Star Wars: In Defense of Episode I

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

(1999, George Lucas, USA)

After having my flight canceled, spending an unexpected evening in Charlotte, NC, and basically heading straight from the airport to work yesterday, I’m back from Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL.  In celebration of the Celebration, I’m writing a six part series on the Star Wars movies, in episodic order.  This means starting with the much maligned Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (“TPM”).

The recent release of TPM in 3D gave movie critics an opportunity to practice their favorite bloodsport – dumping on a blockbuster.  Not just any blockbuster mind you, one of the most heavily criticized films ever made.  The criticism is so prevalent in our culture that we tend to forget there’s a movie under there at all.

Does anyone like TPM? I, for one, would argue that no movie makes the kind of king’s ransom at the box office that TPM did ($1B worldwide, $474M) without someone liking it.  If no one liked it, would people get dressed up as characters from it at a four day convention?  I mean c’mon people, I even saw someone in a Jar Jar costume!

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that TPM is a good movie and I probably never will.   I’ll never forget when I first saw it how cartoonish it seemed compared to the Original Trilogy.  But I don’t remember hating it, and I don’t remember joining the chorus of critics of it until much later.

TPM doesn’t stand alone as an individual movie – but it never was intended to.  It’s a piece of a massive mythology that contains five other movies, dozens of books, video games, comic books, and a fantastic animated television series (The Clone Wars).  TPM was charged with setting the groundwork for that entire endeavor, while still being an entertaining film.  We all know to what extent it failed to do so, but here are some places where it succeeded:

1. The Jedi are friggin’ awesome.

The first thing that TPM establishes is that the Jedi are the supreme warriors of the galaxy.  Not in the way that the original Star Wars does (as legend), but by actually showing off their skills to the audience.

2. The Jedi are really, really patient.

I know, I know, Jar Jar (Ahmed Best) is really annoying.  The thing is though that the Jedi seem to agree.  Obi-Wan (Ewen McGregor) is shooting him dirty looks the entire movie, for example.  Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson), however, is patient with this creature, and treats him with respect despite his annoyance and obliviousness to his own stupidity.

3. Some things that seemed stupid when they were introduced in TPM are okay when explained later.

Anakin’s immaculate conception.  The boring senate scenes.  Midichorlians.  When we first saw TPM these things drove us crazy.  But, it turns out that all of these items lay the groundwork for the intricate web that the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is weaving in his ruthless rise to power.  The Emperor knew of Anakin because his master had been experimenting with the Dark Side of the Force to create life (and maybe others like Anakin, who knows).   At the same time, it is made clear that the Midichorlians aren’t the Force itself, but mircrobes that are particularly sensitive to the Force.  Even the boring Senate scenes are more interesting when we know exactly what is going on (the Emperor’s rise to power).

4. Qui-Gon Jin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Darth Maul (Ray Park) are great characters

Despite the focus on the disappointing or stereotypical characters, TPM actually does introduce some great characters to the Star Wars mythology.  The returning characters (The Emperor, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker)) don’t miss a step either.

Conclusion

TPM does not stand on its own merits, but that doesn’t make it a worthless film.  True, TPM is only enjoyable if you know what’s going on around it and you can immediately watch two more movies that will clear up inconsistencies and provide context.  The problem is that none of this other information was available when TPM came out – thus the thrashing that it received from critics and fans.  While I would start with the original Star Wars (I can’t get into calling it A New Hope, sorry) when introducing the story to someone who is unfamiliar with it, I also think that age and context have redeemed TPM to a certain extent.

(c) 2012 D. G. McCabe