10 Reasons Why The Phantom Menace Isn’t Irredeemably Awful
I never saw Star Wars in the cinema. I was three when it first came out, and despite seeing The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi frequently and repeatedly on the big screen, I never managed to make it to a showing of Star Wars. Sure, when Episode IV: A New Hope: Special edition made it into cinemas in 1997 I went not once but twice; but it wasn’t my Star Wars, the film I’d grown up on. It had Greedo shooting first and much of the final dogfight had been changed and a whole host of other changes that, every time they came up took me out of my enjoyment of the film. Those parts that were unchanged, it was fantastic to see on the big screen. But for me it wasn’t the experience I’d craved.
I am now reconciled to the fact that I’ll never see Star Wars in its original, unedited format in a cinema; at least, not while George Lucas is alive. While some of the changes in the later films, especially Empire, were undoubtedly for the better, others weren’t, and the most comfort I have from my DVD collection is the poor quality versions of the original film that Lucas saw fit to allow us to have, almost like naughty children being scolded and not allowing us to have anamorphic transfers. Never forget that Star Wars are Lucasfilm productions, and the customer isn’t always right – not when the director knows better.
I was twenty-five when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I queued for an hour to get the best seat in the first showing the evening it came out, and I went back to see it three times. It’s easy, nearly thirteen years on, to be stuck in a particular mindset about the film: this is how many, if not most people, would react to the mere mention of The Phantom Menace these days.
But that’s not how I remember it, Star Wars fanboy that I am (and I bought a toy lightsaber and played with it for the first time after The Phantom Menace; my flatmate and I went at it like Obi-Wan and Darth Maul until they were just misshapen lumps of plastic). Even if I wasn’t a ridiculous optimist, I would still want to believe that a film I saw four times in the cinema had some redeeming features, but there’s a risk that the backlash has gone on for so long that any merit of the first prequel might have been lost a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
There must have been some good features to the film; let’s not forget that the backlash only started when people saw the film itself. When the teaser trailer hit, the majority of people felt more excitement than anything, that their childhood could be revisited and the magic recaptured. Watching the teaser trailer again, it does have a slight “sow’s purse from pig’s ear” feel about it, but many summer blockbusters these days struggle to stitch together even two minutes of entertaining highlights from their two or more hours. Here’s what started the excitement all those years ago:
So now The Phantom Menace is back in cinemas. Except it’s now in 3D, and Yoda’s been replaced with a digital puppet, more in keeping with the look of the final two prequels. So now I’ll never even see the original Phantom Menace on the big screen again. Think that’s a bad thing? Here I present ten reasons why you might want to part with a small amount of your hard earned cash to see this on the silver screen once again.
1. John Williams’ best in series music
The one constant throughout the six Star Wars films has been the music of John Williams. The finest composer of film scores of his generation has been consistently outstanding throughout the twenty-eight years of Star Wars films, but The Phantom Menace actually saw him at the peak of his powers. Duel Of The Fates takes the huge orchestral sound of the original trilogy, adds in a choir (singing a Welsh poem in Sanskrit, fact fans) and embodies everything that’s been so outstanding about his scores: it has the drama of themes such as Luke and Leia, the bombast of the original Star Wars theme and the ominous threat of the Imperial March, all rolled into one. It’s also one of the few tunes that you can do air timpani to. It’s so good I actually put it on my imaginary Desert Island list.
2. The three way, four blade lightsaber fight
It made Mark Hamill jealous, it made an action star out of Liam Neeson for the next ten years and it set a standard that the rest of the prequels could never quite live up to. The Phantom Menace contains the best lightsaber fight of the whole Star Wars sextology, and frankly one of the best swordfights ever committed to celluloid, the only shame being that there was so much going on elsewhere that this was intercut with three other plot lines, slightly diminishing the effect. (The less said about the incredibly daft ending, where Darth Maul stands and watches while he gets chopped in half, the better.)
3. Liam Neeson
Liam Neeson is appearing in a sequel to Taken this year. Liam Neeson will be sixty years old this year. Take in those two facts for a moment – it has to be the latter fact that’s harder to swallow. Neeson dominates the film whenever he’s on screen, even the soft Irish brogue carrying an authority (and a particular disdain reserved for Jar-Jar) that instantly marks him out as top quality Jedi material. You can’t help but feel if Qui-Gonn hadn’t taken one in the gut from the end of Darth Maul’s lightsaber that he wouldn’t have stood for stroppy teenage Anakin’s nonsense, or would have just pushed him off the nearest high rise in Coruscant if he got too out of control.
So often in double acts, one of the pair commands so much more respect than the other. Think of Wallace and Gromit, or Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. So it’s the case with R2-D2, who’s always in the right place at the right time and might actually do more than any other single individual in terms of heroic deeds and derring-do across the trilogy, starting here with saving the ship while all other droids are getting blasted into space dust.. His no-nonsense approach might rub C-3PO up the wrong way sometimes, but if there’s one robot you’d want by your side in a crisis, it’s this one. How on earth Uncle Owen didn’t pick him out of the line up is anyone’s guess. Useless.
5. At home with the Darths
There are always two, apparently, which might explain why it’s taken them 1,000 years to be able to rule the galaxy. But in this case, the two are an excellent team, both with strong qualities. Darth Maul is the muscle of the operation, handy in a fight but also with a head ideal for scaring small children and opening bottles. Undoubtedly the best thing about Return Of The Jedi was Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor, so it’s also gratifying to see that George Lucas knows how to get some things right, giving McDiarmid an increasingly central role in the prequels. He’s satisfyingly smarmy when advising Padmé but also has the air of, well, menace required for his brief appearances as Darth Sidious, and his presence is one of the highlights of the prequels in general.
6. Samuel L. Motherf***** Jackson
Oh to be as famous and popular as Samuel L. Jackson. Having expressed an interest in being in a Star Wars film, he was approached by casting director Robin Gurland, and by the second film was even getting to pick his own lightsaber colour. Between him and Liam Neeson, the Jedi were actually believable as a force to be reckoned with.
7. The wonderful wizard that’s Oz
It was also an ideal opportunity to bring back everyone’s favourite short-assed, frog-faced Jedi master. The only slight disappointment was that Phantom Menace Yoda was intended to look younger, but instead he just looked as if he’d spent most of the last eight hundred years getting high. (Now that’s a film I’d pay to see.)
8. I’M BRIAN BLESSED!
Yes, everyone’s favourite shouty man gets to turn up infrequently and spout random bollocks. Somehow it sounds so much more believable when he says it than when Jar-Jar does.
9. The scenery’s lovely
Coruscant looks a bit The Fifth Element-y at times, but Naboo’s cities are beautiful and you can’t fault any aspect of the production design. What me, grasping at straws? Absolutely not. Which leads me to:
10. Look, Jawas!
With all that said and done, if you believe these reasons are enough to overlook midichlorians, comedy fighting robots, the incessant casual racism, Natalie Portman being turned into a bad actress in the space of 135 minutes, Jake Lloyd repeatedly shouting comments that would have been anachronistic in an Enid Blyton book and, not forgetting, Jar-Jar Binks and all of the other reasons that The Phantom Menace is so universally loathed these days, then by all means part with your cash, and I would argue that no-one could fault you for doing so. I think, though, four times was enough for me and the promise of an added dimension is still one or two short of the storytelling dimensions that we were all hoping for pre-1999. Until Mr Lucas finds some magic way of sorting out those dimensions, I think I’ll be staying at home.
Coming in 2013: Absolutely No Reasons Whatsoever Why Attack Of The Clones Isn’t Irredeemably Awful