Today was The Phantom Menace, which as it happens premiered on this date eight years ago, and which I don’t think is entirely terrible. It labors under the necessities of a) laying out the Republic’s major players, b) setting up the falls of both the Republic and Anakin Skywalker, and c) being big, bombastic, and entertaining. Some sacrifices had to be made, and these are largely in the areas of dialogue, acting, and directing. Otherwise, it’s a handsome, nice-sounding movie, and it sets a decent stage.
A disclaimer before we get too much farther: I was interrupted in the early moments of TPM by a persistent telemarketer — and yes, watching the film was the better alternative — and I “rested my eyes” a couple of times during the big quadrophenic finish, but other than those things I watched it straight through with few distractions.
Phantom Menace‘s unofficial motto comes from Qui-Gon’s line “There’s always a bigger fish.” For eight years I have wondered what the sea-monster chase scenes had to do with the rest of the movie, beyond showing the Jedi calm under pressure. Watching the sequences today, and considering the bigger picture, the fish-on-fish violence seems to warn about life’s inherent unpredictability. (See also the Tusken Raiders taking potshots at the pod racers, and Empire‘s space slug.) The film suggests that the Republic runs on predictability, structure, and systems, chief among them the Senate and the Jedi Order. I’ve long thought that TPM‘s fascination with parliamentary procedure, midichlorians, and other minutiae was really criticism of such systems and the complacency they breed. Maybe that comes from watching too much Star Trek, but it seems to be a viable reading.
Thus, into these set systems come the film’s two movers and shakers, Qui-Gon Jinn and Senator Palpatine. Both know how to work their respective groups, and both are otherwise willing to use their power to steer outcomes their way. Unfortunately, I can’t quite figure out why Palpatine wants Naboo under Federation control so badly. Back when this was the only prequel, I thought Naboo had, or was, some unique resource that would allow the Sith to rule the galaxy. Watching the film today, the best explanation I could think of was that Palpatine simply wanted an excuse to force the Senate into a vote of no-confidence in Chancellor Valorum, and the obviously unfair balance of power between Naboo and the Federation would by itself provide that excuse. The more suffering the Naboo endured, the better, because the more sympathy it would engender in the Senate.
(Which, of course, reminds me of the Imperial commander’s line about Leia’s capture generating “sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate,” but we’ll get to that….)
I suppose it’s therefore appropriate that Naboo is treated like a chessboard (somebody even says “we’ve captured the Queen!”) and we never actually see any of its people mistreated. There’s room in TPM for fart jokes and other shenanigans, but not for the horrors of an occupation force. Still, this isn’t The Battle of Algiers; and in keeping with the backhanded defenses, there’s not a lot of evidence of the Empire’s oppression later on either. As the “kids’ movie” of the bunch, Phantom Menace especially isn’t supposed to be bloody, saving the most graphic violence for the ends of Qui-Gon and Darth Maul.
Speaking of Qui-Gon, Liam Neeson might give a detached performance, but he ties the whole movie together. He’s perhaps the most plugged-in character next to Palpatine, but he also functions well as the viewer’s guide. It’s probably because his character is the most free to behave like a member of the audience, occasionally stepping outside of his assigned role to take matters into his own hands. He tries to ditch Jar Jar (understandable) until the latter leads him to Gunga City (also understandable); he tries to convince the Jedi Council that he’s found their messiah; and he does all the negotiating that drives the plot. (Palpatine and Amidala have their own roles in the plot too, but they’re not as prominent.) This is not to say that Qui-Gon acts entirely out of self-interest. Rather, his perception of the common good seems to be slightly different than what his peer group might indicate, so he influences events accordingly.
This is most obvious with regard to his discovery of Anakin. Another plot point which I thought cried out for future reference is the use of the Force with regard to the die-roll which determines Anakin’s fate. Qui-Gon could have freed your mother too, I imagined Palpatine murmuring. He did not, because he wanted you to join the Jedi — and the Jedi frown on children basking in their parents’ love…. Again, the Jedi Code is unapologetically spartan, but the movies only dwell on it with regard to romance. Interestingly enough, there’ s a hint of affection — but just a hint, per Lucas’ direction — between Qui-Gon and Shmi Skywalker, subtly reinforcing the notion that Qui-Gon doesn’t quite follow all of the Jedi dictates. Accordingly, Qui-Gon turns out to be Mr. Foreshadowing: his manipulative tendencies appear again in the older Obi-Wan, and of course his rebelliousness prefigures the attitudes of both Anakin and Luke.
Phantom Menace is loaded with foreshadowing and parallel references, the most obvious of which concern the Trade Federation. Their designs anticipate those of the Empire so much so that I imagined Palpatine engineering a “hostile takeover” of the TF to build his clone military. (As we’ll see, almost the opposite happened.) The treatment of droids sets up the later heroics of Artoo and Threepio. Whole sequences of this movie are intended to remind viewers of similar awards ceremonies, asteroid chases, and multi-front battles in the originals. I’ll never be able to speak to the experience of this being my first-ever Star Wars mvoie, but in terms of watching them all in “intended order,” the foreshadowing and the references can get pretty heavy-handed, which is a nice way of saying they occasionally don’t make much sense unless the movies are watched in release order.
Overall, this time The Phantom Menace reminded me of the first Harry Potter movie. It wants so much to remind viewers of its bona fides that it makes sure to point out when they should cheer, boo, and laugh. It proceeds in fits and starts, with the podrace as the centerpiece. At times it has so many plates spinning that there’s no room to connect with any one subplot. Still, just about every main character gets a good moment that resonates. I’m trying to think of Jar Jar’s … probably the “When yousa thinka wesa in trouble?” line, so yeah, he peaks early. It’s an overstuffed movie which invites fanwankery and continuity maintenance. I’m sure there are books, novels, and comics which explain all of the inconsistencies, and on some level I wonder if that wasn’t the point. Just as Qui-Gon falls victim to a “bigger fish,” Phantom Menace sets the stage for bigger and bigger developments in the still-complacent Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Next: Attack of the Clones!