Plot The peaceful planet of Naboo is under threat from the manipulating forces of evil at work in the Trade Federation of a galaxy far, far away. The Queen of Naboo, the powerful Jedi knights and a young boy with intimidating promise endeavour to defend justice and the forces of good.
Around the 20-minute mark of Jon Shenk’s miraculous documentary, The Beginning, about the making of Episode I, the true villain of The Phantom Menace makes a cameo appearance. You can glimpse the shadowy figure lurking in the background as Ewan McGregor gets his Padawan buzz cut. His name is Jett Lucas, adopted son of George, and seasoned Star Wars apologists should take note of his most insidious characteristic - he is around the same age as Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker.
A great many fluffed details derailed the most anticipated movie of all time, but the miscalculation that undermined the entire prequel enterprise was George Lucas’ insistence that when we first meet the future Darth Vader he is a little boy who cries when he is separated from his mother. Lucas risked his legacy based on a father’s simple conviction that bad things can happen to good people and a divorcee’s guilt that children from single parent families are more vulnerable than most.
To make his point painfully obvious Lucas arranges the action of his first movie since his separation from Marcia Lucas in 1983 around the discovery of a miracle child by a doomed father figure and the eventual passing of this boy from his natural mother to an adoptive parent who is perhaps not yet mature enough to master the task alone. But to accommodate this one action Lucas is forced to postpone every other key event to a later movie – how could a nine-year old participate in the Clone Wars? – and effectively botches up his starting position. It is a mistake from which the prequels never recover.
Things get off to a cold start with the much parodied credit crawl. Where Episode IV goes for the in media res jugular – “It is a time of civil war!” - problems in Episode I are not quite so pressing. Events are “alarming” perhaps, there’s certainly plenty of “turmoil” and we all know “taxation” is a thorny issue but the context is clear: like Anakin, this conflict still has some growing up to do. The menace is still phantom.
An inexcusably lazy establishing shot - the Jedi shuttle cruises past the camera - and lethargic opening sequence hardly help pick up the pace. In A New Hope’s famous opening salvo the bad guys fire first and ask questions later, in The Phantom Menace the Jedi are ushered into a meeting room while the semi-bad guys go into video conference with Darth Sidious about whether an invasion of Naboo is legal or not.
This arse-numbing inactivity recurs throughout The Phantom Menace: because the battles lines are not yet drawn and sides are still being taken there is always much explaining to be done, characters are forever having update meetings or being introduced to one another. The plot machinery lumbers through the gears, hampered further by the strange declarative dialogue and by an apparent disinterest in making these scenes visually interesting.
Critics complained that Lucas had got yet worse at writing for humans in the twenty-two years since Star Wars, in fact it is simply that, beyond Alec Guinness talking about the force, the plot of A New Hope requires no exposition - The Phantom Menace on the other hand is all explanation, much of it, like the midichlorians, unwanted and unnecessary. (To be fair, Lucas waited a generation before spoiling his enigmatic myth with background material, the Wachowski’s jumped that particular shark in film two.)
And yet there is still much pleasure to be had watching our full-blown Jedi guides in action. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan quickly discover that things are mercifully worse than the credit crawl predicted, a robot invasion force is being unpacked, Naboo is under actual threat. Sadly, we never actually see any of the massacres that are apparently taking place, instead we land somewhere that looks suspiciously like the woods near Leavesden and meet one of the galaxy’s more annoying comedy sidekicks (although not as annoying as fans frantically searching for a scapegoat would have you believe). After all, this film has at its hero a small boy – it cannot visit the dark 12A places.
What Lucas later confessed was a “jazz riff” of a plot wafts our heroes to the holy ground of Tatooine, all sense of urgency dissipated. In A New Hope Luke and Ben, heading the other way, are already too late: Alderaan is gone. From that moment it is a race against time (collapsed to provide greater unity) and a struggle just to stay alive. In The Phantom Menace our heroes are waylaid by a faulty engine. Hmm. The fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance and Qui-Gon prefers to gamble with a junk-yard dealer than twat him with his lightsaber.
Tatooine turns out to be a total bust. They leave Obi-Wan behind, Amidala pretends to be Padme for no good reason, Anakin whines a lot, there’s some mumbo jumbo about a mystical birth and at absolutely no point does Han Solo turn up. Bastard. This is a section so flabby that even the electrifying pod race goes on for one lap too long.
But hell, we meet Vader Jnr. and he says goodbye to his mother, which is the only essential action of the movie, so it’s almost worth the trip.
Despite the unspeakable Yoda puppet, more endless politicking and some iffy CGI, the arrival on Coruscant and the subsequent battle of Naboo provide most of the lasting excuses for forgiving The Phantom Menace. At last there are new worlds to explore, new creatures to encounter and new wrinkles to the Star Wars myth. On Coruscant we are free to marvel at the work of Doug Chiang’s design department - every bit the equal of the original trilogy. And during the saga’s very best lightsaber battle John Williams adds another classic theme (Duel Of The Fates) to his masterpiece. The final act is a mess of conflicting ideas and we are forced to root for a tweenage space pilot but you certainly can’t fault it for pace.
Perhaps best of all, we have the death of Qui-Gon. Liam Neeson has manfully carried the action on his shoulders throughout (the subsequent prequels desperately miss him) and his final words – “Obi-Wan, promise... Promise me you will train the boy” - provide the movie with its only real weight.
Lucas probably imagined that Anakin’s goodbye would be the real heartbreaker but he couldn’t write it and Jake Lloyd couldn’t act it. The irony is, we don’t need it. Given where he is destined to end up, Anakin doesn’t need to be innocence personified when we meet him. Indeed, we are told that the kid is too old to be trained and that the Jedi council fear him, facts that are utterly lost on an audience who see only a bowl-headed brat.
And yet if only Lucas could have stopped thinking like a fearful father and acted more like the fearless myth-maker of old, there’s a quick fix that would change everything. Imagine for a moment a street urchin orphaned by the Clone Wars, a scoundrel scamming to survive, already using the force without even realising it. Imagine a cocky fifteen-year old robbing Qui-Gonn, competing with Obi-Wan and flirting with Padme. Imagine, for a second, an Anakin invested with the spirit of a young Han Solo…
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Released: 01 October 2001
A two-disc set as ambitious as it is stylish. To travel to the 50 chapter options on the first disc, you are randomly sent off to the menus based around Tatooine, Coruscant and Naboo. Here the options are niftily embedded within the Episode I universe (projected by R2-D2, placed within Gungan shields). And if you dither over a menu, you get humorous nudges (a scolding Watto) to hurry you up.
The Disc One commentary option features Lucas, producer Rick McCallum, editor/sound designer Ben Burtt and ILM supervisors Dennis Muren, Scott Squires, John Knoll and Rob Coleman, stitched together into a smooth narrative rather than separate commentaries.
Eschewing the idle banter option, we get a serious discussion of the craft behind the film. The highlight of the second disc is a one-hour observational documentary, The Beginning, a candid look at the entire history of the film’s production. Rather than the usual puff-piece, this is a fascinating, access-all-areas look, including great moments depicting Lucas arguing down the effects budget and involved in a tense, post-rough-cut discussion.
There are also seven deleted scenes (all with finished special effects), that you can watch individually, or within a decent documentary about editing which includes contributions from Francis Coppola and Philip Kaufman as well as Lucasfilmers. Of the scenes themselves, there is great additional Podrace stuff (fun on the grid and an extended lap two sequence), a ‘comedy’ scene with the Gungan submarine pulled over a waterfall, and some so-so stuff on Tatooine — look out for Anakin scuffling with a young Greedo.
Elsewhere, Disc Two is also full of shorter, eye-catching gubbins: a great animatics section, the barnstorming Duel Of The Fates video, 12 web documentaries, five solid ‘making of’ featurettes, trailers, manifold TV spots, a visual gallery and a redundant promo for Lucasarts game, Starfighter.
That said, still a fantastic, groundbreaking package.
Verdict The most disappointing film of all time it remains, but with the galaxy of hype now far, far away Menace seems much less of a public menace than it did in the summer of 1999. Alongside the obvious action highs, the ability to consume the saga in a single sitting has created a veritable feast for those fans still keen to mine for irony, with Palpatine’s Shakespearean scheming particularly delectable here.
Its no where near as rich as the original trilogy, but it is still Star Wars and is still one of the best sci-fi films ever made. To, The Film Man, Watch this one with the subtitles on and you'll see that the story is not all over the place. In fact every thing in the story makes sense and there are no plot holes what so ever. ... More
I subscribe to the theory that this film's - and its two successors' - TRUE critical undoing was its Hegelian dialectic / problem-reaction-solution (read David Icke) throughline. Lucas - often dubbed an Illuminati insider by the aforementioned Icke - is implying via entertainment how things are done under the tag 'Democracy'.
Its critics are too repetitious for my liking; too eager for others to follow suit. What's it to them if others like it, hmm...? ... More
What more to say about this movie that a million enraged fans haven't already said...This should be in the dictionary as the definition of the word "disappointing". Remember that behind-the-scenes footage of all those fans buzzing with excitement sprinting into the premiere screening? My heart goes out to those poor souls.
At least this prequel has some actual sets, mind, and John Williams' music is still amazing. That lightsaber duel is still pretty cool too...that's all I got. ... More
Total Film referred to it as better than Return of the Jedi, that film had its flaws but it was just as great as The Empire Strikes Back in my opinion, and it did great of continuing the story that episode left off, these prequels are just the fat around them waiting to be cut off. I dont consider episode 1 as good or a relation (blood relative) as the originals though, however as a modern sci-fi film its pretty good and thats just not good enough for a Star Wars movie. ... More
I think they should of kept Darth Maul alive until episode 2 ! He was A good Sith.
If Lucas did that then you would've had Anikan and Obi-Wan vs Count Dookoo And Darth Maul or Darth Maul and Dookoo vs yoda ! Way better ! ... More
I watched this one again today, on blu-ray:
I remember that back in 1999 I went all the way to London with my brother to go see the newest Star Wars film, the first one I was ever going to see on the big screen! It was released there four months before it was released over here but we wanted to see it so bad that we didn`t want to wait for that, so we went to see it in the big Odeon cinema on Leicester Square in the middle of London.
I remember that I was really impressed by all of it.
In h... More
Fantastic visuals, but they cannot put you of the silly plot filled with plot holes, no character development, Jake Loyds terrible performence as Anikan and of course the horrific creation that is Jar Jar Binks. ... More
Over time ive come to actually really like The Phantom Menace. I loved it when it was released but tossed it aside after AOTC came out which i thought was a vastly superior movie. Now that ive had a few years to digest the prequels, i probably find that i watch TPM the most out of all of them. AOTC is pretty much unwatchable and i find ROTS just gets worse everytime i watch it. TPM has a certain charm about it that keeps me coming back. I love how Obi Wan was brought forward as a Padawan as his... More
Having read the Star Wars feature, I fancied rewatching the Star Wars films. Thought I'd watch them chronologically as far as the story is concerned (as opposed to order they were made). So I started at the very beginning. (I'm reliably informed, it's a very good place to start.)
First of all, yes the film is flawed. Jake Lloyd is the worst casting (Jett Lucas is a close second in Sith). His acting is so wooden that I'd turn to the Dark Side just to shut the little kid up. Mind you, it doe... More
I feel that the new three films should not of been made. The Star Wars orginal trigolgy were clearly amazing and the news ones did'nt meet that same high starderd and there for let the series of films down. ... More
It did star the prequels best baddie in Darth Maul. A character that should have been utilised more in the following two instead of introducing a new villian for each episode.
Also has Duel of the Fates a great addition to the Williams catalogue.
It's better than AOTC, however so far behind the origional trilogy. ... More
Darth Maul.Such a good charcter, makes the film cool. I think Liam Neeson puts in a pretty good performance as well. I have to admit that being 10 when it was released i thought it was pretty damn good, even now its alright. ... More