The much maligned ‘Star Wars’ prequels have had so much negative ink through the years that it has become tiresome. No matter what many fans and critics may desire, these movies are still an indelible part of the history of the sci-fi fantasy saga. The anticipation for Episode I in the years and months leading up to its release in May of 1999 cannot be overstated. No matter what can be said about the final product, there is no denying that writer/director George Lucas changed the Hollywood landscape once again, creating worlds and characters mixing computer graphics with live action. It may not have always been seamless, but the sequences in ‘Phantom Menace’ that work still hold up to repeat viewing, the long-con subterfuge of the Emperor is seeded effectively, and the John Williams score remains iconic.
The film opens as any SW Episode, with the blaring horns and iconic story crawl. The confusing exposition (taxation and blockades) does end on a familiar, but anticipated note – the entrance of the Jedi Knights in their heyday, an era alluded to in the original film. These aren’t ronin samurai hiding at the far reaches of the galaxy, but emissaries on a mission of negotiation with the greedy (and yes, wildly stereotypic) Trade Federation. Liam Neeson’s sage Jedi Master Qui Gon-Jin, accompanied by his Padawan apprentice Obi Wan (a young Ewan McGregor workshopping his version of a young Alec Guiness), immediately but calmly realize that treachery is afoot, thus setting in motion this film’s key elements of adventure and as with all SW episodes, key events in the history of this galaxy far, far away.
The structure and formula of a Star Wars movie is as indelible as its myriad of human, alien, and robotic characters. They’re snapshots of pivotal moments in the life and times of this fantasy universe. These movies work because audiences believe they are just dropping in to witness these moments of importance. This is also the reason the films have given birth to a myriad of content in various mediums (novels, comics, video games, streaming series) that play in the sandbox in mainly interesting, sometimes predictable ways. Every film in the main saga has a final third that cuts between various battles and interactions, some more interesting than others.
Episode I is no exception. After a bit of a shambling start where aspects of the new tech being displayed tend to be overly jarring, the film settles in when this troop of disparate individuals land on the familiar desert planet of Tatooine. It’s here we meet the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, as an extremely force sensitive child slave. The pod-race sequence, considered somewhat indulgent by critics, is still a riveting display of Lucas’s greatest affinities, car culture and trailblazing tech. The sound and visual design for these racers and their vehicles are unique and inspired, the race itself a three-lap masterclass in action, even when there’s no way the outcome could be in question. Once the story finds the players all back to where it started on Naboo, Lucas intercuts four(!) different action sequences for the final act. Some end up more iconic than others.
The Darth Maul/Qui Gon/Obi Wan lightsaber battle, with Williams’ iconic “Duel of the Fates” blaring in the foreground, is one of the greatest in the series. It signaled an acrobatic, balletic twist on the medieval sword fighting of the original trilogy, allowing the actors to display a greater physicality in their force mastery. The other portions of the finale may not be as exciting or iconic, but there is a majesty to the plodding progression of the droid armies over fields of the bright green meadows of Naboo. The Gungan battle, as silly as it is in parts, nevertheless presages the all-CGI battles yet to come in big budget screen spectacles over the next two decades, for better or worse. Even despite the ridiculous aspect of a nine-year-old pilot quipping annoyingly, the Naboo fighter assault on the Trade Federation ships orbiting the planet feature sleek designs and a smooth take on the dogfights in space so essential to the franchise. The less said about Queen Amidala and co.’s bait and switch in the throne room the better, but at least the marbled set design is gorgeous.
‘Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace’, like any massively anticipated intellectual property could never have pleased everyone. The biggest obstacle to its success was ironically that its creator, George Lucas, failed to fully grasp fans’ decades-long assimilation of his creation. Unlike the OT, which further spurred the collective imagination, Episode I realized Lucas’ solitary imagination, resulting in an end product that could have used a better editor, yet nonetheless has some truly awesome ambition . . .