After a 3D spruce up, The Phantom Menace is back in cinemas this week for the first time in 13 years. Star Wars fans – who I count myself among, although they may not take me after this – hate the movie, as a rule. But here, I’ll explain why Episode I and all its foibles converted me to Star Wars and why, if thinking about George Lucas makes you think violent thoughts, you may need to calm down and hug an ewok.
The Star Wars series is renowned for containing two of the best science fiction and adventure movies of all time in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Its other entries are looked on with various degrees of derision and mocking cries of “do not want”. Be mindful, as we’ll come later to Return Of The Jedi‘s muppetry foreshadowing the angry, hateful reception the prequel trilogy would suffer.
It’s difficult to imagine Star Wars not being the – forgive the pun – force it is today. Shortly before the turn of the millennium though only Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi had been released and re-released. The series was largely out of the public consciousness except for remaining ‘Han shot first’ complaints.
If it hadn’t been for The Phantom Menace kickstarting the Jedi-Sith conflict, we probably wouldn’t have Lego Star Wars, the Clone Wars animated and CGI series, Knights Of The Old Republic or The Force Unleashed. We might even have missed out on more Battlestar Galactica, the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek revamp or Mass Effect. Our last, best hope for space opera could have ended with Babylon 5. Can we finally look back at the prequel trilogy with nostalgia now?
Party Like It Is 1999, Tonight We Will
If you haven’t seen The Phantom Menace prior to this week’s re-release, then here’s a plot summary. Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic, and it’s really not about tax at all. The peaceful, agricultural world of Naboo, home to humans and an aquatic race called the Gungans, is threatened by the malevolent interstellar conglomerate known as the Trade Federation and their huge force of military droids.
The wise, spiritual protectors who form the Jedi Council despatch the knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to investigate the Trade Federation’s activities. The Jedi pair are quickly doublecrossed by the Trade Federation and sneak down to the surface of Naboo as the droid invasion fleet lands.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan run into an exiled Gungan, Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best), possibly the most reviled fictional character since Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Wesley Crusher. Strangely, neither are as socially acceptable River Song of Doctor Who, who I personally find far more irritating, but we digress.
Binks capers like a fool but does his sci-fi duty and takes the Jedi to his Gungan leader under the waves, Boss Nass (voiced by Brian Blessed). Nass refuses to aid the human surface-dwellers of Naboo but gives a mixed blessing as he allows the trio a submarine to try to make it to the capital of Theed – by travelling straight through the dangerous oceanic planet core, where there’s always a bigger fish.
The Jedi manage to get to Theed and rescue Princess Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her courtly entourage, now including Binks and a pre-fame Keira Knightley. Escaping offworld, the motley group are saved from being shot out of the sky by R2-D2, a familiar little white and blue astromech droid. With their ship damaged, Amidala and the Jedi set course for the desert world of Tatooine to desperately hunt for replacement parts. There, they meet a young slave boy with an odd talent for mechanics called Anakin (Jake Lloyd) and his droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and discover the fast and furious sport of podracing.
Meanwhile, the evil and secretive Sith Master Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) conspires with his deadly apprentice, Darth Maul (Ray Park), to use the Trade Federation as their tool. Maul races to Tatooine to confront their enemies, the Jedi. Will the malignance of the Trade Federation and the Sith triumph, or will the Naboo and Gungans put aside their differences to work with the Jedi? Perhaps there is another who will help good win out? Here’s a hint: it’s not Jar Jar.
Star Wars began in the mind of George Lucas, and the influences of classic pulp science fiction serials, way before what would eventually become known as A New Hope successfully ghettoised childhood in 1977. More movies beyond just two direct sequels were talked about as soon as the first proved a hit. The prequel trilogy objections of many vocal fans has never sat well with me, as a good few of these people haven’t done anything to make Star Wars, but instead tried only to knock it down. Has Lucas really taken so much from them on a personal level?
In an interview with The New York Times last month about his career and the upcoming Red Tails, Lucas was asked whether he would make any more Star Wars movies. His response? “Why would I make any more… when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”
All too easy. If only the Emperor had been so self-aware and quick to kowtow. If he wasn’t so wealthy you could kind of feel sorry for the bloke.
The Phantom Menace Of The Phantom Menace
The best way to explain why Episode I isn’t as awful as you’ve been told is by telling you what it means to me.
Aged 13, I saw the movie with friends when it was released in cinemas for the first time in 1999. Science-fiction has always appealed to me in every form but I was a massive Trekkie as a kid. Star Wars held a brief attraction to me thanks to the remastered versions a few years before the prequels began, but the 1970s tales of magic farmboys blowing up spaceships that weren’t moons and defeating asthmatic black knights seemed a little too groovy. They were the dreaded f-word: fantasy. I owned the Technical Manual of the Enterprise-D. I wanted the future in my fiction, not unclear handwaving about galaxies far away, long ago that were somehow filled with humans.
Episode I gave me the missing piece to appreciate Star Wars – it made the series come alive again. It showed that the Empire and Rebellion hadn’t always existed and there was much more to Star Wars. Through The Phantom Menace, I was introduced to the Star Wars Expanded Universe and found out about the Yuzhan Vong and the Old Republic.
I’m eagerly awaiting issue #1 of Dark Horse Comics’ Dawn Of The Jedi series on the 15th February, precisely because if a fictional universe as imaginative as Star Wars exists then I’m the sort of person who isn’t satisfied with three brief, frozen snippets of that from 35 years ago.
Qui-Gon is my favourite Jedi because he was a proponent of the Living Force. The character gave context to the opposition between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader – he was a father to both of them, in a sense. I don’t get precious about midi-chlorians either. They went some way toward rationalising the Force, a quasi-mystical aspect of the series that I’d always been annoyed by.
I guess whether that offends you is down to a preference for fantasy or science fiction, but I’ll take even a weird explanation over not knowing at all, and watching old guys tell young boys “Oh wow, you’re just naturally awesome because I say so. Let’s hire a starship together and get to know each other.”
Jake Lloyd made people care about Darth Vader. It’s unfortunate that Hayden Christensen’s petulant performance as Anakin didn’t follow through in developing the character’s motivation to change to the dark side. Anakin and his mother’s slavery to Watto disturbed me deeply on watching The Phantom Menace. It gave the future Sith Lord a reason to resent the Republic and crave the power of the Force. His affection for Padme was innocent enough too, and his creation of Threepio gives a nice link to the original trilogy.
The planet-city of Coruscant and the planet of Naboo were amazingly disparate worlds to see in one movie, and a far cry from the Aliens-esque design of other sci-fi of my youth – Independence Day and Starship Troopers spring to mind. Of the cinematic science fiction of the 1990s, only Stargate‘s Abydos stands up to The Phantom Menace‘s imagination. Thanks to Episode I we also got to see the dusty planet of Tatooine again, and discover podracing.
Lastly, let’s talk Jar Jar.
I know you hate him. Without Jar Jar as pathfinder and a trial-by-fire for digitally-created characters, it’s possible that Gollum and Avatar could have never happened. Binks got the distaste for CG actors out of the world’s system. Nothing could ever be as bad to most people as Jar Jar Binks – except maybe the ewoks, as fans have gone as far as re-editing Return Of The Jedi to remove the little fuzzballs. The potential of modern cinema is arguably richer thanks to Jar Jar. The Gungan is the Windows to the digital revolution’s iOS – a necessary evil, perhaps?
Play us out, Keyboard Darth.
The Enduring Hope Of Star Wars
Debate rages about whether the Star Wars films are for children or not. They aren’t – they’re family movies. Admittedly, they’re family movies with people shooting each other in cold blood and chopping off appendages, but most kids can cope with that with a more convincing sense of morality than adults can.
Each Star Wars is a tale of good versus evil – yes, even Episode I. A brilliant example is in the underrated Reign Of Fire, when Gerard Butler and Christian Bale re-enact the Cloud City revelation scene from The Empire Strikes Back to a bunch of entranced post-apocalyptic kids. Like him or not, George Lucas helped create this modern mythology.
The epic battle between good and evil in the Star Wars galaxy will continue, apparently in the form of Bioware’s The Old Republic MMORPG and the Lucas-funded live-action TV show Star Wars: Underworld. Ignore Jedi teachings and senselessly hate the latter some people do, but find an audience because of the core behind it, it will.
To paraphrase Einstein: we don’t know what the future holds for Episode I through III, but Episode IV will be told with sticks and stones. Now, in the infamous words of Lucille Bluth, go see a Star War.