The Beauty in the Bad: A Love Letter to Everything That Is Wrong with 'The Phantom Menace'
The power of nostalgia is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.
A wise man once said that your focus determines your reality. And well, to me, it actually rings the most true in regards to the very movie it came from in form of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Simply put, I've gone from loving it unconditionally as a kid to being more than a fair bit conflicted with it during the emergence of in depth YouTube reviews, to eventually making peace with it it's flaws and loving it for it's amazing world-building, technical prowess, and some truly memorable scenes. However, in recent years, I've also come around on many of its flaws.
Now, I am perfectly aware that the following might just turn out to be the rambling of a nostalgia blinded late '90s/ early '00s kid. It's just that, well, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of this wobbly yet fascinating piece of film history, than by exploring five of it's biggest flaws and why I honestly struggle to see them as ones. Let's get right into it.
5. The 'Fun' in the Senate
While maybe not the most glaring of issues about this film, ThePhantom Menace's political subplot is often the first thing that people mention when critiquing it. And well, it's easy to understand why as the excitement and wonder of trade negotiations is literally the first thing you notice as the opening crawl kicks in. For many, it's a problem already on a conceptual level, as they want to keep politics as far away from a fun space adventure as possible. To others, there's nothing inherently wrong with the idea, it just could have been handled so much better.
However, while it really could have used a contribution from someone with a bit sharper pen for political intrigue, I've never really seen it as a detriment to the overall experience. Granted, it's a bit slow, but it's still fascinating to see this galaxy-wide political system function in this imaginatively realized way. Of course, perhaps even more fascinating is seeing how it's not really functioning that well anymore. Cue good ol' uncle Sheev.
Simply put, not only is Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine always a win, but it's just so satisfying to see this shrewd puppet master play the long game and quietly plant the seeds for his ultimate victory. If not for anything else, it's the little looks he gives that subtly betray the evil behind this approachable old man. And, well, to me, a little in-sSenate yawning is not a huge price to pay for seeing this evil mastermind string along the oblivious Jedi and politicians. Speaking of oblivious...
4. Meesa like Jar Jar!
Where does one even start with Senator Binks. A character so synonymous with an annoying supporting character that the best way of describing him is honestly that he's the 'Jar Jar Binks' of the Star Wars franchise. He's the character who forever tainted the sagas mythical feel in the eyes of many. And yet, when one manages to look past his particular brand of slapstick (a true test of willpower to some for sure), he just isn't that bad of a character.
Not only does he have an actual proper arc (going from a social reject to a general), but there are some—albeit rare—moments where he is actually played completely straight. Whether it be his discussion with Queen Amidala on Coruscant or him calming the Gungan army down before the battle, in these instances he's definitely a three-dimensional character.
Also—and perhaps more importantly—it really does seem like he was created with best of intentions by Lucas, and brought to life with genuine passion by Ahmed Best, who for what it's worth is a genuinely talented performer. So, when Lucas recently stated that Jar Jar is his favourite character, I actually believe he wasn't just trying to mess with us.
3. The Midi-chlorian Mystery
So what are the midi-chlorians? Well, I'm glad you asked. They're a microscopic lifeform that reside within all living cells and communicate with the Force. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. And, well, to many that description pretty much seems to have ruined the concept of the Force. A sentiment I have always been able to sympathise with but never agree.
Here's the thing, it seems that biggest issue here is that it essentially offered an unsatisfactory explanation to something that really didn't need to be explained in the first place, thus turning a metaphor for the willpower within all of us into what is basically a case of winning the gene loto.
However, it was never meant to explain the Force. The Force still is that mystical energy field created by all living things, which surrounds us and binds the galaxy together. Midi-chlorians are just a clever piece of world building on how one connects to it, as well an effective little plot device that helps to put into perspective just how skeptical the Jedi were about training Anakin (despite his off the charts Midi-chlorian count).
Now, as for the issue of the ability to use the Force becoming something one is born with, it kind of was the case in the original trilogy as well. Otherwise, it would have been pretty stupid of Obi-Wan, Yoda, Palpatine and Vader to play all their cards on training Luke.
2. The Shadow Behind Little Ani
Now it's easy to sympathise with anyone who couldn't quite accept Darth Vader as a nine year old with the look and pathos of an 80s sitcom character (although it's impossible to understand the abuse Jake Lloyd got because of it). Yet, when I look back at this performance within the context of the larger saga, I always do so with fondness. Simply put, while most of this performance is what it is, there are a few crucial moments for both the character and the saga that Lloyd quite frankly nails.
First one being his response to Padme on being asked whether or not he's a slave. The line, "I'm a person and my name is Anakin," is delivered with quite an unexpected conviction and pretty much defines the character's strong sense of individuality and longing for something more than the hand he's dealt with. Then there's also his little monologue on helping people and his moment of homesickness he shares with Padme on the way to Courscant, that respectively set up the character's inherently good nature as well as the fear inside him.
However, by far the biggest highlight of this performance— and arguably one of the best moments in the entire franchise —is the goodbye scene with his mother. It's a moment where the acting, editing, music, and story all come together to not only deliver us a truly effective dramatic moment but also a showcase of something that—for better or worse— defines that iconic character: attachment.
To me, it's for this moment alone why it made sense to portray him as a nine year old, as this is the age where kids feel the most attachment to their loved ones. Moreover, when looking at it in the context of the entire saga, there's something truly powerful about seeing this little kid making a brave face and stepping his first steps into a larger world as well as starting a sequence of events that we know as the Star Wars saga. That, in turn, also leads us to the final and perhaps the most debatable point.
1. 'The Phantom Menace' is a Great Introduction to Star wars
When pondering over the existential question on what order is the best way of consuming Star Wars, the general consensus does remain that it should begin with A New Hope. And, well, why wouldn't it be the case? It's the lighting in the bottle that started that whole phenomenon and I'd honestly be lost in trying to make a case for The Phantom Menace being a better introduction to Star Wars.
However, with the sequel trilogy nearing it's completion, it is making more and more sense to experience the main saga in chronological order (From Episode I to IX). Therefore, the question isn't whether it's a better movie than A New Hope (it's not), but rather, is it at least a good enough introduction to Star Wars? And, well, yes it is. In fact, it actually might even have a few advantages in that department.
First of, lets address the film's obvious drawback in comparison to A New Hope: the characters. You see, while nowhere near the likeability of Leia, Luke, Chewie, Han, 3PO, and R2, Phantom Menace does have it's saving graces. Neeson for one manages to bring a similar amount gravitas to Qui-Gon as Alec Guinness before him in A New Hope and Harrison Ford after him in The Force Awakens. In fact, even his relationship with Obi-Wan is actually quite fascinating in form of a rebellious master and a more conservative apprentice dynamic.
As for Obi-Wan, while Ewan—the single best part about the prequels—McGregor really gets his chance to shine in Episodes II and III, he still manages to create an interesting starting point for Obi-Wan's arc as this guy, who's simply trying to do the right thing and find the balance between out of the box and more conventional way of thinking.
Now, in regards to Padme, while Natalie Portman did probably suffer the most out of the main cast due to the script and direction, her overly stoic delivery actually makes sense for the character within the context of the story. Think about it, here is a teenager given the role of leading a nation (or a planet to be more precise) and dragged into an intergalactic conflict. True that she was probably prepared for it from a very young age, but it nevertheless must have taken huge strength of character to simply keep it together and carry that role, hence the often cold facade. It's an admirable quality she also passed on to her daughter.
Now, as for the The Phantom Menace's advantages compared to A New Hope as an introduction to Star Wars, the key lays in the way it lives up to its title. You see, on the one hand, it's by far the most detached chapter in the main saga and can, therefore, take its time with introducing us to this beautifully realized and fascinating galaxy without the bigger story overshadowing it. And yet, from the very first piece of proper dialogue between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, it also maintains this eerie sense that something is not quite right. A vibe it slowly builds throughout its entire runtime in form of the emergence of Anakin and Darth Maul along with the Jedi's inability to properly comprehend all of it.
The result? Well, as the movie ends with that sugary sweet celebration of peace on Naboo, you can't help but to feel that it's simply a calm before the storm of events that will shake the galaxy to its core. That, in turn, is a perfect way to set up this epic saga no matter whether you're watching it for the first or 101th time.
So, to sum up
In a way, the Star Wars saga can be viewed as a cautionary tale on how love and affection can blind us. However, it's also a celebration on how these same feelings can enable us see the good where most only see the negative. Something which I hope is also the case with this little piece.
Except for the whole Anakin being the creator C3PO thing. That was just stupid. Although, from a certain point of view, it does make him the half brother of Luke and Leia. I love this movie.