overwhelmed, confused, and distracted even the Jedi from Palpatine’s true nature (however, I feel there could have been a more interesting way to convey this). Since he’s operating as the puppet master, Sidious sends his apprentice, Darth Maul, to take out Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon; a visually striking character, Maul makes an immediate impression with his horns, body paint, double-bladed lightsaber, and Ray Park’s impressive martial arts skills. Oddly, Lucas has Peter Serafinowicz provide Maul’s voice but the character might as well be a mute since he barely utters a word; even worse, Lucas made the bone-headed decision to introduce a ridiculous “rule of two” for the Sith and to kill Maul off, a decision that caused the sequels to suffer as they had to keep bringing in new Sith to replace him and the extended canon had to bend over backwards to bring him back despite there being no possible way for him to survive being slice in half!
Of course, you can’t talk about The Phantom Menace without mentioning the great midi-chlorian debate; when I first saw the film, I didn’t think much to this but, considering how quickly Lucas backpedalled on dwelling on midi-chlorians in the sequels, you can tell that it was something that irked a lot of people. Originally, the Force was depicted as a mystical energy that anyone could potentially utilise with proper training but, all of a sudden, Jedi became a bit like Saiyans and were the only ones who could properly utilise the Force because of some bullshit microscopic life-forms. Lucas’ subsequent attempts to parallel the symbiotic relationship between the Jedi and the midi-chlorians with the Gungans and the Naboo ultimately falls flat because it was a completely unnecessary addition. similar to how I didn’t need to know that Jedi didn’t simply return as Force Ghosts after death because of their connection to the Force before Qui-Gon pioneered the technique, I didn’t need any deeper explanation into the Force other than the one given in the first film. Still, on the plus side, George Williams is at his absolute best with the score here; the iconic “Imperial March” punctuates and serves as an ominous foreshadowing of Anakin’s ultimate fate and “Duel of the Fates” may very well be my favourite track from any Star Wars film.
Although it would get noticeably worse in the sequel, the direction leaves a lot to be desired here; as good as Neeson and McGregor and some of the other actors are, far too many of the performances are uninspiring, and the film greatly suffers without a roguish Han Solo figure and the appeal of the Original Trilogy’s characters and script. Although Lucas undoubtedly decided to cater to children with an abundance of cringe-worthy slapstick and toilet humour, The Phantom Menace still contains many poignant themes regarding destiny, corruption, and social class in this time of building discord. At the start, the Gungans despise the Naboo, who they believe think themselves superior to them, but the two different societies ultimately join forces against a common foe that disregards racial tension. Similarly, Padmé’ is shocked to see slavery still exists in the Outer Rim, where the Senate as little influence; however, while Tatooine is a crime-ridden cesspit, it is also home to perhaps the most selfless person in the galaxy in Anakin, who brings with him a great deal of fear and loneliness after leaving his mother behind (which I’m sure won’t factor into the wider saga at all…) to fulfil his destiny as the “Chosen One”. This aspect (and Shmi’s miraculous conception) are also a point of contention for me; just as the midi-chlorians could’ve simply been a measure of someone’s Force potential, they could have simply emphasised that Anakin’s potential means he could be very powerful (or potentially dangerous) without painting him as this destined saviour of the Jedi Order.
Although Lucas swamps The Phantom Menace was an abundance of computer-generated characters and effects, the film still contains a fair amount of practical effects and, especially, locations compared to its sequels. Still, the sheer excess of CGI means that this film “feels” very different from the Original Trilogy, which is something that only becomes more noticeable in the second film. Regardless, The Phantom Menace features a couple of stand-out action sequences; the first is, obviously, the visually impressive and thrilling podrace sequence. Exhilarating and fast-paced, the podrace is pivotal not just to the plot but also in showing just how adaptable and capable Anakin is and is one of the best parts of the film (and the entire Prequel Trilogy) despite the annoying racing announcers. In what appears to be an effort to evoke the
third sixth movie, the film also concludes with both a big space battle and a big ground-based battle that pits a fledgling or technologically stunted force against a far greater and advanced threat. Sadly, though, not only do these two battles distract from the far superior lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul, they’re also largely robbed of a lot of their impact because of Jar Jar’s buffoonery, Anakin’s grating yelps and squeals, and how weak the droid army are.
Undoubtedly, the film’s biggest saving grace are the intense and extraordinary lightsaber battles that set the standard for the Prequels and subsequent Star Wars films. As good as the lightsaber battles were in the Original Trilogy, they were of a much more subdued intensity; here, the laser sword action is slick, hard-hitting, and full of impressive flips, jumps, and stunts. Ray Park’s skills are phenomenal here and he conveys so much of Darth Maul’s hatred and character through his body language and the merciless way he attacks his Jedi foes. At the time, we had never seen Jedi fight in this way before and the climax is absolutely electrifying as a result; when Maul brutally murders Qui-Gon, you can literally feel the anger and need for revenge seeping out of Obi-Wan’s wild eyes and aggressive counterattack, which not only sees him triumph despite Maul having the high ground and sets the stage for bigger and even more elaborate lightsaber battles to come but also dictates Obi-Wan’s character development through his promise to his dying master to train Anakin in the ways of the Force.
Honestly, I’m not really one to dump on Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. By and large, the Prequel Trilogy is a lot of misses with some memorable hits sprinkled throughout but, to be fair, there are quite a few elements of the Original Trilogy (and all of Star Wars for that matter) that are far from perfect. There are a lot of things that work in The Phantom Menace (the score, for one, the action and lightsaber battles for another); there are some talented actors here (though they’re often hampered by Lucas’ script and direction) and, while the CGI is in high abundance, it works pretty well (though I do miss the charm of the Original Trilogy’s puppets and animatronics and such). Ultimately, what spoils the film for me is Jake Lloyd’s performance and some of the odd decisions, such as C-3PO’s origin, focusing on bureaucracy and politics, and creating a prequel to Star Wars that feels incredibly disconnected from the Original Trilogy. Hindsight makes it easy to see where the film went wrong and Lucas was pretty quick to pivot away from what fans didn’t like, but I think the main thing that might have helped some of the weaker points of the entire Prequel Trilogy (and especially this film) is having someone else take a pass at the script. The Original Trilogy managed to appeal to audiences of all ages but, for whatever reason, Lucas dumbed things way down but juxtaposed this with dull political intrigue and, while the action and brighter parts of the film stand out all the more because of these negative elements, they’re not enough to completely overshadow them and result in an overall disappointing experience.
Could Be Better
What do you think about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace? Where do you rank it in the Prequel Trilogy and against the other films in the Star Wars saga? What did you think to the decision to show Anakin as a young child? Did you think the film wasted Darth Maul and would you have preferred to see him live to the next film? Were you a fan of Qui-Gon or do you think it would’ve been better to focus on Anakin and Obi-Wan? What are your thoughts on Jar Jar and the midi-chlorians? How are you celebrating Star Wars Day today? Whatever your thoughts, good or bad, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check out my review of the far-superior sequel!