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Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Phantom Menace at 20: A Re-Watch and Re-Examination

It was a Star Wars event sixteen years in the making. It was eight years after Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novel filled the void some wondered if anyone wanted filled. It was two years after the triumphal return of the original trilogy returned to the theaters with new content.

And that first trailer was spectacular. Everyone in my office all but crashed the system downloading it and watching it over and over again. New worlds. A young Obi-Wan. And a double-bladed lightsaber! This was going to be an awesome movie!

My wife and I went on opening day. We were engaged and this was the first new Star Wars movie we would share together. She's not the geek like me, but I hoped my enthusiasm might extend a little to her.

She was excited for me...

The music was, of course, fantastic. It was John Williams. What did you expect? Some of the new themes, especially "Dual of the Fates," stands as one of the best pieces of music he's ever done. Someone intermixed this piece of music with dialogue and sound effects from the movie and it's still my favorite thing about this film.

The novelization by Terry Brooks is actually quite good. There's more in it than just the movie. In fact, all of the Prequel novelization are good, and all on Audible.

But what about the movie itself? Well, over the last twenty years, Phantom Menace kept getting bumped lower and lower on the all-time best Star Wars movie list. Well, there's always Attack of the Clones. All of my thoughts about Phantom Menace are now something like fourteen years old. The last time I can remember seeing Episode I was leading up to Episode III. Now, with the twentieth anniversary today, I broke out my DVD and watched Episode I once again.

The verdict?

Well, first some thoughts.

Thoughts on the Movie

Opening sequence - pretty darn good. The Jedi are in full command. Up until now, we've only heard stories about the Jedi. Now we see two. When Qui-Gon sticks his lightsaber in the door and starts to melt it, that is tres cool!

Jar-Jar Binks - Yeah, when we first see him, he's really difficult to understand. But he's not that bad at first. He's a local. Qui-Gon saved him. Jar Jar becomes their guide. What makes the whole Gungan part neat is that we get to see an underwater world in the Star Wars universe. Something new! As the movie went on, however, and I accepted Jar Jar as what he is--comedic relief although at times, he's not that funny--he wasn't as annoying as I remember. Well, he's still annoying at times. And I would have liked for him to rise to the occasion, like in the big battle scenes at the end. But I didn't dislike him as much as I remember.

Anakin as a kid is jarring. Yes, every adult bad guy was once a kid, but it's still a little weird. It is what it is. And Jake Lloyd does his best. Like Jar Jar, I actually found Anakin as a kid less annoying this time. And dang if his phrase "Now this is podracing" right after he blew up the droid ship was a pretty nifty moment.

Coruscant - First heard about in Zahn's trilogy, and seen briefly in the special edition of Return of the Jedi, now, we get to see it writ large.

"He was meant to help you."

So, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (QGJ and OWK from now on) just happen to land on the desert planet that happens to have Anakin on it, a boy we are led to understand was the result of immaculate conception. By the midi-chlorians. Is that how it works?

Or did the Force direct  QGJ or OWK to Tatooine?  When Shmi Skywalker says what she says, is this the moment she knew was coming? As the mother of a Force-sensitive person, does some of it stay with her?

Speaking of this, QJG's actions regarding Anakin are rather....self-serving, right? He basically swoops in and takes Shmi's son away because of the Force? Isn't that the kind of Jedi attitude Luke Skywalker eventually rebels against in The Last Jedi?

"Finding him was the will of the Force," QGJ says. Maybe that really is the simple answer.

On the subject of Qui-Gon Jinn, he's a pretty interesting character. In all the movies, he the only one who refers to The Force as the "The Living Force." That's a fascinating concept, something Yoda told Luke about but doesn't get much time in the subsequent. I would have liked more of this philosophy explored. Maybe it is in the novels. If so, please let me know titles.

In some of the novels, Qui-Gon's spirit communicates with Obi-Wan and teaches him how to become one in the Force. His Force Ghost shows up in the novel of Attack of the Clones. How cool would it be if Qui-Gon shows up in Rise of Skywalker.

A thought just occurred to me: in the thirty years since Return of the Jedi, Luke studied the history of the Jedi. He learned about Qui-Gon and the Jedi Master's role in discovering Anakin. With Qui-Gon basically being a Jedi Rebel, might Luke's actions in The Last Jedi be more akin to Qui-Gon than any other Jedi?

Oh, and this time watching Anakin leave his mother behind? Well, that'll be me next year. Didn't even affect to me back in 1999. Now, all the emotions come to the front.

The Lightsaber Battle is Awesome!

As I think over all the lightsaber battles we've had to date, I think the one between OWK, QGJ, and Darth Maul might be the best. It in itself is a three-act play. Finally, we get to see three combatants, each at their prime, fighting each other with all their skills. A villain who can hold his own against two Jedis. Excellent stuff.

The Verdict

Twenty years ago today, I watched The Phantom Menace for the first time. Then, it was new, the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years. I remember loving it, but I had doubts. Over the years, I relied on my memories or memes to remember what happened in this movie. But there's nothing like watching it again to either reinforce what I remember or form a new opinion. That's what I did yesterday.

And, dang, if I didn't enjoy it. Actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. Yeah, Jar Jar was still annoying at parts--like when he and QGJ and OWK jump from the balcony and saved the queen, Jar Jar slips on the rampart and squeals--but I found myself getting into the show even though I knew what was on the way.

But keep this in mind. Up until 1999, George Lucas always talked about how he saw Star Wars in his head and, up to that time, it had never materialized on screen. The Phantom Menace was the first one where he had complete control and all the money to realize his vision. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are just more of the same. Lucas's vision was fully realized with The Phantom Menace.

And, visually, it is stunning. The worlds. The ships. The aliens. It all came together.

In an odd bit of ironic timing, I'm listening to the six-part podcast series called Blockbuster. It's about how Lucas and Steven Spielberg created Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars in the 1970s. Lucas's vision of the original Star Wars was a great adventure with heart. The Phantom Menace doesn't have as much heart as Star Wars, but it's clearly in that wheelhouse.

So I've changed my mind on The Phantom Menace. It is not as bad as I remember. It's actually a pretty decent movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the re-watch.

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