Opening the Holocron – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace

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Jedi vs. Sith in Star Wars: 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…

MakingStarWars.net — 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.”

Star Wars: Episode I

Episode I

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 were obvious about Ebert was his ability to transcend a critical trope. He was able to simply enjoy a movie; even a so-called “popcorn movie.”

I recently returned to his review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and wasn’t 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

Star Wars: Every Saga Has A Beginning

For those of us who appreciate the Prequel Trilogy (a subject discussed on the latest “Rebel Grrrl” podcast), Ebert’s words are a touchstone. They remind us of the sheer wonder we felt when we first saw the movie’s trailer, or read the crawl, and were introduced to Qui-Gon, Padme, or Darth Maul.

A careful re-watching of The Phantom Menace reminded me of that satisfaction and the happiness I felt. At age 24, and a bit jaded, I experienced joy as I saw stories I only imagined as a child.

Seeing Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977 remains my earliest memory and it was a transcendent moment. I vividly recall sitting on my dad’s lap in West Springfield, Massachusetts; mind-blown as I watched Luke Skywalker stare out at Tatooine’s twin suns.

There, in a galaxy far, far away, I met the heroic droids and, of course, learned to fear Darth Vader.

Compare & Contrast

No movie could ever transcend that toddler’s memory and TPM – with its admitted flaws – certainly did not. However, I did, and do, enjoy it.

Queen Amidala

Queen Amidala

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 and have that kind of hope; 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 and a downright historic testament to digital effects and modern filmmaking.

However, the moments that ignite the most passion in this 42-year-old fan always involve Lucasfilm’s first fully-realized lightsaber battles; clashes that stand in stark contrast to those in the original trilogy.

Deliberate Differences

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 true and lasting worth.

Seething with rage after helplessly witnessing his master Qui-Gon run through, Obi-Wan attacks Darth Maul with ferocity. In the depths of Theed, and with his master lying mortally-wounded nearby, the young Jedi wants revenge. He attacks and his use of anger to fuel his onslaught brings Kenobi to the edge.

The Sith apprentice used the spike in the dark side energy against the padawan and Obi-wan dangles precariously. He calls on his training, meditates momentarily and reaches back through the light. He fully realizes 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.

Thumbs Up

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, thereby opening 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

A graduate of Boston and Northeastern universities, John Bishop became the beat reporter for BostonBruins.com prior to the B’s 2006-07 hockey season. While with the Bruins, “Bish” traveled North America and Europe to cover the Black & Gold’s every move via laptop, blog, and smart phone. The co-author of two books, Bygone Boston and Full 60 to History: The Inside Story of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, John covered the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010 and the B’s 2011 championship run and banner raising before taking a faculty/communications position at a prep school outside Boston in 2013. He lives with his wife Andrea and sons Jack, Scott, and Luke in central Massachusetts.