Lucasfilm, Ltd./20the Century Fox
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Produced by Rick McCallum
Music by John Williams
Like most other STAR WARS fans I resigned myself to never seeing another STAR WARS movie. Despite George Lucas constantly affirming he had nine full screenplays ready to go and the STAR WARS movie were at that time the most financially successful movie trilogy in film history. Lucas talked of being burned out. Which is more than understandable considering the achievement he pulled off. One that forever changed not only how Science Fiction movies were viewed and marketed but also gave birth to the concept of the Summer Blockbuster Season and forever changed how movies were scheduled.
So when George Lucas announced that he was doing a prequel trilogy to the original movies I both breakdanced with joy but also soberly wondered if George Lucas still had it in him to recapture the magic that made the Original Trilogy so memorable.
I think it’s safe to say that until THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI came along, there wasn’t a movie that had STAR WARS fandom in such a frenzy as THE PHANTOM MENACE. For years I myself was seriously conflicted about it as I honestly didn’t know if I liked it or not. For a while I loved it. Then I hated it. Then I thought it was sorta kinda good. Then I went back to hating it. It really took me something like five or six years before I could be honestly objective about THE PHANTOM MENACE as I was looking for it to be the original STAR WARS all over again. I finally had to admit that was never going to happen and I had to look at the movie for what it was instead of what I wanted it to be.
The movie takes place some thirty years before the Original Trilogy when The Galactic Republic is in full swing. Everybody’s got a speeder in every garage and two porgs in every pot. The Jedi Knights are the undisputed guardians of peace and justice and everything seems like it’s going okay.
Until The Trade Federation initiates an illegal blockade of the peaceful planet of Naboo. Something about trade routes which I really didn’t understand because when starships can jump from planet to planet in the same amount of time I can walk from my desk to the bathroom why trade routes are a thing. But hey, it gets the plot going. Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to Naboo to negotiate with the Federation Viceroy Nate Gunray (Silas Carson)
Unknown to the Jedis, Gunray is taking his orders from Darth Sidious, Lord of The Sith who is manipulating events behind the scenes to sow dissention and discord in The Republic. Darth Sidious orders Gunray to kill the Jedis who survive the assassination attempt and make their way to Naboo. Here they meet up with the bumbling Gungan Jar Jar Binks who acts as their guide to Theed, Naboo’s capital city. Our heroes rescue Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her retinue from the droid army of The Trade Federation who have invaded and conquered the planet.
Their getaway ship is damaged during the escape and they have to put in for repairs on a small, insignificant planet called Tatooine. Funny how such a so-called insignificant planet figures so heavily in the mythology of these movies, isn’t it? And it’s here where the fate of the galaxy changes because Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi meet a nine-year old boy named Anakin Skywalker. Qui-Gon insists that he can foresee that Anakin is the prophesied Chose One who will bring balance The Force. Now, considering that we all know how Anakin’s story ends we can only surmise that Qui-Gon must really have been off his A game that day. Better for billions of folks and the galaxy entire if he’d left Anakin on Tatooine with his mom.
But it’s Anakin’s mother telling Qui-Gon the story of Anakin’s birth that cements his belief. You see, Anakin is one helluva nine-year old. Not only is he a champion pod racer, he built C-3PO from scratch, has the highest count of midichlorians ever recorded and must also be Jesus Christ since his mother was impregnated with him without benefit of a father.
It’s somewhere along this point that I realized that George Lucas had not the slightest idea what he was doing story wise. I might have gone with a lot of what he dumped on Anakin if he’d made him older, say fifteen or even twelve. But nine? And when you realize the age difference between Anakin and Padme in this movie it makes you look at their romance in later movies with one eye half closed. I can’t blame Jake Lloyd for his performance as he does the best he can and not every child actor can be a prodigy on the level of say, a Jodie Foster. No, I blame Lucas for the miscasting choice in this movie and in the next two. Natalie Portman goes through this entire movie looking as if she has no idea what she’s supposed to be doing and there’s something really off about her smile as if whenever she does so she’s trying to remember exactly which facial muscles to move so that it comes out looking right.
In fact, while I’m on a roll, let me get all my bitching out of the way so I can end this review on a high note. The Trade Federation are what I wouldn’t call memorable bad guys. They’re nothing more than galactic bookkeepers and their droid army isn’t very formidable at all. They’re worse shots than Stormtroopers if such a thing is possible. While I do appreciate that we get to see The Jedi at the height of their power and influence we also see that they’re complacent, way too comfortably full of themselves and supremely arrogant.
One thing you won’t hear me complain about is Jar Jar Binks. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments and fan theories and whatnot about Jar Jar. And for a few years I hated him just as much as you did. But then it occurred to me that Jar Jar’s only sin is that he’s supposed to be the film’s comedy relief and he’s not good at that. In fact, Jar Jar’s not much good at anything but in a way, that’s the point of the character. Not everybody in the Star Wars Universe can be a swaggering, snarky space pirate, noble Jedi Knight or heroic princess. Most folks in the Star Wars Universe are just trying to get though the day and their lives without getting mixed up in the affairs of Empire and that’s Jar Jar. He gets involved in something that way over his head and he’s trying to get through it the best way he can.
Thank The Force we have Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn. Neeson inhabits the Star Wars Universe with such confidence you would think he’d created it, not George Lucas. He’s got a quiet intensity and calmness that we associate with The Jedi. And Ewan McGregor is simply spectacular as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He did his homework because in the inflection of his manner of speaking and his body language we can see the Alec Guinness Obi-Wan. Seeing him in action, especially in the next episode of the series; ATTACK OF THE CLONES where we get to see him as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Space Detective is the best part of the Prequel Trilogy and makes me wish that it had been exclusively about the adventures of Obi-Wan, saving his introduction to Anakin Skywalker as the last scene of the third movie.
What else? Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu (and you know that his lightsaber has ‘Bad Motherfucker’ engraved on it). Frank Oz as the voice of Jedi Master Yoda. The Naboo Royal Cruiser is no Millennium Falcon but she sure is one fine-looking ship. The duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Sidious’ apprentice, the demonic looking Darth Maul is without a doubt the best lightsaber duel in all the STAR WARS movies.
And Darth Maul himself is the best example of the best and worst of George Lucas in one character. In terms of visual appearance and martial arts skill (Darth Maul is played by Ray Park, himself a martial arts expert) he is one of the best characters in the series. Any writer worth his keyboard knows that you don’t create a character this damn cool just to kill him off in the first movie of your trilogy. Imagine if Lucas had killed off Darth Vader in the original STAR WARS. Would the Original Trilogy have been anywhere as memorable without him?
But I am not going to be a hypocrite and sit up here and denounce THE PHANTOM MENACE. Yes, there are many things about it I don’t like but it is a STAR WARS movie and that means I love it. In fact, I watched it just before writing this review and cringed at the parts I usually cringe at while rejoicing in the fun and excitement of the scenes that evoke the spirit Original Trilogy. It simply is exquisite to look at on a technical level. The special effects, the sets and the costuming are all breathtaking and are more than successfully in convincing us of the reality of this galaxy far, far away. There’s a lot that is wrong with THE PHANTOM MENACE, true. But there’s also a lot that’s right with it. Bad as it is, it’s still better than RETURN OF THE JEDI.