Although Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is supposedly, as most film critics and many fans have said since 1999, a disappointing prequel to perhaps the most popular film trilogy, I think it is an enjoyable and yes, even interesting “origins of” story. Like many Star Wars fans, I wanted to know how and why the Galactic Republic morphed into the evil Empire, how Senator Palpatine wormed his way to be Emperor, and most of all, how and why Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
I theorize that in the 16-year-gap between trilogies, fans had dreamed up scenarios far different from what we ended up seeing on May 19, 1999. Maybe they thought Anakin was a bad seed who went around wearing black and using the Force to choke other children….or that he was the Anakin we did finally get to see in Episode II, already a Jedi in training…I do know that there was grousing on three different topics, in order of ascending disappointment:
The movie was way too political.
Anakin was a 9 year old kid.
Jar Jar Binks.
There were also complaints about the pre-release hype (and maybe that was warranted) and that The Phantom Menace was really a commercial for Hasbro’s related toy line (which may also have been warranted to some degree). But, for all that…..
The Phantom Menace is a fine Star Wars film! I was caught up in its storyline from the opening logos to the end credits. The characters, whether they were new ones (such as Qui-Gon Jinn, Padme Amidala, Shmi Skywalker, or even those CGI creations Watto and Jar Jar), or younger versions of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the boy destined to be Darth Vader, gave the Classic Trilogy’s story some depth and complexity. Finally we got to see the girl who will be Luke and Leia’s mother….the Jedi Order and how Knights served and fought at the height of their power….and perhaps most revealing of all, how a powerful democracy could be replaced by dictatorship by clever insiders.
Maybe in part that is why Episode I somehow disappointed die-hard fans: at times The Phantom Menacedoes feel a bit like a civics lesson rather than space opera. I have not delved into all the message boards that gripe about TPM’s shortcomings, but I suspect that most fans were expecting Palpatine’s rise to power to be violent and sudden (like Castro’s takeover of Cuba). George Lucas’ intent was to illustrate how Julius Ceasar and Adolf Hitler took power: by using democracy’s strengths against itself.
Palpatine/Darth Sidious doesn’t storm the Senate Hall in a 1917 Russian Revolution mode; he worms his way into high office by first weakening Supreme Chancellor Valorum in a manufactured “scandal” (which is detailed in Cloak of Deception, a novel by James Luceno), then using the crisis on Naboo – which he as Darth Sidious has conceived – to cause an election for a new Supreme Chancellor.
But if it did have its slow expository scenes, The Phantom Menace also had moving segments. The thrill of the Podrace….Anakin’s sad farewell scene with his mom….Qui-Gon’s appeal to the Jedi Council to allow him to train Anakin as a Jedi….the exciting Battle of Naboo on three fronts……This was Star Wars action at its best.
A Different Point of View….
Admittedly, The Phantom Menace is not likely to win over the ingrained negative reaction that greeted it upon its release in May of 1999. It is important to keep in mind that the Classic Trilogy was somewhat of a movie-goer’s oasis in a vast desert wasteland as far as the space-fantasy adventure genre went in the 1970s.
When Star Wars came out in 1977, the American mood was still reeling from the Kennedy-King assassinations, the Vietnam debacle, and Watergate. Hollywood provided very little in escapism in those days, and sci-fi was more about doom and gloom (Soylent Green, Silent Running) than it was about fun. So the movie that was later renamed Episode IV really lived up to its future subtitle, “a new hope.”
The Phantom Menace, however, came out at a time when the Star Wars formula for success had been replicated by other monster hits (the Terminator and most of the Star Trek series, Independence Day, and Jurassic Park), so it was no longer fresh and exciting. Fans had, as I said before, raised expectations for it at unreasonable levels, and the media and marketing hype certainly did not help change the perception that The Phantom Menace was a lousy movie.
Pity, because even though I wasn’t enamored of Jar Jar Binks, I was amazed at how life-like the CGI character was. Surely this was not a trivial accomplishment for the many men and women who worked on the Gungan’s creation. I also liked the story; it was a bit slow compared to A New Hope, but I understood it was the necessary exposition that sets up the remaining five Episodes. (As the tag line states, “Every saga has a beginning.”) The politics, the scheming of Darth Sidious and the Trade Federation, the wrangling over whether Anakin is indeed “The Chosen One”…all these are important if we are to understand how Darth Vader came to be.
As a movie watcher, I certainly liked the visuals, especially the Pod Race at Mos Espa and the digital characters. I really thought, as I would have said in 1977, the effects were “way cool.” I also liked the parallels between Anakin’s experiences in Episode I and those of his son Luke’s in Episode IV. They both share similar experiences (leave home, meet Jedi Masters, strike decisive blows against an enemy, and suffer losses), yet their paths lead them to different yet intertwined destinies.
I also loved John Williams’ score, which is always one of the better elements of the Star Wars saga anyway. Williams’ music consistently adds emotional “oomph” to every major scene and, by reprising thematic material from the Classic Trilogy and blending it with new themes, gives the entire series aural unity and coherence.