As we draw closer to the eighth installment of the Star Wars saga (The Last Jedi), I wanted to go back and discuss each of the major films in the series to not only catch readers up on the series’ events, but share thoughts and memories with each film. The chapter release schedule is not traditionally in order, as IV-VI were released in the 1970’s-1980’s, I-III were released in the 1990’s-2000’s, and VII-IX will take place in the 2010’s. With that said, let’s start numerically as we focus on the “first” entry in the series: Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
It had been 16 years in between the original films and the Prequels. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. People were attending films like Waterboy just to get that initial look at the first trailer. No amount of expectation could ever temper the hype. I was fortunate to see the film at a special premiere in Plano, TX, having won an auctioned event to see Episode I with cast members from the Original Trilogy. To experience one of the most anticipated films of the time in that type of setting was absolutely unforgettable. I saw the film an absurd number of times in theaters.
And yet, with each screening, as the hype began to wear off, I stopped seeing the film as a “cinematic second coming”, and started weighing the film on its own merits, the film’s cracks began to show. Yes, there will always be a sense of fondness on the experience itself, but The Phantom Menace as a film is something of a glossy spectacle. Once you devour what it has to offer, there’s not much more to it.
One of the biggest criticisms levied against the seventh chapter (The Force Awakens) is that it is too tonally similar to the original 1977 film. The same criticism can be applied here (though most forget), as a “savior of the galaxy” is found on a desert planet, and is able to defeat a seemingly unstoppable entity through the use of supernatural means.
Unlike the original Star Wars, where viewers are treated to a previously unseen visual spectacle in the form of a space battle, we find our heroes (Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi) having to negotiate trade route blockades.
Not exactly the kickstart any viewer would expect for a new entry in an action-driven saga.
Regardless, things go badly, and the two find themselves escaping, and ending up on the planet Naboo, where they meet the CG created Jar Jar Binks. Without going heavily into the usual fan dislike of the character, George Lucas himself asserted that Jar Jar was “key” to everything happening in this film. And he was central… primarily in marketing and merchandising efforts. The biggest frustration about the Jar Jar character is that there is no true personal redemption arc for him. He never does anything intentionally, and most of his actions come off more as a “Hey, look at this new technological advance!” than character growth. True, he does introduce the lead characters to his species, which provides some payoff later, but the other characters do the heavy lifting to move the plot along.
We are then introduced to Queen Padme Amidala, who is robotic in tone, and primarily ornamental to scenes (especially in look). While this is the eventual mother to Princess Leia, she bears none of the feisty, independent tone. Of course, most of the “Queen” scenes are a deception for both the enemy and the audience, and even when passing herself off as a handmaiden, she is more reactionary to events than anything else.
After a botched escape, the leads find themselves on Tatooine, where they find Anakin Skywalker, a cherubic, pure-hearted kid, who also happens to be a slave. while is more more key to moving the plot along, this is the character who is destined to become Darth Vader. The film makes no hint that anything is amiss, other than hinting that he is somehow the product of a “virgin birth”, and is messianic to bringing “balance” to the Force.
The Force, however, is now explained away as microscopic life forms known as “midichlorians” instead of the mystical energy field that Yoda so eloquently explained in The Empire Strikes Back. This rewrite has never sat well with me, as it cheapens the conceptual uniqueness of the Force, and later installments recognized this by either providing the barest mention of the concept or said nothing further at all.
His introduction leads into knowledge that he is both a master level inventor/mechanic and pilot at 9 years old. While I have no problem with child actors (see Goonies, IT, or Stranger Things), having a 6 year old play the part of a 9 year old is a stretch, and Anakin comes off as too baby-faced (especially the heavy hint that Anakin and Padme are destined to be together, because she’s supposed to be a teenager).
The pod race scene is indeed thrilling and high action, but it almost feels real-time as this takes a significant portion of the film. It is classic Lucasfilm action and visuals, but Lucas can’t help but pepper scenes with slapstick hijinks and shout-outs. Up to this point, Jar Jar sticks his tongue in things, sticks his face in machinery, gets kicked in the crotch, or steps in feces. And this is before the race even happens.
With the means to escape in place, the heroes abandon Anakin’s mother to her continued life of slavery, face a brief skirmish with Sith enforcer Darth Maul, and go to the planet of Coruscant to sit in on a series of political senate meetings. This of course, is as riveting as it sounds (Hey, an E.T. cameo!), but eventually these hearings declare that nothing can be done to help Amidala or break up the trade blockade, so the heroes go back to Naboo regardless.
There, four separate battles take place, and the audience becomes aware that there is no real central character. The Original Trilogy is clearly Luke Skywalker’s story. The new Trilogy has established itself as Rey’s story. But Episode I? It is Anakin? Padme? Obi-Wan? Qui-Gon? Jar Jar? Who does Episode I truly belong to as their “coming of age” or “journey” story?
Of the four battles, the most interesting is the Jedi/Darth Maul battle. It’s a shame that the main saga films have a tendency to introduce “looks cool, but does little” villains in each era, as Maul is the victim of this here. Coming off as mindless and feral in the film, he is portrayed as calculating, competent, borderline insane and slightly sympathetic in the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series. Here, he stabs Qui-Gon, gets chopped in half, and presumably falls to his death. He would have been a great precursor villain until the “birth” of Darth Vader.
There are two recurring themes that I have noticed in this film: Qui-Gon is a master of bad choices, as one of his two acquisitions eventually cedes full power to Palpatine, and the other becomes Palpatine’s unstoppable enforcer. The other being that nobody ever listens to Yoda or Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan calls Anakin “another pathetic life-form” upon finding out that the child is joining them, and Yoda refuses to allow Anakin to train until essentially guilted into doing so by Obi-Wan’s own guilted promise to his fallen master.
The film does look good from a technical standpoint, as it was Lucas’ last Star Wars film to primarily rely on practical effects, and of course, the John Williams score is excellent, especially “Duel of the Fates”. The cast is also comprised of classic series actors, as well as top-tier talent such as Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson, but they feel restricted in delivery. A true highlight of the cast goes to Ian McDiarmid, who looks like he is having fun with his perpetually scheming Palpatine.
As a standalone film, it is average science fiction fare. Not bad, but not extraordinary, either. Of course, it initially resonated well, and introduced new concepts to the Star Wars mythos, but for as many new concepts there were as many contradictions to the series’ pre-established continuity.
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace has a few enjoyable highlights in it, and is not the weakest film of the saga. But story and pacing wise, it is not the breakthrough that it should have been after a 16 year wait.