“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” still haunts my DVD cabinet, 20 years later…

May of 1999 was a heady time for me. I was 32, and getting married in a month. My bachelor days were melting away into a new chapter of my life. I was going from an apartment to a house. As my fiancee (present-day wife) and I were planning the details of our life together, we were also careful not to exclude another important event we’d both waited a long time for; the release of a new Star Wars movie…the first one in 16 years (!). Yes, my wife is a fellow geek, and it’s one of the many things I love about her.

We both grew up with and loved Star Wars with a passion. I’d seen the first film (just “Star Wars”… no “A New Hope”) when I was 10, and it was life-altering. Cinema for me, at that age, became pre and post-Star Wars. The last release of a new Star Wars movie was when I was a 16 year old high school kid. While I was not quite as enthralled with 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” as I was with the previous two, I was really looking forward to the seeing some of that old Star Wars magic up on the big screen once again. Yes, I’d seen the original trilogy special editions theatrically only two years prior in 1997, but that was right before I’d met my fiancee. Now we’d have a chance to enjoy a big screen Star Wars movie together. It was almost like George Lucas was giving us both an early wedding present.

Star Wars, 1977. The one that started it all.

Well, on May 21st, we and a group of our friends gathered at one of the few stadium seating theaters at the time (about a mile and a half from my soon-to-be-vacated bachelor apartment), with tickets we’d bought weeks before (no 3D, no assigned seats; just a ticket and hope of getting a decent seat). Well, after a three hour wait in line (and getting heckled by non-believers who thought we were a bunch of foolish nerds), we got our seats. After several trailers, the anticipation was almost unbearable. There was the refurbished Lucasfilm logo (first unveiled with the Star Wars Special Editions), the “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” title card, and then… BAM! That familiar brass burst of John Williams’ gorgeous Star Wars anthem followed by the opening crawl.

The opening crawl talks of taxing trade routes and congressional debates…like a grandiose, John Williams’ scored Poli-Sci class.

The text that followed was a little bit less than captivating… some stuff about taxing trade routes (?), but it didn’t matter; it could’ve been ketchup ingredients up on screen for all I cared. It was a new Star Wars movie, right?? Written and directed by George Lucas himself…the first film he’d directed since the original 1977 movie. It’ll be great, I thought to myself, you’ll see…

One ring to rule them all: The Trade Federation blockade over Naboo, like a fleet of angry donuts.
Qui Gon and Kenobi: The would-be Batman & Robin of this story…

Next we meet two Jedi knights, Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and a young Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, who seemed perfectly cast as a young Alec Guinness), boarding a torus-shaped “Trade Federation” vessel, in order to end an aggressive blockade of the planet Naboo. The two are attended by a silver protocol droid of the same make as C3PO (because details matter to us Star Wars’ geeks). The young Kenobi is worried, but Master Qui Gon has a more cavalier and cynical attitude; he thinks the negotiations will be short, because “these Trade Federation types are cowards.”

Couldn’t they have given these guys alien-sounding voices, rather than stereotypically bad Japanese accents?

Soon we meet some of these ‘cowards’ and I noticed that the Trade Federation leadership spoke like cliched Japanese soldiers right out of a bad World War 2 propaganda film. Weird, even puzzling, yes, but I tucked that little detail in my back pocket for later…

“Just strap yourself into these electr–er, chairs and make yourselves dead–er, comfortable.”

Sure enough, the alien cowards try to gas the Jedi knights to death after conferring with future galactic Emperor, “Darth Sidious” (Ian McDiarmid, sinking right back into his deliciously sneering “Return of the Jedi” mode). The Jedi hold their breath long enough for a squad of bird-like ‘battle droids’ to open the door and make sure the two Jedi are dead. Of course, they aren’t, and the two leap out of the gas-filled room, lightsabers ignited, fighting off endless rounds of useless battle droids. They make their way to the sealed off bridge entrance, just as ‘droidekas’ (more effective battle-droids) are sent to stop them from getting into the ship’s control center. Qui Gon sticks his lightsaber directly into the sealed blast door; its pure green-white energy slowly but surely melting through the heavy metallic doors. The droidekas arrive, and the two Jedi are forced to flee the ship aboard automated troop transports (their original ship was destroyed). The transports are shipping tanks and battle droids to the planet as an occupying army. I must say, I was fairly into the movie at this early stage… just as the original captured my imagination when the stormtroopers burst their way onto the captured Tantive IV.

Obi Wan and Qui Gon meet the ill-conceived comic relief known as Jar Jar Binks.

Then the two Jedi make their way down to the surface of Naboo, and things go seriously awry. Mainly in the form of an obnoxious, frog-like annoyance named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best, in an unfortunate role that should never have been created). Binks speaks in a wildly exaggerated West Indies-like patois that is even worse than the WW2-era Japanese cliches left behind on the Trade Federation ships. I can’t imagine any of these character voices getting a pass in today’s more culturally sensitive climate, and that’s a really good thing. I realize that Jar Jar is meant to appeal to children (“icky goo!”), and perhaps he does, but I don’t recall any characters from the original Star Wars trilogy being so condescendingly marketed to any specific age demographic. The CGI technology that made the character possible was admittedly revolutionary for 1999, but looks terribly antiquated 20 years later; unlike Chewbacca, R2-D2 or C3PO, who look just as convincing today as they first did in 1977. As comic reliefs go, Jar Jar is as funny as a painful case of hemorrhoids, but he is what he is. Moving on…

A mix of models, pouring salt (for the waterfalls) and CGI enhancement create the beautiful cityscape of Theed on Naboo.

Our heroes, after a series of oceanic adventures (distractions) involving Jar Jar and the underwater “Gungan City”, eventually make their way to Theed. Theed is the capital city of the humans on Naboo, who live under the benevolent rule of a teenage queen named Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). The occupying Federation droid army capture the queen’s palace, but the Jedi “save the queen” by getting her and her entourage aboard her sleek silver “Nubian” starship (have no idea how the word Nubian applies here…). They manage to fly the ship past the ‘impenetrable’ blockade (a bit too easily, despite some damage). The damaged vessel’s shields are repaired by one trusty R2 unit; yes, R2-D2 himself (the late Kenny Baker). However, the hyperdrive is ‘leaking’ and the fugitives are forced to set down on the Hutt-controlled outer rim desert world of… you guessed it,Tatooine.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical of “The Queen and Qui.

Unlike the 1977 movie, whose Tatooine sequence involved subtle world-and-character building, the Tatooine sequences of “The Phantom Menace” largely bring the movie to a screeching halt. The ticking clock of earlier scenes virtually disappears once the movie arrives at the inhospitable desert world. Qui Gon, the Queen (unconvincingly ‘undercover’ as one of her handmaidens), R2-D2 and Jar Jar (inexplicably), go into the town of Mos Espa to seek parts to repair their ship, leaving Obi Wan and the others to guard the stranded craft. At Mos Espa, the group encounters yet another vaguely-racist sounding alien in the form of CGI alien junk dealer Watto (voiced by Andy Secombe), who sounds like a bad Middle Eastern stereotype.

The innocent little boy who will grow to be the galaxy’s biggest pain in the ass someday…

Watto owns a pair of slaves…the Skywalkers. Mother Shmi (Swedish actress Pernilla August) and 8 year old son Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Yes, that Anakin; the Anakin Skywalker who will one day become the future Darth Vader. In TPM, he’s an innocent, fan switch-cleaning moppet who enjoys pod-racing and ‘fixing things’…. that is, when he’s not busy being Watto’s slave and all. He also asks aloud if visiting Padme (Amidala’s other name) is an angel from the “moons of Iago” (whatever the hell that means). Seeing an 8 year old boy hitting on a teenage girl feels a mite creepy…it’s even worse that we know these two will eventually have kids together (twins Luke & Leia). Anakin takes his new friends home for dinner with mother, in order to wait out an oppressive sandstorm (one of many such scenes that utterly erase the movie’s prior sense of urgency).

When Threepio Met Artoo (a Rob Reiner film).

In the Skywalker slave dwelling, we also meet a protocol droid that Anakin is making for his mother, C3PO (voice of Anthony Daniels, but performed as a rod-puppet). C3PO is introduced to R2D2, a big moment that falls curiously flat. Why his slave mother needs a ‘protocol droid’ is never explained either, but sure, why not? Over dinner with the Skywalkers, Qui Gon reluctantly agrees to allow a volunteering Anakin to sign up for a pod race in the hope that his (potential) winnings will buy the parts for their ship. Qui Gon strongly senses the force around the boy, and hopes to free him from slavery so that the crafty kid will pursue his dream of becoming a Jedi. Qui Gon suspects Anakin is “the chosen one” (try not to groan too loudly), something the wildly high “midichloiran count” in his blood only confirms (more on this later…).

The pod race is the movie’s “Ben Hur”-esque chariot race, and it actually succeeds in engaging audience attention.

The pod race is one of several action set pieces in the entire movie that really works, despite its over-length and now dated CGI effects. The race is vaguely reminiscent of the chariot race in “Ben Hur” (1959), as well as the car/bike chase climax of Lucas’ own “THX-1138” (1971), with the roars, sputters and whines of engines almost sounding musical over time. Anakin wins the race by the skin of his bottom and is freed, though he learns he has to leave his mother behind. What I never understood about this morally murky part of the film is why Qui Gon and company don’t simply take Anakin and his mother. They don’t have to kill Watto or anything like that, but they certainly have the might (and a pair of lightsabers) to forcibly take the unjustly acquired slaves from the junk dealing alien. We saw Qui Gon rig a game of chance with Watto right before the pod race using his Jedi telekinesis, so why is forcibly taking two humans out of bondage suddenly off the table? This isn’t Star Trek with its “Non-Interference Directive.” So why can’t Qui Gon just swallow his Jedi passivity in favor of a greater (and more urgent) galactic need, not to mention the wretched injustice of enslaving sentient beings? If the anti-slavery laws of the Republic “don’t apply” at the outer rim (as Shmi points out), then the reverse is true as well; the Old Republic heroes don’t have to respect those outer rim slavery laws, either. They could take their paid-for parts, repair the ship, return to Mos Espa, take both slaves at lightsaber point and get the hell out of Dodge. Keeping the young and vulnerable Anakin’s mother safe could’ve prevented a future Darth Vader from ever becoming in the first place. I’d say pissing off a local junk dealer is a relatively small price to pay…

Anakin is forced to leave his mother behind in slavery because….reasons?

With Anakin in tow, Qui Gon and company return to their ship, but Qui Gon is attacked by black-clad Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park), who is (visually) the coolest looking character in the entire film, if not the entire Star Wars saga. With his horned head, red/black tattooed face, Maul looks like Satan’s pissed off kid brother. Like Boba Fett in the original trilogy, Darth Maul’s evil-as-all-hell look just begs for more development (which he eventually gets in future books/cartoons, etc), but in the film, he is little more than well-costumed stunt performer.

Qui Gon meets Darth Maul, the two most interesting characters in the entire movie…sadly, they’re short-lived.

Maul was sent by his master, Darth Sidious, to find the Queen and force her to sign a treaty. A treaty that is supposed to make the Trade Federation’s forced annexation of Naboo legal somehow (don’t ask). After dueling with Maul, a spent Qui Gon force-jumps back aboard the ship just in the nick of time. Once there, he introduces Obi Wan Kenobi to young Anakin Skywalker, a moment that lacks the heft one would imagine it to have.

Queen Amidala, safely back in her kabuki makeup…

It’s well over an hour and 20-odd minutes into the film when the queen’s starship finally gets back on track and arrives on the galactic capital world of Coruscant, a gleaming planet covered in cities and flying cars (think: 1939 New York City World’s Fair covering an entire world). They’re met at the landing platform by the outwardly benevolent Senator Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious (McDiarmid again, who fools absolutely no one). Palpatine the Queen that the Imperial Senate and Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) are simply too bogged down in bureaucracy to actually do anything about the invasion of Naboo. Amidala is incensed (yet has plenty of time to get back into her elaborate costumes and kabuki makeup…).

For some reason, Lucas thought space politics would be riveting entertainment for 8 year olds. Note the “E.Ts” in the lower left.

In the Imperial Senate chamber (a vast bowl-shaped structure with floating pods of delegates), Amidala advocates for, and receives, a no-confidence vote against the numb-nuts chancellor Valorum; paving the way for the politically wily Palpatine to slink his way into the job. This part of the film has nearly more political jibber-jabber per square inch than CNN, Fox and MSNBC combined. In the original trilogy, politics were mentioned in passing; in fact, a brief meeting aboard the Death Star signifying the death of the Imperial Senate was as thick as it ever got. But with this film? You could have a drinking game of the many times the words ‘negotiation’, ‘treaty’ ‘committee’ and ‘vote’ are said aloud… though your liver might just shrivel up and die.

The Oscar nominated star of “Pulp Fiction” is reduced to being little more than a speaking extra.

Qui Gon brings Anakin before a skeptical Jedi council, and a freakishly bad Yoda puppet (I have the 2001 DVD, pressed before Yoda was remastered for the blu ray set) as well as a criminally underused Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu (this was only a few years after Jackson’s Oscar nomination for “Pulp Fiction”).

A somewhat impudent Anakin is brought before a skeptical Jedi council.

Yoda comes off as especially creepy here, telling the boy that he and the other Jedi “see through” him, and that they sense his fear and anxiety over leaving his mother behind (duh, he’s eight years old, right?). Yoda gets one of the few quotable lines of dialogue in the film when he tells Anakin “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

^ This is the Yoda I’m stuck with on my 2001 DVD copy. Did the sculptor even see “The Empire Strikes Back”??

But apparently the Jedi don’t practice what they preach since they are afraid of Anakin. While the Jedi Council are supposed to represent the highest strata of goodness in the Old Republic, they reminded me more of the witches’ coven in “Rosemary’s Baby”… plotting to use a child as a chess piece, yet quietly fearful of the power that child might wield within their own status quo. While it’s interesting (visually) to see the Jedi knights at their apex (both in accommodations and fighting skills), they come off in the film as a roomful of creepy, judgmental pricks. What would’ve happened if they’d simply welcomed the traumatized boy with kindness and compassion instead of fear and reluctance? Things might’ve gone a whole other way. Not surprising that a post mortem-Yoda later zaps the “sacred Jedi texts” to hell in “The Last Jedi”; perhaps the Jedi were an organization best left forgotten, with their practices of child-snatching, emotional suppression, celibacy, secrecy and failure to use their powers to apply justice when needed (as in freeing a prospective Jedi’s mother from bondage and servitude). I would argue that the Jedi seen in TPM are more than a little responsible for their own downfall. With their rigidity and lack of empathy, they’re portrayed as a very powerful cult.

Armies of battle droids slowly deploy as the nearby (fully armed) Gungan army does nothing but wait for them to do so… (?!?)

With Qui Gon vowing to train “the chosen one” Anakin (the chosen one’ being the most overused mythological trope of all time) to become a Jedi (with or without council approval), the group accompanies Amidala back to Naboo to plea for Gungan help in ridding their shared planet of the dastardly Trade Federation. Boss Nass (voice of “Space: 1999” veteran Brian Blessed) agrees to help the humans, and the Gungans stage an amphibian “Braveheart” upon the armies of Trade Federation battle droids (which I’m assuming they bought cheaply at bulk prices, since they completely suck at soldiering).

Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans in a nonsensical battle that has no strategical sense whatsoever. The battle is won by circumstance and accident, unlike Luke using the force to deliberately destroy the Death Star in the original.

Meanwhile, the two Jedi, Padme, her decoy, the queen’s security detail and Anakin (don’t ask me why they took a boy into battle instead of just leaving him on Coruscant where he belonged) hatch a plan to retake the palace. Anakin is immediately told to find a safe place to hide (in a combat zone), and he does so… in the cockpit of a starfighter, which soon takes off on autopilot and flies his underaged ass right into space, straight to the Trade Federation blockade in orbit. Yeah, great idea, bringing the kid along….

The Jedi, the Queen and her guards bust into the Trade Federation’s operations in the Theed hangar.

As they fight their way into the main hangar of the Naboo fighter squadron (which also houses a giant, bottomless pit energy reactor, because…well, Star Wars), the two Jedi are met by Darth Maul in what is the single best sequence of the entire movie… the three-way lightsaber duel between Obi Wan, Qui Gon and Darth Maul.

Thus begins the part of the movie my wife and I usually chapter skip to on the DVD.

Much has been said/written about this sequence, and even the most ardent haters of the film have to acknowledge the balletic choreography and dazzling wire-rig work. That, combined with John Williams’ amazing “Duel of the Fates” music (his single best composition of the entire prequel trilogy) makes this the most truly authentic Star Wars-feeling sequence of the entire movie.

What “Empire”‘s duel lacked in razzle-dazzle, it certainly made up for in gravitas. Look at that lighting…and those silhouettes.

Despite the Jedi jumps, twirls and amazing speed of the performers, one could also argue that the stunningly delivered three-way duel lacks the emotional punch of the lightsaber duels seen in earlier (and later) Star Wars films. “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” may not have had the razzle-dazzle choreography, but they did have a lot more emotional heft, as father and son battled for the fate of Luke’s soul (and for the rule of the galaxy).

The three way battle makes it way into the giant reactor chambers for Galaxy Quest-reasons…

That said, the duel in TPM, despite distracting cutting with Padme’s retaking of her palace and the Gungan-Braveheart battle, is still an amazing piece of film work. I’d compare it with watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tapping together in a dizzyingly complex dance number versus a slow-dance of two characters falling in love… the former may be more visually arresting and exciting to watch, but the latter has more feels.

“There’s a f–king kid in the cockpit!”

Meanwhile, over Naboo, Anakin (with R2-D2 aboard) flies into the space battle, which he inexplicably compares to pod-racing, then accidentally flies into the main hangar of the lead Trade Federation ship, which (of course) also conveniently controls all of the battle droids currently fighting the Gungan forces on Naboo. Anakin fires, accidentally hits the main reactor (every victory in this movie seems to happen by accident or coincidence, not genuine skill). He fires up his fighter’s stalled engine, and gets the hell out just as the control ship goes boom…somehow forcing all the other Trade Federation ships to just…surrender, I guess (??). It appears that none of the other torus-shaped Trade Federation ships in the blockade were equipped to serve as backup control ships. Pretty piss poor redundancy, but okay…sure.

^ Defeating the Trade Federation…so easy, an 8-year old can do it.

The Gungan army is handed a victory by the suddenly inert droid army, and the queen takes back her throne room with possibly the worst ‘badass’ line offered in a ’90s action movie: “Now Viceroy… we will discuss a new treaty.” Even gloating over the bad guys’ loss, the most high fiving-line of dialogue that Lucas could come up with was, “We will discuss a new treaty”?!? How about “Get out of my chair, motherf–ker? But nope, because negotiating a new treaty is just sooo kickass. One thing this movie just can’t get enough of is negotiating. It truly is C-SPAN in space…

This movie has a nasty habit of killing off its best characters… in the same scene, no less.

The movie’s biggest one-two gut punch takes place at the climax of the lightsaber duel, with Obi Wan temporarily blocked behind an energy shield (much like the nonsensical engine room ‘chompers’ in “Galaxy Quest”) while his master Qui Gon is unceremoniously killed by Darth Maul.

Now comes that same moment of every martial arts movie ever made, “Yes, I will do your final bidding, master…”

The shield drops, and Kenobi comes out swinging. He overcomes Maul (who suddenly stands oddly still) and bisects the Sith Lord…upper and lower halves falling down a giant shaft. While that would seem to be the end of Darth Maul, the character was later resurrected in the Star Wars cartoons and in 2018’s “Solo.” The same can’t be said for poor old Qui Gon, as he hangs on just long enough to make young Obi Wan promise that he’ll train “the chosen one” to be a Jedi knight. Obi Wan promises, Qui Gon ‘shuffles off this mortal coil.’ The movie just killed off its two most effective and intriguing characters in the same scene. Really. That just happened.

^ Oscar-winning Sound wizard Ben Burtt is visible right in the center, to the left of Kenobi.

With the sudden power vacuum in galactic leadership, Palpatine is elected to take Valorum’s place (we see things move really slowly in the Senate, but somehow voting for a new chancellor happens lickety-split), and the new chancellor promises to “watch over young Skywalker’s (Jedi) career with great interest.” If the foreshadowing were any heavier, you’d need a flashlight. Point of interest: you can see Oscar-winning sound designer/editor Ben Burtt as a high-ranking member of Padme’s palace detail in this sequence.

The queen smiles creepily as her currently 8-year old future husband sports a Jedi rat-tail haircut.

Trying to echo the very first Star Wars movie, a grand celebration breaks out on a now-unified Naboo. Boss Nass inexplicably holds a giant glowing ball, loudly proclaiming “Peace!” The rat-tail sporting Anakin wears the clothes of a Jedi padawan and the queen is back in her kabuki makeup, flashing the boy a slightly creepy grin…

The End.

“The fault, lies not in our stars…”

Liam Neeson and Natalie Portman had impressive resumé’s before and after the film.

First off, I have to say I don’t blame any of the actors for the movie’s bizarre dialogue delivery; all of whom have done far better work before and since. Nevertheless, the acting throughout the entire movie is oddly stilted and monotone. I understand that acting style was a deliberate choice on Lucas’ part, but what I don’t understand is why. Lucas had a dream ensemble cast; Liam Neeson (“Nell”, every other action film made in this century), Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting” “Velvet Goldmine”), Natalie Portman (“Leon: The Professional”), Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction” “Jackie Brown”) and Pernilla August (“Fanny & Alexander”). Yet for some odd reason, they all feel bound and gagged in this film. Yes, the dialogue is so bad as to be almost unspeakable, but it feels like Lucas purposefully wanted to drain as much emotion from the movie as possible, save for a handful of scenes (where it feels like too little, too late).

It’s not your fault, kid.

Much of the online hate for the unusually stilted acting in the film is also unfairly directed at young Jake Lloyd, and this is just wrong. I mean, he was an 8-year old boy at the time. No one should publicly shame or hurt a kid like that. Secondly, his dialogue is unspeakably bad (“This is pod racing!” “Are you an angel?” “Yippee” “I was wondering, what are midichlorians?”). I’m not sure if even the best child star of the time could’ve salvaged those tongue-swelling lines. For me, the fault of the performances in this film lie with writer and director George Lucas, who seems far less comfortable with living, breathing actors than he does with the mechanics of filmmaking and editing.

Midichlorians… I was wondering, what are midichlorians?

“I don’t sense anything…not even those damned midichlorians.”

Short answer: a way to circumvent your own saga’s mythology. In the original trilogy, I (and many others of my generation) inferred that anyone, from any background, could become a Jedi knight if they harnessed the force. That was the point. That’s what compelled kids to buy toy lightsabers and practice their moves in countless suburban backyards everywhere. The force was supposed to be something which flowed through each of us. It “binds the galaxy together.” George Lucas himself said as much during a transcribed conversation with screenwriter Larry Kasdan in J.W. Rinzler’s book, “The Making of Return of the Jedi”, published in 2013:

Kasdan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
Lucas: Yes, everybody can do it.
Kasdan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like Yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

I’m not mangling Lucas’ own words; I’m quoting them. The force, at least as he saw it in 1982, was supposed to be both universal and democratic. Anyone could access it, if they applied themselves. In 1999, all of that was summarily chucked as the force was now retconned into something only usable by a child of royal breeding (or being the miraculous outcome of an immaculate conception with the aforementioned space bacteria). Shmi Skywalker’s affirmation that Anakin was a product of a virgin birth (“there was no father”) is simply too much. It wrongheadedly elevates Darth Vader, formerly a right-arm strongman to the Emperor, into a space-age Jesus. I’m very glad that the Disney made sequels are doing their best to forget that the midichlorians ever happened. Personally, I prefer to think of Vader as a failed pupil-turned- traitor of Obi Wan Kenobi rather than an immaculately-conceived “chosen one.”

Jar Jar Binks and other stereotype ‘alien’ characters.

“Say the wrong thing, and I yank it out.”

The CGI comic relief character of Jar Jar Binks is simply not funny, and also an annoyance. Not in the occasionally persnickety way that C3PO used to be, but almost as deliberate malice or sabotage (a popular fan theory is that Jar Jar is an active saboteur for the other side). Jar Jar’s actions, much like Dr. Smith (the late Jonathan Harris) in the original “Lost In Space” TV series, almost always lead to a distracting but minor calamity of some kind. Yes, he’s supposed to be for children, but so were Chewbacca and R2-D2, and neither one of them were as condescendingly cloying and eye-rollingly stupid as this character. Once again, this is no faulting of actor Ahmed Best, whom I’m sure did what he was told to both win the part and please his writer/director.

These guys…seriously.

Another issue of Jar Jar is, of course, the perceived stereotyping he represents. Some say he’s a horrific stereotyping of West Indies natives (his particular patois is very distinctive, despite the use of nonsensical words thrown in to obscure it a bit). Others say his walk and manner are also grotesque mockeries of gay/non-cisgender men. Jar Jar, much like the Trade Federation members with their ridiculously obvious WW2 propaganda-movie Japanese accents (“Our blockaaad is puhfectly legow…“) and the shady flying junkman Watto (who sounds vaguely Middle Eastern) are the kinds of subtle (and notso-subtle) stereotypes that are often the most pernicious. The excuse can be made that since they’re “aliens,” and don’t physically look anything like this group or that minority, they’re automatically exempt. That’s a copout. That these characters are allowed to use easily recognizable, offensive vocal affectations without being physically recognizable as such is just a workaround for using grotesque racial/ethnic caricatures in modern movies (the “Transformer” movies are also very guilty of such sci-fi stereotyping). I can only assume such caricatures came from stereotypes Lucas grew up watching in movies. Perhaps he wasn’t even consciously aware that they were so grotesque, and that’s precisely what I mean by pernicious. Even as a kid, I no doubt said things that were innocent at the time, but would be shockingly offensive to my adult self. This is because I have learned to do better. Most of us should… at least adults who are willing to grow beyond the psychological programming and mores of their generation. None of us are perfect, and we can all learn to do better. I’ll leave it at that.


The 1977 original will always be the one that started it all for me, but other generations of Star Wars fans will have their own pathways to the force.

I remember my heart breaking when a friend of mine told me that he played the original Star Wars for his son (who was born in 2004), and his son thought it was ‘boring’, and said he preferred Lego Star Wars. I have to admit; I get it. Despite the fact that Star Wars was a seminal, life-changing movie for my entire generation (and my wife’s), I’ve long come to grips with the fact that today’s kids have entirely different loves. Some adults today who were born in the 1980s have 1993’s “Jurassic Park” as their generation’s cinematic touchstone, and I totally get that one as well, as I grew up absolutely loving dinosaurs.

For kids who grew up in the early 1990s, “Jurassic Park” was their “Star Wars”, which makes a LOT of sense to this old dinosaur-lover.

Watching “The Phantom Menace” again all the way through for the first time in years was more than a bit eye-opening. The movie’s pacing was an issue for me as well. I realized as I watched that the movie’s ticking clock comes to nearly a dead stop for most of the Tatooine sequences, with only the pod race to liven things up. It’s an hour and 20 minutes in before Anakin even meets the Jedi council. For much of the movie, information is conveyed, and lots of things happen onscreen, but very little occurs to move the central story forward. Much of the excitement I felt upon watching 20 years ago was predicated on the fact that it was the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years at that point. But that’s been a moot point for years. Now it’s but one Star Wars movie of many. In 1999, the movie was the three-course meal delivered on a silver platter to us starving fans…now it’s just a foil-wrapped sandwich.

^ This was one of those moments in the film where I gasped aloud.

That said, even that sandwich still has some tasty morsels, such as the breathtaking three-way lightsaber duel, the sumptuous costuming by Trisha Beggar (my wife adores Amidala’s wardrobe in the film), John Williams’ typically stirring musical score (the man is a national treasure), the organic sound mix by Ben Burtt (another national treasure), vivid desert cinematography by David Tattersall (“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” “The Walking Dead”) and a glimpse of the Jedi knights at the height of their prowess, leaping almost balletically into combat (like circus performers). There are pieces of the movie that work well enough for me, even today.

^ The Feudal Japanese-inspired opulence and elegance of Trisha Beggar’s costumes.

Despite my deep issues with “The Phantom Menace”, I also freely acknowledge that there are many Star Wars fans out there today for whom this movie is their Star Wars, as much as the 1977 original was mine. Maybe they first saw it on DVD at their grandma’s house when they were younger, or perhaps even theatrically when they very little (my wife was only five years old when she first saw Star Wars theatrically in 1977). If the movie is a generation’s Star Wars jam? I’d never even try to take that away from them. I can only authoritatively state my own feelings on it, because, well, these are the musings of a middle-aged geek.

May the force be with us.

22 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul Bowler says:

    An interesting look back at the Phantom Menace. I remember feeling really disappointed by the film when I originally saw it. It was dull, plodding. and its only real saving graces were the Podrace and the lightsaber duel between Obi Wan, Qui Gon and Darth Maul.at the end. I think I’ve only see the film twice since, and I don’t think its aged very well either. However, I’m sure there’s a generation of new Star Wars fans that loved it and got hooked on Star Wars because of TPM/ Maybe when the new trilogy is finished and we have all 9 films and the three trilogies completed, we might look back on the Phantom Menace differently maybe?

    1. Right, and that’s what I was getting at in my summation; it’s not necessarily my cup of Joe, but I’ve talked to increasing numbers of Star Wars fans foe whom this movie is their gateway into the Star Wars universe.

      1. Paul Bowler says:

        Indeed, the Phantom Menace certainly has its moments,. I guess without it we might not have had the Clone Wars or Star Wars Rebels either to have enjoyed – which proved that this era of the Star Wars saga did have some great stories to tell.

      2. While I’m not fully up to speed on the “Clone Wars” animated series, I did get into “Rebels” due to the patient persistence of a good friend of mine. In short, I absolutely LOVED “Rebels” and watched all four seasons (need to do a piece on that one someday…).

      3. Paul Bowler says:

        I really enjoyed Star Wars Rebels as well, it was brilliant! The Clone Wars was a bit patchy in places, but still worth checking out, it had some really good story arcs.

  2. Jacob says:

    Great look back at TPM. I was 18 that year and my ticket was paid for my a friend as a graduation present. A couple of things…

    I would argue that the Jedi seen in TPM are more than a little responsible for their own downfall. With their rigidity and lack of empathy, they’re portrayed as a very powerful cult.

    I played at an online roleplaying game where the administrators had this kind of scenario in mind, going not only with what the prequels intimated, but also Yoda and Ben’s shifty reasoning for what they do in the OT. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell those of us who wanted to roleplay pure, good Jedi until things were already underway. It was an interesting experience.

    The biggest “retcon” in my mind is Anakin. Along with what you discuss, there is the problem of his age. In my mind at least, every detail given in the OT seems to point at Obi Wan first encountering Anakin when Anakin was already a young man. I’d really be interested in knowing Lucas’ original conception of Anakin’s life story vs. what he came up with for the prequels.

    1. Thanks for reading.
      And yes, in “Return of the Jedi”, Ben says “When I first knew him, you’re father was already a great pilot”; he didn’t say, “He was an 8 year old kid racing pods.”

      Not to mention Qui Gon…literally; he’s never mentioned in the OT at all. He was the one who first took it upon himself to train Anakin, not Ben.

      I don’t mind minor retcons in service of a greater story, but “The Phantom Menace” wasn’t it.

      1. Jacob says:

        My brother and I often talk about this sort of thing. We both enjoyed the Qui Gon character and think Qui Gon and Obi Wan should have gotten their own movie separate from Obi Wan meeting up with Anakin.

        Have you read the novelization of TPM by Terry Brooks? If you haven’t, I recommend it. It really did a nice job of exploring the relationship between Qui Gon and Obi Wan.

      2. I have it. Bought it before the movie came out, and I read it, but it’s been 20 years and I’ve forgotten more than I remembered (I was also getting married around that time, so I was a bit distracted). But yeah, I’m pretty sure I still have my copy.

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