Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Heath Holland On...Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

by Heath Holland
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Sixteen years ago this week, on May 19, 1999, Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in theaters all across the world. First things first: I love The Phantom Menace. I saw it multiple times back in 1999, and I loved every minute of it. Sure, Jar Jar was a little annoying, but I never understood the massive u-turn that people took in the days and months after the movie premiered. The first step to appreciating the Prequel Trilogy is to let go of preconceived notions about what we thought we knew about the Star Wars universe. That’s hard to do, especially since Lucasfilm had filled the years between 1983 and 1999 with comic books, novels, role playing games, and countless merchandise tie-ins that all seemed to hint at a very different history than what we eventually got. I think it’s safe to say that most of us who grew up with the Original Trilogy would never have predicted the saga going the direction that it did.

I think that’s probably exactly what George Lucas was going for. He seems to have been deliberately aiming for something very different than what was expected. I believe the key to appreciating the Prequel Trilogy is to enjoy them for what they are, not for what we wanted them to be or thought they were going to be. Before I get too far into my thoughts, I wanted to remind everyone that Patrick and Mike podcasted about Episode I, and that you should definitely listen to that because they had a great discussion about the film. My aim in these Star Wars articles is to dig deep into the universe and characters from a really nerdy fan’s perspective and focus on why I love so many things about them. Also, I’ll be talking major spoilers for all six films.

Much has been made about the plot of The Phantom Menace. People talk about how the politics don’t work and how they’d rather have the space opera of the Original Trilogy. To a certain extent I agree, but I’d argue that the Original Trilogy featured was also filled with politics; we were just experiencing things from a much different vantage point than in the Prequel Trilogy. The Original Trilogy takes place far from the center of the action while the Prequel Trilogy is in the center the entire time. I find it very easy to invest in the story of Episode I, and in the Prequel Trilogy as a whole. You come for the action and adventure, but you stay for the story and the challenges it presents to us. It’s more science fiction in nature than what older fans were accustomed to in their Star Wars, but like most science fiction, it parallels our own world and has a lot to say about our life.
The movie establishes the setting very quickly and very strongly. The opening crawl gives us a ton of information, and mere minutes into the movie we are brought up to speed on the way things are run during the time that the movie takes place. The Galactic Republic has existed for thousands of years, and the Jedi Knights are the keepers of the peace. They aren’t soldiers; they are a noble order who uphold the ideals of the Republic and are often messengers and negotiators. Think the knights of Arthur’s round table: noble men and women who fight only when provoked and serve the higher cause of chivalry. Meanwhile, there is a powerful Trade Federation (a mega-corporation) that is a part of the Republic and deals in trade and commerce throughout the galaxy. The Trade Federation has been growing more and more powerful, and has even militarized itself and created an army of battle droids that it can dispatch at any time to stamp out revolt. The crawl tells us that there is turmoil in the Republic because of the Trade Federation’s growing power, and that the Galactic Congress has been debating endlessly about how to deal with it. The Trade Federation has blocked the import of all goods and services to the planet of Naboo.

All that sounds technical and complicated and it can make your eyes cross thinking about it. All it’s really saying is that the government is so big and old that it is starting to fall apart. It lets us know that this is a huge organization—too huge—and that the system of leadership is disintegrating. Like the Roman Empire, it has become too large and too complacent; chaos and darkness await just around the corner. It’s not all that new of an idea; plus, older movie-goers were first introduced to the idea of the Republic all the way back in 1977. Remember the quote Obi-Wan Kenobi tells young Luke in A New Hope: “For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.”

Those of us who grew up with the Original Trilogy were accustomed to what George Lucas called a “used universe.” Everything was worn and aged, and ships looked like they’d been built and rebuilt over and over again. We saw the effects of the Empire and its total dominion without even realizing it. It was strong visual storytelling, conveying that this universe was repressed and poor without ever using those terms. They were westerns in space, filled with dusty bars and desperate communities doing their best to hang on in a harsh environment where supplies were limited.
The Phantom Menace hits us right out of the gate with a very different visual aesthetic. We see ships and technologies that are elegant and smooth. There are very few straight edges in the movie. This is a time of prosperity and order. Queen Amidala and her planet of Naboo are both colorful and full of life; the Naboo starships and architecture echo this feeling of organic life. Though the Trade Federation Ships that hover above Naboo are clearly bad (they are cold, harsh, and metallic), there’s still an elegance suggested in their design. Even after we’re transported to Tatooine, the ships and the podracers convey an elegance and technology that we hadn’t seen before in Star Wars movies. The closest thing to this level of organic, high design outside of the Prequels was probably Cloud City.

Another thing existing Star Wars fans had never seen on screen was the Jedi Order. Episode I gives us a glimpse into what was once a great organization, but has fallen into decline. We never get to see the Jedi at the peak of their power, when they were all over the galaxy and a household name, but it was nice to see them in greater numbers and doing what they’d been trained to do. It’s worth noting that Qui-Gon Jinn represents something of a rebel to the Jedi Order. Through a few interactions in the movie, we learn that Qui-Gon believes in a different manifestation of the Force than the members of the Jedi Council. He tells Obi-Wan to be mindful of the will of the living Force. He frequently clashes with the Jedi Council, who seem more concerned with doctrine and the written word than in living the values of their code. We learn that Qui-Gon frequently focuses on the seemingly small and insignificant people that he encounters and has concern for them. He’s always listening to the Force and letting it guide his actions. To Qui-Gon, the Force is not words on a piece of scroll or in a holocron; it’s alive and all around us. Qui-Gon Jinn is my favorite character in the entire saga. He explores and searches within, and therefore finds new truths about the Force because he’s not afraid to question tradition. Also, he’s a long-haired, bearded boss played by Liam Neeson, which I love. Qui-Gon is such an awesome character, and I wish he’d been around longer. I would love to see his influence and understanding of the Force in future cinematic adventures.

Making up the council are a bunch of aliens we’ve never seen before, plus Yoda and Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mace Windu. Both Yoda and Mace seem to have a lot of wisdom and experience, but they also embody an arrogance that seems to indicate that they are not listening to the present, living Force. They are mired in their ways and seem to have gotten a pretty long way from the original intent of the Jedi. It’s worth mentioning that they don’t even notice the Phantom Menace or the presence of a Sith in their midst until it is WAY too late. How could this happen if they were in tune with the Force?
Speaking of The Phantom Menace, let’s be clear: it’s Palpatine. The maneuverings and machinations that Palpatine pulls of in this movie are epic, and that’s a word I think is way overused, so I don’t say it lightly. If you really start to pull apart the plot of this film, and the other five films as well, it’s like seeing a line of dominoes that goes back farther than you can see. What we know for sure is that Palpatine is a Sith, an ancient threat to the Jedi that had been supposedly wiped out a millennia before the events of this film. The Sith were once just as many in number as the Jedi, but were almost entirely wiped out. This brought about the institution of “the rule of two,” in which there would always be a master and an apprentice, and no more. When the apprentice became strong enough, he would kill his master and become the new master, taking an apprentice himself. This ensured that the Sith would remain in the shadows until the time was right to reveal themselves. In this movie, Palpatine, under the title of Darth Sidious, is the master and Darth Maul is his apprentice. More on that in a minute.

We can assume that the cracks were already showing in the Republic and that Palpatine had been waiting for the right moment to destruct it from within and take power of it himself, ultimately declaring himself the Emperor of the Galaxy. It seems evident that Palpatine orchestrated the Trade Federation blockade of Naboo in an effort to infiltrate the leadership of the Republic. As a citizen of Naboo, as well as a senator, he was in the perfect position to prey upon his Queen and poison her ear by manipulating her to his will. Later in the movie he casts doubt on the leadership of the Supreme Chancellor and is able to call for a vote of no confidence. By the end of the movie, Palpatine has become the new Supreme Chancellor and leads the Galactic Senate of the Republic. Meanwhile, his alter ego Darth Sidious has the Trade Federation in his pocket. The same man is calling the shots on both sides of the battle.

There are more questions concerning Palpatine that we just don’t have the answers to. How did Anakin end up on Tatooine? We assume that it’s his home planet, but it’s never stated that he was born there; he and his mother are both slaves and could have been taken from anywhere. I remember something saying Anakin arrived on Tatooine at the age of three, but I can’t recall the source. Anyway, we know that Tatooine is not a part of the Republic because Qui-Gon tells Anakin that if he’d been born in the Republic, the Jedi would have known of his potential and he would have been trained. Did Palpatine have anything to do with Anakin’s birth and slavery? Was he manipulating that situation too? There are so many questions that are still wide open. We know Anakin had no father and was an immaculate conception…of the Force, or of something more sinister? How far does Palpatine’s reach go, and how much is he actually capable of? These are questions to be addressed down the road.
Alright, now back to Darth Maul. What an amazing character! It’s a shame that Darth Maul gets killed at the end of the movie because he’s so awesome. I do feel like his death really lends itself to showing just how powerful Palpatine/Sidious is and how disposable apprentices are to a Sith master. The Star Wars universe is littered with potential apprentices for Sidious, but none are worthy. Even Vader ultimately didn’t prove to be a worthy apprentice. The whole idea of the rule of two makes it clear that the apprentice can never be as powerful as his master, because when he becomes so, the master is killed. Darth Maul was amazing and was an incredible warrior, but he seemed to be more like an animal than a potential master. I don’t think he was cunning enough to ever beat Sidious, and I believe the movie shows us that he was ultimately only a tool to be discarded when its usefulness had come to an end. Still, he’s incredible, and I think George Lucas regretted killing him off. It was Lucas who brought Maul back in the series The Clone Wars, half a person and half mad, bent on revenge. He’s still out there, too. What’s more, with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, I’m not convinced we’ve seen the last of him on movie screens. There’s too much potential and too much money on the table…I’ll leave it at that.

There are a lot of criticisms leveled at The Phantom Menace that have become major talking points but that I’ve never really understood. The first one is about midichlorians, which this movie tells us are microscopic living things that are present in every life form. When those midichlorians exist in great number within a life form, it means that the being that possesses them is able to sense the presence of the Force. What it does NOT mean is that some people have midichlorians and others do not, or that the midichlorians are the Force themselves. Everyone has midichlorians. It doesn’t change anything we knew before this movie came out. Some people are attuned to the Force, and others are not, just as it has always been. All midichlorians do is put a name to this Force-sensitivity. The Prequel Trilogy is about science, logic, and technology. I believe the idea is that midichlorians and Force-sensitivity have an explanation that is lost during the coming dark age, leading the general public to believe that Force-users are witches and sorcerers; look at what Han says to Obi-Wan in A New Hope: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.” He also says, “I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” I think one of the aims of the Prequel Trilogy is to show us how knowledge and power is lost when societies collapse and how facts quickly become legends and myths.

Jake Lloyd takes a lot of flak for his performance as Anakin in this movie. I’ll be honest: I think a lot of Anakin’s dialog is clunky (Patrick’s “are you an angel” impression is spot-on), but that’s a criticism you could level at the entire Prequel Trilogy. Dialog is not George Lucas’ strong suit, and he knows it. I’m also not clear why we need Anakin to be so young outside of the fact that this movie was aimed at children. Then again, that fact can’t be undersold, because this movie is absolutely for kids. George had young children when he made this movie, and he wanted to make something that was for them just as much as it was for himself. That being said, I think Jake Lloyd did a good job with the material and the direction he was given. In the documentary called The Beginning, which can only be found on the original Phantom Menace DVD, we get to see a little bit of the audition process as Natalie Portman and several little boys read lines for George Lucas and his casting team. All of the little boys are cute, but Jake sometimes seems suspicious and dark, which wasn’t a quality that was present in the other kids. We even get footage of George telling a member of his staff that sometimes there’s not much in the performance, but then other times it’s really great. It’s clear what Lucas was going for, and it’s also clear that working with kids is really hard. There’s a reason they say never work with children or animals. I don’t think we should hold Jake Lloyd or the character of young Anakin to a higher standard than we do any other movie with a kid under the age of 10 as the lead. Interestingly, the idea behind “are you an angel” was way more sinister. Anakin asks Padme if she’s an angel and then says, “I’ve heard the deep space pilots talk about them. They’re the most beautiful creatures in the universe. They live on the moons of…Iego, I think.” Keen Star Wars fans have learned that the Angels of Iego were like the Sirens of Greek Myth who sang beautiful songs to lure travelers into certain destruction. So yes, in many ways, Padme was an angel after all.
The pod race scene is often criticized for being too long and too full of creatures that don’t belong in a Star Wars film. I disagree with the first criticism but agree with the second. I enjoy the boost that the race gives the film, and think that it needs all three laps rather than the two from the original theatrical cut. We’re witnessing Anakin as a hot-shot pilot and a kid who has sensitivity to the Force. It lays foundation for what it to come. Also, George Lucas is a big auto racing fan, and this is his homage to what racing is in a galaxy far, far away. I like that all the pod racers are different, I like the way the way the engines sound, and I like the long laps through the deserts of Tatooine. I don’t like that some of the pod racer pilots look like they’re fresh out of a Hanna-Barbara cartoon, but I don’t have a problem with all of them, just a few. I think if the pod race were absent or minimized, the overall movie would suffer. There’s something to be said for spectacle in a film like this. In the end, I think it suffers from the same thing the Prequel Trilogy as a whole suffers from, which is too much business on screen and not enough space to breathe, but I still prefer it just like it is.

I guess it would be impossible to write about The Phantom Menace and not talk about Jar Jar. I’d be lying if I said I loved Jar Jar, but I have come to like him and appreciate what he brings to the film. I don’t really remember having any visceral negative reaction against him when I saw the movie all those times back in 1999, and I’ve always found people’s aversion to him to be really surprising. I mean, Jar Jar was really vilified for a long time, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. He’s supposed to be annoying, after all. When you watch the movie, it’s pretty clear that his own people can’t stand him; even Obi-Wan hates him. The only person who accepts him is Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan can’t understand why Qui-Gon saves Jar Jar’s life. This is one more piece of evidence that shows most of the Jedi have fallen away from the teachings they’re supposed to be following about protecting all forms of life. Even though he’s annoying, Jar Jar serves a purpose in the story. Plus, kids loved him, and I’ve yet to meet someone who came to Star Wars through The Phantom Meance that doesn’t still love Jar Jar. Long live Jar Jar Binks and long live Ahmed Best, the actor who brought the floppy-eared clutz to life. For too long, Ahmed has been criticized and had horrible things directed at him. He did what he was supposed to do, and he did it well.
People have also said that all three of the Prequels are social commentary against certain political parties. It seems like both conservatives and liberals have touted the films as being sympathetic to their views as well as propaganda against them, depending on the commentator or political climate at the time. I’m not sure The Phantom Menace is interested in conservative or liberal as much as it is in portraying how democracy falls. And if you think about it, the collapse of democracy isn’t the problem of a particular political party; it’s the concern of everyone. Having said that, I do think it’s very interesting that Padme Amidala is a pacifist and spends the first two-thirds of the movie telling people that Naboo is a peaceful planet. She relies on diplomacy over and over, until diplomacy fails. At that point she picks up a blaster and takes the fight to the Trade Federation. I’m not sure what the movie is telling us, if it’s telling us anything at all. Perhaps the point is that diplomacy is always the first line of defense, but you must stand up for your rights when all else fails. Or maybe it’s telling us that Padme is young and untested, and pacifism is an idea that only works when the wolf isn’t at your door. Or maybe the point is that Palpatine has orchestrated even this, her turn away from her pacifist leanings. By picking up arms against the Trade Federation, she’s escalating a conflict that will soon reach the galaxy at large, and Padme Amidala is just a pawn in Palpatine’s long game. He knew what she’d do when the pressure was applied, and he played her like he’s played everyone else. There are so many questions, but no definitive answers.

Any serious discussion about The Phantom Menace would be incomplete without mentioning the outstanding score from John Williams. For a lot of this section, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants by recounting a lot of things I’ve learned recently, from a podcast called Star Wars Oxygen, via Rebel Force Radio. I’ve been listening to the hosts of Rebel Force Radio (and before they broke away from their parent site, The ForceCast) for almost ten years, and it’s still the only Star Wars podcast that I think is worth anyone’s time. Each month the former lead sound designer for LucasArts, David Collins, takes an in-depth look at the music from Star Wars, and they’re currently on their fourth hour of discussing music from The Phantom Menace. I already knew that “Duel of the Fates” was an incredible piece of music, but it’s been years since I paid much attention to the rest. Thanks to David Collins, I’ve come to have a deeper appreciation for what John Williams does with tracks like “Anakin’s Theme.” It starts mischievously, and you can hear boyhood innocence. It then moves into a more adventurous section, using most of the notes on the scale. Finally, the music soars to a zenith, the highest note of the piece, and slowly drifts down the scale like a feather until it finally lands at the bottom with a variation of Darth Vader’s theme from The Empire Strikes Back. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t notice until it’s pointed out, but then blows your mind. The music tells the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker: an innocent start, then great adventures that soar to the sky, finally falling from great glory to tragedy. It’s unbelievably beautiful and haunting; it gives me goose-bumps every time. Listen to it yourself: the ascent and subsequent fall begins at around the 1:30 mark.

Another remarkable piece of music is found at the end of the movie with a track called “Auggie’s Great Municipal Band.” We have a Brazilian-flavored theme, full of brass horns, drums, and exuberant, laughing voices, that plays as our heroes celebrate their victory on Naboo. Boss Nass, ruler of the Gungans, holds aloft a glowing ball as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Padme Amidala, and a smiling Supreme Chancellor Palpatine stand on the steps of the plaza outside Theed Palace and beam out at the people of Naboo. The music is triumphant and celebratory, but it is also the Emperor’s theme from Return of the Jedi, simply shifted into a major key instead of a minor one. In this moment of seemingly-great triumph as thousands of people rejoice, Palpatine has won and shades of the Emperor are revealed.

Not all that long ago, The Phantom Menace was the poster child for accusations of style over substance. There is an awful lot of CGI clutter in the film, but I think the years have been kind to the movie, and proven that there’s a lot more going on than detractors and jaded Original Trilogy fans initially gave it credit for. I think it has aged better than any of the other Prequels, and has more setup and heavy lifting than any other Star Wars movie. That it manages most of this successfully is remarkable. Patrick and I talked recently on the “Men without Fear” podcast about how it’s the Prequel film that we think back on with the most fondness, not just for the movie, but for the movie culture of 1999. I have so many fond memories of getting together with my friends and watching movies, especially this one, then going to Taco Bell (which had tie-in toys), where we’d sit and debate the possibilities that lay ahead as we stuffed our faces. My summer of 1999 was my last real year of freedom, before relationships and a serious job took center stage, and Star Wars was EVERYWHERE. The future was bright, all my friends loved The Phantom Menace, and the best was yet to come. Now, with the impending release of The Force Awakens and the universal excitement around it, those happy days are finally here again. I’ll meet you back here next month to dig deep into Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Until then…may the Force be with you.


  1. Heath, I just want to say that this essay is absolutely amazing. You've given me a greater appreciation of this movie and the things it does right. Thank you for turning me around to the things this movie accomplished. Can't wait to read the next essays!

  2. I've mentioned before that The Phantom Menace is my favorite of the prequels. I know many people pick Revenge of the Sith, but that movie is just so "dead" because of the near-universal use of green screen that I find it impossible to watch without getting depressed - and not because of the subject matter. Phantom Menace has tons of CGI, but it also has much location shooting and revisits Tunisia, which to me is the spiritual home of Star Wars.

    There are a number of things in Phantom Menace which I believe were brilliant in conception, but hopelessly flawed in execution. Jar Jar is a key example. I think I understand his role in the film - he is the "holy fool" who is fated to take part in great events despite his best efforts to avoid them. But I cannot agree with the notion that Jar Jar is "supposed" to be annoying. His irritating qualities are those things Lucas put in to make him appealing to children, but they also have the effect of making him intolerable to adults. I think it would have been possible to make Jar Jar seen "inconsequential" to many of the major players (like Obi Wan) while still making him endearing to us.

    Your essay should be required reading for anyone who has seen Red Letter Media's video on the film. Both sides have interesting and worthwhile points to make. Excellent job!

    1. Yeah, people who complain endlessly about the CGI of The Phantom Menace have apparently not been to the movies in the last 10 years, because there's a ton of model work and location filming.

      Jar Jar will probably always (unfortunately) be the breaking point for many people over this movie. I mean...he's not awesome, but a ton of kids (who are now adults) loved him. I can think of a dozen characters in mainstream modern movies that annoy me far more than this froggy dude with floppy ears. I agree it could have been toned down and handled with a little more subtlety, but watching The Phantom Menace with my daughter makes it clear how much kids connect to him.

  3. Great essay, Heath, and I would have to say that The Phantom Menace has aged relatively well and is by far my favourite of the PT (supplanting RoTS's brief reign) - it just feels the most Star Warsy of them to me. My initial impression is useless - it was a weird time in my life, I didn't even see it until July and I watched it whilst coming down from a bad trip my first time doing really "good" LSD - but even in my first few subsequent viewings I never felt particularly disappointed (midichlorians didn't bother me a bit) - I mostly liked it and was excited by what was to come.

    Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are great characters and the rest of the trilogy suffers for want of them - I like the idea that we could get more of them in the years to come. It's kinda funny - George kept us with Star Wars blueballs all these years and now that Disney has them OF COURSE they're going to release new features every year - you'd have to be an idiot not to (right George?) - and they and the fans should definitely worship at the Altar of Lucas for giving us/them a story well that conceivably will never run dry and a brand that I'm not sure can be diluted. I guess time will tell.

    But going back to TPM - you're right about the things it does right and you're right that we should give a fair shake to what is there and forget about the stuff that isn't. It introduces some characters and ideas that are both compelling and integral to the Star Wars Universe.

    That being said, I still have to go back to the old argument that, if this is supposed to be a kids' movie - and I agree that it is - why the tedious adult stuff that even most adults find boring? Many great kids' movies (I'm looking at you, Pixar or hell, the OT) manage to take the best of "kids' stuff" and the best of "adult stuff" and mix them in a way that's equally entertaining to all ages. The obvious answer is that all the boring commerce/political stuff is necessary to get us to the point where Palpatine can overthrow the government and take absolute power (a la Hitler) and that's true, BUT I think the most valid criticism that could be levelled at Lucas is that he got lazy with that crucial part of the STORY and told it in the most obvious and straightforward (even with the convoluted (but still kinda boring) machinations) manner such a story could be told. I don't have an alternative to suggest off the top of my head, but I think it's severely limiting to the imaginations of great storytellers to suggest that there wasn't a way to tell that story that didn't so boringly echo our actual history and political processes.

    And that's the only thing resembling a rebuttal to one part of your great essay which I mostly agree with (love the stuff on the music - had never really listened to "Anakin's Theme" especially with the story in mind and the second half is wonderful) - I have some more vicious thoughts on the next two, so I'm really looking forward to read what you have to say on those - maybe you'll make me come around on them a bit!

  4. (Stands up, claps) Preach on brother.

  5. "My summer of 1999 was my last real year of freedom, before relationships and a serious job took center stage, and Star Wars was EVERYWHERE. The future was bright, all my friends loved The Phantom Menace, and the best was yet to come."


  6. Great article, Heath. We can agree to disagree about the quality of the prequels, but you presented plenty of good reasons for why you like this movie. My biggest problem rewatching all three prequels recently is that they are so badly paced. Scenes just...linger...then peter out so we can watch another scene that drags on too long. It's like Lucas thinks editing is just fancy wipes. I can see why that might appeal to someone, like yourself and Lucas, who loves this universe and wants to stay in it as long as possible. It made me bored.

    All of your arguments are rock-solid from a thematic and world-building perspective, but I don't have a problem with any of that. My issues are with the filmmaking. It's like the Man of Steel superfans (who you are nothing like), who think the only reason people don't like that movie is because of what happens at the end, and spend all their time arguing for its thematic depth and gritty realism when my problems with the movie are its pacing and clunky storytelling.

    Old man grumbling aside, you are doing good work here. Disrupt the narrative m'man! And may the force live long and prosper. May it live long and prosper...everyone.

    1. That's well said, Erich. For the record, I agree that there are flaws in direction and narrative. I'm just trying to show here how much of the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater by a certain group of people and point to the many wonderful things that I appreciate about these films. These are the things that keep me coming back over and over, and having conversations about what does and doesn't work is why we're here. That's what makes F This Movie different from a lot of what's out there.

  7. I have mixed opinions about the prequel trilogy, albeit I think I like them more than most. The Phantom Menace is probably the prequel I like the most, albeit I think it's very flawed. I really love the themes of duality and mitosis, and the action is great, but the acting and writing is definitely subpar, and I'm still not sure if Palpatine's plan makes a lot of sense. At the very least, it has my all-time favorite movie score.

  8. Though I think AotC is the most entertaining prequel, due to its deliciously terrible moments, colorful action and super-pretty Portman scenes, I agree that TPM offers the most food for thought. One can watch it and pretend the next two movies will be a lot more interesting, better-acted, and location-heavy than they are. I also agree Neeson gives the prequels' best performance, and the relatively low stakes and lack of inter-character conflict for most of the movie allow one to tune out of the rather thin main story (surely a Jedi Master and a Jedi Knight could rather easily commandeer themselves and a few passengers a private flight to Coruscant) and instead focus on the flourishes and world-building of the movie's margins.

    And I've never met anyone who likes Jar-Jar even a tiny bit, but I admit I don't actually know anyone in the necessary age range for such a stance, so I'll take your word for it they exist. :P

    1. Michael GiammarinoMay 22, 2015 at 7:52 AM

      There actually quite a bit of location shooting on Attack of the Clones. They went back to Tunisia for the Tatooine scenes, they shot in Italy for the Naboo scenes, they even shot at a location once used for Lawrence in Arabia.

      I can appreciate what Lucas was going for with Jar Jar on the technological level. Certainly other filmmakers took what George did as a starting off point. Now, as far as liking Jar Jar or hating him, I'm rather indifferent to him, and I don't really have a problem with the Gungans as a whole, either. (I also get a kick out of the fact Brian Blessed, King Vultan of the Hawkmen in Flash Gordon 1980 is playing Boss Nass. I love Boss Nass.) Hell, we have characters in the film who make clear how pathetic Jar Jar is. Well, if they think he's pathetic, I guess it's okay for us to think so.

    2. Michael GiammarinoMay 22, 2015 at 7:54 AM

      Obi-Wan even calls Anakin pathetic at one point.

    3. Well said, Michael. I think there's a lot to unpack around the Jar Jar character (ESPECIALLY in how that character impacts the next movie) that is overshadowed because grown ups just can't get past how annoying he is. And as for Gungans as a whole, I like them. They're totally different from Jar Jar. I like their technology and I like the way they live under the waters of Naboo in their own society with their own military. We can't forget that NO ONE likes Jar Jar in the movies except Qui-Gon, and I'm not sure I'd say he likes him either, as much as he feels a duty to protect all life. I feel like the film is saying "even this wretched, backwards creature has a place and purpose in the galaxy." And I think that's an important message to take away. I'll explore that more in future columns; I've still got a long way to go.

      And Brian Blessed was also Lord Locksley in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the most important contribution to cinema in the history of movies. I also dug that this Shakespearean actor was having fun as a fat frog-man.

    4. Michael GiammarinoMay 22, 2015 at 6:50 PM

      Then there's the fractured relationship between the Naboo and the Gungans. I think Padme had her decoy (Keira Knightley) order her to clean Artoo after their escape from the Neimoidians -- it was the perfect excuse to learn about the Gungans. Symbiont circles are mentioned twice in this film; to describe the relationship between the midi-chlorians and Force users, and the Gungans' relationship with the Naboo. Perhaps the Gungans' poor grasp of a language other than their own made the Naboo (and the Jedi) consider them unintelligent, but I wonder how much the Naboo really knew about them before the Neimoidian occupation. The Queen didn't even realize the Gungans were warriors until Jar Jar told her on Coruscant, and that helped make her decision to return to Naboo and fight back. Of course that meant pleading her case to Boss Nass.

      That celebration at the end had more to do with the Gungans and Naboo coming together to form a unified world than the victory over the Neimoidians. That's what that glowing sphere symbolized.

      Oh, and I have to mention the coolest thing about the Neimoidians. They have Atreides shield technology. Could you just imagine if they used the Weirding Way?

    5. Michael GiammarinoMay 22, 2015 at 6:55 PM

      Brian Blessed's Lord Locksley, a bigger contribution to cinema than King Vultan (or even Boss Nass)? Surely you jest!

  9. First of all, Heath, I think this is one of your finest columns for the site. Like the Hobbit story that got you here, you have incredibly well thought-out and convincing arguments for a movie that is sort of easily hated by many who didn't give it a proper chance.

    I just thought I'd give an experience from "the target audience" for this film, as I'm probably the prime example of it. I was nine when TPM was released, and it rocked my world. I was obsessed, and had tons of action figures that I would just use to stage fights from the movie in my bedroom or pit against one another in "Jedi vs. Sith tournaments" etc. I absolutely loved it, and didn't even realize for years that the superfans didn't like it. I just thought it was awesome to have a new Star Wars movie, and I didn't think filmmakers could ever conceive anything cooler than a double-edged lightsaber.

    For a long time, I thought ROTS was my favorite prequel, but I think that was just because it was darker and therefore easier to defend. Looking back, TPM is definitely my favorite, and I'd say the best. I agree that the podrace is fine the way it is, and one of the coolest action scenes of the era. I don't mind Jar-Jar, because (kinda like the Ewok debate) I was the right age when I saw it, so I thought he was hilarious. In truth, I identified with him, because I saw him as a clumsy but well-meaning character who was cruelly vilified for being inadequate even though he was always doing his best.

    As far as the all the politics and trade stuff, I didn't really understand it as a kid...but I didn't care. I got the point that Palpatine was evil and was pulling strings to try to take control of the Republic. The general gist of it came through, and was enough to understand the dynamics. However, all this got a little out of hand in Attack of the Clones, and I was pretty lukewarm on it. Even as a 12-year-old, I was really underwhelmed by Episode II, and had no interest in seeing it again for like ten years. It just served as a placeholder to get me from Episode I to Episode III. I'm interested to hear your column next month, because even after rewatching AOTC several times, this is still how I view it. I think it's on a tier below the other five films in the franchise. Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

    I would also try to convince the world of why the first Star Wars is better than Empire, but that's a wormhole I might not want to go down.

    1. Thanks for sharing all that! I know many people who felt the same as you did in 1999. I mean, I was 20 and in college when TPM came out and I think we had a virtually identical experience, what, with the toys and the tournaments and the surprise upon hearing about a backlash. And I still don't think filmmakers have come up with anything cooler than a double-bladed lightsaber. :)

    2. Ah, thanks for the correction. I believe a double-"edged" lightsaber would be quite lame, since a normal lightsaber is...infinite...edged.

  10. Oh my gaawd, what's wrong with your faaaace?

  11. While people behind me, walking out of the theater after the end of the midnight screening of The Phantom Menace the night before the opening loudly proclaimed their disenchantment with the film (with shouts of "What the FUCK was THAT!"), I was pleasantly satisfied with it, and already anticipated Episode II. And how could I not? Like A New Hope, all Phantom Menace did was lay the foundation. Sure, the prequel trilogy is more of a piece than the original trilogy, with more callbacks to The Phantom Menace in Episode II and Episode III than Empire and Jedi had with A New Hope, but the real meat of the story was being kept from us until 2002, so it had my imagination running.

    My opinion of The Phantom Menace was, well, I gotta say, it reminded me of Return of the Jedi to a certain extent. Although I sensed a pattern, and a scheme up George's sleeve, this was before the documentary on the dvd suggested a "rhyming" motif with the original films, and well before Star Wars Ring Theory illuminated George's grand design for the prequel trilogy. Of course, Phantom Menace also hits some of the same beats as A New Hope. The Tatooine-bound second act references Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress just as A New Hope does; and those references would appear sporadically throughout the rest of the film, up until the award ceremony at the climax, officially bringing the Naboo and the Gungans together in peace. (There are other shots that pay homage to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Two shots leading up to the ground battle between the Gungans and the battle droids pay homage to Throne of Blood and Ran.)

    People jibber about the dialogue and all the green screen and the CG, but it's like Sam Witwer says during his prequel commentary for Rebel Force Radio: "This is the most literal representation of the 1930s Republic adventure serials ever presented in the Star Wars saga." For the most part, I agree. That's not all it is, however. It's the Republic serials; it's Forbidden Planet, and Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. Despite the enormity of the production, all the green screen and the deliberate acting style forced upon the performers by George brings the prequels into a different realm altogether: it gives off an aura of recall to the science fiction and fantasy films from AIP. From Crown International Pictures. From New World Pictures. (Perhaps, even, from Toei. All of the battles involving the Trade Federation, the battle droids and the droideka resemble a Japanese manga come to brilliant, colorful life.) And George is the big budget Roger Corman in this instance. The prequels are the most blatant of big budget B movies, with an overabundance of scope, vision, and the pedigree of the matinee pictures of yore.

    And that's just skimming the surface.

  12. I don't think George was interested solely in making three new Star Wars movies. I think he knew his retirement would be imminent by the time he finished with Episode III. Sure,he supervised the completion of 100 scripts for a live-action tv show and shepherded the launch of an animated series, but that's not directing film. I think he doubted he'd make another film ever again, which meant there were lots of things he needed to say in these three. He wanted to do all the things he did with the Original Trilogy:

    - push the technological envelope;
    - apply history, anthropology;
    - reference all the genres/films he loved as a child and as a film student;

    while also

    - making references to his entire filmography;
    - making references to his filmmaker friends, the Movie Brats, and particular individuals who either meant something to him in his life or worked on the Original Trilogy;
    - making references to certain films that paid homage to Star Wars/ripped Star Wars off;
    - applying what he'd learned when he was involved with the Canyon Cinema movement when he made student films in college, treating the prequels as cinematic tone poems, with elements that "rhyme" or correspond -- visually and in dialogue -- with the Original Trilogy.

    The prequels would be, collectively, George's six+ hour personal film, in 1970s filmmaker parlance.

    George, like Luke in the Original Trilogy, was a young man dreaming of making a name for himself in the great big cinematic world in those years leading up to Star Wars (1977). Anakin represents a wider swath of George's life. Growing up in Modesto, George, like Anakin, was a tinkerer, someone who liked to build and fix things. George worked on cars the way Anakin worked on his pod racer; the way Anakin salvaged old Protocol Droid parts from Watto's junkyard and constructed a new droid to help his mother around the hovel while he was away at work in Watto's junk shop, George salvaged old car parts and built cars. Anakin would grow up trying to remain independent from what he saw as the binding, dogmatic view of the Jedi, only to become the head of an Imperial Empire, bending other star systems to his will. And on into adulthood, George, like Anakin, trying to remain independent from what he saw as the conglomerate, binding, dogmatic, Imperial studio system, became the head of his own Empire -- exactly what he was fighting against kowtowing to in his formative years.

    George has managed to do what his mentor Francis Ford Coppola maintains is impossible in the current blockbuster movie climate. He made personal films within the mainstream.