Revisiting Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

With the new Star Wars film about to come out I’ve been revisiting the previous Star Wars movies. I’m going to go through them in chronological order if for no other reason than that’s how I randomly decided to watch them. I’m also not really “reviewing” them as it’s probably safe for me to assume that everyone has seen all of them. I’m also not hiding knowledge of other films in the series when I examine a given film. I know Anakin becomes Darth Vader (sorry, spoiler…)

Putting things into context. There was quite a bit of excitement with the news that new Star Wars movies were being made. 1997 saw the Star Wars Special Editions released - unfortunately introducing the term “Han shot first” to the world. It was a big deal with Return of the Jedi featuring our first peek at the prequel by showing the previously unseen planet of Coruscant as part of the celebrations. Moving ahead to 1998 brought us the first teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace. At the time I had only been in Massachusetts for two years and been married that long as well. I was living in an apartment. I was using a dial-up ISP for my internet access, waiting several hours to download a postage-stamp sized trailer of The Phantom Menace. My gaming group was playing Last Unicorn Games’ Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG, though we did wind up transitioning to the Star Wars RPG shortly thereafter.

It is not an understatement to say The Phantom Menace generated a fair amount of fandom rage. When I first saw it I definitely enjoyed it, though I’d not go so far as to describe it as perfection. For me, the best of the Star Wars films remains The Empire Strikes Back. Revisiting it this week, I wondered how it held up. Is it an abomination that ruins one’s childhood? Is it simply a movie for little kids?

Thinking about the galaxy that The Phantom Menace brought us brings to mind the opening of the novelization for the original Star Wars:
ANOTHER galaxy, another time. 
The Old Republic was the Republic of legend, greater than distance or time. No need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that … it was the Republic. 
Once, under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights, the Republic throve and grew. But as often happens when wealth and power pass beyond the admirable and attain the awesome, then appear those evil ones who have greed to match. 
So it was with the Republic at its height. Like the greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within though the danger was not visible from outside. 
Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic.
I would have to say that is the galaxy The Phantom Menace brought to us. A Republic that has, from the outside, the appearance of strength. It has shiny spaceships. Spiffy costumes. Gleaming cities. But what is within is dysfunctional. One of the great criticisms of The Phantom Menace is that it dealt with the taxation of trade routes - not something that makes one jump up in an excitement. But going by the original Star Wars novelization we can see that was clearly always the intention. And it makes sense - one of the grievances of the rebelling British colonies in the American Revolution was that of taxation.

Opening the film, we meet Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon traveling to the blockaded Naboo as negotiators for the Republic. One criticism I will level at the film is it can be awful at indicating who specific characters are - it is well into the movie that we learn Qui-Gon’s name, not until the end that Yoda, though talked about, is explicitly identified, and Mace Windu is never names. Qui-Gon is a fascinating character, one I wish we had seen more of. As far as I can recall, he is the only major Jedi in all the films who never once mentions the Dark Side of the Force. He is very much a man of the moment, one who has absolute trust in the Force. There seem to be many places in the film where he could have sped things up - for example, one can think of a number of ways for him to have gotten the money needed to repair their ship - but he was convinced finding Anakin was the will of the Force. Qui-Gon is also very much a player character in your typical RPG, a person very intent on doing what he thinks is right, no matter what anyone else believes. He gives off a constant serenity - even as he prepares for the final duel against Darth Maul near the end of the film he is at peace.

Obi-Wan is far less confident and at peace than we would see him in later films. He greatly admires his master but is at the same time frustrated by his unorthodox ways. Unlike most master-apprentice relationships, it is the master who is the rebel and the apprentice who is more conservative. It is interesting to see him evolve - it is difficult to imagine the Obi-Wan of The Phantom Menace so confidently leveraging some shady contacts like he does in Attack of the Clones to track down Jango Fett.

Jar Jar. Yes, Jar Jar. I’ve seen fan theories that he was actually the evil mastermind of the prequels. It’s an amusing theory but I think he was exactly what he appeared to be - a good-natured, clumsy, not so bright Gungan. Like Obi-Wan, it is interesting to see how he changes in Attack of the Clones - though still not particularly bright, he is definitely more polished, with his manic mannerisms dialed down several orders of magnitude. While I’ll admit I got a chuckle from some of Jar Jar’s antics (“Monsters out there, leaking in here. Weesa all sinking and no power. Whena yousa thinking we are in trouble?”), I think it is fair to say it was overdone. I don’t think as much as most people seem to - I don’t really consider the Star Wars films to be human drama personified (“You stuck up, scruffy looking… nerf herder!”), but a little bit less on the Jar Jar front would have been nice.

Padme is a little difficult to get a handle on - I think it seems a little strange, not only for a queen to be democratically elected, but for one to be elected so young. I seem to recall some Lucas interviews suggesting the idea was to have idealistic leaders who are surrounded by more seasoned advisers. The dichotomy of Padme posing as a handmaiden vs. her role as Queen Amidala made for a nice twist - I know everyone else says they saw it coming a mile away; it took me a little while to figure it out.

The last of the major heroes is young Anakin Skywalker. He was originally supposed to be a few years older if my recollection is correct and I think that might have been the way to go. I can see the wisdom in him being a child - we see a boy who is truly compassionate - in all honesty, he is written to be a good match for Padme. They both want to help people, with Anakin coming from poverty and Padme coming from comfort.

Did our heroes tarry on Tatooine too long? I do think the time spent there was well spent - it allowed us to see Anakin on his homeworld. The podracing was neat to look at and did a nice job of showing us Anakin’s potential. The initial attack of Darth Maul made a nice ending to their time on Tatooine - and it was nice to see a red lightsaber. It’s nice for bad guys to be color-coded that way.

What about midi-chlorians? Honestly, the existence of them didn't bug me that much. It was clear the ability to use the Force had a genetic aspect to it, so there being some medical test for Force ability seems fine. Now the dialogue between Anakin and Qui-Gon about them... That was painful to listen to...

Visiting Coruscant showcased nicely just what was wrong with the Republic. You had Palpatine, ever the “practical” man perfectly using a crisis of his own making to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor and to take that role for himself. The Jedi seem very fallible, very much stuck in tradition and unable to adapt to surprises - denying the possibility of the Sith appearing, the possibility of Anakin being the Chosen One of their prophecies, of their ability to resolve the Naboo conflict. I would not call them corrupt - they still believe they are doing what is right, but they are so mired in tradition and so much a part of the government that one senses they are but a shadow of what they once were - a noble shadow, but a shadow nonetheless. The Senate seems about as friendly and cordial as the United States Senate has over the past several years.

Returning to Naboo gave us an epic four-way battle. Probably one or two too many things going on, to be honest. I will say however I greatly enjoyed the lightsaber duel at the end in Naboo's non-OSHA Compliant Jedi Dueling Cavern. When I saw the film in the theater there was cheering when Obi-Wan split Darth Maul's double-blade in two.

In the final analysis, The Phantom Menace is a movie I enjoy watching - I don't think I really dislike any of the Star Wars films. There's a lot that could have been done better - like I mentioned, I could have done with dialing down Jar Jar a little bit and I really think the directing could have been a bit tighter when it came to dialogue. And yes, oh my God, some of the racial caricatures I could have done without. It is, in my opinion, the weakest of the Star Wars films, If I were forced to rank the Star Wars films I'd probably rank them as:

  1. Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Revenge of the Sith
  4. Attack of the Clones
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Phantom Menace

Greatest Moments: The subtle interaction between Qui-Gon and Anakin's mother Shmi, the final lightsaber duel

Cringeworthy Moments:  The delivery of "Master, sir, I heard Yoda talking about midi-chlorians. I've been wondering...what are midi-chlorians?", the Neimoidian accents, poop humor

Puzzling Moments:  How did Darth Maul trace our heroes to Tatooine?

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