Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
After Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi, rumors circulated for years about what George Lucas had in store for further movies. One thing that was distilled from all the plans, as early as the late 1980s, was if (and that was a huge if) there were any further movies, we would get three prequels and three sequels. The three sequels were always in question; turns out that Lucas's original sequel plans didn't really work after some of the events in Jedi, and there were questions on if he would direct or even want to be bothered with anything else Star Wars related.
Really, there was no direction in what would happen in the prequels, either. Obviously Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker would figure prominently, and there was a good chance the Clone Wars would be covered. That was made even more obvious as that was a time period left out of any of the books that came out later; the furthest back anything seemed to go with known characters was the Han Solo adventures, and that was still during Imperial times. Parts of the video game Knights of the Old Republic covered what was ancient history, and practically myth by the time the events we were familiar with happened. The whole period of the waning years of the Old Republic leading up to the Galactic Empire was discussed in some situations, but never fleshed out.
Then things began to move a bit. We got a sequel trilogy, but in book form, from Timothy Zahn. Starting with Heir to the Empire, we followed Princess Leia, Chewbacca and others as they thwarted the attempts of Admiral Thrawn to overthrow the fledgling New Republic and reestablish the Empire. Though largely relegated to legend status, numerous parts of the books (Coruscant being the center of both the Republic and Imperial governments, Admiral Thrawn himself) became canon in their own way. Coruscant, in fact, first appeared in film in a reworked ending to The Return of the Jedi when the special editions of the first trilogy were released in 1997. It was also at that time when it turned out that something we never actually thought was going to happen was happening: a new Star Wars movie was in production, and it was the beginning of a prequel series telling the story of Anakin Skywalker's training as a Jedi and eventual fall into the Dark Side. Not only that, but it was directed by George Lucas himself.
Keep in mind George Lucas had not directed a movie since the original Star Wars. He had directed the occasional secondary or added sequence, but he had withdrawn from directing due to a dispute about the cold opening of the Star Wars movies, particularly with the demands that the credits come before the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back rather than at the end, like in the first movie. He eventually got his way, but left the Directors' Guild because of it. The Phantom Menace, as the first movie was soon revealed to be titled, was the first time he had officially sat in that chair in two decades.
So, what we had is something we had wished for: a new Star Wars movie, written and directed by George Lucas, and fleshing out one of the most famous villains in movie history. Not only that, but we would also get more background on Obi-Wan Kenobi, get to see the Jedi Order at the height of its power and have more of the Star Wars universe opened up as a result. Surely, we would get everything we ever wanted out of a new Star Wars movie.
Then came 1999. That is when reality - and Jar Jar Binks - both reared their ugly heads.
Whereas we begin the opening crawl of Star Wars with rebels scoring their first victory against an evil Empire, we start out this crawl with - disputes revolving around taxation of trade routes. That in itself was a big head-scratching moment. It does turn out to be a bit more serious than that, as the Trade Federation is preparing the invasion of the planet of Naboo on the urging of a certain Lord Sidious. They are unaware of who he actually is, but he is promising them an increase in prophets and a Republic Senate that will go along with their actions, so they are happy to not be asking too many questions.
They get nervous, though, when it turns out the two men the Senate sent to negotiate on behalf of Naboo are Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Nissan) and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), and the Viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson) becomes concerned that they may find out the entire plot. An attempt to kill them fails, and the Jedis make it to Naboo in time to rescue Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage from the Federation's droid army. They head off to Coruscant to appeal to the Senate, but are waylaid on the planet Tatooine for repairs. It is there that Qui-Gon meets Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who turns out to be strong with the Force. After winning Anakin's freedom, Qui-Gon takes him to Coruscant to appear before the Jedi Council to decide on his training. Meanwhile, inaction in the Senate leads Amidala enter a vote of no confidence against the current Supreme Chancellor Velorum (Terence Stamp), opening the way for Naboo's own Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) to make a bid for the position.
Ultimately, Amidala decides to return to Naboo, but with a secret agenda: capture the Viceroy and destroy the ship controlling the droid army. She intends to do so with the help of the race her people share the planet with - an amphibious species called the Gungans, of whom the Naboo have barely any contact with. This changes due to Qui-Gon's chance encounter with Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best), a Gungan banished for hims clumsiness.
If you notice a good portion of that summary works without a bumbling, annoying cartoon character clumsily inserted alongside real actors. And I mean barely there, especially when he is first encountered. Where a few years down the line in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers the character Gollum looked enough to be a living, breathing creation to not be a distraction, Binks is shaded in such a way that he looks like something inserted at the last minute. I didn't notice it as much in 1999, since I was so annoyed by everything he did to notice much else, but it is horribly obvious now. It's even more frustrating since, as the movie goes on, it looks like the effects needed to put him in improved at some point during production and it looks much better; I have no idea why they didn't go back and fix the scene during the stampede.
No matter how he looks, his antics, and his very existence, will always be what brings this movie down. There is plenty of clunky dialogue - that whole "you bring hope to people who have none" speech that Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) gives is one of those examples of how George Lucas has no ear for dialogue and really needs someone around to tell him no and act as a filter. There is also the problem that the Neimoidians, the species that controls the Trade Federation, were based on Chinese merchants and speak with stereotypical Japanese accents. Lucas, as liberal as he is (the name Nute Gunray is a combination of Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, who as a good Democrat Lucas couldn't help but take a slap at) probably had no intention of perpetuating Asian stereotypes but it looked bad then and looks bad now. As for Watto, the junk dealer that owns the Skywalkers, it has been thrown about that he's a bad Jewish stereotype, but I see more of a shady Russian gangster aspect than anything anti-semitic. Still, it would have been better to make the aliens truly alien rather than base them off of human societies, since intentions aside someone is going to be offended.
Still, even with these problems, it comes back to Jar Jar. He was accused of being a perpetuation of Jamaican stereotypes, even though he's not using a Jamaican accent. If they don't speak Galactic Standard to a degree, I don't understand why they don't use their own language among themselves, but still speak with a patois. So, honestly, I don't see that Binks was made to be a stereotype - in fact, like I said in the above paragraph, he was meant to be fully alien. It's just that the character fails on so many levels. It was a blatant attempt to sell toys to kids.
Which also brings up another point about Lucas. He may have been back directing, but he completely forgot who his audience was, even going to so far to tell the existing fans that they were not his target audience. The truth is we may have been kids when we first saw the movies, but we grew up with them and appreciated them even more as adults and, in 1999, Generation X were the demographic most movies were aimed at. It was our buying all the games, books and paraphernalia over the years that kept the series afloat, and to be handed such a slap in the face was frustrating - even more so since, despite what is wrong with The Phantom Menace, there is so much that is right about it.
Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor put effort into their roles, and it shows. They are the stars of the show, which I think at the time many viewers of the movie didn't expect - they wanted it to revolve around Anakin from the beginning, and this doesn't. While his introduction is an important asset, the situation that sets things in motion, particularly with Qui-Gon insisting on the training and Obi-Wan believing he has a duty to his master to follow through despite Yoda's (Frank Oz) warnings, The Phantom Menace exists to set up the beginning of the fall of both the Old Republic and the Jedi Order.
We also are introduced to Darth Maul (Ray Parks), a character that is mostly silent but is one of the most memorable in any of the movies, and also plays a greater role going forward in the Canon universe. No matter what goes on in the rest of the movie, I have rarely heard anyone disparage the three-way fight between Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, particularly since this is the grander fight sequence many had been waiting for. I also have to say that, although the Gungans (and not just Jar Jar) are annoying, the design of their cities is amazing. I also quite enjoyed the underwater trip, even if I remain confused about at which point they supposedly went through the planet's core - something I highly doubt that transport could do, since it seemed to barely survive a large sea monster, much less what would be impossibly intense heat and pressure going through the center of a planet.
Finally, we come to Jake Lloyd, who unfairly got a lot of blowback from fans and endured a childhood of bullying due to this movie. While he may not be the greatest child actor, I find that he does a great job in the role, due to the fact that he doesn't seem like he's acting. If I would have suddenly found myself caught up in such an adventure at the age of 9 (especially since my room was filled with Star Wars toys) I would have acted the same way. He already has some major technical skills, largely enhanced due to his force abilities, and nothing he does here is out of the ordinary for his character. However, he doesn't understand that he is special in any way at this point; he just knows what he can do, and reacts the way any kid his age would. Therefore, I have to unabashedly say I love his performance in this, because where Jar Jar fails in its attempts to pander to children at the time, young Anakin manages to get across the initial feeling of joy I had at seeing the original movies when I was the same age and younger. It's a realization that a wider world is suddenly opening up combined with the early fear of not understanding where you fit in it. Lucas let Lloyd be a kid, rather than a kid trying to recite adult lines.
Lloyd's performance also elevates the pod-race sequence, which is another highlight of the film, even if there are more problems with Lucas aiming toward kids (the two-headed announcer and a little kid in a largely non-functional Rodian costume that looks like it was bought at a Spirit Halloween store), but it it does have a sense of both fun and danger that is missing from the rest of this movie and the other prequels.
As for everyone else, Natalie Portman is wooden throughout, and doesn't do anything spectacular, but this typically ends up the situation in a lot of Lucas's direction and how he has actors say the dialogue he's written. Ian McDiarmid, for his part, is oily enough as Senator Palpatine, and does a good job of not overacting or giving hints of what is to come for the character.
In the end, The Phantom Menace largely works when it comes to doing hat it intends to: setting up the rest of the story for the other two parts of the prequel trilogy. The problem is that due to some major bad decisions George Lucas was suddenly facing an older fan base that didn't immediately think everything he did was a stroke of genius - and started to remember that the second and third movie of the original trilogy were not directed by him, and were written by others based on his ideas, thus the worst of his ideas were filtered out. This time around Lucas's flaws were apparent from the beginning, because he didn't have the advantage of putting something on the screen we hadn't seen before.
While visually it was still stunning, the truth is, other than the pod-race, we had seen it before, and we knew we had seen better. For all the pretty pictures, Lucas was far behind the times, but there was still hope that things could improve. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that The Phantom Menace was as good as it was going to get.
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
Time: 136 minutes
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ahmed Best, Ian McDiarmid
Director: George Lucas