Reflecting back on “The Phantom Menace”

We watched “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” in the theater yesterday in celebration of “May the 4th,” and overall it is a pretty strong entry into the Star Wars franchise. Of course, “The Phantom Menace,” was a movie which was released ten years after the previous movie, “Return of the Jedi” and, being a prequel, promised to answer all of the questions which were raised about the world of Star Wars in the first three films: How did Anakin become Darth Vader? What happened during the Clone Wars? Who built C3PO?

Well, not all of those were common questions, but the movie did have a high bar to clear. Overall, it checked all of the boxes and set up the next two movies, although some of the choices were a bit questionable. The movie starts out focused on politics in the form of a dispute with the Trade Federation, then Naboo is invaded and the Jedi have to help Queen Amidala escape. Due to their ship being damaged, they’re forced to land on Tatooine, and then the movie becomes an episode of the “Brady Bunch,” since they do not have the money they need to purchase the parts, but they WOULD have enough if 9-year-old Anakin wins a pod race which just happens to be taking place the next day. Fortunately, the visuals are really good, and the podracing is a fun and unique addition to the Star Wars world.

Something I was thinking about during the movie was that the battle droids were immediately set up as menacing, but then prove to be pretty silly. There are lines like, “We can not win against the battle-hardened battle droid army,” then fifteen minutes they ‘re being shown getting sliced and diced by lightsabers like they’re no problem at all. It reminds me of how Stormtroopers were set up as being precise with their blasters, but then throughout the rest of the movie they never hit any of the main characters. Of course, this happens because the characters have to survive in order for the rest of the movie to happen, something frequently referred to as “plot armor.” But, I thought about what would have happened if the battle droids would have been replaced with, say, the T-100’s from “The Terminator.” Suddenly, it would have been a completely different film! But, I digress. Since this is a kid’s movie, and a space opera, the heroes needed something to shoot at.

The middle movie drags a little as they get into a senate debate, and some Jedi Throne Room scenes, but then the story picks up again after they return to Naboo. It always bothered me in the past that there was only one droid control ship left in orbit when they return, but when they left there were a whole bunch. But, I thought about it again yesterday and realized that the Trade Federation must have simply recalled most of their battleships after they had successfully taken over the planet.

The movie’s biggest problem, I feel, is that it tried too hard to recapture the magic of the first three movies which made them so popular. What I think the producers failed to realize is that the first three movies were really a mixed bag. “A New Hope” was successful because nobody had ever seen a movie like it before, “The Empire Strikes Back” added gravitas to the series, and “Return of the Jedi” was a happy medium between drama and science fiction fun. If there is anything we’ve learned from the success of episodic series such as “The Clone Wars,” and “Andor,” it is that Star Wars is excellent when it is given the chance to really develop its characters. I know that Lucas had always envisioned that his Star Wars story would be told in six movies, but perhaps by the late 90’s audiences was ready for more of a slow burn. The movies could have, for example, developed Obi Wan Kenobi a little bit more, explored the world of the Republic a little more, and then gradually moved towards introducing Anakin and the Clone Wars. This way, familiar character could be introduced into the sequels in a way which was a little more organic. For example, Anakin didn’t have to have built C3PO, perhaps he could have been owned by a different character at first.

Now that I’ve watched the sequel movies, I do appreciate the prequels a bit more. At least when Lucas was planning out the sequels, he found ways to help explain what the world was like at this point in the history. Sure, there were a lot of politics in the first movie, but it was important to understand how Palpatine was going to use politics to rise to power.

My eleven-year-old son brought a new perspective to the movie watching experience which was quite different from my own. I watched him in the theater, and he actually perked up when R2D2 was first shown on the movie screen. He is, after all, a member of Star Wars’ target demographic, and I think that this is the reaction they were going for. While I might find Jar Jar Binks a little painful, I think that Elijah found him to be a bit funny. So, really, who am I to judge?

One thought on “Reflecting back on “The Phantom Menace”

  1. I enjoyed the remastered version more than the theatrical cut.

    I remember seeing it in a sneak peek for theatre owners in the Seattle area. My friends next door ran the local theatre and included me.

    The place was full. Everyone was excited. We were seeing it a few weeks before the release date so filmmakers were there to check out the response.

    We all went nuts when the logo appeared. Many glowing light sabers in the audience swishing around.

    Then the movie started…. about twenty minutes of the most draining deadly dull exposition. You could feel the audience dumbfounded. Only good part. Ship was sleek and shiny. But the film really picked up with the race. That was very well done. The film ended and we all realized it wasn’t quite what we were expecting.

    Lucas hadn’t made a film in a very long time and it felt like everyone said “Yes, Mr. Lucas” there’s even footage of him dejected watching the rough cut and realizing that he may have over reached a bit, but not much he could do to change it. Everything was so intertwined… and it didn’t have much humor as well.

    Still…. the prequels do have a lot going for them. The opening scene in the next one was stunning with it’s complex composite of all those space ships. That was dazzling and brilliant. I believe the prequels on the whole are more entertaining than the ones made by Disney. They tried, but those fell a little flat. the television series though….. outstanding!

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