After the divisive 'Star Wars' sequels, a former Lucasfilm insider re-evaluates The Phantom Menace
Everyone's life has a "Luke Skywalker moment" – when something completely unexpected happens that hurls you from the life you knew into one you didn't think was possible, and you take your first step into a larger world.
For me, it came in December 2002, when a friend told me about a job he had been interviewing for, but which he decided he couldn't take. He and his wife were moving back to their hometown, and he thought I would be perfect for the role. He submitted my resume; I got a call the next day, a week after that I was interviewing, and five days later I got an offer to join Lucasfilm Ltd., initially to manage international publicity and ultimately to work as director of entertainment publicity.
Star Wars had already been one of the defining moments of my childhood (including my own 10-minute-long, Super 8 "remake"), now it was going to change my adult life. For six years, I made my professional home at Lucasfilm, and had the enormously good fortune to spend time with George Lucas, who entertained questions from journalists, fans, researchers and employees with unmatched patience and genuine interest.
As we all worked on the production and release of what we assumed was the final Star Wars film – Episode III Revenge of the Sith – I listened to many discussions of the origins and ideas behind Star Wars. Eventually, I came to think of Star Wars movies less as entertainment and more as work, and I spent a not-insignificant amount of time defending the Star Wars prequels. On the day I left Lucasfilm, a TV producer I know joked, "Now you don't have to keep insisting that those movies are good anymore."
I never really had to insist on that, and always did believe it. But once I left Lucasfilm in 2009, I never watched any of the first six Star Wars films from start to finish. The stay-at-home world of coronavirus changed that, and I allowed myself to watch Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace … and discovered that I appreciated it more than I ever thought possible.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Trailerwww.youtube.com
When it was released in 1999, I saw The Phantom Menace a half-dozen times in theaters and was bemused by each screening. Since 1977, I had only occasionally wondered what the "war" in Star Wars was all about, and why an intergalactic civil war had raged. The Phantom Menace promised an explanation, and gave one – but it wasn't at all what anyone expected: Princess Leia had stolen secret plans, Darth Vader had killed Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker had blown up the Death Star, Yoda had trained Luke, Han had been frozen in carbonite, all because trade routes were unfairly taxed?
That sense of disbelief was long-lasting, and by the time I started working at Lucasfilm four years after The Phantom Menace was released, it hadn't abated. The questions of Episode I loomed over everything we did, and were still on my mind when I re-watched The Phantom Menace through different eyes.
It was impossible not to hear the mildly exasperated chuckle in George Lucas's voice whenever he answered questions about what it all meant. He always maintained a patient insistence that it had not been a mistake to tell the world that the roots of Star Wars were indeed in political bureaucracy and microscopic organisms.
To watch Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace again is to realize a truth: George Lucas was absolutely right to do it the way he did. When given complete artistic freedom (he was spending his own money, after all) to tell the Star Wars story he wanted to tell, he remained true to his extraordinary vision of a mythology rooted in the foibles and imperfections of our own world.
Director Jim Henson (left) and Lucas working on Labyrinth in 1986
The Phantom Menace is a film stuffed – perhaps overstuffed – with ideas, so many that it is hard to keep up with them. Though it is far from a perfect film, with stilted dialogue and sometimes uncomfortable acting, it is never a dull or boring movie. And as arcane as "the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems" may seem, so are the origins of all wars – even the unbelievable one we're in now, which began not with a bat or pangolin, but with bureaucratic, political decisions that stretch back years.
Mundane actions have massive consequences, and The Phantom Menace still surprises by looking at some of those actions closely. Even the opening scene, with its discussion of blockades, negotiations, ambassadors and senators stands in opposition to the slam-bang openings of the first three Star Wars movies.
The first half of The Phantom Menace can seem drawn out and dry, yet Lucas's script is doing much more than simply setting up the action that will lead to the discovery of Anakin Skywalker. It's also establishing a complicated world view, one in which politics as a whole is not to be trusted, but is the only imperfect option for getting anything done. Sound familiar?
Bear in mind that within the first couple of minutes of the original Star Wars, we've already learned about a civil war, an Imperial senate, and, a bit later, an "Old Republic." While he could have chosen a more action-oriented, mindless backstory, George Lucas uses The Phantom Menace to begin showing how that republic became an empire, how a politician became a tyrant, and how the senate allowed it all to happen.
In that regard, The Phantom Menace is a more consequential and intriguing film than any of the most recent sequels. It's also pointedly, proudly a George Lucas film. Its sprawling story, which is always splitting its time between two or three different plot lines, bears much more resemblance to Lucas's earliest features – THX-1138 and American Graffiti – than any of the Star Wars films Lucas didn't direct. Watching The Phantom Menace, it's easy to see Lucas's love of the craft of moviemaking come to the fore.
DARTH MAUL - Complete Lightsaber Fight - Star Wars : The Phantom Menacewww.youtube.com
The Phantom Menace is equally a rumination on the cultural significance of mythology – when Anakin Skywalker's mother Shmi struggles to explain what she means about her son's conception and birth the film is also observing how the mythology of cultures around the globe share the same underpinnings. If Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope found inspiration in Joseph Campbell's ideas of comparative mythology, The Phantom Menace is a master's thesis in the teachings.
One of its most central ideas is one of the concepts most derided by fans: midichlorians. With the benefit of having heard George Lucas talk over and over about the concept of an underlying physical connection with the Force, I've come to think of midichlorians as the most intriguing aspect of the entire Star Wars saga. They are destiny made manifest, a bold attempt to explain why some people, given the same opportunities, passions and training, achieve more than others. They do not undermine the concept of the Force, but help explain why not everyone becomes a hero.
Star Wars: Phantom Menace - What Are Midichlorians (Movie Clip)www.youtube.com
Thy also speak to a concept that George Lucas would bring up over and over: the ubiquity of myths. For some reason, people around the world, separated by time and distance, have developed similar myths. Their stories and their religions bear remarkable resemblance to each other. Could it be something within us that motivates these beliefs?
Ultimately, The Phantom Menace becomes a rousing action film, though never a straightforward one. To get us to its final 45 minutes, Lucas concocted a story filled with switches and reverses, betrayals and false allies. It all leads to a grand finale in which at least four different battles are happening simultaneously. Lucas' skill as a filmmaker ensures we always know where we are throughout this massive conclusion, even if we aren't entirely sure of the ever-changing identity of one core character.
Though its midichlorian-induced hangover effect put fans on the defensive for years, a rewatch of The Phantom Menace proves the furor over the film may have been overdone. The more you watch The Phantom Menace, and the more you look at how it's put together, listen to its dialogue and even its music, the more you realize that it has a great deal to say – not just about Star Wars but about our endless need for stories that help us make sense of a non-sensical world.
John Singh is a writer and entertainment-industry veteran who began his career as a newspaper journalist and has also worked at Disney, Lucasfilm Ltd., DreamWorks Animation and on a variety of films and TV series.
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