by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.