Return of the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Return of the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

There are people who will tell you not to start with the prequels when experiencing the cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars. I watched A New Hope first, as it happens, on a VHS tape with my brother and sister, and played with action figures from the original trilogy – one of my favourite toys as a child was a Ken doll-sized Luke Skywalker, who promptly fell to the Dark Side because my brother had a Darth Vader with cool gloves – but I also grew up watching the prequels at the cinema and humming Darth Maul’s theme tune when I needed an energy boost, so I really can’t tell you what order is best. Maybe I’ll figure that out by the end of this rewatch.

 

There are also people who will tell you to avoid the prequels altogether, with an almost evangelical hatred, like making more movies poisoned a perfect universe. As far as I am concerned, watch whatever you want. I will state here and now, though, there will be no prequel hate on this blog. I love Star Wars for the endearingly ridiculous, messy, unstoppable adventure that it is, and that includes Gungans and Ewoks. You have been warned.

 

The Phantom Menace

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a dispute over trade taxation has flared into political turmoil as the powerful Trade Federation forms a blockade around the planet of Naboo to prevent any ships except their own from coming and going. While the Congress of the Galactic Republic talks itself in circles, the Supreme Chancellor secretly sends a pair of Jedi Knights to negotiate a peaceful resolution: Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, or apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Qui-Gon is sure of a swift settlement. He is the sort of person who is sure about everything. Obi-Wan has doubts, which are completely ignored.

 

They are welcomed into the blockade, but their hosts are slow to appear. The reasons for that quickly become apparent: their ship is blown up, then their anteroom is flooded with poisonous gas. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight their way out through a crowd of battle droids and the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, beginning to have doubts of his own, has the bridge sealed off. “That won’t be enough,” mutters his second-in-command. The Jedi are legends, and these two are living up to the reputation. Qui-Gon jams his lightsabre into the bridge doors, cutting them open; when the blast doors are sealed, he starts melting them. Only when two droidekas, shielded by force fields, come to the attack do the Jedi withdraw, escaping through the ventilation shafts. They stow away on battle ships bound for the planet surface. Meanwhile, the Viceroy denies the existence of any ambassadors to Naboo’s elected ruler, fourteen-year-old Queen Amidala. She is an impressive figure, masked in face paint with a towering headdress. Later, while she is talking to Senator Palpatine, a supporter from the Senate, his hologram abruptly stops transmitting. A block on communications can mean only one thing: imminent invasion.

 

I love this opening sequence for a few reasons. It sets up the world of the Republic very effectively through the intricacies of interplanetary diplomacy. That the dispute is over taxation just delights me – it has echoes of the infamous East India Trading Company, not to mention the modern day global corporate monoliths that have such influence over our daily lives. This is what power looks like, specifically the abuse of power, and I believe it. Also, the way the Jedi are introduced shows they are not only powerful figures on the political scene but are also shrouded in urban myth, the subject of awe and fear. This is a very different universe to that of A New Hope and I fell in love with it from the word go – I am still in love with it.

 

The invasion begins in the swamps of Naboo, war machines mowing down tracts of forest as they go. Qui-Gon, fleeing from the destruction, rescues a Gungan – a semi-aquatic biped native to Naboo – called Jar Jar Binks, who promptly declares his love and loyalty and insists he owes the Jedi a ‘life debt’, which is a ridiculous notion clearly designed to keep him in the movie. (Nor is it the first time George Lucas used ‘life debt’ handwavery; Chewbacca owes a similar bond to Han Solo, or did when they first met anyway.) Qui-Gon is tersely ungrateful for the offer, but warms to the idea when Jar Jar lets slip there is a Gungan city hidden underwater. Despite his banishment from aforementioned city, Jar Jar reluctantly agrees to guide the Jedi there. Using extremely useful little respiratory devices, they follow him underwater and are led to a cluster of beautiful plazas surrounded by golden force fields that are permeable to the touch. Neither Jedi comes across as very nice at this point, it has to be said, bullying the only local they’ve met into breaking his own people’s laws and ignoring his religious beliefs about life debts – I know there’s an invading army on their heels and all, but really, they come across as believing rather too much in their own superiority. Obi-Wan at least has a sense of humour about it. Qui-Gon gives off a powerful vibe of ‘let’s get back to civilisation’.  Unfortunately, Jar Jar is not at all welcome and neither are his guests. On the plus side, Obi-Wan’s indignant expression when Jar Jar is prodded with an electrified spear shows he cares what happens to their guide.

 

The Gungans, it turns out, have little fondness for the surface-dwelling humans. They consider their culture entirely separate and therefore outside the current conflict. A few Jedi mind tricks on Qui-Gon’s part ensure a quick departure on a borrowed craft and he asks to keep Jar Jar on as a guide rather than leave him to face punishment with his people. Not that he’s any safer with the Jedi – the fastest route to the capital of Naboo is through the planet core, where vast water predators see the bright little craft as prey. Temporarily losing power in deep water, Obi-Wan jumpstarts their craft into life and pilots it to the surface while Jar Jar flails and Qui-Gon makes wise remarks about the circle of life. This basically sums up their dynamic for the entire movie.

 

The Trade Federation are not running this invasion alone. A hooded hologram they call ‘my lord’ appears with orders, assuring them they will easily gain control over both Queen Amidala and the Naboo System. The Viceroy avoids mentioning the missing Jedi. Amidala herself silently watches the invading aircraft roll through the streets of Theed. Surrounded by her loyal handmaidens and impotent security guards, she sweeps disdainfully down the palace stairs with an escort of battle droids. The Viceroy plans for her to sign a treaty that will make this invasion look legal with the Senate; she point blank refuses. Prisoners are already being divided up into camps. En route to their assigned camp, the queen’s party are ambushed by the Jedi, who make short work of the battle droids. With communications knocked out, the only way to reach the Senate on Coruscant is to physically evade the blockade. Qui-Gon advises Amidala to accompany them rather than waiting with her people. While the Trade Federation are pushing for that signature, she should be safe, but there are too many unknown factors to be sure of anything.

 

Amidala looks to her handmaidens for advice and one quietly says, “We are brave, your Highness.” The queen agrees to go to Coruscant. Qui-Gon distracts the battle droids while Obi-Wan comes from behind to free the captive pilots. Battle droids are basically useless but look good when they’re cut down by a lightsabre. Once the queen’s ship is in the air, Obi-Wan pushes Jar Jar into a bay of repair droids where he can’t do too much harm and goes to join the pilot as they seek a way through the blockade. When the ship comes under fire, the repair droids are sent onto the hull to fix the shield generator. They are quickly picked off by Federation guns, but one droid manages to complete repairs and the ship powers through the blockade.

 

There is not enough power to reach Coruscant and the hyperdrive was also damaged. Obi-Wan suggests they stop at Tatooine, a galactic backwater controlled by the Hutts (giant warlord slugs, if you didn’t know) where the Trade Federation have no foothold. No one likes this plan, but can’t think of a better one either. Meanwhile, on the blockade, the hooded mastermind is extremely displeased at his underlings’ failure to keep hold of Amidala. A second hologram appears behind him: the tall, menacing figure of his apprentice, Darth Maul. I have ridiculous feelings for Darth Maul. He exudes cool. He will be taking over the search for Queen Amidala. “This is getting out of hand,” the Viceroy realises. “Now there are two of them.” Deals with the devil are like that.

 

The droid that saved the queen’s ship is brought before her to be personally praised and rewarded, which is charming. The droid, called R2-D2, is placed into the care of the handmaiden Padme (who made the remark about bravery on Naboo). While she’s cleaning the droid, she encounters the irrepressible personality of Jar Jar Binks. From their exchange, it’s clear how segregated the two dominant species on Naboo really are – she is so surprised to see him there that she has to actually confirm he’s Gungan.

 

When the ship lands on the outskirts of a desert settlement on Tatooine, Qui-Gon sets off to see about repairs and is displeased to be stopped by the queen’s head of security, Captain Panaka, who explains that the queen wants Padme to come with him. Given that Qui-Gon already has Jar Jar and R2-D2 in tow, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on in argument and reluctantly allows the handmaiden into his little entourage. It looks fiendishly hot but no one is wearing a hat. I’m a Queenslander! I notice these things! Arriving in the settlement, the whole party goes into a dealer to find parts. The shop’s proprietor – a blue, winged fast-talker called Watto – calls a boy out to mind the counter while he talks with Qui-Gon. A good idea, that, because Jar Jar promptly activates a droid and can’t shut it off again; the boy comes to the rescue but is more interested in Padme. He thinks she might be an angel (apparently angels live on the moons of Iago, who knew?) and she thinks he is adorable. He casually reveals that he and his mother used to belong to the Hutts but were lost to Watto in a bet. “You’re a slave?” Padme asks, shocked. “I’m a person,” he replies stormily, “and my name is Anakin.”

 

Her conversation is at least going better than Qui-Gon’s. The good news: he’s found the one dealer hereabouts with the parts he needs! The bad news: Watto won’t accept his currency and Jedi mind tricks don’t work on him. And since mind tricks are pretty creepy, I’m kind of pleased about that. Qui-Gon stalks out of the shop, trailed by his companions, and checks in with Obi-Wan, who points out their main hard financial asset is Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Away from the Republic, they are skint.

 

On their way through the settlement, Jar Jar gets into new and exciting forms of trouble. His role in this movie doesn’t extend much beyond comic relief, leaving him careening about the screen like an oversized toddler while the actual child of the piece, Anakin, has to step in and save him. It’s actually tragic that Anakin’s defence of Jar Jar relies on his own worth as a slave. To hurt him would be expensive. This second meeting allows Anakin to tag along with Qui-Gon’s group and when a violent sandstorm sweeps in, Anakin invites the group of weird strangers home with him. He immediately hauls Padme off to look at the protocol droid he’s building while Qui-Gon exchanges awkward introductions with Anakin’s mother Shmi. She handles the influx of unexpected guests with admirable grace. Another set of introductions are made when the half-made protocol droid, C3-PO, meets R2-D2. Anakin explains he’s also made a podracer for the highly profitable local races.

 

Back at the queen’s ship, an incoming hologram begs for her return, claiming the invasion has resulted in countless civilian deaths. Obi-Wan insists it is a trick, but he can’t be sure. (I noticed for the first time that in the scene where he relays this information to Qui-Gon, Jar Jar is helping Shmi with dinner. There’s a disaster waiting to happen.) On Coruscant, the Federation’s puppetmaster sends Darth Maul out to deal with the Jedi. The communications blackout proved no impediment to them; they have tracked the queen to Tatooine.

 

Now, I am personally very much against the term ‘Mary Sue’, because it’s sexist and a cheap umbrella insult that can cover any character (but almost always a female one) that the user doesn’t like. That said, Anakin kind of is one. It’s not enough that he’s building droids and podracers from scratch, he’s also apparently the only human who can race with the best of them, and can I just point out that he is nine years old? We later find out he is actually a child of immaculate conception. YES REALLY. He basically has ‘saviour figure’ tattooed on his forehead.

 

Getting with the program, Qui-Gon casually attributes Anakin’s unusually quick reflexes to latent Jedi ability. “You’re a Jedi Knight, aren’t you?” Anakin replies. He thinks Qui-Gon has come to free the slaves. Oh honey, if only. Padme looks incredibly guilty at this point, to her credit. Between them, she and Qui-Gon explain their predicament in very general terms and Anakin promptly offers a solution: Qui-Gon should claim Anakin’s podracer as his own, convince Watto to let Anakin fly it in the next day’s race and then pay for the parts they need with the prize money. Shmi is horrified by her son’s plan, but has to admit there’s no one else around likely to help. Anakin shamelessly parrots her own words back to her – “Mom, you say the biggest problem in this universe is that nobody helps each other” – and she caves.

 

Qui-Gon may be won over; Padme isn’t. “The queen will not approve,” she points out. She does not approve. Qui-Gon, who goes serenely mulish when confronted with other people’s opinions, goes on to make the deal with Watto, then ups the ante on the day of the race by making a new bet: Watto will hand over Anakin and Shmi if Anakin wins the race, and Qui-Gon will hand over the queen’s ship if Anakin loses. Padme is appalled at the risks he’s taking. Qui-Gon, as usual, just tells her to trust him. That’s hard, because podracing is brutal. Anakin is sabotaged right off the starting line but manages to catch up, partially due to skill, partially because his competitors keep getting blown up. It comes down to a vicious two-man race, and Anakin draws on the Force to survive his way to the finish line. Watto is furious, having bet on someone else, but he coughs up the parts and – even more reluctantly – the boy. The look on Shmi’s face when she learns her son has been freed says it all. It’s a chance in a lifetime for her boy, but they’ve been a team for so long and now she will be alone. What’s more, Qui-Gon intends to take Anakin to Coruscant for training in the Force and the Jedi Order frowns on its disciples having contact with their family so it’s possible Anakin won’t ever see his mother again.

 

On an entirely tangential note, Liam Neeson is ridiculously tall compared to the women he’s acting with so whenever he tries to look comforting he has to bend almost double.

 

C3-PO remains behind with Shmi. Anakin sets out with Qui-Gon for the ship in the desert but they are intercepted by Darth Maul, who immediately engages Qui-Gon in a vicious lightsaber fight. Qui-Gon sends Anakin aboard the ship with an order to take off and Obi-Wan brings it low over the battle so that Qui-Gon can leap onto the landing ramp, escaping a very disappointed Darth Maul. Introductions are then formally made as a rather quizzical Obi Wan shakes hands with a beaming Anakin.

 

On the way through space, Padme and Anakin are both badly homesick. He gives her a carved token, so that she will remember him. She smilingly accepts it.

 

On Coruscant they are greeted by Senator Palpatine and Valorum, Supreme Chancellor of the Senate. I LOVE CORUSCANT. It’s a jungle of skyscrapers, the air whirring with gleaming aircraft, and it’s even more impressive in the night scenes when everything is light and movement like an Impressionist painting. There is a sad little moment here, though, when Qui-Gon lingers behind to talk to the Chancellor while Amidala’s retinue moves off and Anakin doesn’t know where he’s meant to go. He ends up following Padme. Which means kicking his heels while Palpatine explains the road blocks between Amidala and the Senate’s assistance for Naboo, because Valorum’s support won’t get her far and every official avenue will take far too long to get results. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon is having problems of his own. The Jedi Council are troubled by his report of the well-trained assassin on Tatooine but do not believe it can be a Sith Lord, representing the Dark Side of the Force, because they are Jedi and they would know. As for Qui-Gon’s plan to bring Anakin into the Order, nobody on the Council likes that idea. Qui-Gon believes Anakin is the central figure in a prophecy, making it is his destiny to bring balance to the Force – whatever that means – and it is only very reluctantly that the Jedi Masters agree to see the boy at all.

 

Amidala addresses the Senate. Representatives of the Trade Federation loudly decry her allegations and the best offer Valorum can make is to send a commission to Naboo to confirm the invasion. Like everything else, that will take time Amidala cannot spare. Her people are suffering. Her home is being torn apart. At Palpatine’s suggestion, she moves for a vote of no confidence in Valorum, hoping the shock move will secure a stronger Chancellor.

 

Anakin passes all the Council’s tests but wins no approval. The Jedi prefer their students to enter the Temple very young. This is a process called indoctrination, and it is SO DODGY. Anakin is full of opinions, and as Yoda remarks, fear. Hello, he is nine, he has never been off his homeworld before, he misses his MOTHER. But all those considerations are emotional, and the Jedi Council do not approve of emotions. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side,” Yoda declares, which I suppose is why he and the other Jedi Masters are doing their level best to intimidate a pre-teen ex-slave.

 

Jar Jar is telling a dejected Amidala about Gungan warrior culture when Palpatine sweeps triumphantly into her chambers, nominated as the new Supreme Chancellor. Though hopeful he will soon be able to send help, Amidala decides she’s already waited long enough. She’s going home to fight. Qui-Gon is staging his own battle in the Jedi Temple. When the Council refuses to train Anakin, he announces that Obi-Wan is ready to become a fully fledged Jedi Knight, which leaves the position of Padawan vacant. The decision is deferred (clearly even the imposing Jedi Master Mace Windu finds arguing with Qui-Gon an exasperating task) since Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both required to return to Naboo with Amidala and hopefully root out the mysterious assassin. Anakin goes with them. Qui-Gon immediately starts his definitely-not-Jedi-training by informing Anakin that “your focus determines your reality”, and advises the boy to watch him closely. Anakin actually ends up in the cockpit, chatting eagerly with the pilot and learning how to fly a Naboo spacecraft.

 

The first step in Amidala’s plan is to employ the eternally indiscreet Jar Jar to guide her party through the forest to a sacred place where the Gungans have taken refuge. The Gungan leader’s initial disinterest in an alliance is shaken when Padme steps forward. She is the true queen – the other is her handmaiden and bodyguard, a decoy. Padme courteously apologises for the deception and pleads with Boss Nass to help free their planet from the invaders, going down on her knees with passionate conviction. The rest of her party follows suit. The Gungans quite like this gesture and Obi-Wan is delighted with Padme’s diplomacy. Having convinced the Gungans their help is necessary and appreciated, Padme sets the rest of her plan in motion. Joining forces with an underground resistance movement of escaped guards, she plans to break into her own palace and capture the Viceroy of the Trade Federation. His battle droids will be distracted by the Gungan army, while Padme’s pilots try to knock out the droid control ship. The Federation do not take the Gungans seriously at all, calling them ‘primitives’, but Gungan force fields are actually ingenious and while they are seriously outgunned, they stand their ground.

 

(This is a spoiler if you are unfamiliar with all the films, but that moment when Sidious/ Palpatine orders the Gungans to be wiped out? That’s when you see the attitude Boss Nass spent a lifetime protecting his people against. Palpatine grew up on Naboo, remember. That attitude doesn’t come out of nowhere.)

 

Qui-Gon, in a spectacularly poor display of guardianship, takes Anakin along to storm the palace and instructs him to ‘find a safe place to hide’. Padme is taking lead on this in fabulous style, quickly taking over the palace landing bay so that her pilots can reclaim their ships. Anakin’s idea of a ‘safe place’ is of course in one of those ships, which unfortunately for him is set on an automated flight path…right into the space battle. At least he has R2. The rest of the fighters head inward and come face to face with Darth Maul. The Jedi move in to confront him; Padme’s people take an alternative route. It’s probably inappropriate to mention at this point how cool Maul looks…but he looks very cool. And the music starting during this scene is extraordinary, it makes you want to duel with Sith Lords.

 

Padme and her team rappel up the palace walls to escape a firefight. Anakin joins the pilots closing in on the droid control ship. The young actor’s skills are not quite up to the task of conveying the severity of his situation. Jar Jar is also failing in that regard as the Gungans fight for their lives. Battling between massive energy cylinders under the palace (I think? The architecture is impressive but confusing) Obi-Wan is thrown backwards by Darth Maul and intermittent force fields prevent him from catching up, meaning Qui-Gon must fight Darth Maul alone. It’s going badly everywhere, in fact – the Gungans are forced to retreat, Padme’s team are captured, the pilots can’t penetrate the droid ship’s defences. Anakin spins out of control into the ship, taking everybody by surprise, particularly himself. Meanwhile, Darth Maul gets the better of Qui-Gon. With a savage turn of his lightsabre, he runs him through.

 

Above, Padme’s decoy distracts the Viceroy so he’s not sure who to target and in the moment of confusion Padme retrieves fresh weapons from inside her throne (excellent planning, your Highness!) quickly taking her enemy captive. “Now we will discuss a new treaty,” she says coolly. In space, Anakin more or less accidentally sets off a chain of destruction inside the droid control ship and the droids on the battlefield abruptly deactivate. Below, Obi-Wan hurls himself back into the fight with ferocious intent. He slices his opponent’s double-bladed lightsabre in half, reducing his advantage, but is knocked over the edge of the platform and has to cling on while Maul slashes down at him. Drawing on the Force, Obi-Wan springs back onto the platform and summons Qui-Gon’s lightsabre to fight with instead. He cuts the incredulous Darth Maul in two (RIP, coolest Sith Lord of them all) and runs to his dying master, who has just enough life left to demand a last favour: Obi Wan must promise to train Anakin. He promises.

 

The invaders are sent off-planet to face justice; Palpatine, newly elected Supreme Chancellor, greets Obi-Wan warmly and smiles at Anakin before going to join Queen Amidala – the real Amidala, that is. However great the victory for Naboo, Obi-Wan has other matters on his mind. He wrestles permission from a very disapproving Yoda to train Anakin, despite his own earlier misgivings, and the new Jedi Knight takes his young ward to Qui-Gon’s funeral. Unlike the Jedi of the original trilogy, Qui-Gon’s body does not disappear when he dies; he is burned while those who loved him look on. That’s…intense. Yoda and Mace Windu are very troubled by this re-emergence of the Sith. Darth Maul may be dead, but there are always two – was he the Master, they wonder, or the apprentice?

 

But Naboo’s spirit of celebration is infectious. When the victory parade marches through the streets of Theed, the triumphant queen stands before her people with Boss Nass at her side. She throws a smile to Anakin, who looks borderline worshipful. In this time, in this place, they have shaped a peace to glory in.

 

I watched this movie for the first time when I was around seven or eight, and was besotted with it. I have a very clear memory of lying on the floor at my grandparents’ house, watching it on a VHS tape, having decided to share the joy with them. Whether they understood what on earth was going on, I don’t know. The Phantom Menace has its flaws. Some of the humour misses the mark, and a child actor with a greater range of facial expression could probably have been found to play Anakin, but this is a good movie. It shows a universe of infinite complexity and no matter the order in which you watch the Star Wars series, how can you not fall in love with that endless horizon?

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