In the days leading up to and post the release of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we take a step into the larger world of Star Wars by examining the novels, games, comics, albums, TV series and audio dramas that have fed our imaginations over the years. Some of these you may be aware of and some you won’t, but regardless we hope that you seek out some of these works and give them the appreciation they deserve. May the Force be with you.
The year is 1999. A young boy sits in a darkened cinema with his father. He does not know it yet, but he is about to watch a film that will change his life. An iconic fanfare plays. The screen goes black, just for a moment, and a comforting blue text reads “[a] long time ago in a galaxy far far away”. A triumphant song echoes throughout the movie theater as the words “Star Wars” emblazon the screen. In just two hours, a life-long passion is ignited.
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace is a not a film that lacks critics. Video after video and article after article are dedicated to explaining its failings from both a film-making and fan perspective. As a fan of the franchise, and this film in particular, it can be hard to wrestle with some of those critics. It is by no means a perfect movie, but there is something at the heart of The Phantom Menace which gives it appeal. How you may ask? Because if it did not. If it had no redeeming value. If it was just trash. It would not have birthed a generation of Star Wars fans.
The supposed black sheep of the franchise was many fans’ first exposure to the Star Wars universe. They were young Anakin Skywalker being introduced to a world beyond their imagination, one filled with the rich mythology of the Jedi: part-knight, part-wizard. Was it a cheap trick? A cynical ploy to have such an audience insert character? Probably, but it allowed them a window into that world that they may not otherwise have had. Accompanied by John Williams stunning soundtrack, they were taken on a visually stunning journey filled with gallant heroes, scheming villains, and breathtaking fight scenes. Moreover, they were introduced to a philosophy of balance that encouraged them to never give into their fear. It may not have been the best example of same in franchise’s history, but it stoked our imaginations in ways that are immeasurable. Qui-Gon Jinn is one of the series more interesting mentor characters and his death still resonates to this day.
One of criticisms leveled at The Phantom Menace by older Star Wars fans is that it is boring. Specifically, they take issue with the fact that much of the film revolves around a political dispute concerning tax policy. Frankly, it is an argument that I have never really been able to accept. As a younger viewer, it did not grate on me in the slightest. It was simply the means by which the clearly evil Palpatine positioned himself to take over the Senate. As an older viewer, I can recognise that The Phantom Menace presents one of the oldest sources of conflict known to man: the battle for resources. Any student of politics or world history knows that most wars have some economic underpinning to them whether that be the control of ports or a particular resource. George Lucas presented us with an all too familiar reason for our central conflict. It also acts as a harsh critique of a system of international politics that if often unable to act where it needs to by remaining a slave to its own flawed internal logic and bureaucracy. It provides appropriate context for the wars to come. Indeed, it is the lack of political context that damages both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Fans have to engage in some background reading to learn that the conflict between the First Order and the Resistance is in many ways a proxy war between two great powers. Without this information, it is just action without reason. Whatever else one might say about The Phantom Menace it ensured that viewers knew the why the two sides had been brought to the brink of war.
Another key argument against The Phantom Menace is its failure to meet the necessity threshold. Some viewer felt that the story had started to early and it wasn’t a tale that needed to be told. Disregarding the fact that the seeds of Vader are planted very early on through Anakin’s live as a slave, this argument fails to take account of the Palaptine’s political machinations. If you read the prequel trilogy as chronicling Palpatines’ rise to power as much as Anakin’s fall from grace, the necessity of The Phantom Menace is self-evident. It is the siege of Naboo that gives the once and future Emperor his opportunity to consolidate his power. The brilliance of Ian McDiarmid’s performance is one that few question, so it is astonishing that his sub-plots are often the most criticised.
Some people like bad films and search endlessly for additions to their “so bad its good” section. This is not bad film, merely one that had the weight of history on its shoulders and paid the price for it. On whatever level you read The Phantom Menace, there is something to be enjoyed. There is a reason this film inspired a generation of Star Wars fans. Whether it is the exhilarating pod-race or the best lightsaber fight in the series, The Phantom Menace is better than it is given credit for. It may not be the best Star Wars movie, but it is one of my favourites. And no, I can’t defend Jar Jar.