2019 is the 20th anniversary of the first entry of Lucas’ divisive Star Wars prequel trilogy. Star Wars Episode 1 The Phantom Menace has a left indisputable mark on pop culture but although one associated with utter contempt and disappointment. Episode 1 has been the target of mockery that have made it little more than the black sheep of the franchise. Yet, I’m a Star Wars fan whose perception of episode 1 wasn’t shaped by such cynicism and pessimism. Admittedly, it still might be one of the weakest Star Wars films, yet, episode 1 still has many positives. While the internet’s relationship with the Star Wars prequels has finally turned ”positive” in some places but there is still much lingering resentment. In this climate, let’s revisit some of the good found in Star Wars Episode 1 Phantom Menace.
Qui-Gon: “You’ve been a good apprentice, Obi-Wan, and you’re a much wiser man than I am. I foresee you will become a great Jedi Knight.”
Qui-Gon: “Don’t center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.”
Obi-Wan: “But Master Yoda said I should be mindful of the future.”
Qui-Gon: “But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, young Padawan.”
1. Qui Gon Jinn, The Maverick Jedi
Star Wars has known many Jedi but a few are like Qui Gon Jinn. The master of the much beloved Obi-Wan Kenobi. Qui Gon Jinn has an unmistakably cool zenlike presence because of Liam Neeson’s charisma as an actor. In contrast with his peers in a time where most Jedi had become rigid and overly dogmatic, Qui Gon was a Jedi that took the opposite mentality. Not concerned with religious dogmatism, he refuses a position on the Jedi council. Qui Gon is a man concerned with the here and now. He pretty much lives according to his ”gut feelings”. Perhaps, ”gut feeling” is a bit of an exaggeration but the gist of what I’m trying to say, Qui Gon is willing to let his heartfelt intuition to guide him at the most opportune moment. Or as he puts it, ”Be mindful of the living Force.” A mentality that gives a greater awareness to the world around him. Such as seeing Jar Jar as more than a ”village idiot” and seeing Anakin more than just a precocious slave child or even realizing Padme’s true identity as the Queen before anyone else. Qui Gon’s wisdom and insight is prophetic. Qui Gon tells Anakin,”your focus determines your reality”. Anakin’s fall from grace would be sparked by his focus on the wrong thing. Which is his focus on his refusal to accept the death of his loved ones. It is even implied that Qui Gon’s style of thinking could have steered Anakin from the dark side. Anakin’s fatherly bond to Qui Gon has a significant impact as Obi-Wan isn’t able to fill in the vacuum properly and Palpatine takes on the fatherly role.Qui Gon is a maverick Jedi that stands as a moral authority and exemplar of a what true Jedi should be in contrast with his out of touch peers that have fallen astray.
2. It feels like an actual beginning!
True to its name, episode 1 does truly feel like episode 1. The often mocked crisis of taxation is actually a perfect indicator for the current state of the galaxy. It is a time of complete peace or at least more a less troubled time if the biggest crisis facing the galaxy is a mere taxation crisis. It is also a perfect front for the Sith to use to put themselves into power. The central conflict in the Phantom Menace has a different dynamic to it. While in most Star Wars films, the conflict is more galactic in scale, the conflict is more planetary in nature. The stakes being a lower might make the conflict a bit duller. But, we get a different perspective on the galaxy before things escalated and when things do escalate, we see where it all begins.The small domino that knocked all of the other pieces down was the Naboo crisis. There is a greater sense of escalation to the narrative.
3. Dramatic Ironic Foreshadowing
Episode 1 is filled with great moments of dramatic ironic foreshadowing. Episode 1 does have a more overt ”lighthearted” and even ”childish” overtone so the cues can go over people’s head. What is seemingly childish in The Phantom Menace will take on a darker connotation in the future. Anakin’s interest in mechanics comes off as a simple childhood curiosity but ironically, in the future, Anakin will literally become a mechanical man. A few of the first words of child Anakin we ever hear from is, ”I’m a person and my name is Anakin.” Ironic words from a kid that will one day become a cyborg that has lost his humanity or in a way, his ”personhood.” In fact, when we first saw Darth Vader in episode 4 without much context, he almost seems like a robot without any humanity. Luke’s personal journey in the original trilogy is coming to terms with the actual ”personhood” of Darth Vader and how it connects to him. Anakin building CP30 might appear as pointless fan-service yet it slightly hints at Anakin’s fascination with life and death. One of the most poignant words that Shimi, Anakin’s mother, tells her son is that he must accept change. ”You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” These are set of poignant but unsettling words as we know that Anakin will race against the duo setting suns of Tatooine to save his mother. Anakin’s boast about, ”no one can kill a Jedi” is highly ironic considering he will be one of the main instigators of a massive Jedi genocide. There are others as well but these are a few examples.
4. Moral lesson of just realizing the importance of the most downtrodden around us.
Obi-Wan ”Why do I sense that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?”
One of the most criticized aspects of The Phantom Menace is Jar Jar and child Anakin. A lot of people see their inclusion as a cynical attempt to appeal to children. Well, there is definitely a serious attempt to appeal to children, however, there is definitely an importance to them in the story. It is not merely superficial. Over the course of The Phantom Menace, Padme seeks the aid of others for the plight of her people in Naboo. Her hope is that institutions like the republic will come to support her people yet the republic doesn’t act to save her people. Nor the Jedi seem the most proactive in supporting her people either. Help arrives from the most unexpected place. It wasn’t the institutions that saved her people. It was the most ”pathetic” lifeforms that came to her aid. Which in this case, a ”slave boy” and a ”village idiot” that no really likes to have around. ”Pathetic” figures coming to save the day is actually a Star Wars tradition. In episode 4, it was a farm boy and a smuggler are key figures that blow up the Death Star. In episode 5, the unassuming Yoda who looks pathetically weak is actually a source of wisdom . In episode 6, the ”pathetic” Ewoks defeat the mighty empire. Jar Jar might be super annoying that still doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any moral worth and can’t be helpful to others.
5. Obi-Wan and Qui Gon’s relationship
QUI-GON : Anakin will become A Jedi…I promise you.
OBI-WAN : Don’t defy the Council, Master..not again.
QUI-GON : I will do what I must.
OBI-WAN : Master, you could be sitting on the Council by now if you would
just follow the code. They will not go along with you this time.
QUI-GON : You still have much to learn, my young apprentice.
Master and student, Qui Gon and Obi-Wan formed a tight pair. The two act almost perfectly holistically during combat. Their intense duel with Darth Maul is a great synchronized display of their inherent grace and solitary together. Master and apprentice have a close bond yet there is a measured amount of professional distance between the two. Obi-Wan always reserves a sense of reverence for his off the cuff master. Qui Gon holds Obi-Wan in high esteem while acknowledging he still has much to learn. Qui Gon and Obi-Wan have different mentalities. Obi-Wan is a by the books kind of Jedi that is wary of being unorthodox. Obi-Wan does on occasions even try to keep his master in check while trying not to overstep his boundaries as a student. The tutelage of Anakin Skywalker becomes a sticking point between master and student. Obi-Wan does come around when he wants to train Anakin for the sake of a promise he makes to Qui Gon as he dies in his arms. Obi Wan’s relationship with Anakin is basically the perfect inversion of his relationship with Qui Gon. This time, the master is the orthodox Jedi whilst the student is the maverick Jedi. Yet, as Yoda noted himself,”Qui-Gon’s defiance I sense in you”, when he Obi Wan demands he will able to train Anakin. Obi-Wan begins to grow outside of his persona as an overly doctrinal man and eventually becomes more like Qui Gon by the time of A New Hope.
6. The Conflict of The Fathers.
Anakin Skywalker born without a literal father would spend the rest of his life tossed from one father figure to the next. In a way, Anakin’s life is defined by the current father figure in his life. In episode 1, the two father figures that compete for Anakin’s loyalty is Qui Gon and Watto. Qui Gon is obviously an altruistic father figure. Although one might easily assume since Watto is a slave owner is a totally uncaring father figure without a care in the world for Anakin. Contrary to this assumption, Watto is oddly caring in his own way. Such as letting him leave early or when he sees Anakin again in Attack of the Clones he was genuinely very happy. Watto despite being a slave owner is strangely not totally demonized. Watto is a contemptible bastard in spite of that he is not without his merits. ”The conflict of the fathers” doesn’t subside in The Phantom Menace rather it exacerbates in the future installments. Obi-Wan is more of an older brother figure that acts like a father figure while Palpatine is an abusive father figure. Palpatine preys upon Anakin’s personal weaknesses to push him to the dark side. Under the guidance of Palpatine or Obi Wan, Anakin is never at ease with himself like he is with Watto or Qui Gon. So, in an odd way, these two father figures have an air of legitimacy to them that Obi-Wan or Palpatine simply lack. Anakin’s inability to find a proper father figure in his life is one of the biggest reasons for his fall to the dark side. Each father symbolizes the type of life and the future he could have. Watto symbolizes his future as a slave mechanic but at least he could live with his mother. Qui Gon symbolizes his hopeful aspirations to become an idealistic Jedi that can cure all of the ills in his life and in the galaxy which never really comes to fruition. For Anakin, Obi-Wan exemplifies the overbearing dogmatism of the Jedi. Palpatine represents the promise of a political system and power to exert his will for control over the galaxy and even life itself. The seeds of this conflict trace back to the contest between Watto and Qui Gon to be Anakin’s father figure.
7. The Baroque Aesthetics
Well, art design is a matter of taste and yet, the aesthetics of episode 1 deserve praise. Episode 1 paints a different picture of the Star Wars galaxy. The grainy and gritty aesthetics of the original trilogy takes a backseat as we explore the galaxy in a more ”civilized age”. The glamour and glory of the republic is in full view. The evergreen lush world of Naboo embodies that fading splendor through its architecture that resembles classical architecture. The decor of Coruscant is a sight to behold and echoes grandness its design. The environments vary greatly in design. The world presented is so beautifully detailed that it’s a feast for the eye. Which is not only extends to the environments but to the costumes and aliens as well. Unlike the two other prequels, there is a greater prominence of practical sets and effects so episode 1 avoids an overdose of CGI. Episode 1 has a different color palette that’s more of an emphasis on brighter colors. The brighter colors evoke a world that’s more fanciful and sophisticated. The baroqueness of episode 1 conveys a sense of allure and fading glory.
8. Padme, The Queen of Naboo
Padme is introduced as The Queen of Naboo. Her life is completely defined by her political position. Padme dressed in her royal garb; she gives off the appearance of being a total austere queen that silently watches her people like a distant mother figure. Her position as Queen has Padme has put up a front. So, she adopts the identity of a handmaiden to express her true self. Padme is a person of dual identities. Over the course of the Phantom Menace, the two personas come to clash as she deals with the plight of her people. When she finally appears before the Senate with her identity as the Queen of Naboo and her pleas for help fail. Padme realizes that political institutions always aren’t reliable and she must take action herself to save her people. When Padme returns to Naboo and seeks an alliance with the Gungans to save her people. In a show of humility, Padme finally lets go of her persona as the austere queen of Naboo then asks for an alliance as her true self. Padme by shredding her false persona, she’s able to be more of herself and not defined completely by a political position and protocol.
9. The Subversion of Innocence
Episode 1 is the most overtly ”childish” of the entire Star Wars saga films. It features a child as one of its central characters and the infantile humor of Jar Jar Blinks while having the Eden-like world of Naboo as one of its locales. Yet, all of the innocence featured has a dark undercurrent. Palpatine will subvert all of the innocence featured in episode 1 to destroy the republic. Palpatine takes advantage of the innocence of Padme to bring himself into power by her call of no confidence whose fittingly a queen of the Eden-like world, Naboo. In episode 2, Palpatine tricks the innocent and good-hearted fool Jar Jar to tell the Senate to grant the Supreme chancellor ”emergency powers” which he uses to destroy the republic internally in episode 2. By episode 3, Palpatine exploits the innocent love that Anakin once has for Padme to transform him into a psychotic killer to destroy the guardians of the republic, the Jedi and, also the Separatists. The subversion of this innocence that destroys the republic traces its origin to episode 1.