Episode I: The Phantom Menace
I have a, we’ll say multifaceted relationship with Star Wars. This was one of the first fandoms I got interested in as a teenager, but it certainly wasn’t love at first sight. My parents put on the original trilogy, long before there were even rumors of prequels, when I was growing up; and I had no interest whatsoever. The most interesting things I can remember from that was that Frank Oz voiced both Yoda and Fozzie Bear. I was about ten when the prequels came out and still did not have much of an interest. That changed when I volunteered to man the children’s librarian’s desk during the summer reading program. All the new children’s books were right behind me, including the Jedi Apprentice series, which tells the tales of the early days of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s master/apprentice relationship. One sounded vaguely interesting (Number 12, The Evil Experiment, if I recall correctly), so I gave it a go. And enjoyed it. And then borrowed all of the other books in the series (which I finished in quick order; they were easy reads for me). So I favored the prequel movies for the longest time. Still didn’t necessarily want to watch the original trilogy. Until I picked up another book at the library: Young Jedi Knights, chronicling adventures of Han and Leia’s twins, Jania and Jacen…I’ll get into all of that when we hit the original trilogy. Again, I was hooked and thus brought into the fold of the original trilogy.
It was not always fun being the only one of my friends in school interested in Star Wars. Harry Potter was fine, everyone at that point loved it. As a teenager, the Jedi Code sounded interesting, mastering one’s emotions. I read Star Wars and Philosophy and ended up writing a paper for college writing based on it [Living Morally in a Business World; not the project I am most proud of]. For a while, Star Wars played a role in developing my fanfiction world. Star Wars fanfiction was actually the first fanfiction I read. Then, I got into Lord of the Rings and that eventually took over. I still like Star Wars and definitely have favorite characters and there are some books I will re-read multiple times, but growing into an adult changed my perspective on certain things (like Qui-Gon Jinn might not be the epitome of best Jedi Masters…partially influenced by some awesome fanfiction stories on AO3) and I now heavily favor the original trilogy. Except the lightsaber battles, because they’re just totally awesome in the prequels.
I know there are about a half dozen different ways to watch this film franchise; I seriously debated posting this in release order, but I felt it would be too much jumping around. I also will not be covering any of the cartoons; I’ve seen a good bit of Clone Wars and Rebels, but not all of them. And I have not watched and don’t necessarily intend to watch The Mandolorian…I do not have time. (I’m also really behind on the MCU shows on Disney+ right now, so it becomes a choice). I do intend to watch the Obi-Wan Kenobi series when it comes out. Apologies for any disappointment. Star Wars is such a huge part of pop culture that it is expected that one knows certain things going into the prequels.
George Lucas put together a great cast for Phantom Menace. Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List [no, haven’t watched and not one I think I will], Gawain in Excalibur [I probably should watch that movie], the Irishman played Scottish folk hero Rob Roy, appears in Kingdom of Heaven and Batman Begins. He voices Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, and makes bad guys fear for their lives in the Taken franchise) is Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor (he’s got a great voice in Moulin Rouge, is a bit funny in Down with Love, is dashing in Miss Potter, and voices Lumiere in the live-action Beauty and the Beast. He appears in Nanny McPhee Returns, Angels and Demons, and a seriously weird movie The Island [I watched it because he was in it and I still get freaked out by memories of it]) is his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Natalie Portman (before she was Jane Foster in the MCU and Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl) is Padmé Amidala and Keira Knightley (Pirates of the Caribbean, the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess) briefly appears as her handmaiden Sabé (the girls looked remarkably alike at that age). Samuel L. Jackson (before intimidating everyone as Nick Fury in the MCU) introduces Mace Windu, I recognize Terence Stamp now (Siegfried in the hilarious Get Smart movie in 2008) as Chancellor Valorum. Ian McDiarmid returns to play Palpatine; Frank Oz, Kenny Baker, and Anthony Daniels all reprise their roles from the original trilogy.
Now, let’s venture “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Jedi ambassadors are sent to the Trade Federation blockade of Naboo to force a settlement. Master Qui-Gon Jinn feels that negotiations will be short. As young Obi-Wan Kenobi points out later, they are short indeed; the Trade Federation is under the control of a Sith Lord, Lord Sidious, who instructs them to kill the Jedi. Not so easy, they find out. The two Jedi sneak down to the planet and make their way to the Queen. They pick up Jar Jar Binks along the way [I don’t hate him, but he is annoying], but make it in time to rescue Queen Amidala and her handmaidens. Qui-Gon recommends taking Amidala to Courscant to plead her case with the Senate, but their ship is damaged while escaping the Trade Federation blockade. Little R2-D2 to the rescue!
They still have to divert to Tatooine to make repairs. The Queen sends Padmé along with Qui-Gon to find parts and in town, they discover a little boy in the shop; Anakin Skywalker [who very awkwardly tries to flirt with Padmé; mind you, he’s nine and she’s fourteen. Why a nine-year-old is using lines he picked up from spacers…] Qui-Gon attempts to use Jedi mind tricks on the shop owner, but they don’t work, only money. So Anakin chimes in when he takes the newcomers home that he has built a podracer. He’ll pilot and win and his new friends can repair their ship. Qui-Gon is intrigued by this boy, a bit to Padmé’s displeasure. Anakin’s mother admits to Qui-Gon that her son has no father [um, when did the Chosen One become Jesus? Though technically, there are several mythical heroes that do not have fathers; Geoffrey Monmouth’s legend of Arthur terms Merlin as one such lad]. But Shmi feels that Anakin was meant to help Qui-Gon and Padmé. Qui-Gon does manage to use a Jedi trick in order to gamble for Anakin’s freedom; sadly, the owner will only let one go.
Anakin wins the podrace [space Nascar] and Shmi encourages him to go with Qui-Gon. As any nine-year-old boy would, he doesn’t want to say goodbye to his mother; but this is his chance to live out his dreams of seeing the stars. On their way back to the ship, Qui-Gon encounters a man dressed in black, carrying a red lightsaber. We know that this is Darth Maul, Lord Sidious’s apprentice, tasked with finding the Queen and Jedi. Qui-Gon manages to escape and introduces “Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi” (and those of us familiar with the original movies see foreshadowing!) On Courscant, Queen Amidala meets with Naboo Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Valorum to discuss politics; Palpatine does not have much faith that their situation will be dealt with swiftly. He urges Amidala to consider voting out Valorum.
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan report to the Jedi Council. The Sith (enemies of the Jedi) have returned. Qui-Gon also informs them about Anakin, believing he was conceived by the Force (how is that a thing?), thus making him the prophesized Chosen One who will bring balance to the Force. The Council doesn’t quite believe Qui-Gon, but allow the boy to be tested. He is truly Force-sensitive, but he is too old, and too attached to his mother. Attachments are forbidden within the Jedi Code. Qui-Gon attempts to take Anakin as his Padawan. One problem, he already has a Padawan. So he declares Obi-Wan ready to face the trials to become a Jedi Knight. The Council tables the discussion; Queen Amidala has chosen to return to Naboo to fight for her people. The Senate is in an uproar over outing Valorum and Palpatine is nominated to replace him (more foreshadowing…some of us know where this is going). Yoda warns Anakin “fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
Our heroes return to Naboo and Amidala meets with the Gungans to form an alliance (and a background pilot is a younger Richard Armitage, fun fact). And turns out, Padmé is the real queen! Sabé has been pretending to be the queen in order to protect Padmé. Boy, is Anakin surprised. The Gungan army will be a distraction against the droid army [and you’ve listened to John Williams a bit too much when you can tell there is a note sequence in the droid invasion theme that is heavily reminiscent of Indiana Jones facing off against the Nazis; not identical, but pretty close] while Padmé and her people sneak into the palace and take the Trade Federation leaders hostage.
Qui-Gon orders Anakin to stay safe in the cockpit of an empty fighter. Then Darth Maul enters (most dramatic scene of the film and to the amazing Duel of the Fates soundtrack). The Jedi will handle him, Padmé will go around. I must say, it is very cool to see a young woman take charge and kick butt. But the best part of the movie is Duel of the Fates, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon facing off against Darth Maul [fun note, the actor hired to portray Maul, Ray Park, is a professional martial artists and swordsman. Liam and Ewan did most of their own stunts and fighting as well; Ewan kept bending his prop lightsaber. Further fun fact in regards to the words behind Duel of the Fates, they are taken from a Welsh poem and translated into Sanskrit; if you’re John Williams, of course you do that]. These are the Jedi warriors in their prime (compared to a disabled man and elderly man fighting in A New Hope). There are flips and kicks and falling down platforms. Maul manages to separate Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, trapping them all in separate force fields [what that area is actually supposed to be, I have no idea. It looks cool, so we go along with it]. Maul and Qui-Gon make it through the corridor, but there is one field left, holding Obi-Wan back. And he witnesses Maul run his Master through. His “no!” echoes through the chamber. Maul is waiting for him and it is an aggressive duel. Maul overpowers Obi-Wan enough to disarm him of his blue lightsaber and kick him into a shaft.
Meanwhile, Anakin has kept his promise to stay in the cockpit, along with R2-D2. Then he tries to help Padmé by shooting droids, but that engages the autopilot and takes him into space above the planet. He accidentally crash lands into the droid control ship and blows it up from the inside, escaping to the cheers of the other pilots. Padmé outwits the Trade Federation leaders. Obi-Wan summons up his strength and leaps over Maul, calling Qui-Gon’s lightsaber to him, and cutting his enemy in half. Both halves fall down the shaft, but Obi-Wan runs to his fallen master. Qui-Gon’s last words to his Padawan are to make him promise to train Anakin. Obi-Wan agrees.
When the Jedi Council arrives alongside the newly elected Chancellor Palpatine, they confer the status of Jedi Knight on Obi-Wan. Yoda personally disagrees with the decision to allow Obi-Wan to train Anakin; he senses grave danger in training the boy. Obi-Wan is willing to go against the Council to honor his fallen master’s final wish. Yoda retorts “Qui-Gon’s defiance I sense in you, need that you do not.” Ultimately, the Council has agreed to let Obi-Wan train Anakin Skywalker. At Qui-Gon’s funeral, Yoda and Mace Windu wonder if Obi-Wan has killed the master or apprentice Sith. (Then the shot focuses on Palpatine…foreshadowing!) The film ends with a joyful parade between the Naboo and Gungans, declaring peace.
Now that I am older and re-watching the movie, the first part just seems to drag. As mentioned above, Duel of the Fates is the highlight of the film. I understand the necessity of setting up the back stories for all these characters we know, but a good portion of this film falls flat. John Williams’ score is of course, amazing.
Some fanfiction stories that I have discovered that tie-in with Phantom Menace include
It Takes a Village by Siri-Kenobi12
There is no Pain by Meysun
Both of these require some knowledge of characters introduced in the Jedi Apprentice books.
Up Next: Episode II: Attack of the Clones