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‘Star Wars’ Revisited, Part 4: ‘The Phantom Menace’

Copyright Lucasfilm

Pre-viewing thoughts: There may be no set of movies more difficult to talk about in a rational manner than the Star Wars prequels. While the movies are undeniably flawed, the whole experience surrounding them is bound up in overinflated expectations that resulted in an inevitable backlash. The prequels, particularly “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones,” are not great movies on their own or in the context of the Star Wars series, but there was almost no chance George Lucas could recreate the alchemy of the original trilogy (see also: “The Hobbit”). And there is no bad movie on the face of the Earth that justifies the once-popular “George Lucas raped my childhood” meme. So, let’s all calm down and try to give the prequels a fair shake, OK?

Movie diary:

  • 00:00- I saw the original trilogy in theaters during the Special Edition re-release, but “The Phantom Menace” is the first Star Wars movie that I saw first on a big screen. For kids of a certain age, it’s indelibly embedded in our memory. I saw this movie at least three times in theaters. This is also the first movie that I don’t have to pick which version to watch (I watched the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy, which I snagged during the last-ever DVD release of the movies. You can’t get the theatrical cuts on Blu-ray, at least not yet.)
  • 1:00- The “Why is ‘Phantom Menace’ about a trade dispute?” meme gets a lot of traction in certain fan circles, but that ignores the fact that A) This is all part of Senator (later Emperor) Palpatine’s plan to gain power and B) The Trade Federation invades the planet. This is not a “trade dispute” in the usual sense, even for a galaxy far, far away
  • 3:15- It’s a nice touch to make Obi-Wan our point of continuity, and it fits with the timeline and our knowledge (assuming you’ve seen the original trilogy) that Obi-Wan is the one who trains Anakin and fails to prevent his fall to the dark side. Qui-Gon also gives Obi-Wan a lesson in being aware of the moment instead of drifting off into worries about the future, a very similar lesson to what Yoda has to teach Luke later on.
  • 5:00- As I said in the prologue to this series, I feel like you can’t fully understand the Star Wars series by watching it in chronological order; the prequels are full of thematic, visual and dialogue callbacks to the original trilogy, but they don’t make sense without having seen the first three movies. This is somewhat a detriment to the prequels, because it means they don’t stand as well on their own, but it does give you a clearer picture of Lucas’ aims. And if there’s any movie series that almost everyone is guaranteed to have seen, it’s the original Star Wars trilogy.
  • 7:00- Some of the effects work hasn’t aged well, but the prequels are full of great little visual moments, including the rolling droids with the shields who attack Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon during the opening battle.
  • 8:30- I can see why people criticize the presentation of the Trade Federation leaders as Asian stereotypes, but it seems a bit of a reach. The accent is somewhat Asian, but there’s no corresponding visual representation, so we’re supposed to think George Lucas is disparaging Asian people because…they happen to be good at trade and are kind of sneaky? I don’t know, it doesn’t hold water with me, but I’d be willing to hear an argument from the other side.
  • 9:30- The throne room scene on Naboo is pretty clunky, mostly because Keira Knightley, playing Queen Amidala’s double, is really flat and monotone. It’s gotta be a directing note from Lucas, because Knightley can be very expressive, but it really shows here. Also, I know we have to preserve the big secret about Padme really being the queen for later, but it makes no sense that the double would be present during a major meeting of the queen’s top advisors. You could even argue that showing Padme as the real queen and how she’s pretending to be a handmaiden earlier on would add dramatic tension, both in her relationship with the Jedi and Anakin. Just a thought.
  • 10:30- The Trade Federation theme is no Imperial March, but it’s a solid piece from John Williams nonetheless. Williams brought his ‘A’ game throughout the prequels, even if everyone else struggled in spots.
  • 11:25- “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.” Qui-Gon is more right than he knows.
  • 11:30- So, about Jar Jar: He is a nuisance, no doubt. But to single him out for such overwhelming hatred when the prequels have much bigger, fundamental flaws is a case of fan projection. Jar Jar is basically a lesser version of the droids in the original trilogy: He’s the ordinary guy caught up in the extraordinary things around him.
  • 13:30- Mic drop moment from Lucas and Williams. The Gungan underwater city is a gorgeous visual unlike anything we’ve seen before in the series, and Williams’ score is magnificent. Pure Star Wars.
  • 15:00- The Gungan/Naboo relationship is an interesting subplot, in that it shows there are tensions between races on planets similar to our world. Star Wars has never been known for its politics in the way, say, Star Trek is, but it’s an interesting wrinkle here.
  • 16:30- Jar Jar does prove useful in guiding the Jedi through the core. So there. Also, Qui-Gon plays pretty fast and loose when it comes to using his Force powers to get what he wants, which separates him from most of the other Jedi we’ve seen in the series.
  • 17:30- Ewan McGregor eventually grows into Obi-Wan’s robes, but he’s noticeably out of his depth in this movie; he’s good at the physical fight stuff, but many of his line readings are flat. Lucas has never been a great director of actors; it’s one of his biggest weaknesses.
  • 20:00- The big problem with Jar Jar is he goes too broad. C-3PO made many similar “We’re doomed!” exclamations in the original trilogy (remember his line about the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field in “Empire”), but Anthony Daniels made sure it didn’t cross the line into overbearing. If Jar Jar was just dialed back a couple degrees, he’d be fine.
  • 22:30- The Jedi rescuing the queen and her inner circle without breaking a sweat is a good scene; the action scenes are all pretty solid throughout the prequels, even when the narrative falls flat.
  • 23:45- “There’s something else behind all this, your highness.” Qui-Gon, sensing what we already know, and he’s right. He’s one of the few Jedi to make this leap, and it dooms them all in the end.
  • 25:15- I love the design of the Naboo ships, all sleek and metallic. The prequels show tons of visual imagination, even in small moments.
  • 26:15- R2-D2 saves the day. A bit contrived, perhaps. But considering they’re on a civilian transport ship, it makes sense, since they probably don’t have weapons and can’t go out and fix the ship themselves.
  • 27:30- The first appearance of Darth Maul is fantastic. He’s instantly memorable, and Ray Park makes him into an intimidating figure.
  • 28:30- Sabe, the queen’s double (Keira Knightley), has some fun ordering the queen to clean up R2 as a reward for saving the ship. The little smile that flickers across her face is a nice bit.
  • 29:00- I suppose this is as good a time as any to admit I had a massive crush on Natalie Portman after this movie came out.
  • 30:00- Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan sense a disturbance in the Force on Tatooine. This desert planet does have a way of coming back again and again.
  • 32:30- “Are you an angel?” Jake Lloyd also gets a lot of flak for his portrayal of Anakin, which is totally unfair. Being a child actor is really hard, especially when you don’t have a great director to work with, and the script does him no favors. Anakin’s backstory as a former slave, someone who didn’t have the relatively nice upbringing that Luke did to ground him, is a good starting point on his way to becoming Vader, who’s obsessed with power.
  • 34:16- “What, do you think you’re some kind of Jedi, waving your hand around like that?” A genuinely funny moment in the movie, and it’s all in the dialogue and timing.
  • 39:00- Old-school C-3PO is a great design, and Anthony Daniels didn’t lose a step in the years between “Jedi” and this movie. It’s good to have him back.
  • 40:30- Darth Maul mentions a trace when he says he’s headed for Tatooine to find the Jedi, but we never see it, and hopefully nobody on the ship would send a transmission after Obi-Wan explicitly told them not to. It’d be nice to see that scene.
  • 41:15- “The Republic doesn’t exist out here.” Subtle bit of insight into Anakin’s world. Padme says the Republic has outlawed slavery, but the government has lost its influence on the outer territories. It’s ripe for a fall, and Palpatine orchestrates it perfectly to leave him in charge.
  • 45:30- Qui-Gon’s a gambler, again setting him apart from the more reserved, austere Jedi we’ve seen. He’s an intriguing character, and Liam Nelson is great in the part.
  • 47:15- I’m not sure the virgin birth bit for Anakin is strictly necessary, in that it doesn’t add much that an otherwise absent father wouldn’t.
  • 48:45- “You know, I find that Jar Jar creature a little odd.” C-3PO, saying what we’re all thinking.
  • 49:45- C’mon, you know for a minute there you wanted to drive a pod racer. They made a great video game out of it.
  • 50:45- Midichlorians are dumb. They’re not movie-wrecking dumb, but they are dumb. Given that we’ve previously heard the Force described as a mystical energy field, having it as something that’s measurable in your blood takes away the more ephemeral nature of it. There should have been some other way of demonstrating Anakin’s affinity for the Force.
  • 53:30- Qui-Gon tips the dice in his favor so he can win Anakin’s freedom, and thus a tyrant is eventually born. One of the times where Qui-Gon’s rule-breaking has serious consequences. Once again, overconfidence proves fatal; the long arc of the prequels is that the Jedi are doomed by their complacency and unwillingness to see the danger right in front of them.
  • 56:30- The whole pod racing sequence, from the introduction of the racers until the end, is spectacular. The race itself is excellently staged, the variety of racers and pods is a lot of fun, Anakin gets to beat the cheater Sebulba, and Qui-Gon even gives him a Jedi pep talk. Excellent stuff.
  • 1:02:55- I have to say, I love the two-headed race announcer. Imagine John Madden and Pat Summerall sharing the same body. Pat would probably be miserable.
  • 1:07:15- The music as Anakin works to get his pod back in order and win the race is fantastic, and it’s also good that we get to see Anakin’s ingenuity as he makes repairs on the fly. He’s a genuinely great racer.
  • 1:09:00- Sebulba gets his comeuppance as he crashes and watches Anakin cross the finish line. A moment of triumph for our heroes.
  • 1:10:45- “Whenever you gamble, my friend, eventually you lose.” Qui-Gon’s look of smug satisfaction as he goes to collect on his wager with Watto is great, as is his suggestion that they can take it up with the Hutts if Watto doesn’t like the outcome.
  • 1:15:00- Anakin’s final moment with his mom is genuinely touching. Both Jake Lloyd and Pernilla August, who played Anakin’s mother, do great work, and we get the minor key variation on the Force theme (Luke’s theme from the original trilogy) to help sell the moment. This, for better or worse, is the beginning of Anakin’s downfall.
  • 1:16:45- The short battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon as the group flees Tatooine is a fun teaser of what’s ahead. Maul is aggressive and clearly a match for Qui-Gon, despite the considerable skill we’ve seen Qui-Gon display with a lightsaber. Qui-Gon even notes his training in the Jedi arts.
  • 1:20:00- Anakin and Padme get a nice moment on the ship when they leave Tattooine, and the necklace Anakin gives her becomes an important token throughout the prequels.
  • 1:20:30- Coruscant is another great visual set piece. It makes sense that the capital of a galactic government would require a city the size of an entire planet, and Lucas and his team brought it to life in stunning detail.
  • 1:21:15- Ian McDiarmid is back as Senator Palpatine, later the Emperor. He does a fantastic job of seeming to be a good guy while suggesting the hidden layers of malice underneath. His line about procedure is a callback to his earlier conversation with the Trade Federation leaders, another clue (if we needed one) that Palpatine is the Sith Lord behind the scenes.
  • 1:23:00- “The Republic is not what it once was.” Palpatine clues us in to one of the big themes of the prequels: Complacency and institutional corruption (stoked in part by Palpatine, no doubt) have led to stagnation and degeneration, leaving the Republic vulnerable. Palpatine manipulates Padme into doing his bidding in getting him elected Chancellor, and even the Jedi aren’t immune: In about a minute, Mace Windu says “I do not believe the Sith could’ve returned without us knowing.”
  • 1:25:15- “You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force.” This is another big downfall of the Jedi: Once Anakin begins Jedi training, his behavior is excused because he fits the prophecy, and in the end it gets the Jedi killed. As I wrote in my piece looking at the history of Star Wars fandom a few months back, Lucas botched the execution when it comes to the prequels, but his overall intent is pretty clear when you look at the broad scope of the first three episodes, and it’s a good idea.
  • 1:28:30- Palpatine’s plan is brilliant: Get himself elected using the Naboo invasion as a springboard, playing off the sympathies of both Padme and the broader galactic populace. And McDiarmid excels throughout, subtly hinting at his hidden nature. McDiarmid’s performance is stellar in all three prequels.
  • 1:30:45- Fittingly, Yoda is the one person on the Jedi Council who’s mistrustful of Anakin.
  • 1:31:45- Of course Palpatine is the “surprise” nominee to be chancellor. And his smug look when he relays the news is one of the few moments where he threatens to betray his plan.
  • 1:33:15- “No, he will not be trained.” Samuel L. Jackson gives Mace Windu a perfect amount of unquestioned authority. His delivery of this line is spot-on.
  • 1:40:00- Jar Jar also gets Padme her army to take back the planet. Again, not totally useless.
  • 1:41:45- Padme and the others humbling themselves before the Gungans is a good moment. One of the recurring themes of the Star Wars series is how cooperation is important in fighting tyranny.
  • 1:43:30- Padme switches to the same flat affect that her body double used when she was pretending to be queen. Lucas must think that’s how royalty sounds? It’s a bit odd for sure. She’s got the steely resolve look down, and that’s good, but her delivery is all wrong. This is where directors matter.
  • 1:44:55- “Wipe them out. All of them.” Seriously, guys, Ian McDiarmid is fantastic.
  • 1:45:00- Much like “Return of the Jedi,” “Phantom Menace” finds its footing in the third act once all the action kicks in again. From the moment the Gungan army emerges from the fog, everything builds to a satisfying finale, and we get some well-done action scenes along the way, including what is probably the best lightsaber fight in the entire series. Lucas is great at staging big moments in his movies; it’s the little details that sometimes elude him.
  • 1:48:30- The mechanical precision as the Federation deploys their droid army fits perfectly with how you think a robot army would fight. And John Williams is there with a wonderful score to make it all sing.
  • 1:50:20- From the moment the door opens to reveal Darth Maul standing there as the opening notes of “Duel of the Fates” kick in, you know something serious is about to go down. This sequence earns Lucas a lot of forgiveness, in my book. Qui-Gon’s “We’ll handle this” as Padme and the others run off to the throne room is great too. The Jedi and Maul even shed their robes. This is how you stage a fight scene.
  • 1:52:00- John Williams, we’re not worthy. “Duel of the Fates” is one of the best pieces of work he did in the entire franchise.
  • 1:54:00- Anakin ending up in the middle of the outer space dogfight is a bit of a stretch, but he is a natural pilot. The main problem is it’s about several coincidences too far when the screenplay already relies pretty heavily on coincidence. You can only go to coincidence so many times before it gets old.
  • 1:55:00- I’ve always loved the little moment in the lightsaber duel where Qui-Gon just slaps Maul and sends him flying over the side.
  • 1:56:15- The hallway of laser beams that separate Maul from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan from Qui-Gon is ingenious, and it pays off perfectly. Maul pacing as Qui-Gon meditates and Obi-Wan stands nervously reflects all of their characters in great fashion.
  • 1:58:00- We’re at three or four “Jar Jar accidentally does some good in the battle” moments too many by this point. The gag has definitely worn thin.
  • 1:59:30- Obi-Wan forced to watch helplessly as Qui-Gon fights Maul and then loses is a really tense, well done bit. And Ewan McGregor sells the shock and pain of seeing his master fall.
  • 2:00:45- The decoy queen bit finally pays off, as the Trade Federation leaders get fooled by the double, giving Padme a chance to gain the upper hand. She even shows some real emotion when she says “Now, Viceroy, we’ll discuss a new treaty.” It’s a great cast, they’re just not allowed to emote due to misguided notes from Lucas.
  • 2:01:15- Maul taunting Obi-Wan before they start fighting again is another great moment.
  • 2:03:15- Anakin destroys the droid control ship, wrapping up two of our battles. We still have the matter of Darth Maul and Obi-Wan, though, as it should be.
  • 2:04:15- Darth Maul gets one of the great movie deaths, as his torso separates from his legs after Obi-Wan makes the leap and slices him in half. A memorable end for a memorable villain.
  • 2:04:30- Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s final moments are a good showcase for both actors. And you can see why training Anakin means so much to Obi-Wan after he promised his master he’d go through with it.
  • 2:05:45- Palpatine is nothing if not adaptive; even though his Trade Federation lackeys lost the battle and he’s lost an apprentice, he’s still Chancellor, and his comment about watching Anakin’s career shows he’s already thinking ahead and changing his plans.
  • 2:06:30- Yoda, to his credit, remains skeptical of training Anakin.
  • 2:07:15- Qui-Gon gets a funeral very similar to Vader’s funeral pyre in “Jedi.” We also get Yoda and Mace Windu talking about the Sith, complete with a lingering shot of Palpatine, as if it wasn’t already obvious who our Sith mastermind is.
  • 2:08:30- Gungan victory parade! A fun musical and visual moment to end the movie.

Wrap-up: “The Phantom Menace” is not a great movie, but it’s also not an especially horrible one. It has the problems of many modern blockbusters: An over-reliance on CGI, an unpolished script and a slightly bloated run time. It also has several noteworthy set pieces that still thrill today, some absolutely fantastic music from John Williams, and a few quality performances, mainly in the form of Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon and Ian McDairmid as Senator-turned-Chancellor Palpatine. “The Phantom Menace” showcases many of George Lucas’ strengths, but also his weaknesses. It may not stand up with the original trilogy, but it’s time to ease up on the hatred. Hatred, after all…well, you heard Yoda.