The year was 1999, and it had been 16 years since Return of the Jedi was released and fans were eager for more stories from a galaxy far far away.
However, George Lucas’ next installment into the Star Wars franchise did not continue the story from which we left off with Luke, Han and Leia. Instead, The Phantom Menace was a prequel, with two more films planned in order to create a prequel trilogy to what is now known as the Original trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, which were edited with the title prefixes of Episode 4, 5 & 6).
When Master Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent on a diplomatic mission to resolve negotiations between the planet of Naboo and the Trade Federation. However, when negotiations fail due to deceit and betrayal, the Jedi find themselves rescuing the Naboo Queen, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), along with a native Gungan, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). Naboo is overrun with the Trade Federation’s droid army so the Jedi, along with the Gungan and the Queen, escape on a small ship, but after a heated escaped, they are forced to land on a desert planet known as Tattooine.
Whilst on Tattooine they meet a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) as well as his mother, Schmi Skywalker (Pernilla August), both of whom are slaves on Tattooine, who help the Jedi repair their ship in order to warn the Republic of the Federations plans. They are attacked by a mysterious figure wielding a red lightsaber and after reporting this interaction with the Jedi Council back on Coruscant, the Jedi fear that the Sith, those who wield the dark side of the force, have returned.
Cast and Characters:
This new installment to the Star Wars franchise gave us a whole roster of brand new characters, with very few of the original Star Wars cast returning. Some of the returning cast include Kenny Baker returning as the loveable astromech, R2-D2, Anthony Daniels returns to voice C-3PO, and Frank Oz returns to bring Master Yoda to life.
However the new cast is a list of big names from Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid, and Samuel L. Jackson just to name a few. There are new races of aliens, and all of them are brought to life with incredible acting, and top of the range CGI (at the time) that takes the audience away from Earth and off to a galaxy far, far way.
Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, and Ray Parker as Darth Maul (voiced separately by Peter Serafinowicz) were stand outs from the film, along with Ewan McGregor as the young Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi. These characters became the most popular amongst the prequel trilogy and it’s all thanks to their performances in The Phantom Menace. Kenobi, Jinn and Maul all became returning characters in the Star Wars expanded universe, with Qui-Gon Jinn appearing in various novels as well as appearances in Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated television series, and even mutliple mentions in the two following sequels to Phantom Menace as well as Neeson bringing Jinn’s voice back for a quick voice cameo in The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
McGregor’s character of Obi-Wan Kenobi is certainly an outstanding character, and whilst we already knew the character from Alec Guiness’ portrayal in the original trilogy, Ewan McGregor brought us a much believable and brilliantly funny younger version of Kenobi, who became more popular than Guiness’ Ben Kenobi. Obi-Wan will return, with Ewan McGregor reprising the role, in the upcoming Disney Plus television series, simply titled Obi-Wan Kenobi which is due for release in 2022, which will explore Kenobi’s story between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.
Darth Maul returned in both the Clone Wars series as well as Star Wars: Rebels both of which explain what happens to Maul after his defeat at the hand of young Kenobi, but better than that, in Rebels we get to see Maul face off against a now older, Ben Kenobi, in one final battle. Maul also became adapted into various novels, comics and plenty of video games, but more than that, his popularity allowed for a vast marketing opportunity with his striking appearance and dual-bladed lightsaber becoming insanely popular among toy manufacturers and novelty items such as money banks, collectible busts & statues, and artwork etc. Whilst the criticism on the Phantom Menace was very controvercially mixed, it can’t be denied that almost every child who watched the film wanted to be Darth Maul, and I myself have many fond memories of having my face painted at fairgrounds in the style of Darth Maul.
One thing that the Star Wars films have never failed to bring to audiences, is a exceptionally brilliant soundtrack. Ever since the beginning, the scores for the films are performed by an orchestra with both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy being scored by the London Symphony Orchestra, composed and conducted by the legendary John Williams. The orchestral music really brings the action, drama and overall atmosphere of the galaxy to life, with loud fast paced beats for the battle scenes, and soft, quieter and slower paced rhtymic sounds for the emotional sequences. Ever since the first Star Wars film in 1977, the popularity of Orchestral scores increased due to the Star Wars soundtrack attracting a new group of admirers.
What I like about The Phantom Menace
Despite many controversies, I actually enjoy this film, though it is undeniably weaker than it’s sequels and it’s predecessors. I still enjoy it for what it is, and what it gives us. It expands the universe and brings new life to the galaxy. Certain elements that give us a deeper insight into life outside of the Jedi order such as the Mos Espa Pod Race, and not to mention the idea of slavery in the outer rim which shows us a darker side of the galaxy that some might consider to be worse than death, which we have seen plenty of in the original trilogy. I also love a majority of the characters, and the new mix of races that we see among the different locations, be it Dugs like Anakin’s pod racing nemesis, Subulba, or even the Gungans, one of whom certainly causes controversy amongst fans.
Let’s talk about the Gungan in the room, Jar Jar Binks. As a kid I loved Jar Jar, and that’s exactly why, I was a kid. He is a character that is there to add a lighter tone for the child fandom of the films. Whilst Star Wars was said to be a kid’s film, if you watch the original trilogy, you’ll see many reasons why it shouldn’t be considered a film for children. However, The Phantom Menace is much lighter in tone and much more of an acceptable watch for children of all ages, as Jar Jar gives the young audience constant comedy throughout the film.
The fight sequences with the Jedi are exciting, and even as an adult, the intensity between the Jedi and Darth Maul can be felt, which helps give this film that same excitement as the original trilogy. Darth Maul of course was a standout as mentioned, but he was very different to the Sith we already know. For starters, he barely spoke, and instead he just had to stand there looking badass, but it worked so well. With a name like ‘The Phantom Menace’, it made sense that not too much was revealed about this sinister character.
What I didn’t like
This film sparked so much controversy upon it’s release in 1999. After waiting over 15 years for a new Star Wars film, many fans were disappointed in the newest installment because it seemed to be somewhat of a far cry from the previous films we know and love. It was so much lighter in tone, and the humour was far more slap stick than the previous films. I think that it’s because they were aiming this at a younger audience, rather than just trying to appeal to the already captured audience that fell in love with the original trilogy.
Going back to the Gungan in the room, Jar Jar is great for kids as I said above, but as you get older Jar Jar becomes more of an annoyance rather than a comic relief. There’s plenty of humour in the film already and you realise that Jar Jar is overdone with his clumsiness that leads to him somehow becoming a hero. There have been many fan theories that suggest Jar Jar is a smarter character than he appears to be but if that were the case, I would have preferred to see proof of that in the films. There is almost no sign that Jar Jar possesses any intelligance as he just stumbles through the galaxy. I’ll admit that I still laugh at some his quirks when I recently rewatched the film, but in the bigger picture, he is just a little too annoying. I think if they toned him down a little then he could have been a much better character but sadly, he suffered from the script.
Speaking of the script, that is one thing that failed this film. There are good elements, and a decent plot but the execution of those ideas within the script just didn’t quite hit the spot, in my opinion. Many of the conversations seem dull and there are certain elements that just don’t excite me as much as it should. One of the plot points that annoy me, is the whole “this boy is the chosen one” prophecy plot point. I get that Vader is supposed to be one of the strongest force users in the galaxy (despite the fact that when we see him in the original trilogy, he is mostly a pawn for Sidious to use, but when you give a character a background plot that he is ‘the chosen one’ then it’s putting a lot onto that character in terms of expectations, and let’s face it, none of the characters in Star Wars should be considered a ‘chosen one’ especially among the Jedi. All of those Master Jedi’s that sit on the council and suddenly a boy comes along who is meant to be more powerful than all of them because it was prophecised. It just takes so much away from the story in my opinion. It’s my biggest annoyance within the film because it’s such a lazy plot device and very much overdone. I enjoy some stories about chosen beings but there has to be a deeper plot to it all, which Star Wars does not deliver. We are told that he is possibly a child born from the force itself, with a higher midichlorian count (which many fans don’t like the idea of) than even Master Yoda, but never given a definitive explanation of his back story beyond that. I know that being a film, there’s only so much you can do but if they were going to give us a chosen one they needed to focus more on that but they didn’t. In the end I couldn’t care less about Anakin being prophecised, I was more bothered about seeing the war between the Jedi and the Federation.
As much as it’s a far cry from the original trilogy, I think that The Phantom Menace is a film that can be underrated but is undeniably one of the weaker films in the franchise. I think that if the script was properly edited, with toned down humour and a more definitive plot that didn’t skip and jump between plot points, then it could have been something truly special, but sadly it falls short. However, I will admit that I still somewhat enjoy the film for what it is, and love that it brings us a lot of new characters and settings that became a staple in the Star Wars universe. Characters such as Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul were given this one film but went on to become legends in their own right within the rest of the expanded universe.
All of the Star Wars films, including The Phantom Menace are available to watch on Disney Plus. Just visit the Star Wars section and find the films category.