Unloved: The Phantom Menace

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It’s a new year and with that comes a whole load of good intentions.  Well, I’ve decided to champion unloved scifi movies, games and books in a new series of blogs.  After all, everyone deserves a second chance at being loved, don’t they?

Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace was, it’s safe to say, one of the most anticipated cinematic events of all time.  The fan base for the Star Wars franchise is probably only marginally outshone by Christianity and perhaps Cliff Richard’s fan club (there are a lot of them, it’s frightening, really).  So, the promise of a prequel to the enormously successful trilogy had become the stuff of legend and speculation until it all finally happened in ’99.

With that level of anticipation it was, let’s face it, never going to work out.

There was a lot wrong with Episode One, but I think there was a great deal that got overlooked in the feverish furore of fanboyism that all but buried this movie.  One thing that the vast armies of now grown-up fans actively overlooked or outright criticized was the fact that Lucas had clearly elected to remain loyal to his fundamental fan base – children.

It was a conscious effort to carve out a new generation of loyal followers without alienating the established fans and as I have already said it was a task that was never going to be easy (or perhaps even possible at the time).  This decision doesn’t excuse Jaja, nothing does, but his inclusion in the franchise isn’t, I would argue, enough of a reason to dismiss Episode One out of hand, nor is the notoriously wooden acting delivered by most of the leads (let’s face it, if you’re being outperformed by a CGI Gungan with a really small head and a speech problem then you maybe need to think about going back to RADA).

Lucas’ decision to make Phantom Menace a kids film was no doubt a difficult one, but I admire him for his tenacity on this point and I believe that he made some elegant gestures to include his original fans with some unprecedented concepts that bridged the gap between adult scifi and the childlike fantasy element that remains at the core of the Star Wars franchise.

First up, the droids.

In A New Hope, Obi Wan refers to the Clone Wars, spawning decades of speculation that would be finally answered when the new movies came out, but Lucas would have to deliver a war that was age appropriate. Death and destruction on that scale, even in a scifi universe, just doesn’t work well in a kids movie.

So, the droids. Goofy, clumsy, skinny; more like robotic geeks than a terrifying army, but watching them deploy from the transports in the battle for Naboo, lying dormant until the activation command was sent down from the control ship, had a crushing sense of inevitability that sent a chill down my spine. I didn’t particularly like the Gungans at the time, but the previously harmless collections of droids had suddenly gathered weight in numbers to become an unstoppable force.  On first watching the film I could only imagine the natives collapsing under their relentless advance (remember the initial exchange as the droids burst through the shields, nothing that frenetic or massive had really been seen in a scifi movie before).

Just watching them descend on the defiant few leant the Gungans a sudden depth of character that hadn’t really been apparent before. Offset that with the comedy antics of Jaja (Lord forgive me for defending him) and you have a pitch perfect scene that delivers peril and excitement without straying off the kids movie reservation.  This is the point I’m stressing here – it was a kids movie – and it doesn’t necessarily excuse Lucas from not entirely succeeding to bridge the gap, but I think he did a better job than most others might have managed at the time.

Meanwhile the jedi are busy fighting the rather magnificent villain that is Darth Maul and delivering one of the best fight sequences in scifi movie history. I don’t know about you, but when Darth Maul activates his twin saber, one blade at a time, and that now all too familiar score breaks out I still get goosebumps. And this is where Lucas makes yet another brilliant concession to the older fans that was possibly all but forgotten by delivering not just war, but tragedy as well.

Qui Gon’s death is an emotional one that impacts all the more successfully in the wake of such restraint on the part of the jedi. Obi Wan’s face contorts with barely contained rage and pain as he watches, helpless, on the other side of an invisible barrier, fighting to retain control.  When the barrier lifts and the fight is rejoined his release is sublime as he delivers justice to the enigmatic villain who has offered menace and darkness without ever chewing the scenery (how many scifi movies can boast that much?)

Of course let’s not forget his master, Darth Sideous/Chancellor Palpatine.  The duality of this role is delivered with marvelous Machiavellian relish by Ian McDiarmid, who gives us one of the finest examples of character growth in the trilogy.  One of his most memorable lines, often quoted in the marketing material, being ‘wipe them out, all of them’ (yet another nod to the underlying adult themes of the movie, delicately touching on the concept of genocide – all the more daring when you consider the primary target audience).  Yes, he goes on to chew the scenery in later episodes, but he does it in the best manner possible while still leaving room for some memorable scenes, such as the one where he revels his true nature to Anakin.

I would close with another character observation by nominating one of scifi’s greatest heroes in Qui Gon Jinn. A powerful jedi embodying everything that we grew to expect of the jedi order in the long years between films; part of a larger universe that had grown so wide since The Return of the Jedi first aired. Let’s not forget that one of the greatest jedi performances came from this film that we were so quick to dismiss at the time.

And that, for me at least, is what makes the Phantom Menace worthy of a little more praise than you might think; it’s ability to knowingly grasp the Star Wars universe without losing sight of it’s true core audience, the very first audience that made Lucas the man he is, the audience I was a part of back in 1977, wide eyed and totally enraptured by this incredible new story – the kids.

If you weren’t a kid for the first three episodes’ cinematic release or for the second outing then you have my sympathies, but I ask you not to ask something of Lucas that he never, ever promised to deliver. These are his films and I would encourage you to try and see them with his eyes before you judge too harshly.

Lucas did some bad things in making the Phantom Menace, but he managed to hide a lot of adult themes in an otherwise brightly colored and generally upbeat kids scifi/fantasy movie.  To do this and do it reasonably well is a great achievement for any director.  To do it with one of the world’s most beloved properties is nothing short of miraculous.

George Lucas, the creator of 2014’s first Unloved, I salute you, y’big hairy wookie.

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