Nothing But Star Wars Episode One (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, 1999)
As previously noted, people were pretty resigned to Star Wars remaining a trilogy of parts four through six. Then it was announced, Lucas had decided episodes one through three could finally be made. He stated that the technology had reached a point that he could truly make the stories he desired to tell.
The geek net was still in it’s infancy in a lot of ways, but it was set ablaze with rumors and claims of leaked scripts and insider knowledge.
A lot of those rumors turned out to be false…but in May of 1999 we got the long hoped for return to a galaxy far, far away…
And now, the standard warning of the spoilers…endless spoilers!
Opening in space (of course) we meet two Jedi Knights on an exciting diplomatic mission with a trade…federation…aw crap. Our Jedi are Qui-Gon Jin and a young Obi Wan Kenobi. Kenobi is a padawan, a Jedi-in-Training. As they wait for Trade Federation diplomats to enter, they are instead greeted with poison gas. They fight their way through droids to try and get to the bridge to confront the Trade Federation, but are forced to run. They hitch a ride on troop transports down to the planet of Naboo.
Knowing they must warn the government of Naboo, they try and find a way to the main city population. They run into a local, a giant amphibious creature who speaks with a weird variation of an Jamaican Accent (The Trade Federation is run by a guys with distinctly Asian Accents…this ends up being a recurring issue of accents that seem connected to negative traits) named Jar Jar Binks.
Jar Jar takes the Jedi to an underwater city with more of his race. There they find out Jar Jar was banished for being clumsy. Really. Qui-Gon convinces the Gungan leader Boss Nass (who looks suspiciously like Boss Hogg from the Dukes of Hazzard) to give them a ship and Jar Jar. The ship gets them to the capital, where they save Queen Amidala and a small band of her guards .
As they escape the planet the ship is damaged. They land on the planet Tatooine. While there, Qui-Gon, Padme (an attendant to the queen) and Jar Jar happen across a junk dealer and his boy slave, Anakin. Anakin makes an impression on Qui-Gon who he senses is strong in the force. Due to an impending sand storm, Anakin offers them shelter with he and his mother. The boy of about nine gets a crush on Padme while Qui-Gon questions his mother about their lineage. She notes that there was no father, but rather it was a spontaneous pregnancy. You know, like Jesus.
Meanwhile, on the Planet Corsucant, the Senate is debating how best to deal with the Naboo situation. Unknown to everyone, Senator Palpatine is pushing for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Velorum. He is manipulating people to nominate him as replacement. His motives are shrouded in darkness, but we know he is a Sith Lord and he has an agent, his apprentice Darth Maul.
Darth Maul is on the hunt for the missing Princess and Jedi. Qui-Gon makes a bet with the owner of Anakin for the parts needed to fix their ship. He also makes a side bet for Anakin’s freedom. The bet revolves around one of the film’s best sequences. Anakin is a pod racer and if he wins, Qui-Gon can take both the ship parts and Anakin with him.
The Pod race is a pretty thrilling sequence and plays like “space NASCAR”. The primary story purpose of this scene is to establish his piloting skills. This relates back to a New Hope when Ben explains that when he first met Anakin, he was an accomplished pilot. Phantom Menace kind of creates a problem, in that Anakin is a nine year old kid. There is not really any doubt when listening to the dialog in a New Hope Anakin would likely have been very late teens or even early twenties. But Lucas wanted to make a statement on meeting Vader as a boy.
Anakin wins his freedom and joins Qui-Gon and Padme on their ship. As they are leaving, Darth Maul appears and Qui-Gon has a lightsaber duel. Qui-Gon jumps onto the ship and leaves Maul behind. They arrive at Corsucant, where Qui-Gon warns of Maul and presents young Anakin, who he believes could be the fulfillment of a prophecy about the Force, to the Jedi Council. The Council is far more hesitant, believing that Anakin has lived to long without proper Jedi training.
This actually makes no sense when we look to what the series had presented us with. Beings gifted in the use of the Force have access to it regardless, would not trainig, no matter their age be good?
Admittedly, the Jedi Council seems to be a rather ineffective group. They often seem to want to take a hands off approach, showing that, maybe, the legend of the Jedi as magical and wise space knights may be…a bit fictitious.
Qui-Gon states he will take on Anakin’s training himself, in spite of already having a padawan. They take the Princess back to Naboo in a plan to fight back against the Trade Federation. They recruit the Gungan’s for the fight. They need to take out the space station of the Federation, which will render their battle droids useless. It is revealed that Padme is actually Princess Amidala and the girl we thought was the Princess was actually a decoy.
The Naboo pilots take back some ships and head out to destroy the main Trade Federation ship, while Anakin is told to stay put hiding in a ship. The ship conveniently goes to autopilot and takes him straight into battle.
Qui-Gon and Obi Wan are confronted by Darth Maul. During their fight, Maul impales Qui-Gon. Angrily, Kenobi charges in and manages to slice Maul in half. Meanwhile, R2 (who is co-piloting the ship Anakin is in) turns off auto-pilot. Anakin tries to get turned around, and in doing so, manages to blow up the command ship, disabling the droid on the planet surface.
Kenobi promises to train Anakin in accordance with Qui-Gon’s wishes. Then, there is an awards ceremony in a reflection of the end of Episode Four.
Honestly, of all the Star Wars films, I probably find this one the most frustrating. It introduces something call midichlorians. They are the microscopic sentient life forms in all bodies that indicate how perceptive one is to the force. This allowed there to be a scientific test. Qui-Gon explains that Anakin is “off the charts”. But truthfully, the original trilogy stayed firmly in the world of the Force being a form of mysticism. It seems weirder to have a scientific explanation, even as just an indicator. In spite of this film being the first mention, they do apparently date back to about 1977 in stuff Lucas wrote up for the expanded universe material.
Add to that, Lucas still uses mysticism like Prophecy. Ben never mentions any prophecy in the original films, though the extended universe was apparently full of them.
Anakin is made out to be a boy genius. Both C-3PO and R2-D2 are in the film, with R2 being introduced as a service droid on Amidala’s space ship. But 3PO is used to show how mechanically inclined Anakin is by revealing that 3PO was built by Anakin. This is one of those rather silly additions that does not have the intended effect.
Having Anakin blow up the Trade Federation ship purely by dumb luck is not a good choice, either. As noted earlier, Ben certainly suggests to Luke that Anakin was a gifted pilot. It diminishes Anakin to have him stumble into success as a kid. The idea, I suspect, was to sell just how powerfully Force Sensitive he was. It just makes him seem lucky. And this is really a simple solution. Had they cast Anakin as a young man, he parallels Luke. The idea that he is skilled as a pilot does not need as much proof. Anakin never needed to be a child prodigy.
The choice to kill Darth Maul is another stumble. Darth Maul, for one thing, has a terrific design. He is automatically imposing with his red skin and facial tattoos. He has a cool double lightsaber.
It would have been a much better plot device to play him up as the Darth Vader of the series. He is the big bad guy who makes it until the end…as Darth Sidious begins grooming Anakin he subtly plays them against each other. Finally, in the third film, Anakin and Maul are in a pitch battle. Anakin has him against the ropes and then, in a dramatic moment, Sidious startles Maul by commanding Anakin to kill him. In that moment, Maul realizes Anakin is going to replace him.
Another thing the film establishes is the Jedi Gear. In Return of the Jedi, Luke wears that slick black outfit. According to Lucas, this was proper Jedi attire. Ben wore the robes not because that was a Jedi outfit. He was hiding out as a desert hermit. The Phantom Menace, instead, establishes that he was just wearing his Jedi robes.
Frustratingly, with the Phantom Menace, there is not a ton that I find enjoyable. The Pod Racing scene is terrific stuff. It is an exciting roller coaster ride. And the lightsaber duel with Qui-Gon, Obi Wan and Darth Maul is great stuff as well. But the rest of the film feels like it was bogged down in fan service that never actually serves the story.