What Went Wrong: Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Editor’s note: The following article appeared on MovieFanFare back in July of 2009. It is being re-run today as part of our May the Fourth Be With You celebrations.

In the summer of 1999, Star Wars geeks (myself included) and casual fans alike flocked to movie theaters around the world to view one of the most eagerly anticipated films in the history of cinema, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Many (again, myself included) left scratching their heads over what they’d just seen. So what went wrong? And, more importantly, what could have been done to fix it?

Let’s start with the opening crawl. A few months before the film’s release, the text that would be contained within the crawl was leaked, and I swore it was just a misinformation campaign designed to put people off the scent a little bit. Sadly, it was pretty much right on the money. Evidently, “turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic” thanks to a dispute over the “taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems” which somehow constitutes an “alarming chain of events.” Right. This was going to be rough. This introduction to the universe where we were about to spend three films was a far cry from a rebellious young princess racing home aboard her starship, pursued by the “Empire’s sinister agents.” Sinister agents and starships vs. trade and taxation disputes? No contest. The problem with this crawl is that it gets far too specific for something that’s supposed to provide a backdrop for the prequels. Sure, the audience is probably familiar with the Star Wars universe to some degree. But not this earlier version of it. Yet, here we are, embroiled in economic strife before meeting a single character. A more general opening that lays out the basics of this era of  a galaxy, far, far away would have gone a long way to improving it. This is Star Wars, folks. Talk to me about robots, spaceships, and an army of Jedi Knights serving as the guardians of peace and justice.

Issue number two deals with a certain precocious youngster who will, of course, go on to be one of the most feared men in the galaxy (spoiler!). I realize George Lucas’ intention was to show young Anakin Skywalker as a child to demonstrate how even the most innocent among us can be corrupted. He probably also figured it would appeal to children more if they saw a little of themselves in the character. That said, at nine years old, he’s way too young. The same effect could have been achieved with an actor maybe five years older. Children could still relate to a teenager, older audiences wouldn’t feel as disconnected, and Anakin would be the same age as Padme, who he goes on to marry. He never seems like the great pilot Obi-Wan Kenobi touts him to be in the original trilogy. He’s more like the younger cousin your parents make you hang out with at family barbecues. When I was growing up, my younger cousins weren’t strong with the Force, and neither is this kid.

Speaking of the Force, “the Force is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” So says Obi-Wan in the original Star Wars, and I was totally fine with it. I was on board with the Force from that moment on. I never felt the need for a more detailed explanation, at least not from a scientific standpoint. Oh, but we get one, and it’s midi-chlorians. Microscopic lifeforms inside living cells that alert us to the existence of the Force. Or something. I’m not entirely sure. But the point is this was an exercise in explaining something no one, at least no one I know, needed or wanted explained. Sorry, a little bit of mysticism would have worked a lot better in this case.

I’ve been putting this off, but let’s get to Jar Jar Binks. Most people would say that the film would have been better without him. That’s not necessarily true. Don’t get me wrong, I find him to be a grating, dumbed-down, borderline offensive character the way he was written. But it didn’t have to be that way. When we meet him, we find out that Jar Jar’s something of a fugitive from his society. Not bad. We then learn that he’s a fugitive because he was…clumsy? Awful. I love a good anti-hero, and that’s what Jar Jar could have been. A criminal banished from his underwater city who teams with the Jedi and redeems himself through a series of reluctantly performed acts of bravery. Maybe even giving his life to save Anakin or Obi-Wan or Padme. Instead, we get good old Binks stepping in a pile of…nevermind. Moving on.

A lot of folks cite the lightsaber duel at the end of the Phantom Menace as one of, if not the, best of all six movies. Not to mention one of the film’s saving graces. Judged purely on technique, they have a point. It is a well choreographed piece of screen combat, I’ll admit. And Darth Maul’s double-bladed saber is an undoubtedly cool sight to behold. But beyond that, there’s not much happening in that fight. There’s very little emotional weight to it. When Obi-Wan and Vader square off at the end of A New Hope, you get a sense of the history between the characters and the audience understands this encounter is a long time coming and why it’s important to both of them and the movie. In Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan and Qui Gon battle Darth Maul because, well because they’re the good guys and Maul’s the bad guy. Developing the character of Darth Maul a bit more and making him into a villain that did more that look evil would have made the saber duel feel like there was something at stake.

In 1977, no one could have predicted the phenomenon Star Wars was to become. And so the film ends in such a way that it could be a stand-alone effort if need be. Pretty brilliant really. I’m not sure why Episode I ends the exact same way, though. We were getting three more Star Wars films whether we wanted them or not, so why not end on a cliffhanger? The queen’s life hangs in the balance, the galaxy is teetering on the brink of war, Obi-Wan can’t decide if he should keep that braid in his hair, something! Nope, people standing on steps. A nod to the end of the original Star Wars or a lazy final shot that coasts on nostalgia? I’ll leave it up to you.

So, was it all bad? Did anything go right in this, the first of the prequel trilogy? Absolutely, and his name is Liam Neeson. As maverick Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Neeson delivers a performance that makes him appear to be one of the few actors in the film who has any idea what’s going on and what he’s doing there. He brings dignity and a sense of seasoned wisdom to a character that serves as mentor to both Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, elevating the proceedings and almost making the movie a worthy addition to the Star Wars franchise. Almost.