When I was in middle school in the mid ’90s, a few of my friends properly introduced me to Star Wars. By my high school years—1996 to 2000—I was a certifiable fan. Not obsessed, but certainly into the movies, with a level of Star Wars literacy bordering on nerdy. At the time, “the movies” could mean only one thing: the original trilogy, or OT. I remember asking for (and receiving) the OT in a three-cassette boxed pack for Christmas, and also having (as I remember them) pretty cool t-shirts of C-3PO and Darth Vader.
And then, in 1999, George Lucas released The Phantom Menace. Few highly anticipated blockbusters have been more maligned than The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars movie produced after the original Star Wars trilogy concluded some 13 years prior. After this was released around the close of my junior year of high school, I had a few complaints of my own about The Phantom Menace. But 20 years and six or seven Star Wars movies later (who’s counting?), I’ve rediscovered the prequels and they in turn have rekindled my enthusiasm for Star Wars. Here’s why The Phantom Menace is better than you’ve been told.
The Phantom Menace is act one of a six-part drama. It must be viewed in this context. This is why it was teased with the tagline “Every saga has a beginning,” and why the first Star Wars movie was oddly labeled Episode IV. As a Star Wars fan in high school, I saw the drama as revolving around the story of Luke. As such, the story was really about Luke’s development, his temptation, and his overcoming that temptation. There were sub-plots, of course, but the greater story arc was the story of Luke, who in the end, is able to resist the allure of the dark side. Besides this, Star Wars was also about the Rebellion, which in the end is able to overthrow the oppressive Empire. Luke/Rebellion versus Vader/Empire, and how it shapes Luke, was the main theme as I saw it. But this interpretation is out of focus. Luke’s story is actually another sub-plot supporting the real theme of Star Wars: the moral journey of Anakin. Star Wars is a play in six acts about the rise, fall, and redemption of one man, Anakin Skywalker. Everything else is a subplot, supporting plot, or backdrop for this single dramatic arc.
More than a morality tale, Star Wars is a modern iteration of the Greek tragedy, tragic in that a heroic figure is brought down by a fatal flaw within him, a character flaw that in the end dominates the hero’s moral judgments, dragging him down and ultimately destroying the one who could have chosen righteousness but failed to do so. The only difference is that George Lucas wrote redemption in as part of the tale, making the second half a tragedy playing in reverse. Star Wars is not about Luke or the Rebellion, though they are important elements, but about Anakin. This was the key insight that changed my perspective. Seen with this in mind, The Phantom Menace becomes a necessary first step in setting up all that follows.
Yet being necessary to the grander narrative does not make a movie enjoyable or compelling. Its entertainment value hinges on many smaller things, such as characters, cinematics, action, dialog, etc. And by way of those considerations, there’s much I really like about this movie. For instance, the pod race sequence on Tattoine is an outstanding ten minutes of tightly shot, high speed racing action that’s a ton of fun to watch. Then, there’s the lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon Gin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul that instantly blew every sword fight in the OT out of the water. In fact, as recently as this month, Ewan McGregor, who played Obi-Wan in the prequels, called this lightsaber battle the best yet. This epic standoff against the Sith apprentice Darth Maul forever raised the visual bar for lightsaber duels. And speaking of Darth Maul, The Phantom Menace has some great characters as well. This was true of the original trilogy, too, and a reason it was so popular across generations.
Ewan McGregor, for one, does a great job as a youthful Obi-Wan in all of the prequels. I like little Anakin, too. I think Jake Lloyd does a fine job getting the emotion right as the nine-year-old Anakin. I find Palpatine fascinating, and Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal compelling, even eerie, especially in the way he influences Amadala and the Senate, pulling the strings without anyone, even the Jedi, sniffing him out. I also very much enjoy the character of Queen Amadala. I love how Natalie Portman portrays Amadala in her queenly role, particularly in her voice intonation and bearing. Then there’s Darth Maul, who just kicks butt. In fact, Darth Maul was so loved by fans, that after being sliced in half at the waist by Obi-Wan and seemingly slain, he was brought back by popular demand in a later TV cartoon series, having apparently survived the bisection and acquired robotic legs. And then there’s Mace Windu. A Jedi version of Samuel L. Jackson? Enough said.
I also enjoy many of the supporting characters. I think the Nuemoidians (the Trade Federation viceroy) are a riot, and I love them. I like the hapless battle droids (“roger, roger”). I love Watto, the used-car-salesman type (“mind tricks don’t work on me; only money”). And I love the powerful, rolling, three-legged, canon-blasting destroyer droids (a/k/a Droideka) that make even Jedi nervous.
Further, I love the politics in this film. I think Lucas was extremely clever to begin the story with a trade dispute that later escalates, since this is so relatable to real world events. And I enjoy watching the machinations occurring in the Senate. The political portions of the film, though necessary to establish the formation of the galactic Empire in the third film, were criticized as being slow and dull, especially for a sci-fi aimed at a young audience. I can understand that. I, however, find it perhaps the most interesting aspect of the script.
Finally, let me not overlook the music. John Williams was brought back to write the score for The Phantom Menace and he did another outstanding job. One song, “Duel of the Fates,” stands out in particular. Even in a film series packed with some of the most iconic music in cinematic history, “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace is often people’s favorite single track from all of Star Wars!
So why all the hate? Having reevaluated this film, I don’t know, really. I think the intensity of the criticism, if not much (though not all) of the criticism itself, is undeserved. Here is one pretty good opinion piece about the film and its reception. As to my own initial reaction, there were some things about The Phantom Menace I took umbrage with when it first came out that just don’t bother me anymore. Here they are:
- Anakin built C-3PO. This annoyed me because it was just such an outlandish coincidence that Darth Vader, the dude we’d been running from in all these movies (the original trilogy), was the very guy who built our favorite protocol droid. I mean, seriously. Well, whatever. George Lucas wanted 3PO in the prequels and this was a way to do it while also showcasing Anakin’s mechanical engineering abilities, which is a key point. Just roll with it.
- Anakin had no father. What? A virgin birth? That’s too much! The idea, though, is that Anakin is the fulfillment of a long anticipated prophecy concerning one who will destroy the Sith and bring balance to the Force (which Anakin does, just not in the way the Jedi imagined it would happen). There is some mystery in this. We are never sure of Anakin’s origins. Palpatine does make a cryptic comment to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith about a Sith lord named Darth Plagueis the Wise who became so powerful in the ways of the Dark Side that he could not only keep the people he loved from dying, but could create life. Did Plagueis influence the midichlorians so as to create Anakin, hoping later to shape Anakin into a killer Sith lord? We don’t know. So, again, just roll with it.
- Midi-chlorians. These microscopic life forms live inside the cells of all living things. They serve as a kind of physical explanation for the Force. I thought this was stupid. But it wasn’t. We already knew that Force sensitivity could be passed down genetically. Not all sentient beings, let alone all living things, are equally strong with the Force or have the same Force potential. Only a relative few have the ability to become proficient in using the Force. Midi-chlorians help explain why that is. We are not told that the midi-chlorians are the Force. We only know that they are present in greater concentrations in Force sensitive people. If George Lucas made up the Force, he can make up midi-chlorians too (which, by the way, he did at least as early as 1977). The idea doesn’t take away anything from the story, so who cares? And it doesn’t minimize the mystical or mysterious nature of the Force. Now that you know that there are little things called midi-chlorians that exhibit some kind of concurrence with the presence of Force sensitivity, can you explain the Force any better than you could before? I didn’t think so. Still pretty mysterious if you ask me. And you think midi-chlorians just don’t make any sense? Neither does the Force! Nor does Obi-Wan’s description of the Force as an energy field necessarily contradict the presence of midi-chlorians as indicators, conduits, or communicators of the Force’s power. So quit whining.
- Obi-Wan did know R2-D2. In The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan is acquainted with R2-D2. But in A New Hope, Obi-Wan doesn’t show any outward sign of recognition when R2 finds him in order to relay Leia’s message, and he says he doesn’t remember having owned a droid before. In fact, he never did own a droid, though he worked with them, especially as a pilot. He also may not have remembered R2 specifically (he worked with plenty of astromech droids and it had been 20 years). More likely though, Obi-Wan may have been playing dumb so as not to reveal too much too soon to Luke. He had been tasked with lying low and monitoring Luke from a position of relative obscurity after Luke’s birth. Luke knew basically nothing about his parents or the high drama that occurred in the life of his father preceding rise of the Empire. Obi-Wan would have kept things on the down low until the time was right. This theory is supported by the fact that Obi-Wan kept Luke from the whole story by telling him that Darth Vader had betrayed and murdered his father. Also, even after Luke discovered the truth and called Obi-Wan out on it, Obi-Wan still refused to reveal the identity of the other Skywalker (Leia), whom Yoda had hinted at; rather, Obi-Wan says that Luke’s sister should remain “safely anonymous.” Luke figures it out anyway, but this is plenty of evidence that Obi-Wan divulges information about the past to Luke only on a pretty stringent need-to-know basis. For years, R2-D2 was the astromech assigned to fly with Anakin while Anakin was Obi-Wan’s apprentice. So it makes sense that Obi-Wan would put on his poker face in Luke’s presence when R2 shows up.
- And the final thing that bothered me about The Phantom Menace was—you know exactly what I’m about to say—Jar Jar Binks. I mean, has there been a more annoying movie character? Eh, whatever. Star Wars is primarily a children’s movie. Jar Jar was overplayed, true. If the character had been handled with a bit more subtlety, he might actually have been funny. So I can live with Jar Jar. I do like the Gungan leader Boss Nass, and the Gungans generally, none of whom has the Mickey Mouse voice that Jar Jar has. (Maybe that voice was the real reason Jar Jar was banished from Otoh Gunga.)
The Phantom Menace and the two films that follow are good films, better than anything in Disney’s new trilogy. This, I think, is because Disney is trying draw out a story line after the story has ended. Once a story has played out and reached it’s resolution (in this case, Anakin breaking free from the dominion of darkness and choosing the light), it’s difficult to extend the story meaningfully. Another reason the Disney trilogy has struggled, with the results feeling like a discontiguous jumble, is because George Lucas is no longer involved in the writing. The effect on the Disney films has thus been similar to that party game in which one person writes a sentence or two of a story, then passes the paper to the next person, who writes another couple of lines, and so on. By the time The Last Jedi (probably the worst Star Wars movie ever made) had come out, and every store and TV spot had been supersaturated with Disney’s Star Wars marketing, I had had about enough of Star Wars. But I also had an itch to re-watch the prequel trilogy I had long ignored. What I discovered was a strong showing of delightful Star Wars films that knew where they were going. Not perfect, and sometimes over the top (I’m looking at you, Attack of the Clones), they were nonetheless fun and, in my opinion not as a movie critic but as a fan, fairly well executed. Lucas has never avoided the slightly ridiculous. Yes, the arena fight and the machining factory scenes in Attack of the Clones are a little outrageous, but so is the Ewok involvement in the battle on Endor in Return of the Jedi.
One thing to remember is that Star Wars is not meant to be taken too seriously. It tells a compelling story, but it was never supposed to be Casa Blanca. It’s a series of popcorn flicks inspired by Buck Rogers. All we ask is that the story leads somewhere and does it with enough heart, relatable characters, and entertainment value that we come along for the ride. The prequels, beginning with The Phantom Menace, succeed at this just as they succeed in smoothly meshing with the second trilogy in a single grand plot. Thus, after I had burned out on Star Wars, it was The Phantom Menace that drew me back in.