20 years ago in a cinema not so far, far away…
The Phantom Menace
It had been sixteen years since fans had seen a new Star Wars film. Anticipation was high and fans were lining up to return to George Lucas’ galaxy. It was a period of great excitement and the trailers looked really, super cool. But something happened in those theaters and audiences didn’t know how to react. They were confused. Some were insulted. Many watched wide-eyed with a fresh imagination and new-found passion.
As time went on, the memory of Phantom Menace descended into darkness. It was hated, reviled, especially Jar Jar Binks. Why so much politics? Why so much racism? However, this wouldn’t be the end. Over two decades opinions changed and what’s left is a newfound appreciation for the first of the prequel trilogy…
The general displeasure in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy is long and well-documented. To delve into why Jar Jar and young Anakin are so despised would be akin to beating a dead bantha over the head. It’s all been documented before. However, the phrase hindsight is often 20/20 seems appropriate in this manner as some folks start to look back on the prequel trilogy with newfound admiration. After all, at least these films fall into the scoop of George Lucas’ vision as opposed to the schlock that Disney is putting out, right? That seems to be the general consensus whether it is merited or not (I’m inclined to lean to the latter, though the new films are far from perfect). However, it does we should not dwell on the past. Instead, I’d like to look at the merits of The Phantom Menace and how it holds up two decades later.
First, we must look at the cast. Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Natalie Portman. Performances aside, this is an all-star roster before the likes of the Avengers films came along, at least when looked at through modern eyes. At the time, these were veritable nobodies, with only Neeson and Jackson sporting multiple good credits to their names, albeit in mostly niche genre films. All would go on from this as bonafide a-listers. Add in some returning names like McDiarmid, Daniels, Baker, and Oz to add some familiarity and, voila’, you’ve got yourself a cast devoted to bringing these characters to life. For any that may mention Anakin actor Jake Lloyd’s whininess, might I direct your attention to “But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” as delivered by Mark Hamill? Cut the kid some slack. Being whiny is apparently a Skywalker trait.
Now let’s talk story. Despite the politics, the narrative structure is actually quite rich. We get the classic adventure that the originals were known for as the heroes venture from one place to another in a very fluid, natural way. It doesn’t seem like go from here to here just because we need a variety in location as we see in the new sequel trilogy. The mechanics for why the characters are going to where they are going flows naturally, albeit with flawed logic. That’s an intentional character flaw though and not the result of lazy writing. Further, the mechanics for long-term storytelling and the foundation to build to what we see in the originals is also admirable. When one truly examines the scope and cunning of Palpatine’s plan – particularly his hand in manifesting Anakin in the first place – it adds an additional level of depth to his character in the originals…and sequels?
Galactic politics have always been present in Star Wars but here they are given the spotlight. Whereas the original had an almost lawlessness and disdain for the governing body, that was a reflection of the time it was produced. The same is true as we get to see the Galactic Republic here reflect a prosperous time, much as was true when the film was released. The rest of the prequels would reflect the political climate as well with the descent from prosperity to war. Here’s the thing though. This is what grounds Star Wars, makes it relatable and relevant. It makes the world Lucas created real, livable, and parabolic.
This also gave us the first instance of war in Star Wars. Previously we had seen battles and skirmishes but very little beyond that. The other scenes we had seen previously lacked scope, which was not inherently bad. It made the battles more intimate, rebels vs Empire, good vs evil. War is not so simple however and there is inherent evil in the motivations for either side, which we see here, in retrospect. But what makes it exciting is how Lucas was once again on the front lines of the technology of the time. These battle scenes are truly epic in scope and action. We finally get to see what the Jedi were like in their heyday and it is truly exhilarating to experience. We will see CGI take over in the following prequels but there is still a reliance of practical effects on display here that once more ground the film.
But the final feather in the cap for this epic feature is John Williams’ amazing score. Personally, I find his Attack of the Clones score to be his true Star Wars masterpiece, however the themes he creates are as iconic and recognizable as “Binary Sunset” and “Imperial March.” “Duel of the Fates” remains nothing less than an epic anthem and one of the greatest pieces of orchestration for the last twenty-five years. The motifs Williams carries over from the originals also lend a sense of familiarity and connective tissue between the two trilogies which also helps reaffirm that this is one continuous story to be told. It isn’t three, six or nine disjointed and vastly different stories tied together with similar characters and themes, but rather one full epic saga telling the Skywalker story from beginning to end. And for that beginning, The Phantom Menace deserves its place in the Star Wars canon and marks a fantastic start to the greatest saga ever!
What do you think of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!