star wars: Episode i - the phantom menace (1999)

The Phantom Menace shares a common bond with Lucas' 1977 original Star Wars film in that, forever, its reputation will always precede it. Synonymous with hyped audiences and their subsequent angry let down that follows wild consumerist anticipation; the release of this film will always be the story. The Phantom Menace is an ambitious film made by a man who, in a much-too self aware fashion, wanted to be viewed as an audacious genius, a man who had been unabashedly praised for decades beforehand. If 1999 was the year the music stopped and America began to turn the page toward the Bush years, the war on terror, domestic surveillance and the end of the consumer paradise, The Phantom Menace and its reactionaries fit perfectly into the narrative as hordes of angry Gen X-ers, in the midst of an arrested development that could only be borne of this society of plenty, shook their fists at the man who taught them to believe as he was revealed a fraud. Lucas regarded in an interview soon after that he couldn't give the audience what they wanted. "They wanted The Matrix" he concluded and he was probably right. Lucas, on the other hand, wanted a fantasy costume drama of yesteryear complete with elaborate and ornate sets and wardrobe, stiff, reserved performances and alien characters representative of oppressed races by a white ruling class. This was his critique on the proposition of the glory of the republics of antiquity, his recognition and admission that the peace and prosperity, the Knights of old and the heyday of glorious battle described by Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film were in themselves fraudulent. An understandable, rose-colored fraudulence that comes with old age (as well as being told by a beneficiary of the old order), but fraudulence nonetheless. With this film Lucas draws his darkest conclusions that the tyrannical fascist states and the benevolent democracies of the world are perhaps two sides of a hypocritical coin.

Lucas’s area of focus for the prequels was a free society descending into fascism; how the best-intentioned cultures can be led into their own destruction by power-hungry men who seek to control. A man, indoctrinated into an underground opposing order's viewpoint, would rise to control an entire galaxy, and plunge it into a controlling military state. The seemingly-innocent Senator Palpatine had, at some point in his past, been initiated into an ancient order of the dark side, and would stop at nothing to gain control. He would purge the Jedi and bring about an empire that would rule through fear by creating conflict and controlling both sides of a war. In the midst of all of this, however, Lucas has written himself into a corner of trying to make a trilogy about a republic in decline that will somehow segue into a character driven story about fathers and sons. His juggling and ultimate fumbling of this premise are the prequel trilogy's failing, but the attempt was admirable. The Phantom Menace shows us all that we will ever need to see about why franchise-addiction in filmmaking almost always ends up with filmmakers shooting themselves in the foot. To set the film this far into the past in the storyline is a bold move, one that sets this film completely apart from the other five in the series and would be readily lauded if it had actually turned out to be effective. With only six chapters to our tale, sacrificing the film's ability to establish much in the way of character relationships (and furthering the problem by barely attempting to set up any) means that the film is largely contextual to the galaxy's story we're witnessing on a more grand scale. This installment's only aim is to reveal a contrasting peace in relation to the conflict of the original trilogy. We are introduced to younger versions of this trilogy's central characters, all of whom must exist in stasis for the entire film to save their development for the next two installments. The characters we seem to spend the most time with (Qui-Gon Jin, Darth Maul, Watto, Sebulba, Jar Jar Binks, etc.) will either never be heard from again as the saga unfolds, or worse, will have bizarre obligatory recurrences in the next film due only to how over-present they were in this film. This trilogy’s leads, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala, are all in the film, yet they sit on the sidelines waiting for their turn to take center stage. From the perspective of the 30's serials that drove the initial Star Wars it all seems to add up, from the inclusion of a tribe of amphibians that reject outsiders, to the oriental alien traders that place embargo as a form of coercion, to the chariot race meant to provide the film's high-point. Lucas' main folly here is in sacrificing the narrative cohesion of his trilogy in order to focus solely on the high level view of the republic's evolution. It was necessary, obviously, for his vision to be able to fully showcase the time of peace before conflict. Equally necessary was to take an entire film to focus on the Senator's rise to the position of Chancellor. What audiences at the time did not fully realize was that this is the story of a galaxy, and in reality the story of Palpatine just as much as Anakin. The Phantom Menace is confident filmmaking from Lucas, a confidence we never see again after its disastrous reception. Here, his abilities shine at creating set-piece filmmaking and allowing us to live in each moment. The introductory scene showing the legendary intimidation of the Jedi is unmatched cinematic joy. 

The Phantom Menace exists apart from the rest of Star Wars lore as its own, enjoyable, standalone film. Its weakness, of course, is that it is not Episode 0. As the piece of the puzzle it is meant to play, it shows a misguided opener to a three-installment trilogy to arguably the most beloved film trilogy ever made. The subsequent film, Attack of the Clones, struggles to present the middle chapter of a trilogy with a storyline that plays like an opening act thanks to this film’s failure to establish anything meaningful for the long term. The film is a tragic reminder of what the Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, however, as it shows a director in control of his idea and relishing in his bold choices, something that completely vanished in the next two films. After the public denouncement of this film, it seems that Lucas faltered and the self-doubt is evident. The film does not resonate outside of itself within the context of the series in any way. It does, however, resonate in our world as showing harsh relations between races, economic disputes that lead to conflict, the preying upon the weak in political discourse, etc. Any number of which should be looked upon for its own merits and not simply what this film means to the character arcs of the Star Wars saga. Lucas' vision was never more clear for the prequel trilogy as it was in this film. A galaxy under the manipulation of one devious man, a society in decline and an innocent child who would ultimately journey to hell and back.