I love The Phantom Menace. This I say without shame or irony in spite of the continued hate and ridicule it attracts more than twenty years after its release. I’ll admit that this appreciation, in part, comes down to timing. I was seven years old when TPM was released in cinemas. I still fondly remember the fervour building up to its release and trading magazine cuttings with school friends.
This was my first time seeing Star Wars up on the big screen, and it was as much a transcendental experience for me in 1999 as it was for kids back in ‘77. I’d sustained myself with the original trilogy for years, and I can’t recall a time not being infatuated with the franchise. Despite needing a pee break during the Gungans’ battle with the droid army, I was transfixed.
Star Wars finally felt like it belonged to me and not the preserve of my parents or the previous generation. It was fresh, exciting and mine. For years I watched and re-watched the film on VHS knowing nothing of the backlash or contempt some held for it. In fact, it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I discovered how much people hated Jar Jar.
To cut a long story short, I grew up with TPM and, coupled with the rest of the prequel trilogy, it offered a backdrop to my own coming of age. There’s a certain poetry there, don’t you think? I certainly did. At least for a time, until I allowed the loudest, most hate-filled voices dictate to me what my own opinion should be. And, for a while, I hated the prequels with the best of them. I’d watch them ironically, you see, and laugh, groan and roll my eyes. I look back now in embarrassment, but at least I saw the error of my ways and now, I adore them. It just gets so exhausting feeling I need to justify that all the time.
So, what is it about TPM in particular that I adore? I’d be lazy to say everything, and so I’ll take you on a brief whistle-stop tour. I love the aesthetic, this bright and gleaming look inspired by art nouveau. In order to establish the celebrated “used universe” look that defined the original trilogy, Lucas had to establish the Republic in all its glittering beauty, even as it reached its death throes. And oh, what beauty.
Naboo is one of the most stunning and fully realised worlds in science fiction, with its beauteous blend of European architecture, cascading waterfalls and vast open plains. Below the water’s edge was a setting even more ethereal and otherworldly. The reveal of the underwater Otho Gunga never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Part of this, undoubtedly, is down to John Williams’ haunting score (more on that later) but the aquatic architecture, all bubbles and curved accents, takes the breath away. The Gungans might be much-maligned, but you can’t fault their aesthetic.
Though the film was a landmark in digital movie making, pushing the envelope for what could be accomplished on screen, so much of what we see is tangible. True to his roots, Lucas employed all movie making trickery at his disposal, including sets, miniatures and puppets. People would be surprised to learn just how much was accomplished on location, on a sound stage or with practical effects. It’s why out of all the prequels, TPM has aged the best. Even the immersive digital environments, such as Coruscant, still dazzle and amaze.
Though there’s many exhilarating sequences throughout the film, one of its highlights is the pod race. There’s so much going on in this sequence, not least Lucas seeing how far he could push the saga. A fifteen-minute, real time drag race with hardly any music is a hard sell on paper, but my oh my do the results speak for themselves. As well as deftly blending digital wizardry with practical effects, the sequence mirrors (or rhymes, to use Lucas’ preferred term) with the speeder bike chase in Return of the Jedi.
Of course, having such a spectacle midway meant that the succeeding action sequences needed to work overtime. Fortunately, TPM boasts one of the best lightsaber battles in the saga. Previously, we’d only seen Obi-Wan and Vader clash sabers and Luke duking it out with his dad on two separate occasions. But here was finally an opportunity to see trained Jedi at the height of their collective power cross laser blades with the Sith. And Darth Maul does not disappoint. Though we get little in terms of character (that came later in The Clone Wars and Rebels), Maul is nothing short of iconic. His fight with Qui-Gon Jinn and a plucky Obi-Wan is a sight to behold. Here the fighting is a brutal ballet, as much a dance as a duel to the death.
Now seems like as good a time as any to talk about the score. Though John Williams’ tenure on the original trilogy saw the veteran composer conjure some of the best music put to film, he somehow managed to outdo himself. The complex score for TPM was self-referential, bold and beautiful. ‘Duel of the Fates’ garners much of the acclaim and rightly so, but Anakin’s theme has a hidden darkness that speaks to his future fall, while the end parade music is the Emperor’s theme in a major key hinting at the darkness lurking in the heart of the Republic.
I know I’ve rambled on, but I’d be remiss not to at least mention the cast. They’re superb, from Liam Neeson as the ronin-like maverick Qui-Gon, to Ewan McGregor absolutely nailing it as a young Obi-Wan. Ian McDiarmid adds so much to the character he established years before, while Natalie Portman balances grace and ability. But it’s Jake Lloyd as Anakin I wanted to quickly discuss. Ignoring the over-use of “oops” and “yippee” for a moment, you begin to see the subtleties and quiet intensity of his performance. Lucas auditioned dozens of kids in search of an innocence coupled with an inner darkness, and Lloyd has this by the bucket-load. Just watch his expression when Padmé asks if he’s a slave, or when Mace Windu denies him entry into the Jedi Order.
But any discourse about TPM inevitably comes around to Jar Jar Binks. Most often it’s out of hate, but I’ve come to appreciate the clumsy Gungan over the years (I ever have a giant stuffed Jar Jar head in my offive). Whether deserved or not, he’s become a patsy for everything people loathe about the prequels. Yet I’d argue that Jar Jar has one of the most interesting and subtle character arcs in the entire saga. But that’s an argument that’s better reserved for its own piece.
In order to understand darkness, we first need to see the light. Vader can’t exist without having fallen from his former self. Far from demystifying cinema’s greatest villain, The Phantom Menace made him more frightening. To see how this boy could fall so far from the light is truly the greatest myth of our times. For all the above and more, I love this movie and hopefully now you can see why.