Sent to settle a dispute between Naboo and the Trade Federation, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qi-Gon Jin, Jedi Knights, are ambushed by a trap set by the Trade Federation. They escape to the planet Naboo and meet a Gungan named Jar-Jar Binks. Desperate to escape the Trade Federation’s battle drones, they follow Jar-Jar to the underwater city, which is home of his people. Meanwhile, the Trade Federation continues to falsify negotiations with the Queen Amidala of the planet Naboo regarding their dispute.
Obi-Wan and Qi-Gon secure passage from the underwater city to the Nabooian Palace, but the journey is fraught with danger. The Trade Federation invades the planet, and takes over the palace. The Jedi assault the palace to rescue the queen, and manage to escape, but the ship they leave on is damaged. They make an emergency landing on the planet Tatooine.
While on the planet looking for supplies, Obi-Wan and Qi-Gon encounter a young boy named Anakin Skywalker, and they both sense a strong presence of the Force within him. When their tests reveal that his Force potential is the highest ever recorded by far, Qi-Gon begins recruiting Anakin as Jedi, believing him to be the Chosen One spoken of within the Jedi Prophecy. In an attempt to secure his freedom, Qi-Gon places a bet with Waddle, Anakin’s current slavemaster, in a pod race that Anakin runs in. After a furious match, Anakin wins, and secures his freedom.
In the background, dark forces have been watching these events, and have decided to move against the Jedi. A shadowy figure attacks Qi-Gon, and the figure is able to match Qi-Gon’s lightsaber skills easily. He manages to escape with Obi-Wan and the others, but they are worried about the new threat. When the group makes their way to Coruscant, they meet with the Naboo representative to the Senate, Palpatine, who counsels them on the course they need to take. Queen Amidala asks for a vote of no confidence for the current Chancellor, and Palpatine is elected as the new Chancellor.
Amidala returns to Naboo and makes her way down to the underwater Gungan city and asks for their help in freeing their planet. They agree and assemble their army to gather outside the city. Amidala and the others storm the palace, and are confronted by the same shadowy figure, called Darth Maul. Qi-Gon and Obi-Wan fight Maul, but Maul’s skills are on par with both of them. Anakin, in attempting to stay out of the way, accidentally activates a Naboo fighter and flies into space.
Qi-Gon and Obi-Wan fight Maul to a standstill, until Obi-Wan is separated from the fight and Qi-Gon is killed. Obi-Wan rejoins the fight and is also nearly killed. He uses the Force to pull Qi-Gon’s lightsaber to him and slices Darth Maul in half. In space, Anakin flies his ship inside the Trade Federation’s flagship and destroys its power core. This has the side effect of deactivating the battle drones on the planet, allowing the Gungans to win. Amidala and her troops take the Trade Federation leaders into custody.
After Qi-Gon is burned in a funeral pyre according to Jedi custom, the planet engages in a celebration. Amidala and Anakin share a smile, which may be sign of things to come between them.
Review and Analysis:
16 Years after the last Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fans had been clamoring for the next movie release to hit the big screens. The demand had been reignited after George Lucas re-released the first three Star Wars movies in theatres as Special Editions, which were supposed to be the same movies, only with better visual effects.
In 1999, The Phantom Menace was the most widely anticipated movie release of the decade. Fans of the series waited outside movie theatres for days, acting out scenes from the first three movies; performed weddings in full costumes; and generally had a great and memorable time outside. And, there was an anticipation of something great and epic; now that the technology had been improved by leaps & bounds, the fans believed that George Lucas would finally be able to show and tell the story as he wanted to like never before.
When they reached the seats, however, The Phantom Menace quickly became Damnation Alley. The old, familiar feelings of the Star Wars franchise swept through moviegoers when the opening montage from the first three films was used once again.
But those feelings would subside slowly once the movie’s story begins. For fans of the franchise, watching this movie is the equivalent of being told that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, AND the Tooth Fairy aren’t real. And then they repossess all the gifts and money that they had given you over the years.
The First Act of Abject Failure:
The first act of the movie is the one that is supposed to set the table for what is to come. It doesn’t need to “blow your mind,” but it does need to hold the interest of the viewer. Unfortunately, we learn next to little about the characters, and the plot is nothing more than an excuse to have lightsabers flicker on and off about hundred times in this film.
By the time we get through the poorly acted intrigue, the first fight aboard the Trade Federation flagship, the escape to Naboo, Jar Jar, the underwater city, the giant fish, the second fight in the Naboo kingdom, and the escape to Tatooine, there is not a single character for you to root for.
This movie has just been range-gated. The torpedoes are about to hit the water.
This character single-handedly sank whatever little bit of dignity the Star Wars franchise had in terms of its handling of non-White character types. If it were just the fact that he was just a bumbling fool, some of his antics would probably have been overlooked, or even handwaved. The fact that he was given a pseudo-Jamaican accent and voiced by a Man of Color (Ahmad Best) turns this character from annoying to one of the most offensive characters in science fiction history. In fact, Jar Jar would be considered the worst until the Transformers franchise manages make TWO characters even worse than he is.
At the same time, in the same movie, we get another set of characters who sound like stereotypical Asian store owners (Hollywood-style, of course). So, once again, we are supposed to laugh at their incompetence and their accents, which just happen to sound like some Asian immigrants in the United States whose command of English is not very good.
Really classy, Lucas.
I guess he was supposed to be a stereotype of Jewish merchants. I’d add more, but this is broken record.
What all of these characters have in common is that they just happen to be similar to ethnic stereotypes that Hollywood perpetuates over and over again. Even more to the point, these are characters to be mocked; derided; or otherwise not taken seriously or cheered for. These are all characters that, in the end, are to be laughed at.
Lucas spent much time after Phantom defending himself from attacks concerning Jar Jar and the Trade Federation characters. Many of his defenders, instead of addressing the complaints, attempted to divert attention by pointing out Star Trek’s own racefail issues. Unfortunately, such a tactic misses the point. And, perhaps the fact that Star Wars has so few people of color even showing up in the franchise (much less actually doing anything) is something that should have been addressed.
What differentiates Star Trek from Star Wars starts here. Star Wars’ racefail has no upside, and the characters engaged in its racefail are either poorly-designed villains or shoehorned comic relief. This kind of characterization is rooted in 1950s nostalgia. Why it shows up in the 1990s demonstrates a failure to overcome primitive and backwards thinking.
The Second Act of Tedium, the Third Act of Nothing:
Phantom happens to be a lesson for all filmmakers. Surround yourself with people who will say no to anything that is not compelling. When you surround yourself with people who are simply afraid of losing their paycheck, they turn into “Yes Men.” Even more ominously, things that they would normally object to get the green light, even if they know that it means that the movie sinks because of it.
Act Two gives us a great example of this:
Movies have precious real estate; a limited time to be able to establish characters, settings, and advance a plot. Thus, set pieces (often considered to be the cool things about the movie) don’t take up too much time. Phantom, after not giving us anyone compelling in the first act, nor bothering to create a coherent plot, or even establishing a decent villain, gives us 25 minutes of something that seems to have been added to the movie to promote a video game.
They spend more time on this race than building up Darth Maul. Or establishing Qi-Gon. Or explaining why the Trade Federation has decided to blockade Naboo, or even what made Naboo so important to the Trade Federation’s plans. In other words, four far more important elements than this scene that was supposed to establish Anakin’s piloting abilities.
You Are Supposed to Be Reminded Of:
The nostalgia that runs through this movie is far too rampant. This is especially true of the action sequences throughout the film. In fact, much of the film is thematically the same as Return of the Jedi, only The Phantom Menace somehow makes Jedi look like a cinematic masterpiece.
The final battle, for example, is nothing more than a rehash of Jedi:
Instead of the Rebellion fighting with the Ewoks against a Legion of the Imperial Forces, you have the Naboo royal forces fighting with the Gungans against the Droid Army of the Trade Federation.
Instead of Lando Calrissian leading the fighter attack against the Death Star 2.0, you have a loose band of Naboo pilots that we’ve never seen before (and will never see again) attacking the Droid Control Ship. And a kid named Anakin does what his son did 20 years ago…erm…35 years later.
And finally, no Darth Vader and the Emperor versus Luke Skywalker in the Emperor’s Throne Room. We get a young Obi-Wan and Qi-Gon Jin versus Darth Maul in some kind of over-engineered control center.
Oh, and substitute the Speeder Bike Chase for this:
At several points in this movie, you have characters randomly say lines that were considered memorable from the previous three Star Wars movies. In nearly every instance, the end result is a facepalm of frustration.
While I’m On the Subject of the Lightsaber Battle:
Too much music, too much choreography, no banter, and no metaphor of the struggle between the Jedi Way and the Dark Side. Looking at the original trilogy of movies, there was always the possibility of temptation and the need to resist it on both sides. John Williams’ score did not intrude much, and what compositions were used enhanced the scene(s) in question.
This was not the case with Phantom, where this fight scene had taken Caffeine before swinging the lights around the screen. Each element of this act attempted to drown out the other – the music was over-the-top even for Williams. The choreography was your standard swashbuckling Hollywood swordfight.
And then there was the choir. Usually, when a movie pulls out the choir for a big fight, it smells of desperation…in that we’re supposed to really pay attention to the action going on in front of us.
Unfortunately, choirs during climatic battles don’t work, unless the choirs are scored by Danny Elfman or the movie somehow involves Batman. Or the composer is Japanese. Or the DC Comics Animated Universe (DCAU) is somehow involved.
We get introduced to a prequel Sith Lord, who should have been gunned down when the doors opened to introduce him, complete with the requisite “I AM THE EVIL BAD GUY, LET’S FIGHT” motif. But the only thing we learn is that his name is Darth Maul and that he is a Sith Lord that’s looking to reveal himself to the Jedi and that he wants revenge.
For what, we never learn.
This is a classic case of getting wrapped up in what you want your cool toy to do without ever considering what impact your “cool toy” is going to have on every one else. Maul is not given any backstory, no history that established him as anything but something to look at. While some people gawked when his lightsaber activated on both sides, others probably wondered who Maul was supposed to even be or work for.
Sidebar: If you require your viewer to consult other materials to gain a basic understanding of what is going on in the main movie, comic, or TV show, then do not expect many people to follow the action closely. This is a failing (or, at this point, a feature) of most storytelling mediums that are followed closely by fandoms that are inhabited by those who are often called geeks or nerds. Marketing departments, however, call them suckers – given enough of a line, there will be purchases made and big online arguments over characters and their abilities. But the main point is that the primary purpose of the medium, to tell a story, no longer occurs within a self-contained limit. Instead, the story is drawn out, of course assuming that there is indeed a story being told and not homage to a previously told popular story of the genre.
I mention all of this because this is what happens to Star Wars. Basic explanations for plot and necessary characterization take place off-screen in books or tech journals for the series. While such bonus items are cool to have and may possibly explain little things that happen to the character before or after the movie, requiring them just to be able to enjoy the movie is very bad form. A scorecard enhances the enjoyment of the game. One should not be required to be able to follow the game from start to finish.
The Padawan, the Handmaiden, the Slave, and the Jedi:
As if realizing that even he can’t cover a movie with 120+ minutes of lightsabers swinging all over the place, we get the story of a young boy who is supposed to be the One, prophesized to “Bring Balance to the Force” according to some non-descript, ambiguous prophecy. He is supposed to be the most powerful Jedi ever, and he even is an allegory to Jesus Christ – until you realize in Revenge of the Sith that Palpatine mind-rapes Shmi to give birth to Anakin.
Amidala, the real one that is, was supposed to be Leia, if she had been given free reign. She is made a Queen, since she is supposed to be Leia’s mother – and Leia is a Princess. However, Amidala, like her daughter 20 years ago…erm…35 years later, doesn’t do much of anything except tag along for the ride.
Amidala would be the most wasted character in Phantom if not for Anakin’s mother Shmi. How worthless is she? We don’t get to know her name until halfway through the second movie – and only after she’s been kidnapped by the “Sand” people. All we are told is that she is a slave to Waddle and/or the Hutts. She also had Anakin without ever knowing how she got pregnant – thus she does not know who the father is. But she just wanted to raise her son and make him the best person he can be.
Great job, Mom.
Qi-Gon Jin was a new addition to the Jedi ranks. He is supposed to be Obi-Wan before there was Obi-Wan. Unfortunately for the Star Wars casual fan, it’s through Qi-Gon that we get all the exposition about how the Force Works Now. 20 Years ago (or 35 years later), Obi-Wan’s explanation of the Force made it sound like that one could train to become an expert in the ways of the Force if one applied themselves and actually believed in the Force. Now, you have to be born with some special bacteria in your body in order to even be able to ‘sense’ the Force, let alone control it.
As I stated in my review of Jedi, this was George Lucas’ way of finally shoe-horning in the idea of The Divine Right of Kings in its complete fashion into the story of Star Wars. Thus, Luke goes from likeable underdog to a Chosen One, making him royalty because he is born with powers.
Come to think of it, there is another show that worked in this fashion.
The Sexism is Strong in this Movie:
While other science fiction and space fantasy franchises and stories have no problem whatsoever featuring women in leadership roles and performing important tasks, Star Wars continues its strong tradition of having mainly White males as heroes, and women as nothing more than enablers, background characters that do little, and/or foreground eye candy.
The Broken Record Continues:
There are few people of color in Star Wars to begin with. And other than Mace Windu and the Queen’s captain, no other person of color is given more than a brief walk-on part. Women of color are practically non-existent in Star Wars, and The Phantom Menace is no exception.
And, repeat after me: There are no Black Women in the film, either.
And the Main Reason Why I Call Star Wars Space Fantasy and Not Science Fiction:
There are certain tasks in Star Wars that are not given any consideration for importance. While I do take into account that Star Wars is supposed to be about a War in Space, it is quite clear that there are jobs that are beneath the franchise.
For one thing, Diplomacy in Star Wars is handled by guys in bathrobes who wield laser swords and magic tricks. And they don’t seem to do a very good job of solving the conflict without bloodshed (It is Star Wars, after all).
Second, there seems to be no one who could be described as a scientist anywhere in the franchise. The doctors in Star Wars are droids. The engineers and/or the people who are responsible for fixing things big and small are usually robots. At least, however, if you want to fix it right.
I’ve been stating over and over again that Star Wars has been nothing more than boys with guns, laser swords, and magic tricks saving the Princess from the Black Knight and the Evil King. This changes in Phantom, but not for the better.
Now it’s just boys with laser swords and magic tricks fighting a robot army that’s even more useless than stormtroopers. If you think about the first time we see the stormtroopers in the first Star Wars movie, they blast through the door and kill the Alderaanian troops like gangbusters, establishing both their ruthlessness and their threat.
The Droids of the Droid Army are not given a similar introduction at any point in the film. In fact, you are left wondering how this droid army is supposed to be any threat at all, given how easy they are to blast to pieces.
The Phantom Menace is a very apt title. Because it describes a threat that was really never there, but is created on its own and becomes a problem to deal with.