GETTING MORE TALE #772: The Phantom Menace (20 Years On)
If you can believe it, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is 20 years old this year. 2019 is a significant year in the history of Star Wars. It is the 20th anniversary of its return with the prequels, and it will also witness the final movie of the Skywalker saga in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Back in Record Store Tales Part 209: The Phantom Menace, I said I wasn’t “interested in contributing to the background noise” regarding the movie, but I’ve since changed my mind. Now that George Lucas is out of the picture and J.J. Abrams is helming the finale of the sequel trilogy, it’s hard not to get a little nostalgic for 1999, when things were…simpler.
Netflix has different movies available in different countries, but you can sidestep this with some VPN software. Some countries have no Star Wars, but between them, all of the films are available. Bahamas is the only territory I’ve discovered so far with the first two trilogies, so I’ve been re-watching from I to VIII. And for all its flaws, with the benefit of hindsight, The Phantom Menace is still quite enjoyable.
George Lucas had his own ideas about where to take Star Wars, but the fan hate that Phantom Menace (and the other prequels) received took the wind out of his sails. He laid the groundwork in Phantom Menace, with that talk about the highly maligned midichlorians. Now, midichlorians were an awful idea. J.J. Abrams is right to leave them out of the sequel trilogy. The idea of little microscopic organelles in your blood giving you the ability to tap into the Force? It creates so many problems. Like, if you have more midichlorians in your blood than someone else, does that automatically make you more powerful? Can we therefore rank numerically every character by midichlorian count and deduce who the most powerful is? Can you get a blood transfusion from a Jedi and steal his or her Jedi powers? That’s the kind of shit that fans hate on. Why couldn’t Lucas leave the Force alone with all its mystery intact?
Because he was going somewhere with that. Lucas came up with the name and concept of midichlorians back in 1977; the idea is very old. Now we understand why. George was also setting up the final trilogy, the one that J.J. is currently finishing. Episodes VII through IX “were going to get into a microbiotic world,” George Lucas told James Cameron. So, like Ant-Man? “There’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force.” Fans recall that “Whills” is an old word. The first Star Wars novelization refers to the entire saga as The Journal of the Whills. In Lucas’ own sequel trilogy, Jedi were to be merely “vehicles for the Whills to travel around in…And the conduit is the midichlorians. The midichlorians are the ones that communicate with the Whills. The Whills, in a general sense, they are the Force.”
Like Ant-Man meets Dr. Strange meets The Fantastic Voyage, maybe. With lightsabers? Terrible; undoubtedly awful. I can’t even fathom how he would have executed this idea. The fans would have rioted. You think the hate that fandom gives Disney today is intense? Imagine if George’s microscopic version got made.
But at least George had a vision.
Lucas wasn’t about making the trilogies the same. Having watched both The Force Awakens and Phantom Menace recently on Netflix, it’s clear that J.J. made a better movie that feels more like Star Wars. Flawed, yes, but it seemed to be setting up some pretty epic storytelling (until Rian Johnson took a shit all over it with his left turn Last Jedi.) J.J.’s Star Wars is better acted, paced and edited. The dialogue is far less stiff. But George’s Phantom Menace has something that J.J.’s Force Awakens does not: daring imagination.
One of the most successful sequences in Episode I is the pod race. It’s completely irrelevant to the story, which is one of the many problems, but on its own, it is a glistening example of George’s unfettered imagination. In 1999, this race was unimaginably new. The only thing that came close was the speeder bike chase in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, primitive as it was. Lucas broke new ground in multiple ways with his prequels, whether you like his innovations or not, and primitive CG characters aside. People complain that J.J.’s Star Wars is just a soft reboot. Well, watch Phantom Menace if that’s not your cup of tea. The pod race, at least. Lucas combined his love of race cars with science fiction and directed one of the best race sequences in the genre. In any genre. Even little Jake Lloyd shone in that cockpit, confidently flying himself to victory.
It’s a shame that pod race sequence was completely unnecessary. I mean, you’re telling me Liam Neeson couldn’t figure out any other way to get off that planet, other than a complicated scheme of betting; gambling on a child pod racer? Liam was supposed to be a goddamned Jedi master. They keep talking about how much time they’re wasting on the planet, but they wait to see how this damned race plays out? A race that could have killed a little kid! Weird choices. If you were a Jedi, you could have figured out dozens of faster and safer ways to get off that planet, right?
Once they do finally get off that planet, the Jedi arrive home on the capitol world Coruscant. This was a bit of fan service, something that they wanted to see more of, since it had been such an important part of comics, novels and production artwork. Cloud City aside, it was the first real time we saw an urban city environment on Star Wars. True to form, Lucas made the whole planet one environment, in this case a city. It was also some of the most brilliant visual designs on the prequel trilogy, one which would set the tone for the two movies that followed.
For better or for worse, Lucas spent much of the prequel trilogy defining who the Jedi were. What they could do, what they couldn’t, and what they believed in. We learned of the “living Force”, and oodles of Jedi wisdom about attachment and fear. Jedi couldn’t marry, which was surprising, considering the Skywalker bloodline is the entire focus of the saga. Yet George was throwing tons of ideas at us. Stuff that he had been keeping in dusty old notebooks for years. Nothing in the sequel trilogy comes close to revealing as much about the Star Wars universe as the prequels do.
Though Phantom Menace is the movie with the most cringe-worthy moments, wooden dialogue and shitty acting, there are the odd scenes that George did artistically and perfect. Take the moment that Anakin and friends arrive on Coruscant, an overwhelming moment for the little boy. George shot some of the footage from kid-height, allowing us to experience Anakin’s anxiety without clumsy dialogue. The aforementioned pod race sequence is brilliant, and so is the final lightsaber duel. For the first time, serious acrobatics and martial arts moves were incorporated into the laser sword battles. This went on to define how the Jedi normally fought throughout all the prequels: with a lot of jumping, leaping, and somersaulting. For all the epic duels in the saga, one of the greatest (if not number one) is Kenobi and Jinn vs. Darth Maul. From John Williams’ score (“Duel of the Fates”) to the choreography by Nick Gillard, it was focused through George Lucas’ lens into something absolutely brain-melting. Until Darth Maul lost like a chump. No excusing that; although remember that George did something similar to Boba Fett in Episode VI.
The droid designs were also pretty cool. As iconic as a stormtrooper? No. But sleek, interesting, new and believable? Absolutely. This helped shape the visually stunning Naboo land battle scenes. J.J. didn’t introduce any new infantry troops in his movie, he just updated the existing ones.
There was one thing that The Force Awakens and The Phantom Menace did equally well. One very important thing that neither gets enough credit for: they made us anticipate the next film in the trilogies with hunger. (Until Rian Johnson pissed all over J.J.’s ending, that is.) Both films’ endings felt like the setup for events we couldn’t wait to see on screen. The training of Anakin/Rey, for example. A clue to the truth about the big bad guys (Sidious/Snoke). The next meeting between good and evil. J.J. and George both succeeded in creating this feeling of heavy anticipation.
By the time all three prequel movies played out, each problematic with wooden acting and stiff stories, fans were burned out on prequel-era Star Wars. The Clone Wars TV show did a better job of living in that universe, but fans longed for the old familiar again. X-Wings and Han Solo and the Empire and all of it. So that’s what J.J. delivered. And J.J. Abrams learned what we all know: there is no pleasing Star Wars fans.
We fans take this stuff too seriously sometimes. You’ve just read 1500 words, comparing Star Wars movies’ strengths and flaws. That’s excessive, for both the reader and the writer! We take this too seriously, friend. Sure, we don’t go and harass the actors on Twitter like some juvenile delinquents do, but we’ve invested so much time and thought into a goddamn space movie series. Too late to turn back now. I think it’s important to take a break, step back and appreciate the movies from a different perspective. Having done that with Phantom Menace, I can see it has its mitigating traits that still make me smile 20 years later.