Introducing Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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The Kids

It’s the moment I’ve been dreading: the switch of the gears from the glory of the original trilogy to the infamy of the prequels. Everything changes now. Gone are the practical effects and iconic lines, replaced by cartoonish CGI and hackneyed dialogue to go along with poor acting from the most important actors. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong! I haven’t seen these movies in years, so maybe my memory is clouded and the films have aged better than expected! I’m about to find out.

This movie begins perfectly with the iconic logo and opening crawl setting the stage. From there, however, things get complicated. As I read the crawl to the boys out loud, I realize how uninteresting it really is. I mean, the opening line is this:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Wow, tell me more about these taxation issues and how they can be resolved through diplomacy!  The boys certainly don’t register much of this stuff. All they care about is the last line, which promises that two Jedi have been dispatched to the planet of Naboo to settle a trade dispute through negotiation.

Then we meet a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn. The trade federation guys are weird and the conflict is confusing, but it doesn’t matter because soon the Jedis are fighting their way off the ship through squads of battle droids as the evil aliens interject dumb lines from the bridge of the ship. The boys love the lightsaber work and the mayhem. After the battles, the trade federation reveals that they are working with the future Emperor and he has a secret apprentice named Darth Maul. Scary.

Soon our new heroes are on the planet below and trying to find the Queen of Naboo to check in with her about these alarming developments. But they’re on the wrong side of the planet and in the middle of the droid invasion army. Thankfully (ha ha), they find a local named Jar Jar Binks who tells them he can help. Yes, Binks is as horrible and annoying as I remember him being. And of course, my 4-year-old in particular thinks he’s quite funny.

Binks takes the Jedi to his underwater city to meet his leaders (even though he’s been banished for being… clumsy. Ugh.). They give them a sub and say they must navigate through the planet core to get to the capital city. They take Jar Jar and make it through a scary Disneyland ride-style tunnel to the city. The boys are pretty happy with the scary monsters in the deep that are always trying to eat the sub.

We meet the young queen of Naboo and there’s some talking about the invasion. The Jedis say they must take the queen to the senate to plead her people’s case. So they blast their way off the planet in her royal ship only to get hit and make an emergency landing on Tatooine. The boys are bewildered with the story, but the space battle and the discovery of R2D2 on the queen’s ship are fun.

On the familiar desert world of Tatooine, we finally meet the young boy Anakin Skywalker who is a slave to a junk seller alien (who is immune to Jedi mind tricks somehow). We also meet an incomplete version of C3PO, which the boys like.

Qui-Gon needs parts for their ship and, with Anakin’s help, strikes some bizarre deal with the junk seller to win the parts if Anakin wins a pod race. These negotiations are way over the boys head and I’m constantly boiling down the dialog into cliff notes for them. Anakin has to win this race so the good guys can fix their ship. Also, Anakin can go with them if he wins and become a Jedi. Because, yes, Qui-Gon senses he’s strong with the force and confirms it with a secret blood test.

Sidebar – through all this stuff, Qui-Gon is accompanied by Jar Jar and one of the queen’s handmaids. Now, it’s clear that the handmaid is Natalie Portman, so the adults in the room are pretty sure she’s actually the queen. But the boys have no clue here. The queen always wears elaborate makeup and headdresses, but this handmaid is plainly dressed. More on that later.

So the pod race is still a fairly good action set piece. The boys love the thrills and spills action and Anakin overcomes the odds and beats the reigning champ. They also love the cameos during this scene from original trilogy favorites like jawas, sand people and Jabba the Hutt.

Anakin has won his freedom, so he kisses his mother goodbye and they leave. As they are taking off, a new villain appears: Darth Maul. He attacks Qui-Gon, but the ship escapes before the battle escalates. The first good look at Maul has the kids giddily scared. He’s a great looking bad guy.

Then we move to the capital planet of Coruscant. There are confusing meetings going on and talk of legality and voting and blah. The senator from Naboo councils the queen and we learn that his name is Palpatine (a red flag for the educated SW fan). The boys do not care a lick about that. They care that Yoda appears in the Jedi council! He’s awesome! Is he going to fight?! No, he’s going to deliver confusing expository lines about Sith and balance in the force and prophecies. The council is against Qui-Gon training Anakin, but he insists and promotes Obi-Wan to open a spot for the boy.

Anyway, the queen calls for a vote of no confidence in the current chancellor when they refuse to help her people. Senator Palpatine is in line to take the chancellor chair, but in the meantime the queen wants to help her people now. So she decides to return to the occupied Naboo and ask the underwater Gungan people to help fight back the droid army. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are tasked by the Jedi council to go too. So we’re going back to Naboo. Honestly, all this Coruscant stuff doesn’t put any blips on the boys’ radars. No action, lots of talking about confusing things. Meh.

But now we’re back on Naboo and the queen is begging for help from the Gungan leader. It’s in this scene that the handmaid Padme reveals that she’s the real queen! Now remember, the boys had a hard time recognizing Princess Leia when she just changed her hairstyle. This is a whole new level of mental hurdles for them. For the rest of the movie, they are constantly asking “Is that the queen? The REAL queen?”

So there’s a big battle between the Gungan army and the droid army which features Jar Jar getting clumsy and causing trouble that actually helps win the battle. Typical juvenile slapstick stuff. In actuality, Anakin accidentally launches a star fighter and ends up blowing up the droid control ship in orbit.

Meanwhile, the Jedis are attacked by Darth Maul and Qui-Gon ends up getting killed. Obi-Wan almost joins him, but manages to cut Maul in half instead. Qui-Gons last words to Obi-Wan are “train the boy”.  Strangely, Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear like Obi-Wan and Yoda do in the original trilogy and the boys immediately call it out. Why doesn’t he disappear? Good question, kids. Good question.

And then we have an awards ceremony for the Gungan ruler and we see Anakin dressed as Obi-Wan’s padawan! We see that Palpatine is the new chancellor! We also hear the Jedi council mention that the Sith have returned and there are always two – a master and apprentice, but they don’t know which one Maul was. Then, to telegraph it a bit more, the camera pans to Palpatine. The end.

So the boys liked it a lot. They loved the action scenes. They liked that Anakin was a kid and driving pod racers and flying space fighters. They liked the callbacks to familiar characters. But I’m afraid the overall story arc mostly went over their heads. They boiled it down to something like “bad guys want to take over this planet and the good guys don’t want them to”.  And it was interesting how aware they were that Anakin was going to become Darth Vader. When the Jedi council advised against training Anakin, my 5.5-year-old said they were right – he shouldn’t become a Jedi because he’ll become a bad guy.

My Re-Watch

Again, I haven’t seen this movie in years. I hoped it wasn’t as bad as I remembered it being. I was wrong. It’s quite bad. Coming off the original trilogy just a week before, the shift in look and feel is jarring. Everything feels cartoonish. The actors are pasted into almost every scene.

Beyond the look, all the dialog feels so flat and empty. Many of these actors are great, but their acting chops can’t save them from the bad script they are forced to recite (and it all feels like recitation). Sure, Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan is the bright spot in this trilogy, but he’s hardly in this first film.

The story itself is convoluted at best. At it’s core, this is the full plot: the Senator from Naboo is secretly a Sith Lord and he wants to take over the galaxy. His plan is to become Chancellor of the Senate first and then make himself Emperor. To become Chancellor, he works with the Trade Federation to get them to invade his own planet. The young queen of Naboo is naive and easily coerced and when she perceives inaction from the senate, she is convinced to call for a no-confidence vote in the current chancellor. It succeeds and Senator Palpatine becomes chancellor. While all that’s happening, the Jedis find a boy strong in the force. Weird, right?

And there are definitely inconsistencies. We know that the midichlorian talk is terrible and doesn’t make much sense. But, like the boys, I’m still bothered by the fact that Qui-Gon doesn’t disappear and become a force ghost like other Jedi masters we’ve seen. Did George Lucas even go back and watch his own original trilogy before writing these?

Oh yeah, and Jar Jar Binks is still the worst.

Here’s hoping that re-casting Anakin with an older, more accomplished actor helps in the next film. Sadly, we already know that no casting choice can help a fatally flawed script. Bring on the Clones. I guess.