THE PHANTOM MENACE
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….
To this day, I remember what it was like to see those words scrolling across the movie screen. For the first time in sixteen years, I was seeing Star Wars on a large screen. I wanted to love it and I did at first, then not so much, then accepted it for what it was.
Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the trade dispute that has resulted in the blockade of the planet Naboo. However, there is more behind the Trade Federation’s actions than meets the eye. They survive an attempt to murder them only to end up traveling through rural and aquatic Naboo as the Trade Federation is preparing to invade. They pick up a Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks along the way. His species lives in the waters of Naboo and while the Jedi are prepared to ask them for their help, they are not very receptive.
They manage to contact Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and help her escape the Trade Federation’s invasion. The intention is she will argue before the Senate that they must come help the planet in the face of the blockade. Unfortunately, the ship is damaged and must land on an outlying planet of Tatooine to make repairs. While there, they encounter a young slave named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd).
The idea of the “prequels” (as they are known) is to set up the story of how Darth Vader came to be and to tell the story of why Luke and Leia were separated and kept hidden from him. George Lucas wrote and directed this first entry in the series. The faults are numerous. My feeling is he had a lot of “fun” special effects he wanted to use that were breakthrough in 1999 and wrote a lot of the story around that.
The podracing scene is a prime example. It’s a scene that demonstrates Anakin’s Jedi-like reflexes, but it’s also a great use of special effects. The vehicles look real against the desert backdrop of the planet of Tatooine.
The droid Army the Trade Federation uses against Naboo is another incredible special effect that holds up for the most part. What is supposed to be a lush, green Naboo field beneath them looks very flat against newer CGI. The Gungan Army looks a little better, but the landscape still looks more like it’s from a computer game. The underwater Gungan cities are beautifully done, however.
The story is a mixed bag. Lucas went for far too many “coincidences” in a universe this large. C3PO and R2D2 being in the presence of not only each other, but Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi who denies any knowledge of the droids in A New Hope is a huge storyline conflict. This story makes more sense from R2D2’s perspective when he is seeking him out, as he knows then who he is looking for and what he means to the Republic. However, it’s Ben’s reaction that is way off base.
There are many story points that just don’t make sense as well. The Jedi go swimming with their robes on. Wouldn’t they take them off? And they have handy-dandy breathing apparatus right there in a spare pocket or up a sleeve. Is that hanging right with the lightsaber? And how is it that they are completely dry whenever they come out of the water?
On Tatooine, they are supposed to be protecting the Queen from those seeking to capture her and force her to sign a treaty. They also need to keep her safe from the Hutts that pretty much run the planet. Yet, it’s as if they say: We need money! Let’s tell all of our secrets to this 9-year-old kid we just met, then send him off to do something really dangerous and bet on him.
Finally, there’s the issue of the midi-chlorians. Of anything ever brought into the Star Wars universe, I hate that the most. I hate it more than Jar-Jar Binks who was considered to be the most annoying character in the Star Wars universe. Lucas did a great job creating a mystical “Force” that was something of complete faith that some people could harness for power, and now suddenly it’s not about faith and belief but about tiny creatures names midi-chlorians that appear in the bodies of those who are Force-sensitive.
Over the years as I watched it, I liked this less and less. Then, in the last few years, I began to appreciate it for what it is. With the exception of Jake Lloyd, the acting is good. I think he did a good job in a tough situation. As a 9-year-old acting with a green screen and opposite people who weren’t really there in many cases, he likely did the best he could. There are a few times he overacts, and I fault Lucas for not pulling him back and reshooting those scenes. One, in particular, is when Qui-Gon tells him he’s free. His reaction of “I’m gonna travel with you in your starship?” feels so forced and overdone. I would have asked him to put more awe in his reaction and I think that would have tempered it. He just needed to be a bit softer.
Natalie Portman is great as the strong Queen Amidala/Padme. She’s a great forerunner to Leia. These women are strong and will do what is necessary and Portman displays that. Her affection for Anakin feels a little strange. I get that she’s supposed to be about 16 and he’s supposed to be 9, but it still feels strange. Ewan McGregor really gives a terrific performance as young Obi-Wan. He’s got a lot of the features down that can lead to Alec Guinness down the line. The only other comment I have is that Tatooine must be really hard to live on.
Fun fact that you might not have known, both Sofia Coppola and Kiera Knightly portray two of the Queen’s handmaidens.
The score is magnificent, particularly in the scene where the two Jedi fight Sith apprentice Darth Maul. Time and time again it evokes the emotion of the scene. John Williams seems to outdo himself with every film.
There’s Yoda and the Jedi Council with Samuel Jackson. There are sweeping views of beautiful planets. There are some great action scenes; a magnificent score, and excellent special effects. All of that holds up a film that is a bit uneven at times. I’ve grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace for what it is, and I no longer look at it as a bad film. Hopefully, you can get to that point too.