Ok, here goes. We’ve made our way through the original trilogy, so that means it must be time to go back to the very beginning. It’s obviously not ALWAYS a very good place to start, since George Lucas didn’t start there, which is why we’re discussing it now. And I promise that’s the last Sound of Music reference I’ll make for at LEAST a paragraph. It’s time to talk about what may be the most divisive chapter in the entire saga: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This may be the most challenging entry in this series for me. Keep reading, and I’ll explain why.
At the outset, allow me to be completely honest: This is my least-favorite film in the Star Wars series. I’m not a prequel hater, I think some very good things came out of the prequel trilogy. I just do not feel like The Phantom Menace is a very good film, regardless of its lineage. I have problems with the story, the dialogue, the effects, the editing, and some of the acting. However, this article is not meant to be concerned with my problems with the film. So, you may ask yourself why I keep coming back to watch The Phantom Menace if I find it so fundamentally flawed. And that would be a good question to ask. It is a question I’ve been asking myself for the last month. Fortunately, I have a few answers! The things that I think of that cause me to push “play” on The Phantom Menace are the color palette of the film, the score, Liam Neeson, and plain ol’ nostalgia. Let’s dive a little deeper on those, shall we?
If you listen to Comics With Kenobi, you’ll know that I am drawn to pretty colors. I spend a lot of time on that podcast talking about the use of color in the comics that Matt Moore and I review. Film is no different for me. The Phantom Menace is a beautiful film, from a color perspective. The lush greens of Naboo, the deep reds and golds of Queen Amidala’s costumes, the vibrant paint jobs on the podracers, and the aqua and gold of the Gungan city are a feast for these eyes. For all the computer-generated magic that was created for this film, the real-world costumes are the colors that catch my eye the most. Star Wars has always been known for unique and interesting costuming, and The Phantom Menace is no exception. Every one of Amidala’s gowns tells a different story, and the brown-and-cream Jedi outfits of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan not only look appropriately lived-in, but they have a weight to them that the audience can feel. The podracers give us the feel of an intergalactic NASCAR event, which I suspect is the point. Like Amidala’s gowns, each pod fits the personality of the driver perfectly, and the colors match the driver as well as the design. Sebulba’s orange pod screams “WARNING” since we know he’s trouble, and Anakin’s silver and blue pod looks sleek and small and fast, just like the little Padawan-to-be who is in the driver’s seat. The computer-generated colors we get for the grassland and castles of Naboo and the aquatic, bubbled-in grandeur of the Gungan city give us a sense of the opulence that each culture is accustomed to, which makes their potential destruction by the Trade Federation that much more upsetting. They feel like real locations, and that is a credit to the digital artists who created them. The Phantom Menace bathes us in color, and it is one of the many things that brings me back to repeated viewings.
One of the constant elements that people associate with Star Wars is the music, and The Phantom Menace is no difference. John Williams managed to echo the original trilogy while giving this film its own musical identity. The tense, rolling score that plays under the escape from Naboo is particularly effective. Williams always manages to provide each film with at least one signature theme that catches the ear of the listener. In The Phantom Menace, that theme “Duel of the Fates.” This piece was so well-received and so dramatic that it was released as an actual radio single, complete with an accompanying music video. The chorus that begins the song and the frenetic pace of the opening tempo builds suspense and tension until it explodes, which is very appropriate to play beneath the climactic lightsaber duel between the 2 Jedi heroes and Darth Maul. Whatever problems I may have with the dialogue, I can always listen to the music playing beneath each scene. It is a remarkable score, one that rewards repeat listening.
Liam Neeson. I really don’t need to write anything else for this portion of the article. But I will, because I like to read my own words. When I read that Liam Neeson had been cast as a Jedi, I was very encouraged. He is an actor that always brings gravity to a film, and as an actor, he is someone who never provides a false note, everything he does is grounded in reality and his technique is invisible. His work here is no different. If any other actor had tried to explain Midichlorians, I would have checked out halfway through the speech. Liam Neeson teaching me about them is a different story. It was only well after seeing the film that I started to question things. His Jedi master is such a genuine, three-dimensional character that everything he speaks has a ring of truth. He provides a steady, calming presence throughout the film, and the stillness and gravitas that he brings is the anchor that tethers the film to a reality that allows us to accept all of the fantastic things we see. Oscar-caliber actors don’t always fare well in fantasy films, but Mr. Neeson is a welcome exception.
As I stated previously, The Phantom Menace is not among my favorite films. It’s not the worst movie ever made, far from it. I just have some real problems with the way certain things are presented. Nostalgia, though, is a powerful force, especially for someone like me who clings to and cherishes memories. The Phantom Menace is the last Star Wars film that I saw with my mother. She went to the first midnight showing with me. She was easily the oldest person in the cinema that night, and we had a ball spending time together in line waiting to get in before the film. One of my favorite stories is about the drive home after the movie, when my mother sheepishly admitted to me that she didn’t find the movie very impressive. I’ve recounted it several times on several podcasts, so I won’t rehash it here, but it made me laugh then, and it makes me laugh now. Being able to experience the rebirth of the Star Wars film franchise with one of the people who was responsible for my connection to it was a very special thing to me. For that reason alone, I will ALWAYS rewatch The Phantom Menace. Even though I find many faults with the film, the memories that it returns to me far outweigh any issues I have with the material. George Lucas gave me one last connection between Star Wars and my mother before she passed, and that is something I will always appreciate. Along with the connection to my mother, the memories of the excitement and anticipation surrounding the film’s release is a very fond recollection. I remember leaving class at my local community college and having someone in the hall say “Hey Jeff, Wal-Mart has the new Star Wars toys in-stock” and being in my car on the way to the store by the time they got the word “stock” out of their mouth. I came back to the school right after, and everyone wanted to see the toys I had purchased. These were 19 to 22 year-olds who had no interest in toy-collecting, but they were anxious to see anything about the first Star Wars movie in a decade and a half, just like everyone else in the country. Star Wars was back in a BIG way, and it was heaven for a Star Wars nerd like me. Rewatching The Phantom Menace takes me back to the spring and summer of 1999, when hope was springing up anew and Star Wars was back in the public consciousness. It was (and the memory still is) GLORIOUS!
Being the nostalgia hound that I am, there are several films on my rewatch list that reside there mostly for the feelings and memories they evoke when they’re playing, with no real weight given to their relative quality. The Phantom Menace is in this camp, but that is not to say that it is without its merits. The rich colors of the film, particularly the costumes make it a visually pleasing experience. The John Williams score, complete with the modern classic “Duel of the Fates” add to its appeal by providing an auditory feast. Liam Neeson’s performance as Qui-Gon Jinn gives the film a layer of reality and credibility that keep it from floating away from its central purpose of introducing us to Anakin Skywalker. All of these attributes combine to make it yet another Star Wars film that stays in regular rotation in my home. Sometimes it’s just background noise, sometimes I’m watching it to find things I’ve missed, and sometimes I’m just in the mood to go along for the ride. In all of these scenarios, it never fails to serve the prescribed purpose. Thank you, Mr. Lucas.
What about you? What are the things that keep YOU coming back to The Phantom Menace? I gots ta know!!!!
Until next time,
May the Force of Others Be With Us All.
Margot and Archie say hi.
Jeff can be heard weekly on Assembly of Geeks (www.assemblyofgeeks.com) and on his own podcast network, MarvinDog Media (www.MarvinDogMedia.com) where he hosts The Pilot Episode, Talking Toys with Taylor and Jeff, and Bantha Banter: A Star Wars Chat Show. He is also co-host of Comics With Kenobi with fellow CWK blogger Matt Moore, on CoffeeWithKenobi.com, which you have already found if you’re reading this blog. You can contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.