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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Five Things I Love About "The Phantom Menace"

This week (yesterday, in fact) marks the tenth anniversary of "The Phantom Menace." Yes, believe it or not, it's already been ten years of hating Jar Jar and mocking tween Anakin. To celebrate (and in the interest of keeping things positive) here's five things I love about the weakest Star Wars film.

Qui-Gon Jinn: "The Phantom Menace" showcases, perhaps, the purest Jedi ever in Liam Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi who kicks butt, takes names, and does whatever the Force asks of him, regardless of what policy or procedure or politics suggest he should do. There's also a bittersweet tragedy to his character, considering everything he does in this movie indirectly leads to the extermination of the Jedi for a generation.

The Music: Note for note, "The Phantom Menace" is arguably John Williams most accomplished score of all the Star Wars films (and, thankfully, ever second of it is available on CD; now where are my complete music compilations for Episodes II and III?). One could probably turn off the dialogue and simply watch the movie with the music and still get the same impressions from the story (in fact, in some scenes, the lack of dialogue would be a drastic improvement). From the seemingly sweet "Anakin's Theme" that subtly includes the ominous notes of "The Imperial March" to the epic "Duel of the Fates" which becomes the prequel trilogy's overriding theme in the same way Luke's theme defines the original trilogy, to the finale, which reprises the Emperor's theme from "Return of the Jedi" (sung higher and up tempo by a children's choir), the music of "The Phantom Menace" foreshadows what will come while establishing a musical identity for the entire prequel trilogy.

The Lightsaber Duel: Everyone knows the coolest thing about the Star Wars movies are lightsabers. So it's no surprise that the the most exciting part of "The Phantom Menace" was the intense lightsaber duel at the end between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. Seeing, for the first time, a lightsaber fight that didn't involve old Jedi, half-trained Jedi or injured cyborg Jedi was the highlight of the film for me ten years ago, and a key element in bringing me back to watch it again and again.

The Jedi Council: Like Qui-Gon's action throughout the film, the Jedi Council helped define the concept of the Jedi for the prequel trilogy, giving the audience a glimpse of what life for the Jedi was like before Anakin went nuts and killed all their kids. Little did we know when Luke was getting zapped by a training remote aboard the Millenium Falcon, that once upon a time the Jedi were all about bureaucracy, complete with a ruling council and a space pope. While the council really didn't do much in "The Phantom Menace," the idea was visually and thematically significant, and it was fun to watch all those various Jedi and wonder what each of them did to earn a place on the council.

The Senate Chamber: Created on screen almost exactly as it was described in Star Wars novels written prior to "The Phantom Menace", the Senate chamber's vast scope and collection of aliens perfectly conveys the way a multi-world legislative body would operate.

(And yes, I'm citing the freaking Senate Chamber as something to like about "The Phantom Menace." This is the least of all the Star Wars films, after all. It can be difficult to find things beyond the music and "some Jedi finally kicking ass" to love about it.)


  1. I always loved Darth Maul.

    I also liked looking around the Jedi Council and trying to find jedi i knew of (Look, there's Plo Koon!).

    I also like the book The Art of Phantom Menace, especially what Darth maul was going to look like had they made him a her.


    P.S. I can't believe it's been freaking 10 years. Then i remembered that we skipped class in HS (senior year) to go see it, so i guess the math DOES add up

  2. baroness van bitzenhoferMay 20, 2009 at 6:04 PM

    Um, you left out Jar Jar Binks...

  3. LOL - ahhh poor redheaded step-child of the star wars saga.

    There's a lot of crap in there - but those good points make me want to go watch it again right now.

  4. Darth Maul was pretty cool. He'd have made my list, except all he really did, aside from look cool, was growl, fight, and die like a chump.

    No, no I didn't. ;)

    Yeah, it is the least of all the Star Wars films, but it is still a Star Wars, which makes it at least watchable.

    You just have to be careful to tune out the stuff like when Anakin asks Padme if she's an angel, or else your eyes will roll themselves right out of your head.

  5. You left out E.T.!!! How could you forget him!!! :)

    I recently watched all 6 Star Wars movies in sequential order over the course of a few weeks. Episode I is definitely the worst of them. It's bad right up until they go back to Naboo to kick some ass. Then it's pretty decent.

    I will say though that it has the coolest moment in all of them though, in my humble opinion. It could be included in your Jedi fight entry so you have it covered. It's the very beginning of that fight when the doors open, the Duel of the Fates starts playing and Darth Maul is standing there and looks up at them. When Qui-gon tells the others to find another way and that they will take care of this, you know you are in for a fight. And like you said it was a heck of a fight.

    One thing I am reminded about when I think of Phantom Menace is that was right when I got online. One of the things I immediately did was cruise around different Star Wars fan sites looking for news on anything I could find. Stopping just short of spoilers for the most part. There was a lot of information flying about as people were getting ready for the new golden age of Star Wars.

    Also can't forget the merchandising. I don't think any movie before or since has had the push that Phantom Menace did. It was frickin everywhere!!!

  6. I go out of my to consistently forget ET.

    I definitely thought of mentioning the pre-release hype and all the merchandise, but I figured those weren't things to love about the movie itself, so I disqualified them for consideration based on a technicality. :)

    But yeah, the hype was insane, and as excited as I was for Episodes II and III, I don't think anything matched the build up to this. I was working at a B.Dalton then, and I remember all the signs we had, and the giant cardboard droid I got to build for a display. It was everywhere.

    My birthday is at the end of May, so of course that year I got TONS of Star Wars stuff, because no one could go into any store without tripping over some kind of Star Wars merchandise. It was awesome.

    Remember the Pepsi cans? Each brand of Pepsi had like four different character cans or something? I managed to get them all and hung on to them for years until they started to ooze pop. Crazy times...

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  9. I liked Darth Maul, who definitely appealed to the 6-year-old kid in me who first thrilled to Star Wars in the summer of 1977.

    Same with the double-sided lightsaber bo staff, even though it sort-of corrupted the concept (prequel-trilogy metaphor microcosm), and the lightsaber dules in general.

    Ewan MacGregor's attempt to make his performance a love-letter homage to Alec Guinness's was appreciated.

    Yet all of even the coolest bits in The Phantom Menace — and they are, shall we say, sparse — pale in comparison to how it shat upon the memory / legacy of the films we knew.

    The vast majority of the concept and execution, from the timeline to the plot and holes therein to the dialogue to the performances to the way it just demystified, vulgarized, and infantilized beloved aspects of Star Wars for even lower-grade fans like me (who truly loved the first trilogy but didn't follow up my early interest in bubblegaum cards and action figures with all the licensed novels, etc.. in later years) make even the most eye-rolling Endor scenes in Return of the Jedi look like indispensable parts of the canon by comparison.

  10. @Blam: pale in comparison to how it shat upon the memory / legacy of the films we knew.

    I'm certainly not going to attempt to change your mind, nor do I begrudge your (or any Star Wars fan's) disdain for the prequels, but perhaps I can offer an explanation as to why, for all their faults (and as much as I can enjoy them, I'll never argue they don't all have some issues, ranging from major problems to minor annoyances) I can still enjoy the prequels and don't hate them with the vitriol many, many fans do.

    I've long believed that true Star Wars fans get hooked young. An adult who has never seen the films can watch them and enjoy them plenty, but that adult will never get hooked on them the way those of us who were introduced to the films as kids were.

    So for the vast majority of Star Wars fans, like yourself, with vivid memories of watching the original films in theaters, they came to the prequels as adults, with adult sensibilities and the critical eye of a seasoned moviegoer, and even moreso than the average adult, a love of Star Wars that made the faults and foibles of the prequels even harder to bear.

    But kids whose first experience with Star Wars was the prequels LOVED them, in the same way kids loved the original trilogy (once upon a time I actually read an interesting defense of Jar Jar as being the ultimate child-identification character: he is clumsy and uncomfortable in his own body, and he is the ultimate outsider. Nobody wants him: not the Naboo, not the Jedi, not even his own people). As depressing as it may sound for people who can't stand the prequels, there's a whole new batch of kids for whom Anakin and Obi-Wan, not Luke and Han, are their Star Wars heroes (especially thanks to the cartoon).

    I came to the prequels somewhere in between. Phantom Menace was released a few days before my 18th birthday, and my critical skills were still woefully underdeveloped. Jar Jar annoyed me right off the bat, but most of the other criticisms of Episode I had to be pointed out to me, after the fact. First time through, I just thrilled at the idea of NEW STAR WARS. And though I wasn't a kid, Episode I still carries some nostalgia for me, of the type that I imagine many kids of the original trilogy era feel: I remember the build-up, the excitement, camping out for tickets and skipping school the day after watching the midnight showing. And nostalgia helps smooth out a lot of the rough patches.

    By the time Episodes II and III came out, my critical skills were much more developed, and the flaws were more obvious to me. But they were also better films, and by then, I was enough of a prequel-accepting Star Wars fan that I was happy getting more Star Wars, at seeing how the whole thing was playing out, so despite their flaws and the things I would have done differently, I can still watch them, enjoy them, and not hate them outright.

  11. cont...

    I'm also the kind of Star Wars fan you mentioned who did follow-up my childhood enjoyment of the original trilogy with all the ancillary material. I had the action figures, the storybook tie-ins and novelizations, the cassette tape storybook where Leia and Chewie befriended the Hoojibs, and, when Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire was published in 1991, I was overjoyed at the prospect of new, official, Star Wars stories, and devoured most all of the subsequent "expanded universe" novels (which I continue to read to this day).

    As a result, by the time the prequels came around, I was already used to experiencing a fair amount of dreck alongside the good in the Star Wars universe (Phantom Menance has its issue, but I'll still watch it over The Ewok Adventure any day of the week), and the expanded universe had prepared me for some of the stuff on display in the prequels, so my excitement at seeing those elements on the big screen also helped mask some of the flaws. Coruscant, the Senate, votes of No Confidence were all things with which I was familiar thanks to the novels, and the double-bladed lightsaber had long since been a staple of the Star Wars comics. Even the midi-chlorians were presaged a bit in one of the novel series via the suggestion that there was a way to test force sensitivity in people (brought to light when Luke was attempting to rebuild the Jedi post-Jedi).


  12. Me: and the lightsaber dules in general

    Grrr... "duels".

    VW: unitone — In a single sound.


  13. And nostalgia helps smooth out a lot of the rough patches.

    No question. I was too young when the first movie came out to see how green Mark Hammill was in it, or to appreciate how much the more seasoned actors were doing their best to play what must've been "just for the paycheck, and, dear lord, please can we leave this off my reel" parts to them at the time. When the special editions were released in 1997, I hadn't seen any of the films since college (say, a half-dozen years) and none of them in the theaters or with any kind of decent video setup since their original releases. [I'm a geek, yes, but one who tends not to rewatch stuff so much because there's so much other stuff to see.] The shot of the Imperial Destroyer at the opening blew me away all over again, but the pure earnestness of Luke Skywalker also floored me; my wife actually laughed out loud at his first scenes on Tattooine, and I realized that I was much more forgiving because of my attachment — my nostalgic attachment, you're right — to the material.


  14. I recall being intrigued when Heir to the Empire came out. A friend of mine at college was totally obsessed with Star Wars — I mean "built his own Darth Vader suit complete with audio player for constant respirator sound" obsessed; the guy was more focused and at least as capable as the Warren / Andrew / Jonathan Buffy Trio, but thankfully not a psychopath — so I kind-of got excited by proximity, and I was genuinely interested in the story continuing more-or-less in canon through novels if no more movies were happening. Heck, I'd bought Splinter of the Mind's Eye and a couple of Han Solo books before The Empire Strikes Back was released, and, like I said, collected the bubblegum cards, had the action figures (stored in a Darth Vader head), and followed the comics for a while.

    But in '91 I was an overworked college student launching a freelance writing career, and just never jumped on the Official Expanded Universe hamster wheel; sometimes what I heard was going on made me wish that I had, and sometimes it made me glad that I hadn't. I never came closer than with Shadows of the Empire, although since my RPG and videogame days were behind me, it was "just" another prose novel and round of tie-in comics — still, kudos to whomever came up with the idea to do a soundtrack to a movie that didn't exist.

    The point is that you're absolutely right about what age and what kind of Star Wars fan one was/is factoring big-time into how one approached the prequels. And there's no doubt that there was a lingering excitement after viewing The Phantom Menace that we really had another Star Wars film; it's just that we — I saw it with family and friends within a few years of my age — were so conflicted over what that film was, the potential versus the reality. Ultimately, I think the disappointment came not just from the fact that we'd waited so long that the reality couldn't match our expectations but that George Lucas & Co. had had just as long to work on it and it wasn't, pardon the phrase, empirically better than it was. With all that money and all that talent, even if the actual plot points that many of us objected to were non-negotiable, the rough edges of the finished product were just inexcusable.

  15. @Blam: Grrr... "duels".

    It's okay. I knew what you meant. :)

    my wife actually laughed out loud at his first scenes on Tattooine

    Yeah, I don't think I'd watch the first one with any adult who'd never seen it before; taken out of context (and nostalgia), Luke is pretty cringe-worthy throughout.

    kudos to whomever came up with the idea to do a soundtrack to a movie that didn't exist.

    I loved that. And it's actually a pretty good soundtrack. Not mind-blowing, but a few good tracks.

    I think the disappointment came not just from the fact that we'd waited so long that the reality couldn't match our expectations but that George Lucas & Co. had had just as long to work on it and it wasn't, pardon the phrase, empirically better than it was.

    I think that's a fair criticism, and one that exists independent of the "I didn't like it because it wasn't what I would have done with the story" criticism. I was young enough (and enough of a fanboy) that the notion that it should have been better never even occurred to me until others suggested it, and by then, its hooks were in me.


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