Second Union

Second Union

FRANCHISE REWIND: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, 1999 (Liam Neeson) 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm

“There’s always a bigger fish.”

A while ago, I had purchased a cassette of John Williams’ score for The Empire Strikes Back, but this wasn’t the standard extended version of the score with the Darth Vader picture on the cover. This was a specially commissioned recording released by Varese Sarabande, conducted by Sidney Sax and Charles Gerhardt, and produced by George Korngold. It’s a great score, and I recommend you seek it out. Each piece is its own separate track, disconnected from the whole like individual songs.

The reason I bring this up is because, in his liner notes, John Williams lets it slip that George Lucas would release the first movie in his second trilogy of Star Wars films in 1987. The record was released in the mid-’80s, so perhaps that was the plan. It didn’t happen, as you know. In 1987, Lucas was producing Willow, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and The Land Before Time. Lucas wouldn’t get around to The Phantom Menace for another ten years. He swore he’d never direct another film, but he broke his promise.

There’s a decent documentary about the making of The Phantom Menace on the DVD and Blu-ray. His process seems to involve nothing more than a pencil and notebook paper. He gets his people together and breaks down the script. He puts index cards on bulletin boards. He has a lot of space in Marin County, so he can leave his many offices in various states of disarray, and his wife (or family) won’t complain. I envy George. I have nothing but a kitchen to work out of, and I have to keep my kitchen clean.

Lucas had indicated that the stories would take place years before the events of the first Star Wars movie, meaning we would see the origin of Anakin Skywalker and the resulting conflict with Obi-Wan Kenobi which would put him on the path to the “Dark Side of the Force.” Enough has been written about Phantom Menace (as with most of these Franchise Rewind reviews) so I thought I’d get into some personal specifics. First off, I’ve always enjoyed this film.

I think it’s a good (capable) prequel, and much of it is derived from a few throwaway lines in the first Star Wars movie when old Ben Kenobi tells Luke about the Jedi and the Old Republic. He also lies to him, but we don’t talk about that. There are a couple of problems. The kid for starters; Anakin, played by Jake Lloyd. He’s much too young. He should’ve been Padme Amidala’s (Natalie Portman) peer, but Lucas opted for the cute little boy to provide a kind of ironic juxtaposition to the monster he would ultimately become.

Jar-Jar is another problem, yes, but I don’t get as angry about him as most fans. I don’t even care that his character might be seen as “racially insensitive.” This story takes place a long time ago in a galaxy … eh, you know. The story tends to shut down completely or get mired in senate meetings and such. The editorial flow of the first movie is missing from The Phantom Menace. We have big action sequences and then … nothing … and more big action sequences and then … nothing.

Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson) and his padawan, Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) arrive to mediate a dispute between the Trade Federation and the planet Naboo. Realizing they’ve walked into a trap, they escape to the planet and meet up with a Gungan, Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), and they eventually rescue Queen Amidala (and her staff) and book it to the nearest planet on the outer rim, Tattooine, where they hook up with Anakin Skywalker, who turns out to be a genius repairman and pod racer.

Anakin wins a pod race, grubstake, and freedom for himself (but not his poor mother, Shmi, played by Pernilla August) and Qui-Gon adopts the boy because he senses that the Force is strong with him. He takes Anakin to the Jedi Council (headed by Yoda) with the intent of training him. The Council turns him down, interestingly based on subjective interpretation. It seems to me if the boy is dangerous, he should be watched and shepherded and not discarded by a bunch of uptight prudes, but it’s none of my business.

Anakin, as written, is a cardboard cut-out of a Mary Sue; perfect in every way, excellent at what he does, and a left-field hero in the third act who unknowingly blows up the Federation droid control ship and saves Naboo. Qui-Gon is killed by the awesome (and criminally underutilized) Darth Maul, played by Ray Parks and Obi-Wan kills Maul, and the remaining Jedi are left to scratch their heads wondering who Maul’s master is. I know who it is! I know who it is!

I don’t have much else to say except in the days after my daughter was born, I had to take care of her through the night, so I would often put on the DVD of this movie, lay her on the couch, and watch the movie. It did a good job of putting her to sleep.

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