Directed by George Lucas
Produced by Rick McCallum
Written by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson
Music by John Williams
Cinematography David Tattersall
Edited by Paul Martin Smith
Production company Lucasfilm Ltd.
Distributed by 20th Century Fox[Note 1]
Release dates May 19, 1999
Running time 133 minutes
Country United States
Budget $115 million
Box office $1.027 billion
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is widely considered one of the most disappointing films ever made. It was met with searing hype upon its release in 1999. But reactions were mixed, praising the action and visuals, but criticizing the script, characters and plot. I was not even a year old when The Phantom Menace came out. I did not even know it was not the first Star Wars movie made until I was a bit older. I remember the original trilogy and The Phantom Menace as having always existed, so I have never been surprised by what any of the films had to offer, and I liked all of the movies when I was little. I never jumped on the hate bandwagon that so many have by now. Not having any sort of bias or nostalgia for the original trilogy allows me to see the first prequel through a very different lens than most.
Like the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace begins with an opening title crawl set to the film’s iconic John Williams theme. The 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm logos also help the film feel very similar to the original trilogy. Here’s what the title crawl says…
“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict....”
Well, that is not like the original trilogy. The title scrawls in the original trilogy set up important action sequences, like the fight against the Death Star, the Rebels on Hoth, and Luke and friends heading off to save Han from Jabba the Hutt. But this title scrawl discusses taxes, trade routes, blockades and a Galactic Republic. This immediately sets up the pace for the movie as more politically charged than its action-fueled predecessors. This change is not jarring for me, as I have always known Star Wars as a political franchise as well as an action packed one, so this does not bother me in the slightest. Small children may be confused by what it means, though. So the film begins.
The first shot is of a ship, floating silently through space, much like the opening shots of all the films in the original trilogy. This time it is the Republic Cruiser. We see the captains of the ship, and a couple hooded men ask to board the Trade Federation ship immediately. They are greeted by a grey faced alien, eventually revealed to be the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, Nute Gunray. He warmly allows them to board the Trade Federation ship. The hooded men are established as ambassadors, and it can easily be inferred that these are the jedi referred to in the title crawl. We get our first glimpse of battle droids; they make no impact yet.
The Jedi are greeted by a droid who looks like a silver C-3PO. TC-14 leads them to a conference room, and assures them that they will be met with shortly. This entire opening sequence is incredibly well done, keeping you wondering what will happen when the Jedi meet with the Trade Federation.
The jedi lower their hoods, revealing Jedi Master Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi. Viewers had waited 22 years to see the original Jedi masters at the height of the power, so this is very exciting. It is quite nice also to have Obi Wan Kenobi’s first line be the iconic Star Wars classic “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Before we can continue, we must discuss what I consider character develpment. People criticize the character development in The Phantom Menace, but I disagree. As I see it, there are three levels of character development. A character can have all or none, and still be a decent character. The first level is how a character looks, speaks and acts. Star Wars has always excelled in this department; there is a reason there are action figures and backstories have been created for even the most minor of background characters in the series. The second level is the character’s personality; their likes, dislikes, and their relationships with other characters. The third level is the most uncommon: how a character grows or changes throughout the course of a film’s narrative. Star Wars has never excelled too much in this area. Han Solo is one character that immediately comes to mind as having all three of these levels of development. There is a reason he is considered one of the greatest characters ever.
Qui Gon Jinn certainly has the first level down. He is portrayed by Liam Neeson, an actor with a very distinctive face and distinctive voice. His hair required LEGO to create an entirely new piece. Obi Wan does not make as much of an impact initially, but knowing he is a younger version of the beloved character from the original trilogy makes up for that for now. Neither has any layers added beyond that up to this point
It is then revealed that the Trade Federation aliens are in league with the evil Darth Sidious, immediately recognizable from the Original Trilogy. People complain that the central plot point of Queen Amidala having to sign a treaty to make the Trade Federation’s invasion legal makes no sense, and it doesn’t make sense immediately. But one can see in this scene where Sidious tells Gunray to land his troops on Naboo that the Trade Federation don’t mean to cause trouble. They don’t really know who they are working with (the Sith!) and they really are just cowards looking for a powerful person like Sidious to rally behind. They don’t feel comfortable invading Naboo; they only do it on the orders of the Sith, who want control of the valuable planet. They don’t want to get arrested, which is why they try to get the queen to sign the treaty.
If them working with Sidious didn’t reveal it, the Trade Federation are obviously not friends now as they blow up the Jedi’s ship so they cannot escape. They try to gas them and send battle droids to kill them. The battle droids prove no issue for the Jedi to deal with after escaping the gas room, so they then send Droidekas to finally finish them off. Qui Gon must cut through the blast doors before they arrive so that they can escape. I must say, the shots of Qui Gon cutting through the blast doors is badass; made all the more so with “The Throne Room” from the original trilogy playing in the background. This is a great example of what is so great about the prequel trilogy; it expands the universe and shows what is possible beyond what we saw in episodes IV, V and VI.
Before he cuts through, the Droidekas arrive, rolling and when they stop, shields go up. These things make much more of an impact on the viewer than the battle droids. Those droids will,of course, go on to be comic relief. The Jedi retreat from the droidekas up the ventilation shafts, and see the droid army the Trade Federation will invade with. They stow away on an MTT, hoping to warn the people of Naboo.
Overall, this sequence on the Trade Federation battleship is a great way to start the film. It introduces several main players (Obi Wan, Qui Gon, Nute Gunray), gets in several good action beats, recalls to the original trilogy (the score, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) and even a line of mine that is a favorite from the entire saga: “You were right about one thing, master. The negotiations were short.”
After the Jedi leave, we are introduced to another main character via a transmission from the planet Naboo: Queen Amidala. The first thing you notice about the Queen is how f*****g gorgeous her costume is. Obviously they have spared no expense in the technical aspects of the film. I mean, just look at it. It’s a disgrace this did not get nominated for the costume Oscar based on this one outfit alone. The colors, the regality of it, the headdress, everything falls in place to create a look that is instantly iconic. The conversation and scene itself don’t say much though. People criticize her strange voice as well, but it’s supposed to be a disguise.
We then head down to the main planet of Naboo. People criticize the CGI used in the prequels, but I think Naboo looks perfectly organic and realistic, even if it is not real. They never would have been able to create that level of fantasy on location. It looks very different from any of the planets we saw in the original trilogy. There is greenery, waterfalls and a Frank Lloyd Wright flair to the architecture.
Entering the Senate Chamber, the already great world building evident on Naboo expands even more. Each Senator has a distinct look; you really get the feeling that there is a story happening with each one offscreen. The senator in the hologram, Palpatine, reports to the senate that the Jedi never arrived to meet with the Trade Federation. Obviously they are trying to cover up the fact that they tried to kill them and they escaped. The hologram breaks up, and my favorite senator, Sio Bibble, claims that the only reason a communication breakup would happen is if they were invaded. The Trade Federation has broken the law, but the Senate is unable to arrest their captors, as their small military is no match for the battle droids.
It is poorly established that the Trade Federation and the Sith are not the same thing. This causes many to be confused as to why the Trade Federation needs the treaty signed. The Trade Federation was fine to deal with before they got caught up in the dealings of the Sith. They are being forced to act totally out of character, and the government on Naboo is so used to peace, now that they have been invaded militarily, they are unable to restrain it.
The Trade Federation Army begins to cut down the Naboo forests with the droid MTTs and the Jedi escape onto the surface. Then we meet the saga’s most beloved character, Jar Jar Binks.
Jar Jar Binks is overhated. People complain that he is simply a piece of overly juvenile potty humor, and while his brand of humor is not particularly sophisticated, it is not racist, nor is there any potty humor beyond the infamous shot where he steps in poo. That scene is such throwaway, I’m not sure why it is even in the movie. But it’s not like Jar Jar farts a lot or burps. He is merely silly, and it’s not like C-3PO has a point beyond comic relief. Yoda and the Ewoks are cute too (the Ewoks are overhated as well). He does not significantly help or hurt the movie, but I believe he does add a sense of endearment to the proceedings.
When Qui Gon saves Jar Jar’s life, he tags along hoping to repay the life debt that is commanded by his gods. The way Jar Jar speaks is quite silly; but I don’t understand why people hate his way of talking more than they hate Yoda’s, which is just as silly. I don’t think Jamaicans say “Mooie mooie!” His ears do look a bit like dreads, but the resemblance between him and blacks end there.
Jar Jar tells Qui Gon and Obi Wan to come to the hidden city of the Gungans for shelter while the droids pass through.He then hesitates, as he has been banished by the Bosses, and will be greatly punished. But as the droids look just as likely to take their lives, they decide it is worth the risk. They head to the shore, and Jar Jar tells them that the city is underwater. Cool, we’ve never been to an underwater city in Star Wars before! The Jedi for some reason have Aqualung devices ready on hand, and they head to the depths.
The next sequence is pure movie magic. The beautiful John Williams score swells as the Jedi and Jar Jar swim to the beautiful city of Otoh Gunga. This place really looks like nothing else that has ever been seen before in the Star Wars universe, and it’s breathtaking. The city is covered in large air bubbles and lit up like Chirstmas. This is possibly one of my favorite parts of the entire saga.
This is truly great world building, but as soon as they reach the city, Jar Jar is arrested. They go to meet the bosses. The Jedi ask the Gungans to help them fight the droids and warn the Naboo, but they refuse to help. Through some badass Jedi mind tricks, Qui Gon attains transport through the planet core, and persuades the gungans to allow Jar Jar to accompany him in order to pay off his life debt. I guess this scene gives context for why Jar Jar continues to accompany them for the remainder of the movie, but I just really love Boss Nass. He is so damn cute when he does this thing.
The scene that follows is a really fun action sequence that I think everyone forgets when they dismiss this movie. The fish chase through the planet’s core is filled with many fun quips, and “there is always a bigger fish” is a great quote.
You also find out more about why Jar Jar was banished. He was banished for clumsily crashing the bosses’ heyblibber. The culture and laws of the Gungans are really interesting to learn about. The different alien species are really part of what puts Star Wars a hair above most other franchises.
The film cuts away to the Neimoidians conversing with Sidious, nothing of note is really said, though it is established that Sidious thinks the Jedi are dead. The Gungan sub loses power, and then it comes back on, only to reveal the biggest fish monster yet. This is a great cap off to a really fun action sequence (that is by far more memorable than anything in the Force Awakens).
In the capital city, the droids have finally rached the palace and capture the queen. The Jedi arrive too late, and the Neimoidians tell the Senators that the Queen will sign a treaty legalizing their invasion to avoid arrest. Most people when watching this movie don’t understand that the Neimoidians and the Trade Federation are terrorizing the Naboo, they are not within the law, and the Jedi will arrest them if they find out what they are doing. They must overwhelm the Queen and get her to sign it before law enforcement from Coruscant arrives. This is made more difficult as the Trade Federation has knocked out all of their communications. The Jedi and the Queen must leave for Coruscant themselves.
They leave on the Queen’s royal starship, The ship is really quite a beauty; I have an ornament of it for my Christmas tree, and it sparkles beautifully among the lights. On the way out of the planet, they are ambushed by the Trade Federation's blockade. R2-D2 is among the astromech droids on the starship, and he is able to go and fix the broken shield generator when all of the other droids get blasted away. This is a great act of heroism that believably incorporates R2 into the story of The Phantom Menace, unlike C3PO, which certainly feels a bit more forced.
The heroes are forced to land for repairs on the planet of Tatooine, which is apparently controlled by the Hutts. This is a piece of information which adds meaning to the original trilogy. Obviously Jabba was a big bad, but the fact that he actually controls all of Tatooine, a planet so important to the saga as a whole, helps to paint it as this seedy, unpleasant place to live that is necessary to motivate Luke and Anakin’s deep longing to leave the place.
Nute Gunray reports to Sidious that the ship escaped the blockade, and they are incapable of finding it. Sidious gives us our first glance at Darth Maul, who immediately makes an impact on the viewer. He does not have much to say, but he is certainly just as cool looking as Darth Vader. If he hadn’t been killed, they easily could have given him the development that Vader received in Episodes V and VI. The Clone Wars corrected this by giving him bionic legs, but in the movies, unfortunately Darth Maul is simply really cool, and not as great as he could have been if we spent more time with him.
R2 is recognized by the Queen for his bravery, and she orders her handmaiden Padme to tend to him. She meets Jar Jar, and he remarks how amazing it is that he is where he is when the day started so normal. It's a nice character moment for Jar Jar. There are still no poop or fart jokes yet in the movie, and so far Jar Jar has been nothing but charming. He will soon step in poo infamously, but I still cannot fathom the hatred this character has inflamed.
The Jedi must get a new hyperdrive generator from the people of Tatooine. For some reason, the group that sets out is Qui Gon, Jar Jar and R2. Captain Panaka sees this is not the best idea for there to be only one competent person with them, and sends the handmaiden Padme The head to Mos Eisley, Jar Jar infamously steps in goo (wow, it might not actually be poo!), and the group heads to a small junk shop owned by Watto.
Watto is another cool character, who is definitely not a Jewish stereotype. He has a big nose and is stingy, but beyond that there is no reason to think he is racist. He says he has the part they need, and the first quarter of the film ends with him calling his assistant.
NEXT TIME (Young Anakin, the podrace!)