A fairly safe start to a fairly contentious article would be to say that that the average moviegoer did not particularly enjoy Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. For that matter, neither did a vocal section of the Star Wars fan community. No feathers have been ruffled by pointing that out. While it may have been the most financially successful cinema release of 1999 by some margin, George Lucas’ opening chapter of his second trilogy has gone on to become the cultural byword for expectation, hype and ultimately disappointment. A prime example of how to over-market a product and create an army of enraged (if entitled) fanboys the world over.
Everything else was cooler at the back-end of the last millennium of course, with Neo and Morpheus bringing mirror-shades and banana-phones into the mix while Qui-Gon Jinn spoke into a modified ladies’ razor. But viewed in the context of the wider continuity, it may be time to re-evaluate the film’s contribution. And there go the feathers…
The problem is one of basic deviation. Not only is the first prequel different from other sci-fi and fantasy cinema of the time, it’s stylistically different from other Star Wars movies, and deliberately so. This isn’t just a new chapter, it’s the opening of a new volume in the saga. A different time when the galaxy wasn’t quite so down on its luck, politically. And politics is the backdrop not only for this episode, but I to III as a whole.
The classic trilogy follows the Rebel Alliance’s struggle to bring down the Emperor’s autocracy; the prequels mirror this by showing us how it was constructed in the first place (a chain of events which grows arguably more pertinent as the years roll on). Admittedly, the taxation of trade routes seems a banal place to start, but that’s very much the point; tiny bureaucratic acorns that most onlookers disregarded as ‘not their business’.
Not that legislational procedure is the first troublesome thing which leaps to mind when thinking about ‘that film’, of course. No, that spot on the podium belongs to one Jar Jar Binks, the helpful Gungan that everyone loves to hate (the next time you’re watching, pay attention to how disdainful even the diplomatic Jedi are of his antics). But, as amazing as this seems, there now exists a generation of fans for whom Binks is not automatically a punchline. The awkward, gangly sidekick is a message to viewing youngsters that it’s okay to make mistakes, to be different, to not yet know where your place is. And it’s worth remembering that the same derisory comments aimed at the Gungan population in 1999 were being levelled at the Ewoks in 1983. At least Jar Jar didn’t get his own 35-episode animated spin-off series…
Moving down the charge-sheet, another frequent criticism is the introduction of Midichlorians, the cell-dwelling microscopic lifeforms whose presence denotes the host’s potential (but not ability) as a Force-user. While this has been bemoaned as ‘removing the mystery’ of the energy-field, as a storytelling device it makes absolute sense in assuring the audience that Qui-Gon’s instinctive judgement of Anakin is well-founded.
From an in-universe perspective, the symbiotes are just the biological signature shared by the many species capable of being Jedi. Given that the monastic order identify potential recruits as infants, and the Empire goes on to establish a galaxy-wide cull of the remaining knights, it’s not hard to believe that there’s a fast, reliable, scientific means of detection.
But most importantly of all, if it wasn’t for Episode I, we wouldn’t have the Star Wars we now enjoy and the visual effects industry would be worse-off, overall. This was the ‘day job’ for ILM which kept them leading the way into a new century. The original trilogy will always be cherished of course, but without the expansion of the Galaxy Far, Far Away it would be ‘those classic films’ and their associated ‘geek-only’ novels, comics and games. It’s easy to be sniffy about the marketing blitz for which The Phantom Menace set a new bar, but without that financial legacy the property would not have looked as viable to Disney in 2012. There’s a reason the internet is not constantly abuzz with news of the next chapter in the John Carter saga…
The era of Star Wars we now live in – The Force Awakens, Rebels, Rogue One and the upcoming movies – they owe their very existence to the impact and success of The Phantom Menace. Sure, the new films are smarter, cooler and more relevant, but isn’t that what all kids think when they look at old snapshots of their parents?
What do you think of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? Does it deserve defending or should it be quietly ignored? Let us know!