BRAD'S APRIL ESCAPE #1 - Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom MenaceEach weekday this month, I’ll screen a film from The Bearded Trio Cinematic Universe and list 10 random scenes, characters, musical cues or performances that I particularly enjoy and look forward to upon every viewing. I’d love to hear similar little things you enjoy about these films, and hope you join me in this escape from the present-day world.
Starting this month-long series is perhaps the most-anticipated film of the past 25 years, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999).
The Phantom Menace - An Introduction
I count myself as a survivor of the Prequel Message Board Wars of the early 2000s, when the backlash to TPM and Attack of the Clones was loud and palpable. I relentlessly defended the first two episodes of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, and am proud having done so. I consider TPM to be the quintessential George movie. Meant for a young audience, but heavily layered in mythology and the Star Wars lore, TPM stands as a beautifully photographed film that carries a performance by Liam Neeson that, for me, defines what the classic Jedi Knights were all about. More about him later.
The Spring of 1999 was a time where you felt a little bit of magic in the air. A new Star Wars film, the first in 16 years, was set to debut on May 19. The merchandise, CD soundtrack, action figures and novelization all hit on May 3, and yes I was there for the Toys R Us Midnight Madness event at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, May 3. There was an unmistakable buzz in the air as each day got closer. I was 10 when Return of the Jedi came out, so the fact that I could drive myself to a Star Wars movie for the first time left me giddy.
10 Things I Like - The Phantom Menace
Just seeing the words “Episode I” on the opening crawl gave me shivers on my first viewing, the midnight show at the Star Theater in Auburn Hills, Michigan. In 1978, Star Wars was re-released in theaters, with the tag “Episode IV” added to the opening crawl. As I was only 5 years old at the time, it took my mother pointing out that “you know, that means there has to be an episode I, II and III.” For 20 years, that tantalizing fact held endless mystery and wonder for me, as to what happened in those episodes. A young Obi-Wan? We see where Darth Vader came from? I was finally, about to find out...
First in-movie chills moment...when Qui-Gon does that little head nod as he is working his lightsaber through the middle of the Trade Federation blast door. This is also John Williams’s first big moment with the Force theme in the prequel trilogy. The combination of Liam Neeson’s look and the music so strongly convey Qui-Gon Jinn’s power and the power of the Force as utilized by a fully fledged Jedi Master, something we really hadn’t seen in the series to this point. This is what Jedi do, is what this small scene tells me.
“There’s always a bigger fish.” My single favorite line of dialogue in the Prequel Trilogy. George has often talked about doing things for a “whimsy” and this line fits that definition perfectly.
The dinner scene in the Skywalker home where Anakin asks to join the podrace to help Padme, Qui-Gon and Jar Jar contains gorgeous music from John Williams, understated but so full in spirit and weight. One thing my mom pointed out about Liam Neeson in this scene was the look he has in his eyes as the scene ends. “George always casts people with such amazing eyes,” she said, and she is right. The actors in these films convey so much with just a look, and Neeson absolutely nails it here. HIs look is that of a combination of worry about the unknown future, and an acceptance of his destiny to pursue it, regardless of the eventual outcome. It’s a combination of warmth and strength that beautifully defines his character. Really, the eyes and expressions of all the characters in this dinner scene say so much, well beyond any of their assigned dialogue. Anakin’s look when Shmi says “He can help you” is so well performed and well lit by Director of Photography David Tattersall. The dinner scene might be the characters having a meal, but their eyes tell a far greater story.
These pre-podrace scenes on Tatooine do a nice job of slowly building Anakin up into an important character. Bit by bit, a little more is revealed to us. The conversation between Shmi and Qui-Gon is filled with mixed emotions on the parts of both characters. Twice, Shmi shows obvious sadness at the inevitability of Anakin’s destiny, when he gets his podracer to work, and when Qui-Gon is checking on Anakin’s midi-chlorian count during the nighttime conversation. She gives such a foreboding feel to what is to come in these scenes. It’s a strong indicator that this story is only beginning and reinforces what knowledgeable audiences are aware of, regarding his destiny. Very subtle, but powerful material during these scenes.
The first lightsaber duel. At first I felt annoyed that this was filmed in such an abstract, herky-jerky way. But of course I would come to appreciate it after the 3-way duel later in the film. Ben Burtt shines here, as he so often does, with the cutting blade saw aspect to the sound of Darth Maul’s lightsaber, easily distinguishing it from Qui-Gon’s. So intense. Also note Williams’s music in this sequence. It’s the exact same music as a few minutes earlier, when Anakin and Qui-Gon are walking back to Anakin’s house, talking about all the money they have after the podrace victory. Only for this duel scene, the music is sped up to a great extent, adding to the frenzy of the scene. I wonder what link Williams was making between these two scenes, placing identical music, but with different speeds, in the two scenes?
Since the end of the Prequel Trilogy, reference books and novels have referred to Captain Panaka as a Moff in the new Empire, which I think is a brilliant direction for his character. Nearly every single thing this guy says during TPM is either of a negative slant, or would favor the Queen surrendering. He was on the take for Palpatine the entire time! Throughout the film, everything he says is almost immediately contradicted by the Jedi, or by someone else like Sio Bibble. I 100 percent subscribe to the conspiracy theory that Panaka was in on Palpatine’s secret, given his place in Naboo security, and was under instructions to try and influence events in this blockade to Palpatine’s favor. But Panaka was smart and didn’t play his hand too strongly at any point in TPM. A number of people and events intervened to prevent Palpatine’s Version 1.0 of his Plan from being enacted. But Panaka was there throughout, helping to play the long game and pave the way for Palpatine’s takeover. The only time Panaka so much as cracks a smile in the entire film is when he announces Palpatine’s candidacy for Supreme Chancellor. This is not an accident. “Play your part Captain, and I assure you, your loyalty will be remembered and rewarded.” - Palpatine to Panaka, probably.
During the Maul-Jinn-Kenobi saber duel, during one of my screenings, I saw a young boy, probably around 8 years old, jumping out of his seat, imitating the battle with his “air saber,” so completely dialed into the action that was appearing on screen. When I saw that, I broke out into the widest grin. I was literally seeing myself, 18 years earlier, right in front of me. This, I concluded, was the purpose of these films. To spark kids’ imaginations and to engage them on that pure joyful level. That’s what the Original Trilogy did for me, and to see that same impact on a youngster in the beginning of the Prequel era reaffirmed for me, that George Lucas knew what he was doing and hadn’t lost his touch, by any extent.
This is a long entry, so here goes...the shut down of the battle droids is a parallel action to what happens to the stormtrooper legion on the Endor moon in ROJ. Bear with me here. In TPM, a central controlling ship mechanically controls the droids in battle with the Gungans. Anakin blasts the central core of the ship, and as a result, the droids are no longer effective fighters because they have been deactivated. In ROJ, an organic controlling being (Emperor Palpatine) is controlling his troops - via the dark side of the force - fighting the rebels and Ewoks. Anakin engages in a lightsaber duel with Luke, thus distracting the Emperor from his control over the stormtroopers, and as a result, the troopers are no longer effective fighters. In both films, a central controlling object loses that control over an army of bad guys because of the actions of Anakin, and as a result, the good guys are victorious. In the prequels, that control is mechanical while in the originals, that control is organic. It sort of replicates what happens to Vader in that he goes from being a mechanical at the start of the OT, and eventually rediscovers his organic (good) self by the end of that trilogy. The inspiration for this connection comes from www.starwarsringtheory.com by Mike Klimo, which for me, is the finest essay ever written on the first six Star Wars films. If you haven’t read through this essay, it carries my strongest recommendation.
Fans are so weird. When Darth Maul was cut in half, many of them simply didn’t believe he was actually dead. “Naw man, he’s too cool to be killed off now. Episode II will have a bunch of Maul clones.” I always figured the shot of showing his two halves tumbling down the shaft was to explicitly express that Maul was dead. Fast forward 11 years to The Clone Wars, and lo and behold, Maul’s back. Maybe those fans knew more than they were letting on all along?
Brad’s Escapism Moment in The Phantom Menace
When the Naboo hangar doors open, revealing Darth Maul. It is perfect imagery, married with a strong intro to Duel of the Fates by John WIlliams. It’s a signal that the greatest threat is here. Notice in this scene how Padme, her handmaidens, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon are the only ones not retreating at the moment of Maul’s reveal. Everyone else backs up.
Much like Attack of the Clones, the more criticism The Phantom Menace gets, the more I like it. I have never allowed others’ opinions of these movies to influence my own. TPM is the ideal launching point of the saga. It is highlighted by a gentle and moving performance by Liam Neeson and does a strong job of building Anakin up on a gradual basis. I adore this film, and I thank you for following along with me on revisiting this classic.
Coming tomorrow: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)