It's pretty much an article of faith that everybody hates the prequels, right? Especially if you grew up in the '70s and '80s, and saw George Lucas's Holy Trilogy in theaters, as I did. Those were amazing, life-changing movies that forever redefined the relationship between cinematic storytelling and special effects, and earned their creator the status of a visionary genius. Nearly ten years after Revenge of the Sith's release, the general consensus is that the prequels were at best technologically proficient, but marred by bad writing and acting, and buoyed by insane amounts of hype and expectations that could never possibly be matched. Right. Right?
I humbly disagree. While I think Attack of the Clones is a trainwreck, with a nonstarter romance, a convoluted conspiracy plot, and instantly dated CGI, I've always thought that Sith was a pretty decent Star Wars flick, full of imagery reminiscent of the original films. But I've always been the most fond of the movie that engenders the deepest hatred, Star Wars — Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the one that hardcore fans would most readily banish from continuity altogether. That's not to say that I think it's secretly great, or that it's my favorite in the series. It's neither, and I will address its flaws. That said, after watching the movie for the first time in a number of years, I think it stands up pretty well as both an entry in the Star Wars saga and as an example of big screen space opera.
Nivenus has already written a fantastic and exhaustive defense of what works in the prequels. I'm going to try to avoid overlapping with the points he raised by focusing almost exclusively on Menace, emphasizing my subjective experience of the movie, both on the big screen in 1999 and on Blu-Ray a couple of nights ago.
So, while we're focused on subjectivity, let's get what really doesn't work out of the way, with a few dissenting parenthetical remarks.
- Jake Lloyd's performance is wooden, and Anakin's lines are among the worst in a film not renowned for sparkling dialogue. (But that's a fault that lies primarily with Lucas's documentarian, hands-off approach to actors, whom he allows to run on autopilot with minimal direction. For a charismatic performer like Ford, or trained professionals like Guinness, McDiarmid, McGregor, or Neeson, this is not a problem. For a nine-year-old kid with only a handful of appearances to his credit, it's a recipe for disaster, and the tremendous fallout Lloyd suffered in both his personal and professional life as a result of the film was cruel and undeserved.)
- Jar Jar remains embarrassing, both as a comic relief figure and a borderline Stepin Fetchit racist stereotype from a '40s movie — ditto the Yellow Peril Federation heavies and the Middle Eastern caricature Watto. (But on subsequent viewings it's clear that Lucas wanted Jar Jar to be a new kind of Star Wars archetype, a Holy Fool whose misadventures and physical comedy hijinks carry a deeper metaphysical significance, bridging the gap between the Gungans and the Naboo, and serving to reveal the non-coincidental nature of the Force. He was clearly intended to have a larger part in the other two films, but in an ironic twist, audience backlash forced him into the role of the saga's unofficial archvillain, as the representative whose deciding vote grants Palpatine emergency war powers in Episode II.)
- The Force is demystified through pseudoscientific technobabble — the midi-chlorians — and mystified by more overtly religious iconography — the prophecy of a messianic "Chosen One" who will bring about an eschatological Balance of the Force. (But then again, the Force was always vaguely defined. In the original Star Wars and Empire, it's just an "energy field" that expands one's awareness, and grants some garden variety psionic abilities, like telepathy and telekinesis. In Jedi, the Emperor can shoot lightning bolts out of his hands like a Marvel supervillain, and it's increasingly presented as more of a hereditary ability, as opposed to the universal cosmic consciousness that all living beings are a part of in the original movie. Like a lot of superpowers, the Force's operating parameters often get rewritten depending on the needs of the story.)
When I sat down to watch Phantom Menace the other night, I had all of these things in mind as the opening crawl went up. (Trade routes, baby!) And yeah, they bugged me. (As did the waste of great actors like Brian Blessed and Terence Stamp, as did the Play-Doh-like textures of some of the CGI characters, as did the final space battle, which felt more like Independence Day than a Star Wars movie). Even so, I found myself having a good time in spite of those shortcomings. And I remembered the stuff that I unabashedly enjoyed about the movie in the theater fifteen years ago, before the Dark Times. Before the Backlash. Such as:
Unlike the original Star Wars movies, which tended to be set on one or two frontier worlds in the middle of nowhere, Phantom Menace takes place all over the galaxy. We see Tatooine again (albeit a somewhat more gentrified neighborhood than Mos Eisley, where even the slave quarters are nicer than the average studio apartment on Earth), but we also see Naboo and Coruscant — multicultural, cosmopolitan worlds with distinct personalities, full of huge cities teeming with different types of citizens and creatures. This is a major sticking point with some fans, who feel that Star Wars should feature nothing but barren outposts with only a handful of non-native inhabitants. But Lucas did have big urban areas in the original movies, like Mos Eisley and Cloud City, and originally planned to visit the Imperial capital world, then called Had Abbadon, in Return of the Jedi. We would have seen more cities in those movies, if they hadn't been too expensive to to depict with pre-digital technology.
I also appreciate the fact that, while there are definitive visual callbacks to the older movies, Lucas and his designers — particularly Doug Chiang, whose contributions to the series are often overlooked — didn't try to make it look like the world of the original trilogy. No Millennium Falcon cameos, no pseudo-TIE Fighters or X-Wings, but lots of shiny vehicles with swoopy Art Deco curves influenced by Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strips. The fact that they didn't try to recreate the look of classic Star Wars results in the sense of an earlier, more innocent, Belle Époque era. Unlike the fan service-heavy novels from the '90s, it truly feels like...
Apart from the first Star Wars movie, the OT is surprisingly light on backstory. In the first movie, we learn that there was a Republic before the Empire, and that it was protected by the Jedi, who were betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader around the time of something called the Clone Wars. (The timetable presented in the movie is actually pretty fuzzy; it's not clear if the Republic fell at the same time as the Jedi. In fact, in Alan Dean Foster's ghostwritten 1976 novelization, Obi-Wan seems to be saying that Palpatine's rule and the Fall of the Republic took place decades or centuries in the past, while the destruction of the Jedi was a much more recent event engineered by Imperial bureaucrats with Vader's help.) We never hear the Republic mentioned ever again in either sequel. The Empire are the bad guys; the Rebel Alliance are the good guys. As the series' focus shifted from a larger civil war to the Oedipal struggle between Luke and Vader, the origins of the Alliance became obscured. One of the more telling and actually worthwhile additions to the Special Editions was the extended coda montage in Jedi, which shows all the freedom-loving peoples of the galaxy celebrating the Empire's downfall (including what in the 2004 version appears to be one Mr. Binks of Naboo). Perhaps Lucas realized that by narrowing his focus to Anakin's redemption, he'd obscured the fact that the war was being fought to free billions of individuals around the galaxy from tyranny and potential genocide by Death Star. Since the new movies would feature a larger universe, it was important to remind the audience that there were lots of other planets out there.
Nivenus covered the worldbuilding aspect in great detail, so I'll try not to retread that territory here. Needless to say, in Phantom Menace, there is the sense of vast political, economic, cultural, and religious/philosophical frameworks beyond the simple good/bad dichotomy of the OT. And while Lucas's universe is not as complex as the works of classic science fiction that clearly influenced it, like Asimov's Foundation or Herbert's Dune, it's not the hopeless muddle that some fans claim it to be. The Senate, under the Supreme Chancellor, administers the civilized parts of the Republic, with the Jedi acting as a kind of independent judiciary/police; the Trade Federation, while not part of the government, is authorized to manage the flow of commerce through the major systems. That's not too hard to understand from the dialogue, but again, it's not as simple as "guys in white armor who sound like FM rock deejays = BAD, Harrison Ford = GOOD" formulation that even your bored grandma could understand. (After Sith's release in 2005, Neal Stephenson wrote rather eloquently about how the reception of popular franchises had changed since the release of the original Star Wars.)
Many viewers and fans treated the Senate scenes as unnecessarily talky and exposition-laden, comparing them to C-SPAN footage; they also found the reference to the taxation of trade routes in the opening crawl to be underwhelming and mundane. Lucas clearly wanted to tell a different kind of Star Wars story than the ones audiences were used to, or remembered. For a late-'90s summer blockbuster, there's a surprising paucity of extended action scenes, besides the big finale (which was intricate enough to win the approval of the Onion AV Club's Keith Phipps). The characters haggle over used starship parts, sit down to meals, have discussions about the state of the Republic or Jedi philosophy. There was a little bit of this early on in A New Hope, in which we got a sense of what life was like for ordinary people who weren't directly involved with the war, like Luke's foster family (or the American Graffiti-style scenes at Tosche Station with Luke's buddies that got cut for time). But a lot of Menace is devoted to depicting normal everyday activities. Even the pod race is less about suspense than the minute-to-minute technical narrative of how Anakin keeps his jalopy in motion (something that lifelong car enthusiast Lucas likely relished). In the theaters, it got a little tedious, but on video, it's kind of fascinating (and it's also one of the music-free showcases for Ben Burtt's sound collages that have long been a Star Wars tradition).
Lucas wanted to bring back viewers into his universe, into parts they hadn't seen before, and he did so with deliberately paced sequences rather than wall-to-wall action. It's a little strange that these expository scenes are seen as boring or sluggish today, when they've since become a staple of a certain kind of genre movie, from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to any number of superhero films. Of course, most of those movies have heroes you can empathize with, whether it's Frodo Baggins or Tony Stark. Menace is short on truly sympathetic characters — but it's not completely devoid of them.
When discussing the new characters in the Star Wars prequels, most people tend to focus on the least-inspiring additions: Jar Jar, or Anakin. With that in mind, though, neither is the central protagonist of Phantom Menace; that's Qui-Gon Jinn, who, as portrayed by Liam Neeson, is arguably Lucas's most complex and interesting character. (Also, he looks kinda like the Dude.)
Many fans dismiss Qui-Gon as an uninspired Ben Kenobi surrogate, doomed to meet the business end of a red lightsaber before the final reel. But by pairing him with a younger Obi-Wan, Lucas makes it clear from the start that they are nothing alike. Where his apprentice is conservative, status-conscious, and by-the-book (qualities that will become even more pronounced in the sequels), Qui-Gon is unorthodox, passionate, and guided by impulse, with a mystical bent that runs counter to the shrewd reasoning of the Jedi Council. He is idealistic, but levelheaded and earthy (there's more than a hint of attraction between him and Shmi), and driven as much by pragmatic concerns as matters of cosmic import. The central tragedy of the prequel trilogy is that Qui-Gon is precisely the father figure that Anakin needs, as opposed to the uptight, controlling Obi-Wan or the evil Palpatine/Sidious. (Parenthood is an unacknowledged theme of Phantom Menace, as the divorced Lucas was raising two kids on his own during much of the movie's development and production.) Neeson's presence gives the movie a sense of gravitas and dignity that's sorely missing from the other two prequels.
The other characters don't come off entirely badly either. McGregor's Obi-Wan doesn't have much to do, but he does a fine job of channeling Alec Guinness's voice and mannerisms. Portman's Padme is remembered mostly for her outré Mardi Gras Indian costumes, but her character has a lot more to do in Menace than the sequels, in which she becomes more of a wet blanket who can't resist Anakin's creepy, stalker-y charms. Here, she's freed from the burdens of being a romantic interest, and comes across as a brave, clever, and fairly savvy young woman who is ultimately undone by her loyalty to her homeworld and her blind trust in McDiarmid's Palpatine. And McDiarmid's mellifluous Palpatine is genuinely unsettling, with goofy dad hair and a kind smile. He's much more intimidating here than he was as the cackling hobgoblin in fright makeup in Jedi (or Sith, for that matter). The duality of the Naboo characters — Padme/Amidala, Palpatine/Sidious, hints at a deeper, complex pattern, which is The Phantom Menace's most intriguing aspect, and the prequels' biggest disappointment...
There's an interesting theme going through Phantom Menace that keeps being repeated, in both the characters and the storyline, of duality and symbiosis. Early on, Obi-Wan tells Boss Nass that the Gungans and Naboo form "a symbiont circle," whose actions and fates are inextricably intertwined. Likewise, Qui-Gon tells Anakin that the midi-chlorians are in symbiosis with their hosts, "living together for mutual advantage." Other characters exist in a similar state of duality. Both Padme and Palpatine have secret identities that they use to protect their political goals. The Jedi and the Sith, likewise, seem to be at odds with each other, though in many respects they seem complementary rather than completely opposed to each other. We hear about the regular Force that Yoda and Obi-Wan taught Luke about, but Qui-Gon emphasizes a "Living Force" that seems to have more to do with moment-to-moment corporeal existence. Qui-Gon's heterodox philosophy suggests a bridge between the stoic philosophy of the Jedi and the nihilistic self-interest of the Sith, though it's also implied that the Chosen One will bring the two sides of the Force back into balance — as if the Sith and the Jedi were not inimical enemies, but shattered aspects of a broken whole. Yes, just like in that movie. (My pet theory, for a long time, was that Naboo was the secret Sith homeworld, where the original followers of the Force went their separate ways — hence the imagery of division and duality associated with the planet. And who built all those weird statues in the Gungans' "holy place"?)
Needless to say, hardly any of this ever comes up in the other prequels, and it has virtually nothing to do with the original movies. Maybe Lucas got bored with the idea and figured Star Wars fans wanted more conventional stories, so he figured he'd give them the Clone Wars movie they always wanted, with proto-stormtroopers and Fake Boba Fett. The big problem with introducing all of those ideas was that eventually he'd have to explain why neither Obi-Wan or Yoda mentions the Chosen One or the Balance if they were so important, or why Qui-Gon never shows up on Dagobah to tell Luke about the Living Force. The result is that Phantom Menace is unique among the Star Wars series in that there are hints of a bigger, stranger, more mystical story that will (probably) never happen. It's like an uncarved Zen block of potentiality, and often I find myself trying to watch it as a newcomer, through untrained, cynicism-free eyes, without any preconceptions or baggage. I have to wonder if Lucas ever really considered doing Episode VII on his own, and if he ever meant to get around to the story of cosmic reconciliation and equilibrium his earlier space opera implied. But I doubt that J.J. Abrams or Disney will seek the Balance of the Force anytime soon. There's too much money in those trade routes. To paraphrase the all-but-forgotten Captain Panaka, they won't risk kissing that franchise goodbye anytime soon.