Even if you weren’t caught up in it at the time, you can well imagine the frenzy this caused. Rumours ran rife. An army of Boba Fetts, an army of Wookiees, our first glimpse of their home planet of Kashyyyk, amongst numerous others. The first solid piece of news, as i recall, was that the first ‘all CGI’ character would appear, named ‘Jar Jar Binks’. Oh, how excited we were…
Anyway, without labouring the point, The Phantom Menace (Urrgh) was one of the most highly anticipated movies of all time. Yes, even more than The Dark Knight Rises (again, urrgh). So much hope, from so many people. Episode I could never possibly live up to all the expectation. As a result, it took as big a mauling as any movie ever released. Now, it comes to HD Blu-ray for the first time. Was it really the worst thing to happen a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away?
The galaxy is run by a republic of planets, all represented in a universal senate. There is, however, a dark shadow looming over the (relatively) peaceful galaxy. The usually meek Trade Federation have begun a blockade of a small, seemingly insignificant planet. The Jedi council have sent a couple of representatives to negotiate, but all is much more complicated and far-reaching than it seems on the surface. The Federation are under the orders of a Sith lord, and the Jedi are flying into a trap.
The Phantom Menace is, perfectly in keeping with the Star Wars tradition, a chase movie in essence. A young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi teacher Qui-Gon Jinn arrive just in time to escort the Naboo Queen Amidala to Coruscant, as the Trade Federation’ droid army invade the peaceful planet. Their journey to Coruscant to seek out a diplomatic solution does not go smoothly, however, as damage caused during their escape forces them to land on an outer rim planet, the desert planet of Tatooine.
That young Anakin Skywalker is an unassuming young man living out a dull existence on the same planet as his future son is poetic, though some complained it was all a bit too cute. It was important, however, to establish some canonicity with the original series. The vehicle designs in Menace are fantastic, but most are very, ahem, alien to fans of the original trilogy. A look at Tatooine, with some familiar locations and characters allowed the viewer to make that connection to Starwars and Jedi. The ensuing pod race is thrilling, if a little cheesy, and the character of Anakin’s master Watto is a great character addition to the universe. My biggest problem with the Tatooine portion of the movie is that whilst you can, just about, accept that Anakin’s force abilities enable him to fly his pod so well, too much obstacle is put in his way, making it that little bit too hard to swallow that he is successful. Having never even finished a race, and stalling on the starting line, it all just becomes a little too ridiculous, even for a Lucas movie.
The plot really kicks in on Coruscant, as Senator Palpatine’s political maneuverings and machinations begin to become clear. This is no simple tale of good and evil, the story is far more complicated than that, and whilst it is dressed up in and disguised by plasticine and slapstick, it is important to remember this. A film like Avatar receives great critical acclaim, but has a story that could be written by a Primary School child. The politics and subtle story set-ups in Menace are actually far more complicated, and intelligent, a fact that many conveniently forget.
Writer/Director Lucas clearly has to take some of the blame for this, of course, as that all then takes a back seat to the movie’s finale, which could almost be labelled an homage to Return of the Jedi, and has a fair amount in common with the afore-mentioned Avatar too. The more primitive indigenous population go to battle with a technologically advanced army, and though Jar Jar’s antics are cringeworthy, the battle itself is actually well choreographed, and the battle droids make satisfyingly disposable fodder, keeping your sympathies firmly with the sentient Gungans. It is Anakin’s antics in orbit above the planet that really grate, as he almost single-handedly wins the battle against the entire Trade Federation whilst seemingly being almost completely oblivious to it all. If his future arrogance had been hinted at from the very beginning, and he had been shown to have been far more complicit with his own actions during the final battle, it would have been far more acceptable to the maturer members of the audience.
This is all probably so much more obvious as it is intercut with the best sequence of Menace, and the best lightsabre battle of the entire series, as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan do battle with the best of the newly introduced characters, the awesome Darth Maul, and his double-ended lightsabre. Backed up by the sounds of Duel of Fates, the only memorable new piece of music from the entire film, the action is breathtaking, and the outcome, though predictable for the most obvious of reasons, does pack some emotional punch. There were complaints that the speed of this fight made those from the original trilogy look pathetic, but there is logic to this. Luke Skywalker’s training was much abridged, and Vader hadn’t needed to pick up a lightsabre in anger for many years, so clearly neither were on top of their game. Conversely, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are members of a very active Jedi Council, and Maul has been intensively trained by the most powerful Sith lord specifically for the events that are transpiring.
The Phantom Menace is not a great film, by any means, but in comparison to comparable movies of recent years, of which there are very few, it is actually very good. An interesting and surprisingly complicated political plot as the backdrop, some beautiful locations. A fantastical underwater city, a high-speed chariot race, queens, sword fights, aliens. It combines the best of the adventure blockbuster movies that Lucas loved as a child, and packs in far more action, pace and sheer variety than any sci-fi movie in recent history. The Phantom Menace, despite all that has been said about it, is actually a very good Star Wars movie. It just isn’t the Star Wars movie that WE wanted. When the main character of a story is ten or eleven years old, it should not be a surprise that the sensibilities on show are more geared towards an audience of a comparable age. There are very few movies that combine infantile and adult orientated elements well, and whilst the combination here can be quite jarring, The Phantom Menace does have a bit of something for everyone.
So what is missing? The Phantom Menace very clearly shares much of it’s structural and storytelling DNA with Return of the Jedi in particular, yet is much more maligned. For me, perhaps the biggest problem is that everyone is following the rules. It is clear at the outset, as the leader of the Trade Federation, one of the main villains of the piece, puts it. This blockade is perfectly legal. Maybe not completely true, but this idea of playing it straight continues throughout. Jar Jar is allowed free of the Gungan’s because their law demands it. The Jedi can only protect Amidala, they cannot fight a war for it, as that would be against their code. The sole reason for the journey to Coruscant is to seek a diplomatic solution, in accordance with the laws of the land. Anakin is freed thanks to a convoluted series of bets and bargains that, whilst pretty shady, are clearly in accordance with the Hutt’s way of doing business. The whole political subplot of the film, Senator Palpatine’s manipulation of the political system, show’s the biggest villain in the universe stretching, rather than breaking the rules. You could argue Darth Maul, the most interesting character, is the only one not governed by regulations, but even he is following the boss’s orders.
Conversely, whilst the original trilogy had the same mix of Jedi, royalty and political intrigue, the one character who really caught the imagination was the one to whom the rules didn’t apply. The Phantom Menace, and indeed the prequels as a whole, do not contain a character with the strength or appeal of a Han Solo. It could well be this fact, more than any other, that works against the popularity and draw of the prequels.
Like most, I was disappointed when The Phantom Menace was released. I still am disappointed by it, and it has, in tandem with Attack of the Clones, diminished my interest towards the entire franchise. That is, however, my problem, and I know for a fact that there is a new generation of Star Wars fans that love these movies just as much as we enjoyed the adventures of a farmboy, a Corellian smuggler, an Alderaanian princess, a crazy old wizard, a Wookiee, and two robots every bit as silly and annoying as Jar Jar. Whether you spend the money on the prequel Blu-rays is your choice, and I certainly would not urge anyone to do it. I do think it is time, however, to let the anger go, and allow the prequels to find their place with whatever audience is going to find and love them.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at