Opening the Holocron: Re-watching The Phantom Menace
In anticipation of Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, MakingStarWars.net correspondent John Bishop is re-watching the saga’s entire visual canon…
Every Saga Has A Beginning
Growing up, one of my favorite TV personalities was Roger Ebert (yes, one of the “two-thumbs up guys”), who – alongside Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel – co-hosted “Sneak Previews.”
Little did I know as I watched PBS (the only channel I was allowed to turn to during many of my formative years in sleepy suburban Connecticut), Ebert was one of the United States’ preeminent film critics and a prolific writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Despite that prominence, one of the things that was obvious about Ebert was his ability to transcend a critical trope and simply enjoy a movie – even a so-called “popcorn movie.”
So, when I recently returned to his review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, I was not shocked to read:
“If it were the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘The Phantom Menace’ would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. But this is the fourth movie of the famous series, and we think we know the territory; many of the early reviews have been blasé, paying lip service to the visuals and wondering why the characters aren’t better developed. How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders.” RogerEbert.com
For those of us who appreciate the Prequel Trilogy (a subject discussed on the latest “Rebel Grrrl” podcast), Ebert’s words are a touchstone, reminding us of the sheer wonder we felt when we first saw the movie’s trailer, or read the crawl, or were introduced to Qui-Gon, Padme, or Darth Maul for the first time.
After a careful re-watching of the fourth installment of George Lucas’ epic series, I was pleased to remember the joy the film gave me as a 24-year-old; the simple satisfaction and happiness I felt as I began to see worlds and stories I had only imagined at two, five, and eight years old.
Compare & Contrast
Seeing Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (then only simply called Star Wars) in 1977 remains my earliest memory. It was a transcendent moment and I vividly recall sitting on my dad’s lap in West Springfield, Massachusetts’ Showcase Cinemas, mind blown as I watched Luke Skywalker stare out at Tatooine’s twin suns, met the heroic droids, and, of course, learned to fear Darth Vader.
Of course, no movie could ever transcend that toddler’s memory and TPM – with its admitted flaws – certainly did not. But I did, and do, enjoy it.
Perhaps prophetically, it sure seems that many viewers who despise TPM (as well as its siblings Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith) simply can’t remember what it was like to be Anakin Skywalker’s age, to have that kind of hope, to have that kind of awe…
Like Anakin himself, those who deride the prequels don’t (or didn’t) want things to change.
Happily, and as our editor Jason Ward said recently on his podcast, much of the Prequel Trilogy’s visual styling remains awe-inspiring – a downright historic testament to digital effects and modern filmmaking.
However, and looking beyond the flash and dash, the moments that ignite the most passion in this 42-year-old fan always involve Lucasfilm’s first fully-realized lightsaber battles; “laser sword” clashes that stand in stark contrast to those in the original trilogy.
Lucas himself spoke to this difference in 2005:
“By the time we got to the first lightsaber battle, we realized we weren’t going to be able to do much. And so, I accepted it was an old man vs. a half-man, half-machine.” Rolling Stone
For me, it’s TPM’s culminating duel – fought by fully-trained Force wielding warriors – which gives Episode I its true and lasting worth.
In the depths of Theed, seething with rage after helplessly witnessing Qui-Gon stabbed, Obi-Wan attacks Darth Maul with ferocity. With his master lying mortally wounded nearby, the young Jedi wants revenge. But his use of anger to fuel his onslaught – although temporarily successful – literally and figuratively brings Kenobi to the edge of the precipice.
Without his own weapon, and dangling precariously on the edge of a reactor after the Sith apprentice used the spike in the dark side energy against the talented padawan, Obi-Wan calls on his training. He meditates momentarily and reaches back through the light, fully realizing his power, leaping and seizing his master’s lightsaber to best his opponent.
This pivotal moment mirrors Luke’s victory in Return of the Jedi and Rey’s in The Force Awakens and highlights the essential struggle between good and evil, a struggle that has made Star Wars so accessible to so many for so long.
The tag lines for Episode I included“Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning.” And despite the antics of Jar Jar, pit droids, and Eopies, Star Wars fans remain lucky that The Phantom Menace re-introduced the world to a galaxy far, far away and opened the universe to everything that’s come since.
Speaking to any other flaws, Ebert writes:
“As for the bad rap about the characters–hey, I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called “Star Trek” movies. Give me transparent underwater cities and vast hollow senatorial spheres any day.”
Thumbs up, Roger. Thumbs up.
Up next: “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones”