The Phantom Menace at 10: The Film

Previously: The Hype

Overall, seeing The Phantom Menace for the first time was a favorable, if somewhat overwhelming, experience. It makes such a difference to see a film on opening day with fellow fans. There was a collective rush as the theater lights dimmed and "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . . ." appeared on the big screen. When we bought tickets the week before, we had the foresight to get them for the 10:30 am and the 1:30 pm showings. This way, after seeing it once, we could walk out of the theater, get back in line, and see it again. I eventually saw it 6 times before heading off to Iowa in early July. It probably would have been 7 had I thought better of going to Wild Wild West. Nevertheless, this still stands as my personal record for most times seeing one movie in the theater.

You'd be surprised how closely riding a mission bike resembles podracing sometimes.

So how has The Phantom Menace held up over the last 10 years? About as well as the Emperor's skin some might say. Now, I hadn't watched the film since preparing for the release of Revenge of the Sith 4 years ago, so it was with some trepidation that I pulled the DVD off the shelf to get reacquainted. In recent years, it has become commonplace to uniformly bash George Lucas and whole of the Prequel Trilogy, but that is not my intention. I'm going to try to look at the film objectively, if that is even really possible.

The Good

The Jedi
It wasn't until I was reading the opening crawl for the first time, "....the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict...." that it really hit me—I was finally getting to witness the Jedi in their heyday. The first 10 minutes of the film bring Star Wars back with a bang as Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) infiltrate a Trade Federation battleship and school Nute Gunray on how the Jedi go about negotiating. Any time this duo shares the screen the movie gets noticeably better.

The Phantom Menace is noteworthy for being the first time Liam Neeson took on the role of a wise mentor.

Darth Maul
One thing is for sure, George Lucas knows how to craft a memorable villain, and Darth Maul is a devilish doozie. His menacing appearance and sparse dialogue really adds to his mystique, and being played by martial arts expert Ray Park certainly doesn't hurt either. Unfortunately, George (we're on a first name basis) also has a habit of killing off said villains too abruptly (also see Boba Fett). For the many who considered the relentless Sith Lord to be the best part of Episode I, his premature demise led to 3 years of futile speculation as to whether he might return with a mechanical lower body, or if he had been cloned, or...

The Lightsaber Duel
All at once, the epic three-way lightsaber duel at the climax of The Phantom Menace firmly established a unique fighting style for the Jedi, raised the bar for the later episodes, and made the modest clash of Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and Darth Vader (David Prowse) in A New Hope look downright decrepit by comparison. Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard stages the action like an elaborate ballet—if only the real ballet involved twirling swordplay, sucker punches, force throws, and gratuitous clenching of rotted teeth.

Also inspired by the Episode I duel is the infamous Clash of the Lightsabers Card Game, which Kristen has sworn to never play again due to the strain it puts on our marriage.

John Williams
The Phantom Menace soundtrack came out a few weeks before the film, and the revealing track list ("16. The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon's Funeral") confirmed what I had already guessed from watching the theatrical trailer too many times. That flub aside, John Williams brought his "A" game for his first Star Wars score in 17 years. I love the gentle foreshadowing of the Imperial March within Anakin's otherwise innocent theme, and the choral/brass battle of "Duel of the Fates" will always take me back to 1999.

The all-digital characters of the Star Wars Prequels are hit-and-miss to be sure, but Rob Coleman and his team of animators really knocked it out of the park with the shrewd Mos Espa junk dealer. Watto's character design takes full advantage of the limitless potential of digital technology with his craggy teeth, elephant-like snout, and flapping wings that keep him hovering above the ground. Plus, his used car persona and gruff voice greatly increase his quotability factor.

"What, do you think you're some kind of Jedi, wavin' your hand around like that?"

The Bad

Young Anakin Skywalker
In regards to "Little Ani," it is unclear where the fault lies. Was Jake Lloyd just a mediocre child actor, or did George not give him adequate direction? A little of both, mesa thinks. Anakin's half-baked contribution to the climax certainly wasn't Lloyd's fault though. The chosen one had already demonstrated superior piloting skills and instincts in the podrace, so what's the deal with having him end up in space by chance and ("Oops!") accidentally destroy the main reactor of the Droid Control Ship? That's just bad writing.

Jar Jar & the Gungans
You knew this one was coming. By now, there isn't much left to add concerning the epic miscalculation that is Jar Jar Binks. Without fail, every time I watch the film, I find myself wishing Qui-Gon would just whip out his lightsaber and end our suffering when he first runs into the hapless Gungan in the swamps of Naboo. Having said that, I'm fairly certain that Jar Jar would have been much more tolerable with a less grating voice and fewer slapstick antics. Almost as baffling is Boss Nass and his compulsion to violently jiggle his cheeks after finishing a sentence.

You can do it, Qui-Gon. It is better that one Gungan should perish than that an entire fanbase should dwindle and perish in unbelief. (Yes, I just went there.)

Juvenile Dialogue
"Are you brain dead? Ex-squeeze me! Yousa in big doodoo dis time. Are you an angel? How wude. Yippee! I don't care what galaxy you're from, that's gotta hurt!" Star Wars dialogue has always been a bit on the clunky side, but certain kiddie-friendly lines in The Phantom Menace make "But I was going into the Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!" sound like Shakespeare. Of course, this was all just a warm up for the "romantic" exchanges in Attack of the Clones.

The Just Plain Bizarre

The Trade Federation
From my very first viewing of The Phantom Menace, there was something a little off about Nute Gunray and his Neimoidian cohorts. They are probably the Star Wars characters that I mock the most, thanks to their poorly articulated mouths and Chinese stereotype accents. Their sudden demise at the hands of the newly christened Darth Vader was one of the highlights of Episode III (for all the wrong reasons).

"What? What did you say?"

Midichlorians & Anakin's Conception
Ever since Qui-Gon's first mention of Midichlorians in Episode I, fans have hotly debated George's decision to give the spiritual concept of the force a blatantly scientific explanation. However, an early draft of the Episode III script featured an Empire-esque twist that could have gone a long way to redeem this plot point. In this version, Chancellor Palpatine plainly admits that he manipulated the Midichlorians to create Anakin, thus making him Anakin's father (from a certain point of view). However, the final film leaves this detail much more ambiguous, making the inclusion of the Midichlorians all the more head-scratching.

Puppet Yoda
When developing Episode I, the thought process must have been, "Okay, Yoda is 30 years younger, we should make him look a little different... some crazy eyes and sideburns should do it." Did they forget that Yoda is nearly 900 years old? Do the last 30 years of whatever species Yoda is really make that big of a difference in his overall appearance? Rumor has it that the puppet is slated to be replaced with a CG version in a future DVD/Blu-ray release to better match Episodes II and III. Thank the maker.

Is there a CG Yoda in Episode I's future?

So there you have it—plenty of good, bad, and bizarre stuff to be had from the beginning of the Star Wars saga, and I feel like I have left a lot out. Does anyone else have an Episode I opinion they're just dying to to share?


Ben said...

My thoughts on your thoughts:

Darth Maul: I agree the silence helps the character. To me, the baddies in II and III never really measured up to Darth Maul. I mean, Count Dooku? Old man with a fecal-related surname. General Grevious? Scaredy-cat half-robot with asthma.

The Lightsaber Duel: Hands-down the best part of the movie. It almost makes up for all the other shortcomings. Again, the only problem is the demise of Darth Maul.

John Williams: Duel of the Fates is the anthem for the prequels, and I agree, will always remind me of going to see them. Plus, it's easy to hum along to! Dun-dun duddle-un!

Juvenile Dialogue: I agree on all counts. Perhaps George's kids were big Full House fans, and since he admittedly was trying to make a more kid-friendly movie, figured everyone talks like Stephanie Judith Tanner.

Midichlorians and Anakin's Conception: A certain point of view? Seriously, I don't understand the need for midichlorians, nor do I like the idea that "There was no father"...um, what are you saying George? I wish they would have kept the "Emperor's Your Daddy" twist, it would have justified things a bit.

Puppet Yoda: Awful. They didn't even have to make him CGI, just make him look like Yoda, not his long lost third-cousin.

Krissy said...

I agree with Ben that Darth Maul was much cooler and/or scarier than Count Dooku ever could have been. General Grievous could've been a lot cooler... but he wasn't.

My biggest grievance with this movie is that Anakin is such a little weeny (yes, I said it) and Padme looks exactly the same age in this movie and the next two. Why would a girl like that ever go for a little boy like that? Clearly, she has issues that aren't fully addressed in the films.

Now, thanks to Episode I Monopoly, Sebulba is my favorite because I can move my pewter token around the board and imitate his voice... badly.

Jessica said...

Ok SO glad I read this after coming back from Disneyland. As you know Star Tours NEVER gets old. I am not sure if you know, but they have jedi training for kids under 12 (i took pics so you can have hopes for eddie some day) Anyway, as soon as you wrote about the duel of the fates I started to wistle it! amazing how that happens.

Anyway.. you'll be happy to know (or perhaps care less haha) when coming out of the ride they had a shirt in the shop that said "judge me by size do you?" I laughed and turned it around to see if there was anything on the other side and sure enough was yoda's back with micky ears standing just short of what is required height for a ride! Of course I had to buy it being a shorty and all.