Every generation has a legend… Every journey has a first step… Every saga has a beginning… — The Phantom Menace trailer, 1998
Reflections on Episode I …
The Phantom Menace holds a special place as the first “midnight movie” I remember attending since my first such outing in 1983 at the age of 6, when my big brothers let me (probably forced by my parents) tag along for Return of the Jedi.
If you think The Force Awakens’ hype machine is unprecedented, you weren’t paying attention in 1999 during the run-up to Episode I.
How many people went to a movie just to see a trailer before Meet Joe Black, when the first trailer for TPM arrived? How many people learned what QuickTime did for the first time when Apple debuted the second?
Welcome to Episode VII Days of the Force, a daily series of Star Wars reflections counting down to the release of The Force Awakens!
Was there ever a soundtrack album release so anticipated and analyzed and replayed (“Duel of the Fates” forever!) – and also one so fumbled, with a spoilery track name like “Qui-Gon’s Noble End?” That must be why John Williams’ score for The Force Awakens is being held back for the movie’s Dec. 18 release date, along with the novelization and just about everything else.
I was working for the State Press, ASU’s student publication back when it was printed on paper, in the newsroom “dungeon” below Matthews Center on the Tempe campus (before the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication moved to downtown Phoenix, when it was the “Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication,” and before they purged my freelance State Press Magazine articles surrounding the movie’s hype from their online archives for whatever reason).
We were all trying to download the trailer on our underpowered newsroom Macs, but gave up when we found out the composing department already had the file downloaded to one of their powerhouse computers – the fastest and best in the business. So we all took turns in small groups huddling around the monitor to watch it over and over again, dissecting it frame by frame.
Because we couldn’t get enough, some buddies and I went to see the godawful Wing Commander movie (a PC game adaptation starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard), and the outer-loop Metrocenter theater was so empty that the workers showed the trailer to us again a couple times after the movie as a reward for sticking around.
As the movie neared release, I got one of my first newspaper bylines covering the frenzy surrounding the toy release at Mesa’s Toys “R” Us store – and hauled in a fair few collectible action figures and lightsabers myself. (I shamelessly opened all of them, if you were wondering.) It’s not part of the Tribune archives but I’ve got it reposted here.
Finally – show time!
When the movie arrived at last, my crowd saw it at the now-demolished Harkins theater outside Chris-Town Mall (which was later replaced by a newer Harkins cinema inside the mall at the site of the old upstairs United Artists theater). We chose this location because it was sort of our go-to movie house, but also because they had just renovated and upgraded one of their auditoriums that was then billed as the biggest screen in Arizona since the old Cine Capri shut down, and before the new Cine Capri was built on the Phoenix-Scottsdale border.
Did we enjoy it? You’re damned right we did. Were we disappointed? Hell, yes. Nothing can live up to that kind of hype. And the movie had some major flaws, among them trying too hard to recapture the charm of the original trilogy and explain where everyone and everything in those stories came from.
Yes, Jar Jar Binks stinks up the joint with his jarringly misplaced antics and inappropriate attitudes.
Yes, pinning the entire Star Wars universe that we know and love so well on the fallout of a trade dispute is lazy writing.
Yes, the great Jedi Master Yoda barely gets out of his chair, and looked and sounded more like Fozzie Bear than Luke’s wizened mentor.
But it’s just too easy to beat up on the prequels, especially Episode I, and I still love the world created by The Phantom Menace: the towering cityscapes, politics both craven and noble, Naboo’s natural beauty, the clanking and bumbling battle droids, even the scheming Trade Federation toadies in over their heads with a pair of menacing Sith Lords who manifest mostly as phantom holograms.
Is there a more heroic retroactive introduction in cinema than the one R2-D2 gets, saving Queen Amidala’s Royal Starship as it makes its daring escape?
Qui-Gon Jinn is the epitome of a noble wandering Jedi Master, and we got to see far too little of his exploits. His insistence on training Anakin against the Jedi Council’s wishes and shoehorning him into the “Chosen One” mythology may be the final nail in the Old Republic’s coffin, but you can’t blame Darth Vader etc. on him – the Sith had been plotting their revenge for a long, long time. More of the complacent Jedi should have been mavericks like Qui-Gon Jinn.
Obi-Wan Kenobi as the brash young Padawan nevertheless devoted to the Council’s mandates is the perfect foil for Qui-Gon’s irreverent nonconformist streak. His introduction to Anakin Skywalker may be perfunctory (“You’re a Jedi, too? Nice to meet ya!”), but that diminishes none of its power. We know, and dread, what’s to come.
Ian McDiarmid’s Senator Palpatine is fascinating from the moment we first see his fizzling hologram, because we know he’s destined to become Emperor but we aren’t quite sure, at first, if he is in fact the puppet Sith Master Darth Sidious. Remember, we knew the Clone Wars were coming but didn’t really know what they were about, so it was always possible (until it wasn’t) that the future Emperor Palpatine would be a clone of the kindly old Senator.
There was real mystery here – the title, at least, delivered on that count.
When Darth Maul ambushes Qui-Gon Jinn in the desert outside Mos Espa, we get one of the greatest, and shortest, lightsaber duels ever. Nothing, however, tops the riveting Boonta Eve podrace just before that encounter, and the final balletic lightsaber duel (truel?) between (among?) Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on Naboo.
The Phantom Menace is far front perfect, but it fulfills its destiny well as a sweeping preamble to one of the greatest stories ever told. It brought old friends together for good times, and, for better or worse, created the modern version of the box-office blockbuster that led us to The Force Awakens and a new generation of Star Wars stories and store raids.