A long time ago, a girl’s parents took her to see a science fiction film called Star Wars. On that day, she fell in love with all things Star Wars, even the extended universe that began with Timothy Zahn’s 1991 book, Heir to the Empire. But in 2012, Disney purchased Star Wars and proceeded to erase the majority of the extended universe she had come to know. With much of her Star Wars knowledge no longer applicable, she begins a journey through the new canon. Her goal – to travel the path of the new canon, experiencing as much of the new material in story order as best as she possibly can.
The Phantom Menace (1999), written and directed by George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars universe, begins the new canon. While I saw the film in the theater, this time my goal is to watch with fresh eyes without comparing the work to any Star Wars property created prior to its release.
A crawl introduces the world to the audience. In this far away galaxy, the Galactic Republic has been in power for a long time. However, there is trouble – the Trade Federation has established a blockade around the planet of Naboo, protesting the taxation of trade routes. From the crawl, I realize The Phantom Menace is not a sci-fi romp; instead, the film is more akin to a political thriller.
It took me eight minutes to figure out who the “bad guys” are. The Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic has sent two ambassadors to help Naboo, but it is a secret mission. According to the crawl, Jedi Knights are “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy,” but the Trade Federation trembles in fear of the news that the ambassadors are Jedi. Clothing is no clue. A man named Lord Sidious is in league with the Trade Federation, but he wears a cloak like the two Jedi. Perhaps the Jedi aren’t as benign as the crawl said. Maybe the Jedi learn that the Senate is the entity acting in the wrong. The mystery of who I should be rooting for is finally solved when the Queen of Naboo states that the Trade Federation has gone too far. In response, the Trade Federation cuts off Naboo’s communications, launches an invasion of the planet with their droid army, and attempts to kill the Jedi.
What kind of people try to kill the galaxy’s keepers of peace and justice? Bad guys, that’s who.
After presenting this politically complex world, the film takes a break and spends time on Tatooine, a planet on the outer rim, outside of the protection of the Galactic Senate, which allows for this Hutt-controlled world to have slaves. Because they need parts for their ship, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Gungan outcast Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), the Queen’s handmaiden Padmé (Natalie Portman), and the droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) venture into town and meet Watto (voiced by Andrew Secombe), the owner of the shop and of two slaves, Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) and her son Anakin (Jake Lloyd).
Qui-Gon feels that the boy is special and uses those feelings to get the money necessary for parts. Anakin is a kind boy; he offers them shelter during a dust storm and offers to compete in a very dangerous event, podracing. Qui-Gon makes a series of bets with Watto: if Anakin wins, Watto will give them the parts and free Anakin. Qui-Gon places a lot of faith in Anakin, and the nine-year-old boy handles it well.
Anakin had bragged about his talents before, and his performance during the podrace confirms the hype. He built his podracer, which stalls at the beginning of the race, but he fixes the issue and starts in second-to-last place. He has a lot of ground to cover in three laps. The race is intense. The course is full of tight turns, tunnels, and other dangers such as Tusken Raiders shooting at them. Anakin repairs his racer twice during the race and outmaneuvers Sebulba (voiced by Lewis Macleod), a cheater who had dominated the podracing circuit, to win the race.
With their ship fixed, our band of heroes are ready to leave the desert planet. Before they can leave, they are attacked by Darth Maul (Ray Park), the apprentice of Lord Sidious. This moment is when these two plots converge. The main story is the liberation of Naboo. The subplot is about the Jedi and Anakin. Darth Maul was sent to get the Queen and bring her back to Naboo to force her to sign a peace treaty with the Trade Federation. Maul’s weapon is what ties the two together. Maul fights using a lightsaber. By having the same type of weapon as Qui-Gon and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), Maul and Lord Sidious are revealed to have a connection to the Jedi. This signals a possibility that Lord Sidious and Darth Maul are Jedi with a grudge or something worse.
Queen Amidala finally arrives at Coruscant, a planet that is one huge city. Navigating the sprawling city-planet is easier than navigating the Senate. Naboo’s Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) warns Amidala that her pleas will fall on ears bloated with ego and drowning in corruption. And he’s right. The insistence of Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) to push the issue onto a committee prompts Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence.
Also in Coruscant, on top of one of the highest buildings, is the Jedi Council. Qui-Gon insists that the Council train Anakin to be a Jedi. On Tatooine, Qui-Gon had Obi-Wan test Anakin’s blood for midi-chlorians, and his count is off the charts, even higher than Master Yoda’s. This causes Qui-Gon to believe Anakin is the Chosen One, a Jedi destined to bring balance to the force.
This development raises three questions:
Question: What are midi-chlorians? According to Qui-Gon, midi-chlorians are microscopic organisms that live in all living things in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship, making life and the Force possible. When one quiets the mind, they can hear the midi-chlorians speak. In real life, there are millions of bacteria who live in our bodies, both us benefitting. However, I don’t hear them speak, unless that’s where the adage about listening to one’s gut comes from. Because Anakin has a high count of these magical bacteria, Qui-Gon concludes the boy is destined to be a powerful Jedi.
Question: How can Anakin have no father? During the Jedi Council meeting, it is said that the Chosen One is conceived by midi-chlorians. On Tatooine, Shmi told Qui-Gon that Anakin has no father; she just woke up one day pregnant. So somehow Shmi had a lot of midi-chlorians inside her that fertilized her egg, making Anakin a genetic blend of his mother and magical bacteria. If Qui-Gon is correct. Or Shmi was roofied by a guy who was either a jerk of a Jedi or a Sith. Sorry Qui-Gon, being roofied is more plausible.
Question: Why is there a need for a Chosen One? The prophecy states that the Chosen One will bring balance to the Force. But the Jedi, the good guys, are in power. Sure, the presence of possible Sith surprised them, but currently, the Jedi are not threatened.
Questions aside, Chosen One or not, the Council is reluctant to train Anakin because he is too old and Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) senses much fear in the boy. But Qui-Gon informs the Council that he will train Anakin. However, having two Padawans is against the rules. Qui-Gon says Obi-Wan is ready for the trails, which will promote Obi-Wan from Padawan to Knight. The Council decides to decide Anakin’s fate later.
Queen Amidala returns to Naboo so she can free her people. Padmé, who is actually Queen Amidala and not her handmaiden, proves herself to be a capable leader and fighter. She negotiates an alliance with the Gungan, and it is her plan that leads to the capture of the Viceroy and to winning the day. Part of her plan included blowing up the ship controlling the Trade Federation’s droid army, which was accomplished by Anakin. He obeyed Qui-Gon’s instructions of staying the cockpit, but he powered up the ship to help Padmé, and the ship’s autopilot took him to the battle. He got inside the control ship and inadvertently destroyed it, disabling the droids.
The best part of the film is the battle between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul. Darth Maul is a unique villain. His red face with black markings and spikes and those red-yellow eyes make him visually striking, and he mainly communicates with his facial expressions and body movements. His fluid fighting style is more elegant than the two Jedi’s, and his mere presence is imposing, quickly conveying to the audience why it takes two Jedi to strike him down.
Yes, one of the best characters of the film, the one dripping with intrigue and vast potential, is cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But not before killing Qui-Gon.
Although The Phantom Menace gets bogged down in a complicated plot, there are plenty of good entertaining action scenes. Sea monsters, blaster fights, a space battle, and a duel between Darth Maul and Jedi are needed to break up scenes with clunky explanations about midi-chlorians, confusing Senate meetings, and dull discussions about trade policy. Even Jar Jar Binks offers relief.
Before Qui-Gon died, he made Obi-Wan promise to train Anakin. After the battle at Naboo, Obi-Wan passes the trials (off screen) and becomes a Jedi Knight. He tells Master Yoda that he wants to train Anakin, even if it means defying the Jedi Council. Defying the Council is something Qui-Gon did in the past, and Yoda says that he senses Qui-Gon’s defiant streak in Obi-Wan. Although they have doubts, the Council has given Obi-Wan permission to officially train Anakin.
Naboo is liberated. Senator Palpatine has been elected to be the new Supreme Chancellor, promising to end corruption and bring peace and prosperity to the galaxy. Yes, a Sith is somewhere out in the galaxy, but there are plenty of Jedi to deal with that. And a young, sweet, innocent boy begins his journey to possibly become a great Jedi.
Everything is good in the galaxy.
Up next: The trade paperback of Star Wars: Obi-Wan & Anakin (collects Obi-Wan and Anakin #1 – 5 by Charles Soule, Marco Checchetto, and Andres Mossa; published by Marvel)