I’m tentatively planning, in good company with a whole bunch of other people, I’m sure, to watch the first six Star Wars movies in Machete Order before I see the new one. Machete Order (episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6) does not include episode 1, but I didn’t feel inclined to skip it. For all its flaws, and good god there are a lot, I kind of like it.
I haven’t the time or the heart to mount a full-on defense of The Phantom Menace, nor do I really think it deserves one. The performances are almost uniformly subpar, wooden at best and pathetic at worst. The only actors who survive the great flattening, presumably by ignoring or not needing whatever strange direction George Lucas gave them, are Terence Stamp (not that he has much screen time), Brian Blessed, Greg Proops, and Ian McDiarmid — the seasoned pros, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with Ewan McGregor or Natalie Portman as actors, but the one is a little hamstrung by his pitch-perfect Alec Guinness impression and the other has to do some weird “disguise” voice as the Queen of Naboo. Jake Lloyd is embarrassing, Ahmed Best is embarrassing, both doing their respective best with what they’ve been given, but the one is a child and the other might as well be playing a child. It’s true what you remember: young Anakin and Jar-Jar are supremely irritating and get way too much screen time. Even the Jedi Council are kind of a damp squib: Yoda is an asshole, and as much as I love the idea of Samuel L. Jackson as a Jedi Master, he’s wasted with that flattened delivery.
But there are a few virtues I think this film has, reasons I kind of prefer it to the other two prequels (but I reserve the right to change my mind when I get around to rewatching them). Let’s run through the five things I actually like about The Phantom Menace.
1. Qui-Gon Jinn
Of the Jedi who get any real lines or screen time, he might be my favorite. Why? Well, it helps that he’s Liam Neeson, who should be on that list of seasoned pros but alas, succumbs to the Lucas flattening along with almost everyone else. Or does he? The thing with Qui-Gon is that he’s exactly what we’re told a Jedi is supposed to be, and he’s almost the only such example we can verify. Think about the others: there’s Luke, an impulsive, volatile child almost to the end; Mace Windu, fury with a purple lightsaber; Yoda, who as mentioned is an asshole. Only Obi-Wan comes close to the tranquil, unattached quasi-Buddhist warrior monk we’re promised, and of course he does, because who trained him? Qui-Gon, the epitome of chill. He’s a soothing figure, paternal but never forceful, resourceful and kind, always knows the right thing to do. Even when he defies the Jedi Council he’s matter-of-fact about it, upfront and calm in his certainty. Watching him today I was sure he knew Padme’s secret long before she knew he knew it.
2. Darth Maul
Christopher Lee is great and all, but Count Dooku kind of isn’t. Darth Maul is where it’s at. You don’t need him to talk; you just need him to look properly satanic and be a consummate martial artist, thanks to Ray Park. At the time I was a little skeptical of the makeup that presumably was supposed to be alien skin (though maybe his kind just dig on warpaint), and thought the double-bladed lightsaber was a little over the top, but now I think both were inspired choices. That final duel with the two Jedi really demanded two blades. I’m not sure it’s my favorite lightsaber duel in the series — it’s super fun watching Yoda kick ass, and both the Luke/Vader duels are more creative and meaningful. But there’s something pure about this one, three master fighters who know exactly what they’re there for and are focused entirely on doing it.
And I especially love the scenes where the energy barriers separate Sith from Jedi and we watch them wait for the barriers to open again. Qui-Gon kneels and meditates, perfectly calm. Obi-Wan shifts intently. And Darth Maul just paces, eyes locked on his prey like a cat. Those are possibly the coolest moments in the whole film, and as the time of the Jedi and the Sith begins to pass from the galaxy, we never see anything quite like them again.
I actually think the decoy-shifting was quite a clever idea. It fooled me at least partially the first time I saw it, and in terms of the story it’s a terrific way for Natalie Portman to play a potentate (the title is monarchical but the office is democratically elected) and yet remain a plausible part of the action. Her character gets to be powerful, but also humble and practical. It’s fun to watch her scenes knowing her secret.
And though Portman’s super weird as the queen and Lucas-flattened as Padme, she’s still an easy character to like and enjoy watching. It’s great to have her leading a squadron of her guards in the assault on the palace, taking down battle droids. I might be forgetting something in the other two prequels, but I’m pretty sure this is her most heroic installment, and that she ends up relatively sidelined later on in more political and romantic roles. That’s one of the disadvantages of ignoring this film: you leave out a huge chunk of the story of perhaps the only significant female character in the prequels (sorry Vader’s mom).
Who didn’t actually work on this film, as far as I know, but whose influence is everywhere in it. The other five movies are all relatively dark (or sandy), but this one is suffused with light and green and gleaming Gernsback ships. It’s not always the most visually effective film, but it has a bright, appealing look to it. We spend a lot of time on the lush planet of Naboo. Most of the scenes take place in daylight or brightly lit rooms. My impression of all the other movies in the series is more nocturnal, more starry, increasingly broken down into that “lived-in” state we rightly admire, and there’s something refreshing about the difference here.
5. No Hayden Christensen
Jake Lloyd’s Anakin makes you want to drop-kick him from the very start, but you can resist that impulse because he’s a little kid. Hayden Christensen’s Anakin, on the other hand, is so plainly a budding sociopath that he makes you shudder and go check the door locks every time he shows his face. I’m not sure he’s a bad actor; this might actually prove he’s a good one, effectively portraying a teenager who grows up to be one of the most evil men in the galaxy. This is how they start. But it doesn’t mean we have to enjoy watching him.