RECAP: Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999): George Lucas

We should have known how The Phantom Menace would turn out when the opening crawl came on, and in the first line was the phrase “taxation of trade routes.” If you want your space blockbusters to discuss senate procedure when it could be having a space fight, take a seat!

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Trade Federations, Senate squabbling, the Republic, and other bureaucratic entities bog down rights protections across the galaxy, but also there’s Jedi and light sabers and the Force and stuff. 

Hero (3/10)

As The Phantom Menace opens, we see our familiar friend Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) wearing robes and saving the galaxy. But wait, there’s another robed guy, taller and older. That’s Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Obi-Wan’s mentor.

Qui-Gon dispenses the wisdom early, but here’s the thing about him–he’s often wrong and misses important details. Consider the blockade. A group called the Trade Federation surrounds the backwater planet Naboo, presumably angry about money. Seems like a simple negotiation will solve the problem. Obi-Wan, however, senses something more sinister afoot than a trade dispute. Qui-Gon does not pick up on this, though he senses fear.

Qui-Gon Jinn, original jedi baller
Qui-Gon Jinn, original Jedi baller

Later, when they meet a slave boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), Qui-Gon lets his intrigue cloud his judgement. Let’s get right to that. Qui-Gon is convinced that Anakin is the prophesied child who will bring balance to the Force.

Qui-Gon was right about Anakin, but for the wrong reasons. No one stopped to consider that the only way to “balance” a large force for good is with heaping piles of evil. Anakin serves up the evil in later sequels.

Oops. Qui-Gon is partly responsible for all of Anakin’s future mayhem. Obi-Wan, for his part, opposes training Anakin until he promises to do so as Qui-Gon dies on Naboo.

Qui-Gon is a run-of-the-mill baller Jedi. He believes in the Force and its power, and he imparts the last bits of wisdom on his apprentice, Obi-Wan. He throws around wise phrases such as “Greed can be a powerful ally,” and “Your focus determines your reality.” Coming from Neeson as a Jedi, these statements sound wise, but I don’t think there’s much meaning to them. Later, he tells his apprentice, “You’re a much wiser man than I am.” That’s the truth, given what happens with Anakin.

Qui-Gon believes that his meeting a young slave named Anakin Skywalker on Tatooine was fated, though he stops short of religious discussion. He did not come to the desert planet to free the slaves, only to free one. For all of Qui-Gon’s considerable powers, he can’t even get Anakin’s mother freed from a long-nosed, fat hummingbird.

Fighting prowess is Qui-Gon’s forte. He and Obi-Wan unveil the Force sprint, a skill not seen in the original trilogy. Qui-Gon must face Darth Maul alone for far too long in the final light saber duel, a duel that Qui-Gon loses. For a while he held his own; Maul had him out-bladed two to one.

Sadly, Neeson is subsumed to the Lucasarts Profit Machine. His performance feels cranked out by a printing press–flat, fast, and reproducible. As I’ll discuss further, this is the fault of Lucas more than the actors. There’s too much talent here for them all to forget their training.

Villain (3/10)

The chief engineer of Naboo’s problems never appears on screen. Darth Sidious is a hooded, sneering creature who only appears on hologram giving orders to his Trade Federation flunkies.

The Phantom Menace being a prequel, we know who Sidious really is. He appears on screen as his cheerful, humble alter-ego Senator Palaptine (Ian McDiarmid).

Naboo Senator Palpatine, hater of bureaucrats.
Naboo Senator Palpatine, hater of bureaucrats.

Sidious and Palpatine want to, and will, form a galactic empire. Empires need emperors, of course, and the senator knows just the man for job, himself. But first, he must get that “Senator” tag removed from his name.

Boy, does this movie get bogged down in the details of government procedure. It’s as if Lucas researched ideas for The Phantom Menace watching C-SPAN for two decades.

Palpatine, Naboo’s senator, orchestrates the Trade Federation’s blockade of his planet to bolster his ascendancy to Supreme Chancellor of the Republic. Does Palpatine believe the Republic is full of bureaucrats and needs tearing down, or is he a power-hungry despot eager to shape the galaxy in his image? He’s both, though the movie doesn’t dwell on him much.

Palpatine speaks lines such as “The Senate is full of greedy delegates,” and “The bureaucrats are in charge now.” Deep, heady stuff. “I will make it legal,” and “I want that treaty signed,” are two lines from Darth Sidious. That’s how you know they are the same person. Gave me the willies!

Action/Effects (3/10)

The Phantom Menace tries its hand at a pitched battle on land without flying craft. Lucas, going for his Braveheart cred, has the gungans fight the droid army on the open plains of Naboo.

Bad news, folks, the effects stink. Several character moments are obviously filmed in front of a green screen. Jar Jar’s rendering is still being completed. At least we got to see a bunch of huge fish.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Natalie Portman explodes into cultural consciousness as Queen Amidala. She made the smart move of turning in her worst career performance in her first time on screen for a major audience.

Amidala is the elected queen of the Naboo (humans). She rules her people with subterfuge and geisha costumes. The Queen refuses to sign the treaty that will make the invasion of her planet legal in the Senate, trusting that Senate to come to her aid.

Queen Amidala a big fan of Japanese culture. Although, Star Wars being set in the past, I guess Japan stole from Amidala.
Queen Amidala a big fan of Japanese culture. Although, Star Wars being set in the past, I guess Japan stole from Amidala.

Unfortunately, Amidala becomes the perfect patsy for her senator’s power grab. Amidala leaves Naboo to plead with the Senate for aid. She meets Palaptine on Coruscant and accompanies him to a Senate meeting. She does exactly as he advises. First, she sees the corruption in the Senate, when the Supreme Chancellor succumbs to the mind of the bureaucrats, the Republic’s true rulers, and refuses to force the Trade Federation to end its blockade and invasion.

Then, Amidala calls for a vote of no confidence. Palpatine manages to get himself nominated for the new chancellorship. He wins. All thanks to Amidala.

That Amidala could not see through Palpatine was more interesting for her being a trickster herself. After leaving Naboo, Amidala switches places with Padme, one of her handmaidens, resorting to the name Padme for most of the film. Maybe she was tired of all the makeup and headwear. She devises the plan to capture the Trade Federation viceroy, and that pan works only because of the switcheroo.

Padme, or the queen?
Padme, or the queen?

Portman, for her part, is terrible. Her speech is devoid of emotion. Watch her scenes in the Senate and marvel at how someone so bad in these crucial moments could win an Oscar. Of course, she’s not helped by the script. In the most supposed-to-be tense scene, the chancellor asks Amidala to defer her speaking rights to the Trade Federation. “I will not defer,” she says. Some senators gasp, and the audience is supposed to think, “You tell ’em!” I will not defer. Terrible. Later, when she is on her knees begging the gungans for help, she’s basically line reading.

I was 15 years old when The Phantom Menace came out, and I thought I had found God in Portman. Looking back, she was bad, but not much worse than the other actors.

Obi-Wan didn’t get much to do in this movie. Qui-Gon is the Jedi and dies in the end, so we can let Obi-Wan’s story play out in two more films, but some of his character leaks through. I mentioned earlier that he is the wiser of the two. He doesn’t want to train Anakin, and it seems his Jedi senses are already honed beyond Qui-Gon’s.

Obi-Wan Kenobi
Obi-Wan Kenobi

Finally, Anakin. Jake Lloyd plays the young pod racer. He’s full of gusto and energy, and is all love and joy, despite being a slave. His mother, Shmi, says more about Anakin than the boy. “He knows nothing of greed,” she says. “You have brought hope to those who have none,” she tells him later.

Anakin, who has been a pilot “all my life,” is the only human who can pod race. His high midichlorian count allows him to feel the future. It’s why Qui-Gon tells him “feel, don’t think,” before the pod race. With no father his mother Shmi will admit to, Anakin is basically the Jesus of the Star Wars galaxy.

Qui-Gon wins Anakin’s freedom. “Yippee,” Anakin likes to say. His best line is, “Well, 3PO, I’ve been freed.”

Star Wars thrives on its strong sidekicks, characters who often outshine the heroes, as they do in The Phantom Menace.

Also Jar Jar Binks:jar jar

Henchmen (6/8)

Darth Sidious’s work is done on the ground by the goons running the Trade Federation and by Darth Maul.

The Trade Fed flunkies are vaguely Japanese-sounding gray non-humans that just wanted a little more money for themselves. They never asked to be wrapped up in a Jedi-Sith feud more than a thousand years old. Pity the greedy traders.

The best line any Trade Fed person speaks comes after they have landed on Naboo and arrested Queen Amidala and her retinue. The queen talks tough, as she is wont to do. Then, to intimidate her, the main Trade guy says to the arresting officer, with as much animus as he can muster, “Commander, process them.” Like, process them with arrest papers. Read them their rights and shit. That’ll teach her to not sign treaties!

Darth Maul. This guy is the bee knees. He’s over the top, red-faced, and he wears horns for the Force’s sake. Did he grow those horns because he’s so evil? It’s never said.

The galaxy's best Juggalo.
The galaxy’s best Juggalo.

Darth Maul is the shit, and I love him. Did Lucas tell his makeup team to go full Mephistopheles with this character? His face is red and black, his eyes red and yellow, and I already mentioned the horns. Where did Darth Maul come from? How does this guy allow himself to apprentice to a senator? How does he get the horns? How does his face turn red?

I need these answers. None are given. Instead we get Maul fighting like no one has in the Star Wars saga. My only qualm with Maul is that he speaks at all. He should have stayed silent or snarled. No words for this guy.

Stunts (6/6)

The Phantom Menace has two great scenes going for it. Let’s talk pod race. Greg Proops finds his way into the series as the voice of one head of the race commentators.

Only one human can pod race, local boy Anakin Skywalker. Three laps at 500 miles per hour and the race is done. Special skills are required at those speeds.

About 20 racers fire up their pods at the start line. Anakin’s not nervous, despite never finishing a race. And when the race starts, he stalls. Sebulba, champion racer, knocks out a man early as Anakin catches up fast.

The racers enter a few canyons in single file. Only the sound of the engines is heard, revving and ramping as the tight turns are made. One racer straight up dies. Tuskan raiders shoot at Anakin on a big bank, and Quad-something ends his race before it starts, as his engines split away.

This is a great scene primarily because the dialogue is minimal.
This is a great scene primarily because the dialogue is minimal.

Anakin starts a second lap, or as C-3PO calls it, a circuit, not in last. He passes one racer on a dip and another by barrel rolling above him. Sebulba tosses shrapnel into an engine behind him, ending that racer’s day.

Anakin has a cable snap that connects his pod to the right engine. The G-forces must be incredible. He magnets the cable back and soon regains second place.

Lap three now, two racers left. Sebubla forces Anakin onto a service ramp, sending him skyward. Well, they don’t call him “Skywalker” for nothing, as Anakin uses gravity to aid his speed and drop into the lead.

A power coupling goes free, sending black smoke from the left engine. Anakin puts out the flames and transfers some power from right to left. Sebulba’s in the lead.

On a wide plane Sebulba hooks into Anakin’s engines. With a final blast of engine power, Anakin breaks free and sends Sebulba into the sand. Victory is his!

The other great scene is, of course, the Duel of the Fates.

As Queen Amidala tries to retake her planet, she runs around her capital shooting droids. On her way to capture the Trade Federation’s viceroy, she and the Jedi open a door leading from a hangar. Those doors open on Darth Maul.

Cue dramatic singing. “We’ll handle this,” Qui-Gon says. Maul pulls back his hood to reveal…five horns on his head. Baller move. Maul is either an insanely evil person, or the galaxy’s most dedicated cosplayer. Maul activates his red lightsaber. Then he activates the other half of his lightsaber. A genuine OH SHIT moment. Lightsabers can have two sides!!!!!!!

YES TO DUEL OF THE FATES
YES TO DUEL OF THE FATES

The three warriors drop their robes and draw weapons. The Jedi surround Maul, whose red light blades deflect the green and blue blades, even when he can’t see them. As Qui-Gon hinted earlier in the movie, Jedi can sense the future. Perhaps Maul has cultivated this skill.

Maul Force throws a piece of metal to activate a door. The three fighters enter a giant room that serves no purpose except to be large and intimidating and dangerous.

Maul is flipping and kicking all over the area, while the Jedi just stand there and swing swords a few times. Since they outnumber Maul, they expect him tire out first.

Maul backflips onto a causeway and Obi-Wan again gets on the other side of Qui-Gon. Maul kicks Obi-Wan down a level, levels in this place being 50 feet, and fights Qui-Gon one-on-one until Obi-Wan can get his ass in gear and jump that huuuuuuge gap.

Qui-Gon vs. Maul is a bit like LeBron vs. MJ, but in real time and not hypothetical at-their-peak conjecture. Qui-Gon has no chance, but he keeps the game close for a considerable time.

The fight moves to a series of laser doors that flick open and shut for no reason, and in sequence. All three are trapped in one cycle, and Obi-Wan is trapped in a second cycle as the other two fight in a tiny, circular room.

The laser doors that help Maul kill Qui-Gon
The laser doors that help Maul kill Qui-Gon

Maul and Qui-Gon battle more, until Maul hits Qui-Gon in the face with his lightsaber hilt. That knocks back Qui-Gon long enough for Maul to plunge one half of that dual-bladed lightsaber masterpiece into his adversary’s gut. Obi-Wan lets out a nice scream.

Those laser doors open again and Obi-Wan sprints through. The masterless apprentice, the ronin, is very fast with his lightsaber. He breaks Maul’s lightsaber in half, which does not destroy the weapon. They battle further until Maul Force pushes Obi-Wan into the bottomless pit folks loved to engineer into these Star Wars settings.

Naboo engineers: Just make a bottomless pit for no reason. That's our trademark.
Naboo engineers: Just make a bottomless pit for no reason. That’s our trademark.

Obi-Wan clings to a protrusion while Maul sparks his lightsaber on the ledge. My question is, why can’t Maul use the Force to unlock Obi-Wan’s grip? Is it a question of Force command or strength, as if it were a muscle? Maul surely has greater command of the Force than Obi-Wan, not yet a Jedi.

No matter. Obi-Wan uses the Force to leap back onto the floor while simultaneously grabbing Qui-Gon’s ignored lightsaber. The weapon appears to activate BEFORE Obi-Wan grips it, and he stabs Maul in the gut. Maul falls into the pit. He might still be falling.

LOVE THIS FIGHT. It’s epic, over-the-top, and only possible in the Star Wars galaxy. The Duel of the Fates is the only reason to watch The Phantom Menace.

Climax (4/6)

Queen Amidala takes her planet’s fate into her own hands when she departs Coruscant for Naboo. She will end the invasion on her own, the Republic be damned.

Naboo is in trouble. The Trade Federation is all over the planet, and they’ve turned it into, well, nothing. It’s the same. Naboo doesn’t have an army, so they let the droids walk in unharmed. There’s something to be said for that. Why do you think Paris resembles its 1940 version?

Amidala goes to the gungan king to beg for his aid. He says, “Yousa all bombad.” Still, he agrees to the plan. The gungans, with Jar Jar as a general, will draw the droid armies from the capital as a diversion. Amidala, the Jedi, and her guards will enter the city and the palace, where they will capture the viceroy. Qui-Gon likes the plan, and that might be a reason to worry about it.

Jungians fighting droids on the plains of Naboo.
Jungians fighting droids on the plains of Naboo.

The gungans assemble on a huge grass field. They have no hand weapons. Huge, brontosaurus-like creatures hold machines that project forcefields around the army. This is a good move, as the droid army rumbles over a hilltop to fire laser cannons at the field. The lasers do nothing.

Slowly, hover tanks rumble toward the forcefield. They eject row upon row of droid soldiers, outnumbering the gungans at least three-to-one. The droids can walk through the forcefield, and that’s when the carnage starts.

Or should start. The Phantom Menace is a kid’s movie, so we see very little death. Jar Jar kills more droids by accidentally kicking a droid husk than he kills in actual combat. The gungans have laser shields that deflect droid laser bolts effectively. They also have catapults to hurl their only weapons at the droid tanks. Large blue energy balls explode energy on contact with droids and other metallic objects.

While this buffoonery is taking place, Amidala is raiding the capital with a skirmish of her own. Her captain leads an attack while another group infiltrates the palace. It’s a double diversion!

Their first move is to free the pilots held in the hangar with their ships. These ships must destroy the droid control ship in orbit around Naboo. Anakin, hiding in one cockpit, helps the Naboo-ites bogged down by some killer droids. In the process, the autopilot sends him to the droid control ship.

Anakin and R2-D2 destroy the droid control ship orbiting Naboo.
Anakin and R2-D2 destroy the droid control ship orbiting Naboo.

The Duel of the Fates I discuss earlier. It’s fantastic. Please watch again. Without the Jedi, Amidala and her crew shoot their way through the palace and reach the viceroy, where they are surrounded.

The decoy queen shows herself with a splinter group of troops, and the viceroy falls hard for it. It’s a triple diversion! Great plan. The real queen sits on her throne and reveals the pistols hidden inside. The viceroy surrounded and without droid protection, Amidala says, “Now we will discuss a new treaty.” BURN.

Oh, also, Anakin crashes into the control ship and uses torpedoes to explode a power cell that destroys the whole ship. The best part of the dogfight occurs when a Naboo pilot sees the explosion and says, “We didn’t hit it.” The droids collapse and the gungans are saved.

Naboo throws a big party. Amidala gives the gungan king an energy orb or something. Anakin gets a haircut. It’s all gravy. Just gotta find that Sith Lord and train Anakin to be a Jedi and the galaxy will be A-OK.

Here's the prize for winning the war: a glowing ball.
Here’s the prize for winning the war: a glowing ball.

Jokes (0/4)

Jar Jar Binks exists to make us laugh. If you’re older than seven, he fails. The less said about Jar Jar, the better. It’s as if George Lucas looked at the success of his last Star Wars movie and thought, “Hmm, I bet the Ewoks did that.” They didn’t.

Setting (3/4)

Star Wars is famous and beloved for its lived-in worlds. Star Wars planets are always of one ecosystem. Ice planets, desert planets, swamp planets: Lucas cares nothing about ecology. Remember, he’s a trope guy, making his characters symbolic more than realistic, so why not do the same with the planets?

Tatooine we knew already from the ’70s and ’80s. Naboo is a new planet. Mostly temperate forest, Naboo might be the most pleasant planet to live on in the galaxy, unless the Trade Federation is sending a droid army to invade you.

A happy family meal.
A happy family meal.

Coruscant, home of the Galactic Senate and Jedi Council, is the first time Star Wars has shown any significant urban area. (Does the Death Star qualify?) Coruscant is entirely developed. No bodies of water, no plant life, nothing but buildings. Cool idea, but how does such a place have an atmosphere?

As fantasy worlds, these Star Wars planets will always evoke warm feelings because they aren’t realistic, but that’s why we love Star Wars.

Commentary (0/2)

Lucas bogs down the movie with ideas about governance and weak leadership, the lack of democracies to ACT, dammit, when people are dying.

Offensiveness (-2/-2)

Jar Jar Binks is a terrible character that ridicules Jamaican culture through voice and his bumbling nature. That the gungans make him a general insults them more. He’s a terrible, terrible character that could be wiped from the movie with no loss of enjoyment. Terrible.

Terrible.

Others

  • This is movie is so kid-friendly that Sam Jackson asks which of the two Sith was “destroyed.” Not killed, destroyed.
  • Jabba the Hutt was played by “himself” in the credits. No joke, look that up.
  • After the Jedi swim to the gungan city, their robes are dry, and wouldn’t the water pressure crush them?
  • On Tatooine, Qui-Gon bans any transmissions sent from Amidala’s ship that can be traced. Someone sends her a message saying that Naboo’s death toll is “catastrophic.” Then, Darth Maul is dispatched to Tatooine. We never saw anyone send a transmission.
  • (-2) More points gone because of Jar Jar.

Summary (29/68): 43%

If you don’t pay attention to The Phantom Menace, you might think it a good movie. The fast parts are exciting and enjoyable. These scenes–the pod race and the Duel of the Fates–prop up a flat, empty movie that’s often laughable for the wrong reasons.

Prequels are inherently difficult to make suspenseful, and that’s the case here. We expect Qui-Gon to die, just as we expect Darth Maul to die. We know Anakin eventually has two kids, and we presume that Amidala is the mother, because she “cares” for “Ani” as soon as they meet. No love triangles in this trilogy.