This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
Every saga has a beginning. Episode I of the Star Wars “Skywalker Saga” was faced with a unique challenge when it was released in cinemas in the summer of 1999. As the first part of a Prequel Trilogy charged with “setting up” one of the most successful and beloved movie series of all time, the sheer weight of fan expectation placed upon The Phantom Menace‘s shoulders was pretty much unprecedented.
Star Wars creator George Lucas had been toying with the idea of expanding his original trilogy into a wider cinematic saga right from the very beginning but, as the filmmaker admitted to Time magazine in 1983, he had been “burned out” by the release of the final chapter, Return of the Jedi. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that he started pursuing the idea of returning to the galaxy far, far away. And after the successful, digitally remastered re-releases of the Original Trilogy in 1997, anticipation for a new batch of Star Wars movies was at a fever pitch.
Then came that trailer. After the first cinema-only teaser, the second promo for The Phantom Menace was released online in the early days of the internet, when downloading a short, tiny, pixelated Quicktime video would take around two hours (and earn you a stern telling off for clogging up the home phone line while you were at it). And yet, millions persevered to get a better look at the first Star Wars movie in 15 years. It was totally worth it, too, promising epic lightsaber duels, huge space battles, and weird, wonderful, and digitally rendered alien creatures.
The film was a huge commercial success, of course, taking in nearly $1 billion at the worldwide box office (making it the second highest-grossing film ever at the time) but, after the initial hype had died down, it’s fair to say there was more than a whiff of disappointment about the whole enterprise (although, given the aforementioned fan expectation, perhaps there was always going to be). Nowadays, the film is often derided for introducing the world to Jar Jar Binks, but it also introduced a whole new generation to the Star Wars experience, something it often isn’t given credit for.
Set 32 years before A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker was but a twinkle in Darth Vader’s eye, The Phantom Menace is a surprisingly complex first chapter, pitched against the backdrop of a brewing war between the sinister Trade Federation and the peaceful planet of Naboo (ruled over by Natalie Portman’s young Queen Amidala). Essentially, the movie is about the discovery of Force wunderkind – and future big bad – Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and the political machinations that start secret Sith lord Senator Palpatine (a brilliantly ominous Ian McDiarmid) on the path to becoming the evil ruler of the Galactic Empire.
The film also serves as the saga’s introduction to the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, the Jedi Knights – an order defunct by the time of the Original Trilogy but here at the height of their powers. Most notably, we meet Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and senior Jedis Mace Windu (Samuel L Jackon) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) – all of whom have key roles to play in Anakin’s journey to the dark side.
For all the flak the film has received in the 20 years since its release, there’s still a lot to love about it. Trouble is, there’s an awful lot that doesn’t quite hit the mark, too: the baffling, thinly veiled stereotypes adopted by some of the alien characters are still horribly misjudged, the over-reliance on CGI (some of which hasn’t aged all that well) still jars, and even the most experienced of the cast stumble over the heavy exposition and clunky dire-logue (if the likes of Neeson and McGregor struggle with the material, poor Jake “I’m a person and my name is Anakin” Lloyd never stood a chance).
And then there’s the huge Gungan in the room: yep, Jar Jar hasn’t become any less annoying in the last 20 years, although you can’t lay all the blame for that at the feet of actor Ahmed Best, who gives the role his all. It’s also worth noting that this movie was made for a new generation of youngsters discovering Star Wars for the first time. Jar Jar is clearly a comedic foil directed at the children in the room, so perhaps the last two decades of criticism and ridicule are a bit unfair.
The Phantom Menace is arguably the most coherent of the three prequels – a film that develops the Star Wars lore, offers some good old-fashioned space opera, and boasts at least two spectacular action setpieces that count among the saga’s most iconic (more on them below). Say what you want about Lucas, but he knows how to nail action sequences.
Jar Jar’s pratfalls and Lloyd’s “accidental hero” schtick aside, The Phantom Menace’s three-pronged final battle to take back control of Naboo from those pesky Trade Federation battle droids is a thrilling example of what the Star Wars series does best. Making good use of slick, pacey editing and John Williams’ muscular score, it’s as gripping a finale as any in the series. And though the journey to the big finish might be a bit arduous at times, the film is, nonetheless, a solid saga starting point.
Best lightsaber bit: The climactic duel, in which Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take on Sith badass Darth Maul (Ray Park) and his double-bladed lightsaber, is one of the best – if not the best – laser-sword dust-ups in the entire series. McGregor especially really throws himself into it, Neeson’s death has real dramatic heft, and Park’s whirling acrobatics are mesmerizing. And to top it all off, it’s soundtracked by Williams’ infinitely hummable “Duel of the Fates.” These scenes still give us chills.
Best non-lightsaber bit: The pod race, in which Anakin takes on a menagerie of Tatooine’s fiercest racers and shows off his Force-aided potential, is a cracking sequence, featuring bags of invention – from the alien contestants to the pods themselves – and some ace sound design, as the thrumming engines slalom around rock formations and jostle for position among the dusty ravines of the desert planet.
Jedi wisdom: Be mindful of the future, “but not at the expense of the moment.” Qui-Gon offers Obi-Wan some sound advice that we could all do with remembering, to be honest.
Rules of the Force: This is the first time we see the Jedi firing on all cylinders, showing off Force powers that include running really fast, jumping really high, and holding their breaths for a really long time (handy when you’re being attacked with poisonous “dioxis” gas). There’s also telekinesis, including the Force push and the ability to summon objects (handy when you’re dangling over a chasm and in dire need of a lightsaber). And there’s foresight, allowing for quick reflexes (handy when you’re piloting a racing Pod). Oh, we can’t forget the Jedi mind trick, which we learn doesn’t work on everyone (Watto, we’re looking at you).
The Phantom Menace is perhaps most (in)famous for introducing the concept of “Midi-chlorians” – microscopic life forms that reside in all living cells. As Qui-Gon explains: “We are symbionts living with them; without them, no life would exist and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.” Erm, OK. Jedis gain their Force powers thanks to their high Midi-chlorian count; Anakin’s is off the chain (thanks to his miracle birth).
Who has a bad feeling about this? Obi-Wan utters the immortal words when the Jedi are made to wait for their “negotiation” with Viceroy Nute Gunray. “I don’t sense anything,” Qui-Gon replies, before the two are locked in a room and gassed. Force awareness not working too well there, Qui-Gon? Apprentice: 1; Master: 0. Qui-Gon was right about one thing, though – the negotiations were short.
Galactic stop-offs: We’re introduced to three planets in The Phantom Menace. First up is Amidala, Palpatine, and Jar-Jar’s homeworld of Naboo, a peaceful place filled with classical architecture, vast green pastures, and underwater cities inhabited by the amphibious Gungans. Next up, there’s the desert planet of Tattooine, the dusty, lawless home of the Hutts and Anakin Skywalker (we’ll be seeing much more of this one later in the series). And finally, there’s the sprawling, layered metropolis of Coruscant, a world that’s essentially one big city and the capital planet of the Galactic Republic.
Who wins? Ostensibly, the light side emerges victorious here. Qui-Gon might have died in the process, but the Trade Federation is defeated, the humans and Gungans of Naboo have made peace, and Anakin is accepted into the Jedi Order under his new master, Obi-Wan. Dig a little deeper, though, and the election of Palpatine – aka Darth Sidious (you’re fooling none of us with that hood, mate) – as the Republic’s new Supreme Chancellor is the first step on the Sith Lord’s rise to power. Plus, he’s found himself a new soon-to-be apprentice (“We will watch your career with great interest,” he gleefully tells the young Skywalker). So maybe that happy ending isn’t all it seems?