Weekend 1 of 52: The Phantom Menace

As we start our year-long wait for The Force Awakens, I’ve decided to take a look back at everything in the Star Wars canon to date. This weekend: The Phantom Menace. Post your own thoughts on the movie and join the discussion in the comments section below.

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_ver2What can be said about The Phantom Menace that hasn’t been said before? Love it or hate it, it represents a singular, defining moment in pop culture history, where Star Wars seemed to be everywhere you looked as the world awaited the next chapter in the saga after a 16 year hiatus. The hype was inescapable, and the result of that hype was (at the time) the second highest grossing movie of all time.

Watching it now, some 15 years after its initial release, is a decidedly odd experience. Stripped of the burden of (arguably unmet) expectations, The Phantom Menace remains an ambitious experiment, and we likely won’t see another film like it again. While its flaws cannot reasonably be denied, neither can its strengths. It’s quite possibly the most bizarre big budget special effects extravaganza ever to conquer the box office so resoundingly.

What it is absolutely not is a big studio by-the-numbers blockbuster. George Lucas’ strengths and weaknesses as an auteur are laid bare for all to see, and his eccentricities shine through, for better or worse. No film this oddball with such a budget would be greenlit by a studio today, which in some sense makes it a worthy successor to the original Star Wars.

More than any other Star Wars feature, this film is filled to the brim with whimsy, as if it took the weirdness of the cantina scene from Star Wars: A New Hope and blew it out to literally galactic proportions. The first act in particular is breathtaking, moving from the Trade Federation ship with its strange Neimoidians and hapless battledroids to the richly-detailed forest of Naboo, then to the depths of the underwater city of Otoh Gunga and the sea creatures of the planet core, and finally onto the classical beauty of the city of Theed. It’s a tour de force of Lucas’ unique imagination, and it should be held up as a shining example of Lucas at his best as a conjurer of strange worlds. The Phantom Menace, like Star Wars: A New Hope before it, confirms Lucas as the true spiritual successor to film pioneer Georges Méliès.

Whimsy and imagination are not the only ingredients of a great film, however. First and foremost, you need real, believable conflict. Unlike the cantina scene in the earlier film, there’s no sense of danger in this incarnation of Star Wars. The Neimoidians, who are essentially bureaucrats concerned mostly with heading off the taxation of trade routes, are cowardly buffoons, and their droid army is flimsy and comical—not exactly the stuff of great drama. Meanwhile, the Roger Rabbit-esque heroic alien sidekick Jar Jar Binks is over-animated and attention-getting in the worst possible way, stealing every scene he’s in with cartoonish movements and antics that only undercut the sense of danger. These two factors combine to create a universe where the threat faced by the heroes seems about as credible as that found in the average episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In that sense, as you’d expect from the follow-up to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace does feel appropriately like a throwback to mid-’80s entertainment—just not the good kind.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) aboard the Trade Federation battleship

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) aboard the Trade Federation battleship

That lack of a sense of danger to our heroes perpetuates into the second act, as the film slows down to a crawl and the cracks begin to really show. The antagonists fade into the background, and all we’re left with is the story of Anakin, a happy-go-lucky nine year old slave who seems to live a fairly carefree existence on the desert world of Tatooine. The plot is contrived in such a way as to make sure that Anakin must take part in the Boonta Eve Podrace in order for the story to move forward, resulting in the compulsory high-speed chase sequence. But this setpiece (which is designed as a cross between the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi and a NASCAR event) falls flat for no other reason than the fact that the stakes feel so low. If Anakin wins the race, our heroes will be able to ensure that Naboo is protected from an invasion by ineffectual bureaucrats, while Anakin himself will be freed from his hellish life of cleaning fans and building podracers. Why should the audience care at this point, given that it all seems fairly trifling anyway?

Once Darth Maul appears and our heroes leave Tatooine, things finally pick up again. I’d argue that the Tatooine segment is, in fact, the weakest part of the movie—take that out and suddenly the film seems not that bad after all. In fact, the Coruscant scenes really help to get things back on track, thanks largely to a stellar performance by Ian McDiarmid as the oily Senator Palpatine. Ewan McGregor, whose Obi-Wan Kenobi was sidelined on Tatooine, is also back in frame, and together with Liam Neeson, the two Jedi, along with the Senator all keep the film from floating into the aether.

It’s the third act back on Naboo that suitably summarises the film’s problems, however. Firstly, we have Queen Amidala revealing her true identity as Padme, leaving the audience confused as to who they had been watching for the last 100 minutes. Secondly, we have Jar Jar versus the battledroids, which again plays our as broad humour rather than a serious battle, undercutting any tension. Thirdly, we have Anakin’s joyride in a Naboo fighter which results in a completely accidental resolution to the entire conflict. And finally we have the only good part of the climax, as Obi-Wan and Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn duel against Maul, though we really know very little about all three characters.

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Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) advises Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) in the Republic Senate

It’s a similar dynamic which runs throughout the whole film. Padme is an active participant yet remains an enigma; Jar Jar reduces the universe to a cartoon and makes it seem less dangerous than it otherwise should; Anakin always seems to succeed because the plot demands it; and the two Jedi are largely passive observers rather than fully developed characters.

These are largely flaws with the script as-is. At heart, Lucas is neither a writer nor director—he’s an editor, a storyteller and a man obsessed with ideas: ideas regarding politics, technology, biology, and psychology—especially the exploration of Jungian thought as filtered through Joseph Campbell. The theme of symbiosis, which is woven throughout the film, is the key here: man and machine, Jedi and Sith, the Naboo and the Gungans, cells and midi-chlorians—all are symbiotic relationships, and all ultimately symbolise the need to transcend dichotomies. That is the pathway to Jung’s archetype of the Self.

Had Lucas successfully chosen a better writer to turn his ideas into a solid, well-honed screenplay, we might instead be discussing the best Star Wars film ever made. Instead we are left with a film that is nothing if not one of the greatest examples of big budget special effects used in the service of a singular artistic vision.

As it stands, I’d rather live in a world where The Phantom Menace exists than in one where it doesn’t.

What are your thoughts? Add your own comments below.

Next week: Attack of the Clones

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