Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)

1999, 20th Century Fox. Directed by George Lucas. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Ian McDiarmid. Voices: Ahmed Best, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B-
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +1-1
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Sometimes deadly stylized outer-space and hand-to-hand combat sequences.

A National Catholic Register "Video/DVD Picks" film.

By Steven D. Greydanus

The old Star Wars magic is gone.

In its place is something new: something in a way as revolutionary as the first Star Wars film all those years ago, with its breakthrough special effects and zooming camera techniques.

Eagerly anticipated after a sixteen-year hiatus, relentlessly overhyped and overmarketed, 1999’s Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace — the first installment in a new trilogy of "prequels" to the original films — was praised by some and derided by others. Both had plenty to work with: The first film written and directed by Lucas himself since the 1977 original, Episode I features Lucas at his visionary best and at his maddening worst. No Star Wars film is more flawed — and no film, not even the original Star Wars trilogy, has ever before taken us to imaginary worlds at once so boldly conceived and so grandly realized, so vast in scope and so persuasive in detail, so rich and diverse in color and texture and ornamentation. As Roger Ebert aptly put it, this movie doesn’t just take us to new places, but to "new kinds of places."

A galaxy of wonder

There’s the many-domed skyline and Greco-Roman marble columns and statues of the Naboo capital city, commandingly situated atop lofty cliffs amid a shower of waterfalls. The underwater Gungan city, with its Atlanteanesque bubble chambers and semi-permeable walls that admit solid bodies but repel the water. The galactic capital planet-city Coruscant, a classic fantasy cityscape vision recalling every sci-fi skyline from the silent classic Metropolis to Blade Runner to The Fifth Element, yet somehow for the first time delivering something that was only promised in those earlier films.

Add to these the enormous racetrack stadium on Tatooine, the seemingly infinite galactic senate chamber on Coruscant, and the vertiginous network of catwalks somewhere in the Naboo capital in which the climactic lightsaber battle takes place, and you’ve got a film that’s a wonder to behold — an awe-inspiring achievement of imagination and next-generation effects wizardry.

Lucas and his team lavish as much attention upon each locale as if it were the only setting in the film — and indeed any one of them could serve as a satisfying setting for an entire film. There’s an almost insolent prodigality to the way Lucas introduces us almost in passing to one vision after another of piercing beauty and arresting power, all the while hardly pausing to linger on any of them, as if none of it were any big deal. It’s like a master chef preparing a gourmet seven-course meal, then serving it up like popcorn at a movie theater during a lightweight action flick. It’s all so amazing, you just wish you had the leisure to appreciate it. (Happily, this wish is granted in Episode II — Attack of the Clones, which revisits the locations developed for the first film at more satisfying length.)

In and around an area known as a Gungan "sacred place" — Gungans are polytheists, incidentally; Jar Jar speaks of "the gods" — we see what look like colossal stone figures almost completely buried in the earth. Only the tops of the heads can still be seen. I mention them because no one in the film does; they serve no plot function, they’re simply there, giant statues built thousands or hundreds of thousands of years earlier, and slowly, inexorably swallowed by the earth. Here we are at the beginning of the Star Wars saga, and here, amid this hugger-mugger of Gungans and Naboo, we find mute monuments of ancient cultures long since gone and forgotten. That’s the kind of detail that makes George Lucas’s fantasy worlds so vivid.

Inventive character design

Lucas’s restless invention doesn’t end with landscapes and architecture. The Phantom Menace continues the tradition of imaginative character design pioneered in such characters as Darth Vader, Yoda, and Jabba the Hutt. Most striking in the new film is Vader forerunner Darth Maul, played by martial artist Ray Park (X-Men). With his frightful crown of horns, spidery red-and-black facial paint, black Jedi-like robes, and wicked cool double-bladed lightsaber, Maul cuts a positively satanic figure as an adversary tough enough to take on two Jedis at once.

Unlike Vader, this Darth is a man of simple motivations and few words: a mere pawn of his master, the man who will become the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role from Return of the Jedi). Hatred and violence, not ambition or power, are his motivating passions. Some were disappointed that Maul turned out to be so one-dimensional — yet the Star Wars prequels are concerned with the origins of Darth Vader, not with Darth Maul. Maul is what he is, a fearsome-looking, formidable action villain who’s never more effective than when simply pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, wordlessly exuding malevolence and contempt.

A major advance in Star Wars character design is the race of the Gungans, members of which include comic, pratfalling Jar Jar (voice of Ahmed Best) and obese, spluttering Boss Nass (voice of Brian Blessed) — the latter being my favorite of the film’s supporting characters.

Although humanoid, the Gungans aren’t built like humans, and don’t move like them; they could never have been portrayed by humans in costumes, or by any other conventional technique. Only unprecedented achievements in computer imaging allowed this race to be brought to life. Whatever one may think of Jar Jar as a character, the sheer presence of the Gungans on the screen is a triumph worth noting.

On Tatooine particularly, especially during the pod race, Lucas goes hog-wild fashioning characters and races of all conceivable shapes and sizes — many unfortunately as preposterous-looking as the silliest Muppets in Jabba’s retinue from Return of the Jedi. Like the much-derided Ewoks, Episode I’s wacky creatures are meant to appeal to kids — which, to be fair, they do. Since the film’s protagonist, young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), is only about ten years old, it’s reasonable that The Phantom Menace particularly should be pitched to children. Alas, this means we now have a Star Wars movie with poop and fart gags.

Complications

Yet these kid-centric elements only aggravate other problems in the film. For example: If Episode I is more aimed at kids than other Star Wars films, why is the tone so much more serious and weighty, the characters so stiff and charmless, the dialogue so formal and devoid of the lighthearted banter of the first trilogy? True, there are comic-relief characters such as Jar Jar, but why are Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Amidala, to put it bluntly, so much less fun than Han and Leia and Luke?

More seriously, why kick off this kid-centric opening chapter to the Star Wars saga with such a complicated and abstruse conflict over — of all things — taxes and trade routes?

In the first trilogy, conflicts and motivations are fairly strightforward and easy to explain. Even young kids can follow plot points like "Luke wants to get the Death Star plans to the Rebellion leadership so they can blow it up"; "Vader is using Luke’s friends as bait to catch him"; "Han needs to pay back money to Jabba so Jabba won’t send any more bounty hunters after him."

Yet when it comes to the conflict in Episode I, we’re left struggling over questions such as who is taxing what, whether the Trade Federation favors or opposes the taxes, how the blockade around Naboo advances their cause, and precisely what they think invasion is going to accomplish.

The relative complexity and obscurity of the conflict means more exposition — lots of it. Discussions, explanations, meetings, and negotiations bog down much of the film. Even the Jedi council, whom we would have loved to see in action, just sits around talking. (Here once again Episode II delivers what was missing in Episode I.)

Discussing it in a committee

The middle act, particularly, drags. After some rousing action sequences on and around Naboo, our heroes go off planet, heading first to Tatooine and then to Coruscant before finally returning to Naboo. In this entire round trip, there’s only one action sequence of any substance: the pod race.

Unfortunately, the pod race sequence, though technically impressive, I find to be dramatically inert, without a shadow of the excitement of the great X-wing assault on the Death Star. (One reason why: Luke destroyed the Death Star by making a fateful decision to switch off his targeting computer and use the Force. Anakin, though undoubtedly relying on the Force, solves his problems by repeatedly flipping switches and throwing levers — a general strategy that also comes in handy during the trip through the Naboo planet core.)

Other than the pod race, the middle act is just a lot of talking. Addressing the Senate, Amidala has a line that anticipates Han Solo’s quip from The Empire Strikes Back about not having time to "discuss this in a committee." This was funny when Han said it, because he was only talking to Leia, who retorted, "I am not a committee!" It’s not funny when Amidala says it, because there really is a committee, and lots of discussion.

Only the return to Naboo at the end of the second act brings the story back to life. Thus, when Jar Jar leaps up and joyfully exclaims "Weesa going home!" — for once I completely share his sentiments.

Pratfalls and lines falling flat

This of course raises the specter of the most cordially disliked character in the Star Wars universe: Jar Jar Binks, with his high-pitched patois speech, pratfalls, and other mannerisms. Once again, like the unpopular Ewoks, Jar Jar represents the kiddie factor, but older viewers in large numbers find him extremely irritating.

It doesn’t help that the film often seems not to know what it wants out of the character. For example, preparing to depart from the underwater Gungan city, Qui-Gon comments to Obi-Wan that they’ll "need a guide", and arranges to bring Jar Jar along. Yet not only does Jar Jar offer no guidance, Qui-Gon later says that "the Force will guide us." (Jar Jar himself doesn’t seem to know his role in this sequence; his reaction to the Jedi’s proposal is almost schizophrenic in its incoherence.)

Jar Jar’s slapstick reaches a crescendo during the big Gungan-droid battle sequence toward the end, during which — in Forrest Gump fashion — everything he does miraculously turns out right; every trip and fumble harms the enemy and helps the Gungans. In fact, despite an earlier warning that "many Gungans could die," we see no injuries of any kind among the Gungans, let alone fatalities.

The glaring falsity of this battle sequence contrasts unfavorably with the Ewok struggle against Imperial forces in Jedi, in which Ewoks died and Ewoks mourned, and comic pratfalls were at least as likely to backfire on the Ewoks as to work in their favor.

After Jar Jar, the most picked-on character in Menace is, unfortunately, Anakin Skywalker, the boy who grows up to be Darth Vader. Young Jake Lloyd is enthusiastic and sincere in the role, and at times he’s up to the modest acting standards required for a Star Wars movie; but other times his lines fall flat, and a few are glaringly awkward. (Among the weakest: "Yippee!" and "Now this is pod racing!")

When the film was first released, some found Lloyd’s acting limitations even more glaring by contrast to another 1999 performance by a child actor of exceptional ability: Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. While this is an unfair comparison, and while it’s true that acting has never been a strong point of the Star Wars franchise, it must be admitted that Lloyd’s uneven performance is a liability.

Midi-chlorians

Still another widely derided element of Episode I is the concept of "midi-chlorians," microscopic life forms that in name and description sound suspiciously like mitochondria. In the Star Wars universe, we learn, these tiny creatures live in the cells of all living things — and the more of them one has, the more sensitive to the Force one is. Thus, for example, Yoda has a higher midi-chlorian count than Obi-Wan; and Anakin, who may be a kind of prophesied Jedi messiah (see "Moral and Spiritual Issues in the Star Wars films" for more on this messianic imagery), turns out to have the highest midi-chlorian count of all.

The introduction of midi-chlorians has been widely felt to demystify the whole business — to replace "The Force is strong in this one" with "His midi-chlorian count is off the charts." One feels it should be more spiritual and elusive than that — just as there is no blood test to differentiate a mystic or saint or priest from an ordinary person.

On the up side, it’s nice to learn that one’s physical body does have something to do with one’s ability to interact with the Force. An overly spiritualistic mysticism can lead to a gnostic-leaning contempt for the flesh. "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter," Yoda once told Luke, pinching his shoulder. If nothing else, the midi-chlorians are a kind of vindication of "this crude matter."

Redeeming strengths

Despite its flaws, The Phantom Menace remains a visionary and enjoyable film, one that succeeds in establishing the foundations of the Star Wars universe for the rest of the films.

For example, in the original trilogy the Jedi are a fallen order whose "light has gone out of the universe," represented only by two old masters in hiding and one apprentice in training. In Menace, for the first time, we get to see powerful, competent Jedi knights fearlessly going about their business at the height of their order’s power, acting as the defenders of peace and order in the galaxy they’re meant to be. For those of us who’ve always yearned for a glimpse of that "more civilized time" wistfully referred to by Ben Kenobi in the first film, this is a satisfying thing.

We also begin to see how the Empire will come to be. The whole business about the Trade Federation and the invasion of Naboo is only a ruse, if an unwieldy one, to advance the career of the man who will become the Emperor. Menace also develops the mythology of the Sith, the dark counterparts to the Jedi, and we begin to grasp a bit more about what precisely is going on in episodes V and VI with Vader and the Emperor each courting Luke, each inviting him to destroy the other.

Besides all this, the film’s final act is highly entertaining, with several overlapping conflicts, the highlight of which is the dazzlingly choreographed lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the two Jedis. The last act also gives Amidala — who until that point has been given little to do but change clothes and discuss things in a committee — a chance to finally take action the way we would expect of a Star Wars heroine, especially one who happens to be the mother-to-be of Leia and Luke. Kids will also pick up on the moral theme of overcoming prejudices and uniting to oppose a common threat.

The film’s greatest strength remains the imaginative force of its fantasy worlds and the technical virtuosity with which it realizes them. Other Star Wars films set impressive standards in this regard, but Episode I doesn’t just raise the bar, it makes the bar obsolete and takes off into the stratosphere. The old Star Wars magic may be gone, but there’s a new magic at work here… and it’s still Star Wars magic.

Episode I — Final Thoughts (Circa Episode III)

For a critic, revisiting a review written a few years earlier (even months or weeks may be sufficient) can be a gratifying experience or a humbling one, depending on how well he feels his critique holds up in retrospect. In this case it is both.

Rereading my review above, I find that I still basically agree with what I wrote at the time. I’m thankful to see that I wasn’t blind to most of Episode I’s dramatic and structural faults, though I wasn’t fully conscious of its most grievous shortcomings until after seeing Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, the film that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones were supposed to set up, and essentially didn’t.

I still admire and value Lucas’s visionary world-building in Episode I. What I now appreciate more clearly is that, however thrilling these excursions into fantasy worlds may be on initial viewings, in the long run they pale unless the worlds are the setting for a more compelling story, with more involving characters, than Lucas was able to muster.

This is where the original trilogy delivered and the prequel trilogy substantially doesn’t. It’s not just that the banter and camaraderie of Luke and Han and Leia was so much more fun than the often wearying interactions of Anakin and Amidala and young Obi-Wan — though that’s part of it. More importantly, the stories themselves largely lack the strong center of good versus evil that was the heart of the original trilogy.

In the original series, the Rebel Alliance were the good guys, the heroes. They were brave, noble, and dedicated, and their cause was our cause. Episode I fails to establish either the Republic or the Jedi themselves as a comparable institution for whom we can enthusiastically root. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as individuals demonstrate valor and selflessness, but the Jedi Council as an institution doesn’t display the kind of manifest wisdom, nobility, or compassion from needed to establish them as our heroes. And the Republic, embodied by the lugubrious Senate, is simply a flawed, bureaucratic political machine. Maybe it’s better politics than the original Star Wars… but it’s terrible mythology.

Had Episode I established Coruscant, galactic capital of the Republic and the Jedi, as a glorious, Camelot-like center of justice and peace and order, we would have had something to work with dramatically. And the fall of the Republic and the Jedi order in Episode III would have had far more emotional resonance.

On a fundamental level, Episode I disappoints simply because it fails to behave like the first chapter in a story. Not just because it’s already got so much back story, but because it doesn’t function as an introduction to the world and circumstances and mythology of what is to follow.

In the original Star Wars, the viewer starts out along with Luke Skywalker as an outsider regarding the rebellion against the Empire and the mythology of the Jedi and the Force. As the film progresses, the viewer is gradually initiated along with Luke into the ways of the Force and the struggle against the Empire.

None of this happens in Episode I. The viewer is simply thrown into the deep end of the pool without explanation or introduction. He has no peer in the story, no Luke Skywalker to identify with, but is instead expected to relate to a pair of experienced Jedi knights. (It’s also been noted that there is no Han Solo, no skeptical perpetual outsider to stand between the viewer and the Jedi, but I think that the absence of a Luke figure in the first act of Episode I is even more detrimental.)

In A New Hope, when old Obi-Wan explains to Luke how Darth Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force, Luke asks, "The Force?" prompting Obi-Wan’s famous description of the "energy field created by all living things" that "binds the galaxy together."

By contrast, in Episode I, when young Obi-Wan says, "But master Yoda said to be mindful of my feelings," and Qui-Gon answers, "Be mindful of the living Force, my young padawan," it’s simply taken for granted that we already know who Yoda is and what the Force is.

Granted, that’s almost certainly the case. But shouldn’t we at least feel, watching Episode I, that we could have begun the story there for the first time and watched straight through to the end of Return of the Jedi, and it would have made sense? Shouldn’t we even feel that, in principle, Episode I could have been made first, as if Star Wars really were one of those old serials that Lucas loved as a boy, and this really were the first episode?

Tags: All Things Star Wars, Mythology-Bound, Star Wars: Prequel Trilogy, Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, War

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