Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace - More Thoughts from Another Story Geek

Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Additional Thoughts from Another Story Geek

Written by Cody Sherer

(This blog post serves as a companion to the two-part Story Geeks podcast. You can find Part 1 and Part 2 on Podbean, iTunes, and Stitcher. Be sure to subscribe!)

Jay and Nathan are always encouraging people to write in with their take on the movies discussed in each podcast. As a huge Star Wars fan (and former Star Wars fan wiki editor), I will be writing a series of blog posts that brings my own in-depth analysis of the Star Wars saga and expands on some of what the Story Geeks podcast has discussed.

Warning: This blog post contains spoilers for The Phantom Menace as well as other movies in the Star Wars saga.

My Ratings for The Phantom Menace

As you may know, the Story Geeks always rate the film based on three separate ratings categories. Here are my ratings for each plus commentary:

  • Quality Rating: 6
  • Story Depth: 3
  • Likelihood to Refer: 4 (unless the person is a fan of the original trilogy, then it becomes an 8)

Note: The argument could be made that each rating should be raised by a point or two because one cannot truly gage a Star Wars movie without seeing it as part of the whole.

To further expand on these ratings, I’ll make a list of what I consider to be the pros and cons of the movie itself.

Pros (in no particular order):

  1. Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn - Liam performance is excellent. His character brings a depth to the Jedi that we don’t really see in any of the other Star Wars movies. The other Jedi are interesting, but they--with a caveat in Mace Windu--seem to have the same views of the force. Qui-Gon Jinn introduces us to the concept of the Living Force (more on this later) whereas the rest of the Jedi have a slightly different approach to the Force.
  2. The Podrace is Awesome. Granted, it's essentially a giant CGI-fest, however, the sound gives us a real feel for how this could be a real race. And we're watching from the stands with everyone else.
  3. Sound Effects. This impacts my second point a great deal. The podrace, the spaceships, and the lightsabers really benefit from the great sound effects throughout this film. We see an entire world in Naboo where the background sounds, etc. fit with what we see in the scene. It helps to immerse us in the world of Star Wars.
  4. Musical Score. Without the strong score, we are left with a movie that is interesting and fun, but not quite the all-encompassing powerhouse that is Star Wars. A great score adds emotion, and in this particular case, nostalgia, to a film.
  5. Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi. We are introduced to an elderly warrior monk in Obi-Wan Kenobi back when A New Hope came out. In those movies, he inhabits the role of a mentor for Luke Skywalker. Ewan McGregor steps into the role of young Obi-Wan in such a way that it feels like he really does fit. He fills the shoes of the excellent actor, Sir Alec Guinness. Add to this the fact that Obi-Wan is one of our most interesting characters moving forward, it is hard to point to anything negative that he brings to that role.
  6. Visual Effects. Despite the years piling on, as Nathan mentioned in the podcast, the movie still holds up. Sure, there is some overkill in this area, but the quality of the effects is hard to match for its time.
  7. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine. Perhaps the best role in the entire movie. Not only does McDiarmid play the role perfectly, but his character is one of the most entertaining parts of the film.
  8. Ray Park as Darth Maul. Up until this point, we have two Star Wars villains. The mysterious Emperor Palpatine and the “more machine than man,” Darth Vader. Palpatine is our mastermind, working behind the scenes to ensure that the Empire is indeed feared by the entirety of the galaxy. Meanwhile, Darth Vader is our menacing villain that could be the best villain of all time. Now we throw in the quick and deadly Darth Maul. Unlike the other Sith that we see, this guy is ferocious and aggressive. He brings another dimension the Sith that we have not yet seen at this point.
  9. The lightsaber battles. Qui-Gon vs. Maul in the desert is an excellent intro to our new villain. We’ve seen him before, but until this moment we don’t know what he's capable of. Pow! Right off the bat he comes flying in on his hoverbike and flip attacks Jinn. We see some ferocious fighting that gives us a preview of the epic lightsaber battle to come. When we add Obi-Wan into the mix, we get something that feels somewhat akin to a martial arts movie, except with a sci-fi twist.

Cons (again, in no particular order):

  1. Jar-Jar Binks. I didn’t find him funny, and most of his parts just become annoying. As mentioned in the podcast, his role is very much one of forced comedy. Aside from that, we don’t see a whole lot of purpose from the character.
  2. The Acting/Directing/Dialogue. There are a lot of painful lines that are delivered in ways that don’t quite measure up to what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars.
  3. Forced Plot Lines. Trade disputes do not really make for an interesting plot, however, this does right itself (to some extent) throughout the movie.
  4. Disappointing Space Battles. We're used to high-quality space battle from our previous Star Wars movies, but The Phantom Menace's space battle doesn’t cut it for me. In A New Hope, we're treated to Luke and company facing off against the Death Star and its fleets of TIE fighters. The Empire Strikes gives us a chase in an asteroid field. Return of the Jedi culminates in a massive space battle with all manner of spaceships as well as another Death Star run. In The Phantom Menace, we have a handful of pilots, droid starfighters, a space donut, and Anakin destroying the droid control ship by luck. Compared to the originals, this does not have the same gravity or even just pure enjoyment.

Things That Could Have Been Better:

  1. The Gungans. We're introduced to them through Jar-Jar Binks, which is a travesty. However, it moves beyond that to Boss Nass as well.
  2. The Ground Battle (Gungans vs. the Trade Federation). The setup for this fight is epic. We have these massive droid transports delivering battle droids into the battle. The Gungans have their massive shield generator beasts. For all of the machines that the Federation brings, we have interesting creatures to fight them off. But, instead of an interesting battle, we get Jar-Jar’s hijinks and the droids shutting down after a short and somewhat lackluster battle.
  3. Midi-chlorians. While I don’t particularly care that much about their introduction, they add pretty much nothing to the movie. All it tells us is that Anakin has more Midichlorians than Yoda. We aren’t told if that automatically makes him more attune to the Force, if it just means he needs less training than other Jedi, or if it means something else entirely. This could have been expanded in a way that really gives us a look into how the Jedi work and how their hierarchy uses this to choose potential apprentices, etc. That having been said, either Lucas should have expanded that a bit more or not gone to the trouble of adding it at all.

Deeper Discussion Points

Let’s now take a deeper look at The Phantom Menace (just like the Story Geeks always do). This section will cover some of the themes and problem areas from this film as well as draw upon the Star Wars saga as a whole for a more in-depth analysis.

The Galactic Republic and the Jedi

The Phantom Menace does a good job establishing the Galactic Republic, but there are a handful of questions that I would like to examine more closely. Our first glance at how things work is a planetary blockade by the Trade Federation against the planet of Naboo. As the movie continues, we see that the Supreme Chancellor has tasked our Jedi to fix the problem. However, we also see some pushback from members of the senate. The second issue with the Republic that stands out at me is how (despite a massive galaxy-wide Republic with Jedi to keep the peace) we still seem to have a lot of ungoverned areas. The Hutts have established themselves on Tatooine (as well as several other planets according to other Star Wars sources), yet the Republic doesn’t seem to care a great deal about this. The Jedi are seen as an arm of the Republic or maybe a tool that the Republic can use. A lot of the Republic’s layers are further fleshed out in Episodes II and III as well as the Clone Wars (both the movie and the series). We see a level of corruption that Palpatine is able to latch onto and use to bring about his rise to power. At the same time, the Jedi have a level of arrogance that prevents them from seeing this problem unfolding before their eyes. We see a lot of push-and-pull between Qui-Gon Jinn and the other Jedi, but things are left with enough ambiguity that we aren’t really sure exactly how the Jedi should be acting, just that there are some issues within the council that seem to reveal a weakness. What I would have liked to see is a bit more of what the Jedi should have been. Hopefully, we'll get to see some of this in the upcoming movies.

The Living Force

The Phantom Menace introduces us to the concept of the Living Force, which we later see fleshed out in books/tv shows/movies/video games/etc. In short, the difference seems to be more of a “we can tap into force for our benefit” as opposed to “the force will guide us to fulfill its will.” The latter seems to be where we are going with The Force Awakens and onward. I’m very much interested in seeing whether or not they use this moving forward. If so, then Qui-Gon Jinn becomes an even more interesting character than before.

Bringing Balance to the Force

We are first introduced to the concept of "bringing balance to the Force" in The Phantom Menace. Essentially, we’ve got four options for what it means:

  1. The Dark Side is Chaos and the Light Side is Order. Therefore, in order for the Force to be in balance, chaos must be removed from the universe. If this is what we're looking at, then technically, Vader does bring balance. We’ve got Kylo and Snoke in The Force Awakens, but they're not considered Sith, which might mean that Vader did bring balance by getting rid of “the plague that is the Sith.”
  2. Balance Means an Equal Number of Sith and Jedi in the Universe. Technically, this also happened because Vader tore apart just about every single Force user (sometimes through clones, other times himself). By the end of the originals, we’ve now got one Jedi (who barely has any training). Push forward 30 years and we have two dark siders and two light siders (three if you include Leia, and four if Finn is a secret Jedi).
  3. Balance According to the Clone Wars Series. In the Mortis storyline, we see a family of three. Daughter is a light sider, Son a dark sider, and Father is something of a mix (Grey Jedi perhaps?). Father holds the two of them "in balance" to ensure that neither is too powerful. How does this one work? Vader’s lineage includes Luke and Kylo/Ben. If this is indeed the option they are moving toward, we could see Rey as our light side “Daughter” (which could also mean she is indeed Luke’s daughter) and Kylo as our dark side “Son” and Luke as our Greyish “Father.”
  4. The Grey Jedi. A balance of the Force lies within each force user. They use both sides of the force as a tool for good. The line from The Last Jedi trailer, “It is time for the Jedi to end…” could point to this. Then again, it could also be a red-herring.

Jedi, Fear, and Mindfulness

In the podcast, the Story Geeks look at fear as an integral part of Anakin’s journey. My personal take on this is: Is it even reasonable for the Jedi to expect people to live without fear? Whether or not we can use fear to our advantage is, to me, secondary. Instead, it seems to me that the Jedi are asking the impossible of their apprentices. Tacking on to that, does fear lead to hate? I don't think so. Fear can keep us from living our lives to the fullest, but it can also protect us. To ignore fear seems foolish to me. I could open up a can of worms with hate and suffering, but I'll instead say that when they are inflicted upon others, that is asking to be led down the path to the dark side (often times for both the inflictor and the inflicted).

Do we witness our intrepid hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi, lapse into using the dark side? My answer, yes we do. Upon Qui-Gon’s death, we witness what appears to be a rage-filled Kenobi rushing to destroy Darth Maul. Thankfully, we also appear to see him regain his cool and dispatch Maul in a more Jedi-appropriate manner.

What are we seeing with the mindfulness? Qui-Gon Jinn, Mace Windu, Yoda (according to Obi-Wan), and Darth Sidious all tell others to be mindful. Obi-Wan mentions that Yoda says to be mindful of the future, to which Qui-Gon answers that it should not be at the expense of the present. This is once again the Living Force vs. the more mainstream Jedi view. Mace Windu later tells Anakin to be mindful of his thoughts. This one appears to be a two-fold message. Jedi (and perhaps Sith) are aware of what others are thinking or feeling. It also shows us that the Jedi frown upon Anakin’s thoughts dwelling too heavily on his mother. Then, we have Qui-Gon telling Anakin to be mindful. Which appears just to be his way of saying that he won’t be able to explain why he's doing what he's doing. Finally, Darth Sidious tells his apprentice to be mindful of how aggressive the Queen is acting. I am left wondering if George Lucas just likes the word mindful or if there is indeed a Force tenet that wants people to be mindful. It certainly makes sense within each conversation. I think what we are seeing here is a training aspect that Lucas wanted to bring into the series.

Galactic Slavery?

This is obviously a tough topic to tackle (which may explain Lucas’ reluctance to do so). However, I am going to try to leave aside the more obvious points about this and draw forth some things that perhaps others haven’t considered in the watching of the movies. First of all, while I understand slavery is a heavy topic for what is essentially a kids movie, I still feel it was glossed over. Anakin seems to be closer to a child "indentured servant" than a slave in the sense that we often see when we use that word. He has friends, they appear to be able to keep a good portion of their earned money, we don’t actually ever see Shmi working for Watto, and they're able to own a protocol droid and a pod for podracing.

I’m not trying to suggest that Anakin is living it up on Tatooine, but for an existence on a desert planet, they seem to have it really good for "slaves." Plus, we don’t really see a huge negative impact on Anakin for having been a slave. We do see him have problems with being without his mother and later losing her, but all Jedi are taken from their families. To make matters worse, he goes from being a slave to joining a group that use the same terminology in their hierarchy. What sort of psychological impact would it have on Anakin to be freed from his master only to have to answer to a master of a different sort? Add to this the manipulative workings of Palpatine and you’ve got a recipe for an incredibly strong fall to the dark side.

This could also have greater impact on the Confederacy vs. the Republic. As things stand, the Separatists get most of their evil from Count Dooku. The Clone Wars series addressed this issue to some extent, but I think we could have had a more powerful ideological showdown had Lucas made slavery more of an issue. The other interesting part, which my brother points out in the podcast, is why doesn’t Qui-Gon (or even Padme for that matter) seem to care that Watto owns slaves. Sure Amidala points out that the Republic doesn’t allow slavery, but she doesn’t ask either of the Jedi to do anything about it...

Conclusion

You may wonder why I keep emphasizing Qui-Gon Jinn. Two reasons: (1) This is his only movie, and (2) Star Wars appears to be moving back in the direction of the Jedi being more accepting of Qui-Gon’s point of view. Whether this is a red herring or not remains to be seen. Why is this important for the upcoming Star Wars films? For starters, if Luke is becoming more of a Greyish Jedi, then perhaps we'll see him abolish the Jedi Order and establish a more Greyish Jedi Order in which both Kylo and Rey would be welcome. Perhaps he did fall in love, and perhaps Rey is indeed a Skywalker. Maybe Luke disagrees with both of sides of the Force. This could lead to confrontations with both Rey and Kylo.

I'm excited for the upcoming Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi. I'm hoping we see that more epic and meaningful battles (like we saw in the original trilogy) while still building upon some of the mythos from the prequels. Other Star Wars stories have done a lot to bring the prequels and the originals together in a more seamless manner, and I would like to see The Last Jedi build upon that and use it as a foundation to launch into something that's familiar, yet can still be explored and extrapolated upon--what we missed out on with the previous movies and something entirely new.

What are you looking forward to?