Star Wars Revisited 1: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

A long time ago… I discovered Star Wars. It would define my life. It’s time to rediscover it.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Fewer films were more hyped that 1999’s first new Star Wars film in 16 years.  It is a little insane to realize that it’s already been 9 years since the prequel trilogy ended. The adventure for this film began in 1998 with the release of the teaser trailer, arguably the most anticipated trailer in movie history.

Two Jedi Knights, Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi, are dispatched to defuse a situation where the powerful Trade Federation is blockading the planet Naboo over a dispute. Unknown to the Jedi, a Sith Lord, a long thought extinct offshoot of the Jedi, has been manipulating these events to start not only a blockade, but a full on invasion. We know that the Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, is in fact Senator Palpatine of Naboo. He is arranging these events to make himself a hero of this small beleaguered world. The ultimate aim is to win enough support to unseat the leader of the Republic and become the new Supreme Chancellor.

The Jedi are immediately ambushed and the invasion begins. They make their way down to the planet, meet a local Gungan called Jar Jar Binks and rescue Queen Amidala, leader of Naboo from the Battle Droid army of the Federation. They manage to escape, but their ship is damaged. They land on the planet named Tatooine to find the parts necessary to make it to Coruscant- capital of the Republic. There they meet a young slave named Anakin Skywalker, who is unusually strong with the force. Anakin races in a Pod-race, a sort of space race car, to win the parts as well as his freedom. He wins, and they leave Tatooine just as Darth Maul, Palpatine’s apprentice tracks them down. They escape and arrive at Coruscant.

Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council to seek training, but is denied due to questions about being too old, and a clouded future forseen for him. The queen tries to get support for her resistance against the Federation,  but without avail. She returns to Naboo to take back her home with the Jedi and young Anakin. Back on Naboo, they organize the Gungans into an army and launch 3 attacks. The Gungans take on the droid army, the starpilots fly to take out the Federation control ship- to shut down the droids, and the Jedi/Queen will sneak into the palace, capture the Federation leader and force a surrender. The plan mostly succeeds, but they do not anticipate the presence of Darth Maul, who fights the Jedi and kills Qui Gon Jinn. Obi Wan takes Anakin as his apprentice as a promise to his late master.

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Liam Neeson plays Qui Gon Jinn, the Jedi Master who trains Obi Wan and wants to train Anakin. He is the main character of this ensemble film. He is the prime mover and shaker during much of the action, and Neeson brings huge presence to this role.

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Ewan McGregor catapults into superstardom as Obi Wan Kenobi. This was the most inspired casting of the film. Here, Obi Wan is a young, brash twenty-something Obi Wan on the verge of becoming a full Jedi Knight. His character could have been very well served if HE was the one to find Anakin, but it is what it is.

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Natalie Portman, already an established actress of huge acclaim is cast as Queen Amidala/Padme. She gets to play a double role as the Queen pretends to be a handmaiden for security purposes. Even then, Portman was able to exude tremendous authority and made a believable character.

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Sadly, the weakest casting of the film- not Jake Lloyd’s fault at all though. Lucas cast Anakin WAY too young, this kid should have been around 12-13, not 8. The other problem is that Lucas was looking for a certain “natural kid” type of actor instead of a good actor. It was particularly frustrating to see the other auditions for the role and see one kid that was incredible. As I said, not Lloyd’s fault. For a young kid, he did a great job.

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Ah, Jar Jar. So many bad decisions led to this character, but ultimately it was one- “make him silly”. If this was a noble character, similar to Chewbacca, he would be remembered fondly. Instead they made him a fool, had him speaking some kind of crazy old-time double talk, and surrounded him with fart jokes. He is barely used at all in the sequels…for good reason too.

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Ian McDiarmid was 38 or 39 when he first played Palpatine in Episode VI. He is now the perfect age to play the 50-something Palpatine.

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The amazing Terrence Stamp plays Chancellor Valorum, leader of the Republic. A small role, but this actor knows how to bring weight to the most minor roles.

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Ray Park is Darth Maul. This martial arts expert brought a raw physicality to the role that was astounding. Some of the best sword fighting ever captured on film.

The movie is not as bad as the backlash, or redlettermedia, painted it. There are several things that bother me, Anakin’s age, Jar Jar, some of the questionable decisions regarding the focus on Qui Gon over Obi Wan, but the movie works. The effects still hold up, the performances were solid (save Anakin and Jar Jar), and the movie is just beautiful. The design work on this film really evokes that this is the tail end of a Golden Age. This is pre-war Europe, opulent, and amazing as a cultural utopia. There are places like Tatooine however that show the troubles on the horizon, as well as the creeping corruption of Coruscant.

The Phantom Menace was a good title for this movie. The Phantom Menace of the plot was this phony trade dispute to further Palpatine’s goals. Perhaps it was also Palpatine himself, as a true hidden menace. Perhaps it is Anakin. I am still not sure. All I know is that after many viewings over the last 15 years, I still love this movie, and I am unashamed to say so.

Next:

2: Attack of the Clones

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