Many people who were around for the original Star Wars trilogy grew up with it in a way that no one else did. They had years and years, decades even, of consuming and dissecting these films and memorizing every single detail of only those films and had solidified a concrete idea of what a Star Wars movie was. So when The Phantom Menace came around and challenged that idea, there was much resistance and even hatred. But that wasn’t the case for me. Everyone has those movies that they can’t remember seeing for the first time, movies that they can’t remember having not already seen, and the Star Wars films were some of those for me. And being only 6 years old at the time of Episode I’s release, it all becomes nostalgic for me. To me, it’s all Star Wars and all worth defending. At my age, there was no hype, there was no waiting in line, and there was no fan speculation. For me, there was only Star Wars.
Despite growing up with Star Wars all at once and them all becoming one in my own mind, I think Episode I retains many of my favorite Star Wars’ qualities. The thorough world building and feeling of completeness in this film – and even the other prequels – is astounding. Not only does it introduce new worlds to an elaborate extent beyond what was capable in the original films, it still makes them feel like part of the same world. There’s thought put into the style and design of these worlds and their architecture. From the grand cathedrals of Naboo resembling some European country like Spain or Italy, to the metropolitan world of Coruscant, this film more closely resembled the sci-fi serials that Star Wars was originally inspired by. Just Coruscant itself looks like a cross between Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982). And the way these worlds were brought to life by a revolutionary and seamless blend of sets, miniatures, and CGI is enough to capture the imagination of a little chubby freckly-faced 6 year old Matt Brown. I almost feel like this film – and as an extension the other prequels – is what Lucas had intended to make all along way back in 1977.
Okay, yes, Jar Jar was bad. A character like that was probably aimed for kids (and to be honest, I don’t vividly remember hating him until years later) but he could have been fun if he were in one brief scene or were a peripheral character you only saw every once in a while. But as a main character who’s integral to the plot, he becomes insufferable.
Plus when you fill these environments with unbelievable action scenes, it becomes like nothing else. The podrace remains a thrilling, exciting, and original set piece that resembles old fashioned drag races from the kind of movies that inspired Lucas’s earlier film American Graffiti or even further back like the chariot race in Ben-Hur. I remember seeing the 3D re-release and the sound in the theater alone was enough to floor me. And while I think the end space battle is another example of too much going on in the climax, it still utilizes the terrific special effects blend I mentioned before and in turn feels like quintessential Star Wars in tone.
But the star of this movie is (the underutilized) Darth Maul and that show-stopping lightsaber duel at the end. We finally get to see what lightsaber duels were supposed to look like. Think about it, the fights in the original films involved an old man, an inexperienced padawan, and a half burn victim/ half robot man in an opera cape. Here we get to see the Jedi at their physical best. The choreography, the double bladed lightsaber, the speed, the double bladed lightsaber, the focus and dedication, all pushed to perfection. Oh, and did I mention the double bladed lightsaber? Plus the fact that you can see that it’s the real actors pulling off these moves makes this exciting and immersive fight one of the, if not the, best fight in the franchise.
But as an extent of that, we get to see the Jedi order at the height at which Obi-Wan had hinted at in the original film but we never got to see. We see in play their code, their inner workings, how deep their influence goes both in society and in galactic politics. We get to see these laser sword-wielding space monks and the effect they have. There are many aspects of the Jedi like their structure and their abilities that have entered Star Wars lore for the better.
Speaking of Jedi: midichlorians.
A common misconception is that midichlorians are the Force itself, while in fact they are Force receptors and a high count means a closer contact with the Force. I don’t know what kind of point I’m trying to make because I don’t like midichlorians either. They make the journey of Anakin and Luke seem more like biology than mythology.
But speaking of Anakin and Luke, I like the way Lucas mirrored their stories at first. The way they both start out as laborers on Tattooine – Anakin as a slave and Luke as a farm boy but as a teenager he totes felt like a slave – before being taken away by a Jedi to train. After losing loved ones, both eventually in later films are faced with the choice of turning to the dark side to prevent losing any more loved ones. It retroactively gives the final confrontation in Return of the Jedi a tragic irony and thematic balance.
And as far as Anakin, look, yes Jake Lloyd did not give an Oscar worthy performance in the movie, but I don’t blame him. I think Lucas painted himself into a corner by starting this complex character at a young age making the search for the right actor almost impossible. The behind the scenes show a young actor who was actually quite good, but Lucas went with the unpredictable and energetic Lloyd. I just believe that Lloyd was not a mature enough actor at the time and does not deserve the hateful comments he did and still does receive. At least he was more likable than Hayden Christensomething. At least Lloyd wasn’t lifeless.
But the film does have a lot of good casting. You can never go wrong with Liam Neeson who gave a strong and wise performance, Ewan McGregor would go on to be the best part of these films, and Samuel L. Jackson as a powerful Jedi Master on the Council is inspired casting. Even Natalie Portman was well cast at the time and showed real promise in the role. Not to mention some of the returning cast like Ian McDiarmid and Anthony Daniels.
But not all returning Star Wars vets were shoe-horned in like C-3PO being built by Darth Vader. The return of John Williams is not only welcome, but also essential as well. He doesn’t just rehash the scores from the original three films. He uses some main themes of course, but for the most part it’s a vibrant, rich score that is refreshingly new while also comforting in how familiar it is, putting you right back in that world. Plus what would this life be without “Duel of the Fates?” All arguments against the prequels can be countered by playing “Duel of the Fates.” It’s easily one of the top 5, if not 3, best tracks in all 6 films.
I know this film isn’t perfect, I’m not ignorant. The film lacks focus and a clear main character like the original trilogy with Luke, here it never decides between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, or Anakin. Plus Trade negotiations are no fun for anyone, the slapstick comedy is overused, the racial stereotypes are cartoonish, and Jar Jar Binks is why God allows suffering. He might have worked as a brief comedic character for kids or an intermittent peripheral character, but as a main character woven into the plot, he becomes getting soon and ceaselessly.
But at the time it was my whole life. I bought all the toys, got the VHS and the DVD, I dressed up as Darth Maul for Halloween, I recreated the final lightsaber duel with friends many times, I was obsessed. It captured my imagination at a young age and transported me to a galaxy full of wonder the same way it did with the last generation and the original films. Only this time I wasn’t forcing the film in my head to be exactly like the originals. I accepted it for what it was and grew up to be less cynical about it and focus on what’s good rather than what’s bad (of which I fully acknowledge there is plenty).
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