Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) *
For sixteen years now, the Star Wars prequels have been less movies than cheap punchlines for lazy wannabe wits. Impressively, given the franchise’s exalted place in the pop-culture firmament, the transformation began while the first of the bunch, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, was still in theaters. That said, that very combination of age and persistent low regard makes those movies ripe for rediscovery, especially with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens upon us. This review marks the beginning of my own efforts in that direction, and what I’ve found is that all the haters, the naysayers, and the knee-jerk spoilsports were right all along. If anything, the less spittle-flecked among them substantially understated the case with regard to The Phantom Menace specifically. In full accordance with its reputation, Star Wars, Episode I is awful in ways that beggar both description and understanding. It is an affront against the memory of its predecessors, against the trust of all the talented people who put their abilities at George Lucas’s disposal to create it, and most of all against the taste and intelligence of the audience.
And believe it or not, you can anticipate as much just from the opening crawl. Here— let me show you:
Compare that to this:
It isn’t just that the crawl to the first Star Wars makes the situation sound infinitely more exciting and dramatic. The crucial defect of the Phantom Menace crawl is that it doesn’t actually tell you anything. What is the Trade Federation? Are they part of the Galactic Republic, or a foreign power? And are these taxes that have their space panties in such a bunch levied by the Republic, or simply by Naboo? If the taxes are the Republic’s, then what the fuck good is the blockade of a “small planet” supposed to accomplish? And if they’re Naboo’s, why is this the Republic’s problem? In short, what is supposed to be at stake here, and why should we care? The movie will be nearly three-quarters over before it even takes a stab at answering that question.
Anyway, the Jedi in question are Qui Gon Jin (Liam Neeson, from Krull and Battleship) and his apprentice, Obi Wan Kenobi (Nightwatch’s Ewan McGregor). They are to meet with the Trade Federation viceroy (a CGI eel-man with the voice of Silas Carson and the accent of Fu Manchu) and impress upon him how very displeased Chancellor Vallorum (Terence Stamp, from Alien Nation and Red Planet) is about the blockade. Both ambassadors expect the viceroy to fold like a cheap suit, especially since the whole Trade Federation fleet practically stinks of fear when they open their psychic Jedi emotional perception to it. And indeed the viceroy and his staff are rightly terrified of their powerful guests, but there’s someone else who frightens them even more. The real mastermind of the blockade is a shadowy figure called Darth Sidious (uncredited, but unmistakably Ian McDiarmid, who played the Emperor in Return of the Jedi). When the viceroy reports that Vallorum has sent Jedi Knights to force a settlement of the Naboo situation, Sidious orders him to accelerate the timetable of the operation by landing ground forces at once. As for the interfering Jedi, they must be killed immediately. Naturally that last part is easier said than done. Jin and Kenobi fight their way out of several deathtraps aboard the Trade Federation flagship, and ultimately escape by stowing away on one of the troop transports.
The one flaw with that method of reaching the planet’s surface is that it leaves Qui Gon and Obi Wan surrounded by the Trade Federation’s army. True, the soldiers are all remote-control droids, but that’s little consolation for the stowaways. Luckily, one of the locals finds himself in exactly the same fix when the troopships land, and he knows of a place where he and the offworlders could hide out for a bit. This helpful native is Jar Jar Binks (a cartoon Rastafarian frog voiced by Ahmed Best), one of a reclusive amphibious race called the Gungans; the hideout he proposes is Gunga City, the secret underwater capital of his people’s domain. The trouble is, Gungans like foreigners about as much as Ewoks do, and their ruler, Boss Nass (a cartoon Zulu frog voiced by Brian Blessed, from Flash Gordon and one of the many TV versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles), likes Jar Jar about as much as the audience is going to before this is all over. Nevertheless, a bit of psychic Jedi suggestion gets Qui Gon and Obi Wan sent on their way peacefully enough, with directions to the Naboo capital and Jar Jar as their guide.
One pointless parade of sea monsters later, the ambassadors arrive at the palace of Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman, of Mars Attacks!— except when she’s Keira Knightley, from King Arthur and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, instead) just in time to save her and her senior staff from capture. That reprieve will obviously be a short one if they stick around, however, so Qui Gon prevails upon the queen to leave the defense of her world in the hands of the grand vizier (Oliver Ford Davies) while she goes to Coruscant, capital city-planet of the Republic, to make her case against the Trade Federation before the next session of the Senate. The royal space yacht may not have been designed with blockade-running in mind, but it’s got a skilled pilot and a valiant and efficient group of droids to make emergency repairs. The latter must do most of their work under heavy fire from the blockade fleet (in a remarkably precise recapitulation of Silent Running’s “slaloming the rings of Saturn” scene) leaving only one of them intact by the time the yacht breaks through the cordon of Trade Federation warships. We’ve met that one survivor before, as it happens; it’s a plucky little machine called R2-D2 (still Kenny Baker). There’s a limit to what even R2-D2 can do on the fly, however, so the refugees will have to seek a port beyond Federation reach where they can make permanent repairs. They find such a place in the gangster-dominated desert world of Tatooine.
Before we get too deep into this latest detour, allow me to remind you all of the urgency of Queen Amidala’s situation— not because I think you need it, but because George Lucas sure as fuck did. The dissipation of this movie’s momentum begins (or rather, begins anew— the Gunga city interlude and its aftermath already wasted a fair amount of time, after all) when Qui Gon, Jar Jar, and a handmaiden of the Queen’s by the name of Padme (also Natalie Portman— which totally isn’t a plot point in the making; nope, not at all) go shopping for spaceship parts, and discover that their money’s no good on Tatooine. Normally that would be only a temporary setback for someone who can instantly hypnotize people into wanting whatever he wants them to want, but Watto (a flappy-winged, hook-nosed, Yiddish-accented cartoon voiced by Andy Secombe), the one junk dealer who has what they’re looking for, is Jewish— excuse me, Toydarian— and Jews— excuse me, Toydarians— are immune to the Jedi mind-whammy where money is concerned. In order to raise the needed cash, Qui Gon is forced into a convoluted scheme that involves entering one of Watto’s slaves in what amounts to a jet-propelled soapbox derby, and gambling on his victory with both Watto and the official track bookies. All the while that’s going on, Obi Wan back at the landing site takes call after call from Amidala’s vizier bemoaning the course of the war thus far. But none of the vizier’s entreaties can convince Lucas that the invasion of Naboo, and not the outcome of the pod race, is what’s really important here.
To be fair, there is just the hint of an excuse for some delay. The slave who’s going to be racing on Qui Gon’s behalf is a little boy by the name of Anakin (Jake Lloyd, who alone in all the world is justified in bitching about the Star Wars prequels despoiling his childhood). That’s Anakin as in Anakin Skywalker, as in the guy we’ve known for the past three films as Darth Vader. Qui Gon doesn’t need to see any of The Phantom Menace’s predecessors to know that the kid is pretty extraordinary, either. Despite his prepubescent age, Anakin has preternatural reflexes, abnormally acute perception of other people’s emotions, and a long-established knack for outguessing the future. He’s also crazy good with his hands, as evidenced by both his homemade racing pod and the protocol droid he’s inexplicably building to help his mother (Pernilla August) around the house. (Is that droid by any chance designated C-3PO? And is he by any chance played— or in this case, voiced— by Anthony Daniels? What do you think?) Then there’s the weird story the boy’s mother tells about her pregnancy being a spontaneous event, untriggered by the usual means. Most importantly, when Qui Gon has Obi Wan test a sample of Anakin’s blood, ostensibly to see if he’s had whatever immunizations are standard a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the child registers a midichlorian count of over 20,000. Not even Yoda (Frank Oz), oldest and most powerful of the living Jedi and head of the Jedi Council, has a midichlorian count that high. All in all, it’s enough to put Qui Gon in mind of the prophecy about the super-Jedi destined to bring balance to the Force.
Hang on— midichlorians? Jedi Jesus? What is all this? Well, midichlorians are symbiotic microorganisms that inhabit all living cells. In sufficient concentrations, they enable their hosts to interact with and to understand the will of the Force. In the Republic, midichlorian screenings for newborns are as normal as vaccinations, because they enable the Jedi Council to identify candidates for their order. And the prophecy… oh… oh my…
Sorry. I just felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of Star Wars fans cried out in dismay, and were suddenly silenced. You remember that lovely speech Yoda gave back in The Empire Strikes Back? “Life creates [the Force], makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we— not this crude matter!” Well forget about that, alright? Turns out the Force is just a symptom of a benign bacterial infection, and you can’t be a Jedi Knight unless you have a rare and special blood type. Also, there’s a prophecy about a Chosen One, ‘cause that was just about the only cliché that Lucas left untouched when he went mining all of international pop culture and mythology for ideas 22 years before. One quick question, though. We’re talking about Anakin Skywalker, right? The future Darth Vader? Not the most plausible Kwisatz Haderach, is he? So either Qui Gon is mistaken, virgin birth and midichlorians notwithstanding, or this is the bullshittiest Chosen One prophecy since the one in Willow.
Be that as it may, Anakin does eventually win his soapbox derby, Qui Gon does eventually get the money to pay Watto for the parts he needs, and the queen and her entourage are eventually able to proceed on their way to Coruscant. And thanks to his side bet with Watto, Qui Gon is even able to manumit Anakin and bring him along with an eye toward enrolling him in Jedi training. That side bet does not extend to the boy’s mom, however, and Qui Gon unaccountably comes down with a sudden attack of scruples about honoring his arrangements with people whom he already knows to be without honor of any kind. I’m sure that won’t come back to bite anybody on the ass a sequel or two down the road, right? Alas, all the dicking around on Tatooine has given one of Darth Sidious’s agents— a scary-looking guy by the name of Darth Maul (Ray Park, from Slayer and Hellbinders)— all the time he needs to find the refugees. Maul catches up the Jedi and their charges just as they’re about to lift off, and the latter get a rude awakening when he turns out to be a match for Qui Gon in a stand-up fight. Jin wisely doesn’t stick around to press the issue. Nevertheless, he’ll sure as hell be telling the Jedi Council about the encounter once he gets to Coruscant. The only thing that should be able to take on a Jedi like that is a Sith Lord (which is to say an anti-Jedi like Darth Vader), but there hasn’t been one of those seen in a thousand years.
While Qui Gon discusses Anakin and Darth Maul with the surprisingly smug and self-satisfied worthies of the Council, Amidala meets with Naboo’s representative in the galactic government, Senator Palpatine (also Ian McDiarmid— which is also not in any way significant; nope, not at all) for a crash course in space politics. Some such orientation is plainly necessary, because the people of Naboo have in their wisdom elected a naďve and ignorant fourteen-year-old girl to their highest planetary office, and she’s going to get eaten alive in the Senate chamber without someone to hold her hand. But sensible or not, the intervention of Senator Palpatine should fill you with trepidation— not because we all know he’s going to be the Emperor a generation hence, but because his arrival heralds this movie’s transformation into a broadcast of Sci-Fi C-Span. Thrill to the gripping parliamentary procedure! SEE! Motions proposed and tabled! Points of order raised and conceded! Exploratory committees called for and empanelled! When the most exciting thing to happen in the whole third act (out of four by my count) of a science-fantasy adventure epic is a vote of no confidence, you know something has gone badly awry. The target of that vote, in case you can somehow still bring yourself to care, is Chancellor Vallorum, who earns Amidala’s fury by rolling meekly over for the senator from the Trade Federation (who naturally denies that his army has invaded Naboo). In the aftermath, Senator Palpatine is elected chancellor to replace Vallorum, and at long last we start to see what the point of all this was. In his guise as Darth Sidious, Palpatine incited the attack on his own homeworld in the hope of provoking a crisis severe enough to elevate him to the highest post in the galactic legislature, and now that he’s got what he wanted, his erstwhile allies can twist in the wind for all he cares. There is, however, one piece of business that Sidious just can’t leave unfinished. Qui Gon Jin and Obi Wan Kenobi have been way too big a pain in his ass to be allowed to keep walking around, so Palpatine sees to it that Darth Maul is waiting for them when they accompany Amidala back home to help kick the Trade Federation off of her planet.
I want you to notice something about the revelation of Darth Sidious’s plan, because it’s functionally equivalent to the revelation of what Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace is even about. The whole thing is critically dependent upon the audience realizing that Sidious, Senator Palpatine, and the Emperor are all the same person. That’s a safe enough bet, of course, because there’s no way any remotely attentive viewer could fail to catch on. For one thing, it’s immediately obvious that the same actor plays all three roles. Furthermore, Darth Sidious dresses exactly like the Emperor, and Ian McDiarmid affects for Sidious the same scratchy, guttural voice we all remember from Return of the Jedi. Meanwhile, various Expanded Universe materials had long since established “Palpatine” as the Emperor’s name, even though it was never mentioned in any of the fully canonical Star Wars movies prior to this one. But now look at how Lucas treats the character’s guises here. Sidious invariably appears with his hood shrouding three quarters of his face in shadows. He isn’t listed in the credits, either, and as late as 2005, McDiarmid treated it as technically a spoiler when he referred in an interview to playing the prequel trilogy’s evil mastermind. Palpatine, on the other hand, is never shown behaving as anything other than a helpful father figure for Queen Amidala or an upstanding public servant. And the final scene before the obnoxious Gungan parade that serves as this movie’s analogue to the original’s medal ceremony has Yoda musing with fellow councilman Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, from RoboCop and 1408) over the mystery of the re-emergent Sith. To all indications, in other words, we’re not supposed to know the main villain’s identity! Yet if we didn’t, the entire story would be reduced to nonsense! I can’t recall ever seeing a movie so fundamentally divided against itself. Obviously the smart approach would have been to lay all the cards out on the table at the outset, and then play up the sense of overhanging doom as Amidala walks straight into Palpatine’s trap. That Lucas didn’t do that is an early manifestation of something that’s going to plague the entire trilogy, his apparent inability to remember that the story he’s telling this time out is a tragedy.
Ironically, a similar deception involving Queen Amidala, which has no bearing upon anything in the final assessment, is much more successful, even though it requires different actresses to play the same character as well as the same actress to play ostensibly different parts. The queen’s coterie of handmaidens aren’t there just to facilitate her frequent changes of costume. They also give Amidala a pool of similar-looking girls with whom to trade places in order to… well, honestly I’m still not sure what that was supposed to accomplish. Amidala never does anything as Padme that she couldn’t have done as herself, nor does she ever find herself in a situation where she benefits from having a decoy. Near as I can tell, the impersonation occurs solely so that Lucas can check another box on the Big Old List of Longstanding Fantasy Tropes— which is a shame, because the future romance between Amidala and Anakin that The Phantom Menace works so hard to set up could really have used a serious consideration of what happens when a slave and a queen fall for each other while the latter is posing as someone less exalted. And keeping the audience in the dark about it, too, is doubly pointless.
Mind you, further developing the Amidala-Anakin relationship probably wouldn’t have worked anyway, simply because Natalie Portman’s and Jake Lloyd’s ages were so mismatched. Even the mild and fleeting flirtation that does occur between them comes across as deeply creepy. This is a case where a dubious but defensible script idea was totally undone by inappropriate casting. Officially, Anakin is ten years old and Amidala fourteen, putting them at opposite ends of the age range in which people first start thinking about love and sex, but don’t yet understand much of anything about either. But Portman was sixteen when shooting began in June of 1997, and she looked more like eighteen or nineteen. Lloyd, on the other hand, was eight, and could easily have passed for seven or even a mature six. Putting them together as love interests is the grossest thing I’ve seen since The Sinful Dwarf. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been if they’d had anything even faintly resembling chemistry!
That brings me to something I honestly wish I didn’t have to talk about. Jake Lloyd has been eating shit for his performance here almost literally his whole life, and serving up yet another plateful in 2016 just feels gratuitous. But alas, he’s The Phantom Menace’s fatal central flaw, so there’s really no avoiding it. In a word, he’s abominable. Barely adequate to an elementary school holiday pageant, Lloyd is required in Star Wars, Episode I to portray the origin of one of cinema’s most iconic villains, with utterly predictable results. As bad as Lloyd is, though, I don’t blame him for a second. No, this is all on Lucas, especially when you consider that he and his casting department looked at something in excess of 3000 little boys in their search for the perfect Anakin. In fact, you can watch some of their screen tests in a making-of featurette called “Finding Anakin.” Incredibly, one of the finalists conveyed exactly the sort of smothered resentment and precocious world-weariness that you’d expect from a junk-dealer’s slave destined to grow up into the second-most evil man in the universe, yet they gave the part to Lloyd instead. The other kid was actually the right age, too!
The other reason I don’t want to rag on Lloyd too hard is that it’s not like the grownups do much better. Nowhere else will you see so many talented performers bungle their roles so inexcusably. Natalie Portman stole The Professional from Jean Reno and Gary Oldman at the same time, but here she’s so devoid of personality that it truly doesn’t matter whether it’s her or Keira Knightly buried under Amidala’s unwieldy gowns and kabuki makeup in any given scene. Liam Neeson gives nary a hint that he’s both a Serious Actortm and about five years away from becoming one of the biggest action stars in the business. Ewan McGregor had the right idea in rendering Obi Wan Kenobi as an Alec Guinness impression, but unfortunately his Guinness displays none of the original’s wry charm. Terence Stamp is barely in the movie at all, his few scenes utterly forgettable. And Brian Blessed doesn’t even get a chance to be loud properly! The only castmember with no cause for embarrassment is Ray Park, whose sole function is to look indescribably badass while selling the shit out of the movie’s two Hong Kong-ed up light saber battles. In his case and his alone, Lucas got what he was paying for.
Park’s second big fight scene is worth looking at closely, because it’s the only time The Phantom Menace almost achieves the kind of epic grandeur that Lucas was theoretically shooting for. It has great choreography, strong pacing, a nice wordless moment between Qui Gon and Darth Maul that uses contrasting body language to tell us everything we need to know about the difference between a Jedi and a Sith, and background music that almost merits a place in the roster of iconic Star Wars scoring cues. But it’s compromised by two flaws that it just can’t overcome. First, and more obviously, it plays concurrently with, and is thus constantly interrupted by, a battle between the Gungan army and the Trade Federation’s battle droids on one hand, and an attack by the Naboo against the blockade fleet on the other. That is, Lucas is aping Return of the Jedi’s long and layered climax without recognizing that he’d earned it last time by funneling three whole movies’ worth of expectations into it. The Phantom Menace hasn’t built up that kind of a relationship with its audience, so its three concurrent climaxes just get in each other’s way. The more serious problem with the Jedi-on-Sith smackdown is more subtle. Watched in isolation, it suggests the much better movie that everyone wanted The Phantom Menace to be, but in context it’s weirdly flat and uninvolving. That’s because even here at the end of the film, we don’t really know who these people are, or what they’re really fighting about.
Why not? Well, you can blame a lot of that on the comedy that constantly steals the limelight away from what we’re really here to see. The Phantom Menace somehow manages to be at once intolerably self-serious and unbearably laden with the crudest and most witless sort of humor. McGregor’s efforts at Guinnessesque quipping may fall so flat as to be recognizable only in retrospect, but no one could fail to notice that Anakin’s opponents in the pod race might as well be villains in Hanna-Barbera’s “The Wacky Races,” or that this hotly anticipated relaunch of the Star Wars franchise stoops all the way to fart and poop jokes. As that ought to suggest, The Phantom Menace was aimed at an even younger crowd than Return of the Jedi. In the abstract, there’s nothing wrong with that, but Return of the Jedi’s kiddie-isms were always overshadowed by sci-fi adventure. Here it’s the other way around, with the result that The Phantom Menace gets lost in the weeds for scenes at a time. And I’d completely forgotten how insistently Jar Jar Binks hogs this movie. Every time he wanders into a shot where he wasn’t previously visible, you can count on everything else crashing to a halt thanks to his clumsiness, cowardice, incomprehensible dialect, or childish dim-wittedness.
If that combination of nominally funny characteristics sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen at least one B-movie from the 30’s or 40’s featuring the likes of Mantan Moreland, Steppin Fetchit, or Willie “Sleep ‘n’ Eat” Best. Nor is Jar Jar the only character in The Phantom Menace who brings to mind that era’s reprehensible pop-culture portrayals of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. With their stilted delivery, nasal pronunciation, and obsession with protocol and propriety— to say nothing of their flowing robes and towering felt headdresses— the Trade Federation representatives are pure Yellow Peril. And everything about Watto save his blue skin and flappy little wings hearkens back to Jewish stereotypes that were already on the far fringes of acceptability circa 1935. Now technically you could defend this stuff on the grounds that Jar Jar Binks isn’t black (although the actor who voices him is), the Trade Federation guys aren’t Chinese, and Watto isn’t Jewish. But it looks racist as fuck just the same, in a way that I’ve seen nowhere else but Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream— and that’s a book that presents itself as an artifact from a parallel universe where Adolf Hitler was a highly regarded pulp sci-fi author instead of a megalomaniacal dictator! It’s like we’re seeing the bigotry of a fictional world, not in order to make any sort of point about its counterpart in ours, but in the same unthinking, offhand manner that characterizes real bigotry. Watching The Phantom Menace, I imagine an essay by the great Gungan culture critic Jam Bal Dwin taking the film industry of the Republic to task for its dismissive and demeaning portrayals of his people. In a way, I’m almost impressed. Humanity has been elaborating on the theme of prejudice since probably the day the Homo erecti from Down Yonder first noticed that the Homo erecti from Cross River had funny-shaped ears and ate bad-smelling food. To have invented a new way to be racist in 1999 was no mean trick. Mind you, I’m pretty sure that’s a part of the Star Wars legacy that we could all do without.