Long ago, in a galaxy far away, George Lucas created a cinematic masterpiece that has not only stood the test of time, but generated a fan following that has been completely unprecedented. I speak of course of Star Wars! What’s incredible is that Lucas began in the middle of his overall storyline, with Episode VI. In 1977, Star Wars hit theaters with Episode IV titled, A New Hope. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back was released. In 1983, Lucas’ original storyline wrapped-up with Episode VI, Return of the Jedi.
But what about the first three episodes? Truthfully, Lucas had done most of the development of what has become referred to as the “prequel” well before any mention of their production to fans. Fast forward 16 painstaking years for fans and 1999 brought about the moment Star Wars fans had been dreaming of… Episode I.
Episode I, The Phantom Menace came to theaters with much anticipation and generated over a billion dollars at box offices! The hype had been so tremendous that virtually anything would have paled in comparison to what fans had created in their minds. Certainly, this was the case and fans generally regard Episode I as the worst of the seven Star Wars films. But there’s more than a few reasons that this movie does not at all suck as purist fans would have you believe. Here are 15 reasons that the film is far better than you may have been told.
15. Tatooine Backstory
Tatooine is where we encounter Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi at the beginning of Episode IV. In this episode, the landing on Tatooine does a lot to show a connection between the Skywalker family and this planet. When Jedi Master Qui-Gon Ginn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi land on this planet in an emergency, their paths cross with a legendary character in the Star Wars universe… Anakin Skywalker.
The movie portrays this planet as out of the way of the Trade Federation and very remote. They even make reference to the planet as being under control of the Hut. A reference was made that the Hut were gangsters, and this provides some interesting context for what fans already know about their favorite greasy character, Jabba the Hut. This planet is pretty much wasteland and lawless, with slavery still in effect (a very important point).
14. Seeing Yoda In His Prime
Star Wars fans remember Yoda as a frail, but wise elder hiding in the swamps of Degobah. In The Phantom Menace however, we are able to see Jedi Master Yoda as the head of the Jedi Council. He puts his wisdom to work once again, making everyone feel much safer knowing that he is around and in charge.
The graphics attached to Yoda had progressed to a level of proficiency that made him come to life even more than he had in either The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. His conversation with a young Anakin Skywalker is absolutely crucial to the understanding of Anakin’s character development. It was here that we learn that there was a great deal of fear inside Anakin. We also receive one of the greatest Yoda quotes of all time: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering!”
13. Understanding The Childhood Of Anakin Skywalker
As in real life, we tend to learn a lot about a person by looking at their childhood. This movie shows the background of Anakin Skywalker, who we know becomes Darth Vader (this is not a spoiler…it’s common knowledge). In The Phantom Menace, Anakin and his mother are slaves on the planet Tatooine.
Anakin is quickly seen by Jedi Master Qui-Gon Ginn as a very special young man with unique skills and intuition. He believes adamantly that Anakin is the one that has according to prophesy “will bring balance to the Force.” We also see that the Jedi Council disagrees with training him as a Jedi, claiming among other things, that he is too old. More importantly, Yoda senses the fear within him and foreshadows the man he would eventually become.
12. The Music
When it comes to cinema scoring, there are a few names that are well known and quite important. None are as revered as this film’s composer, John Williams. The music of the entire Star Wars franchise has become iconic with everyone whether they are a fan or not. In The Phantom Menace, Williams returned with the iconic theme, but also with new material and scoring that won him a Grammy Award.
Williams has been responsible for the music in other George Lucas projects and has worked brilliantly alongside many successful producers and directors. The music of this film is masterful and weaves some of the more beautiful melodic themes we’ve heard in the original trilogy into the new score. Well done John, because without the music, we’re just watching life.
11. Palpatine Before He Was the Emperor
Fans of the original trilogy remember the Emperor as a deformed, demonic looking old guy lurking in the dark. The Phantom Menace shows us all what he was before he became the Emperor. Senator Palpatine from the planet Naboo appears in this movie as a kind and well-intentioned politician in the Senate of the Galactic Republic.
But throughout the film, it’s clear that he and his apprentice Darth Maul, have other designs besides peace. This establishes a beginning of the evil that is Palpatine and sheds a lot of light on this mysterious character from the original trilogy. Fans always wanted to know more about the Emperor and in this film, they got that opportunity. While the film generated about as many questions as it answered, you’ve got to start somewhere and this establishes a good beginning to the Emperor’s backstory.
10. Special Effects
It has been said that George Lucas wanted to wait until technology and special effects improved, before producing Episodes I, II and III. He did not disappoint in that regard and the delayed gratification paid off. While purist fans look back upon the original trilogy with great admiration, it is clear that the effects paled when compared to what was available in the late 1990s. The Phantom Menace gave us a new and improved Yoda (looking more lifelike and less like a puppet), some pretty awesome aliens, great chase scenes (both underwater and above) and truly amazing lightsaber duels!
These effects helped to craft a visual fascination to go along with the tremendous story that Lucas had created. Indeed, there is no disappointment when it comes to the special effects and no one could claim that they were cheesy or overdone. Sometimes it’s worth the wait to truly get the magic.
9. Queen Amidala
Queen Padme Amidala becomes a more important character than people initially realized. Played by the beautiful and talented Natalie Portman, Queen Amidala is the young ruler of the people of Naboo. In The Phantom Menace, she is caring and genuine, but comes across as completely unemotional. She does not show emotion, but champions the livelihood of her people.
Amidala establishes her character well from the beginning and has an instant connection to Anakin Skywalker. Fans know how this progresses over time, but in this movie, the acting by Portman to portray this character is spot on and very tasteful to the spirit of the story. She’s adventurous and establishes herself as both truthful and heroic, as well as a champion for democracy (which doesn’t quite fit with the world the Emperor envisions).
8. Weird Al Did A Song Based On This Movie
Master of parody Weird Al Yankovic chose the storyline of The Phantom Menace as the basis for a parody of the folk rock classic “Miss American Pie.” Very rarely has Yankovic chosen a movie as a theme for a parody, but in this case, the opportunity was just too good to pass over. It showed just how huge the event of a brand new Star Wars film was in 1999.
With the words “My, my this here Anakin guy… maybe Vader someday later, now he’s just a small fry…” forever burned in the ears of Weird Al and Star Wars fans alike, this parody cemented The Phantom Menace squarely into pop culture history. When Weird Al parodies your music, it tends to represent a seal of approval, or at least a signal of major impact on the entertainment world. Something must have been done right with the film and its release!
7. Introduction Of The Sith
Fans had never heard of the Sith in any of the original films. They are introduced as having “returned” in The Phantom Menace. There is discussion among the members of the Jedi Council about them and it is revealed that there are always only two, a master and an apprentice.
This is important information, because it gives us more information about the differences of the Force. We know that there is a light and a dark side to the Force, but it is revealed that Sith are masters of the dark side and quite dangerous. Continued mention of them occurs in all three prequel films and the rabbit hole gets even deeper as the Jedi council uncovers the identity of the Sith master. His apprentice is always clear and always doing the dirty work.
6. Introduction Of Our Favorite Droids
Since the original trilogy, our two favorite droids have been the lovable R2D2 and C3PO. Fans were unclear if they would be in the new film or not, but when they arrived, the feeling of joy and surprise was universal. Not only are they in the movie, but this entrance is well planned and explained. The part of C3PO was small in this film, but it was surprising to all to learn that it was Anakin that built him in the first place!
R2D2 was always being a great deal of help in the original trilogy and he didn’t disappoint in The Phantom Menace. We meet him for the first time when he is the only droid to survive enemy fire when Queen Amidala’s ship was escaping Naboo. Had it not been for R2D2, it would have been game over! From that point on, he was saving the day.
George Lucas put the special effects that he was waiting for to good use and incorporated some amazing imagery that we see clearly with the introduction of Coruscant. This is established as the capital city of the Galactic Republic and very politically important. The planet evolved into one huge city. The effects used to display the way the planet looks were absolutely amazing.
The feeling of getting lost in the massive size of Coruscant is overwhelming to those watching the movie. But for the purposes of the story itself, this planet becomes very important. The original trilogy had all the “bad guys” doing their work from ships or the famous “Death Star.” It’s clear that even the Empire had to rule from a particular planet. Coruscant is established as that base of government and control.
There were a few cool chase scenes in the original trilogy, but Lucas wanted to use all that was available to create something really cool. In The Phantom Menace, young Anakin races his pod as part of a bet for the part that Qui-Gon Ginn desperately needs to repair his ship. The pod race is more than just cool, it’s an important part of the story.
Anakin displays his skill as a pilot (at a very young age) and his ability to problem solve all through the race. The special effects and sound was also remarkable, leaving fans satisfied. Even the purist Star Wars fans that don’t care much for this film agree that the pod racing was pretty cool. The scene also shows Jabba the Hut sitting in a place of honor to watch the race, establishing that indeed, the Hut do control Tatooine.
3. Jedi Mind Tricks
“These are not the droids you’re looking for” is one of the more iconic quotes from all the films in the franchise. Spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi early in A New Hope, it quickly established that Jedi can trick the mind through use of the Force. In The Phantom Menace, we see Qui-Gon Ginn use them on the leader of the Gungans on Naboo, successfully convincing him to give them a transport back to the surface.
However, with Watto, who was the junkyard owner on Tatooine, Qui-Gon attempted the same use of the Force. Watto quickly rebuffed and told him that mind tricks don’t work on him. We also learn that they only work on a weak mind. This information is important and it’s fun for all the fans to see more of the hand-waving that we remember so fondly from the original movie.
2. Advanced Lightsaber Battles
The elephant in the room that no one really likes to talk about is that the lightsaber battles in the original trilogy looked pretty clunky. There was a lot of artificial looking glow from the lightsaber itself and Darth Vader sure had a difficult time moving around in that costume! But in The Phantom Menace, things were much different.
We get to see Darth Maul, the Sith apprentice use a double-ended lightsaber and use some interesting new fighting techniques with that weapon. In addition, the effects and choreography had improved to a level that was much better. While there were some questions raised since Qui-Gon didn’t die instantly upon being struck by the lightsaber, we’ll let those slide. It all looked much cooler and less scripted than anything we had seen before.
1. Liam Neeson
In this movie, Liam Neeson brings a “very particular set of skills” to the character of Qui-Gon Ginn. You can’t deny that Neeson is an amazing actor and bringing him to The Phantom Menace was a fantastic idea! He displays the patience and wisdom that you would expect from a Jedi. In addition, when you think of how a Jedi would carry themselves and act in general, he channels this masterfully.
While there is lots of good acting in the movie, Liam Neeson takes the prize when it comes to the best. He has proven himself to be able to portray many different characters that have become iconic. Getting to be a Jedi Master in a Star Wars movie is not only cool, it is a dream come true for many. He took the challenge and didn’t let anyone down!