Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a 15-Minute Force production): Chapter One: I Have a Bad Feeling About This

This post represents my deep-dive into the first fifteen minutes of The Phantom Menace, which in the Star Wars story line chronology is the first of the Star Wars movies. Why would anyone do this to himself? That’s a question I hope to be able to answer before too long.

As I embark on this personal odyssey of examining all of the Star Wars movies, fifteen minutes at a time, I have to admit, up front, that I am not a huge fan of the prequel trilogy. I know that I’m not alone in this opinion. However, there is much that I admired in these movies, and I did go to see each one at the theater, just like I did with the original trilogy back in the day (which, in this case, is defined as between the years 1977 and 1983, during the previous century).

Consider this a shakedown run. I don’t know yet what the format of this series will become. I know that I won’t spend a whole lot of time on production notes and facts, because that’s not where my interests lie. I’m more interested in story, and, of course, the mythos of Star Wars. By examining each movie—even the prequels—I hope to gain a better understanding and appreciation of all of the movies. As I begin, I can’t help but think that this will be a difficult task in the beginning. I hope to prove myself wrong.

If the prequel Star Wars is where you joined the fandom, I will apologize in advance for any sarcasm that will definitely bleed through my computer screen. I celebrate all fans of Star Wars, and any part of the Star Wars universe that brought you here. May the Force be with you. Always.

And now, without further ado, the first fifteen minutes of The Phantom Menace.

When the 20th Century Fox logo appeared on the monitor and the familiar fanfare played, I had goosebumps. Even this time. The Lucasfilm and THX parts didn’t affect me with the same intensity, but they did affect me. Forever a fan.

And then the opening crawl…

I recall seeing this in the theater. I skimmed it then, and I skimmed it this time, even on the deep-dive. Something about taxation and trade blockades of the planet Naboo. More stuff about endless debates in the Congress of the Republic. Then…oh, this is interesting, pay attention…the Supreme Chancellor has dispatched two Jedi Knights to settle the conflict. This is the good stuff. Gimme that.

Okay, I understand now that the Trade Federation, receiving secret orders from the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, is behind the trade blockade of Naboo. The Supreme Chancellor in this movie is Finis Valorum (I had a couple of years of Latin, and I recognize it even if I can’t translate it). More on him later, when we find out he’s the original General Zod to us baby boomers. At this point, we need only know that he’s sent Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi as ambassadors to meet with the Trade Federation Viceroy, the improbably named Nute Gunray. This is what kickstarts the action. I understood little of this when I watched it the first time.

Here’s how I watched this initial sequence:

Exposition…exposition…exposition…JEDI KNIGHTS!….

Then the camera does that Star Wars pan down to a spaceship approaching a planet. The planet, as it turns out, is Naboo, and it is blockaded by a whole lot of spaceships. We go to an interior of the spaceship cockpit, and an off-screen Qui-Gon Jinn asks the captain to tell the Trade Federation that they wish to board at once.

Nute Gunray appears on the captain’s screen. He is the Trade Federation Viceroy. And, I know from looking at the script on IMSDb, he is a Neimoidian. He has a greenish potato-like lump of a head with large eyes, fancy robes, and even fancier headdress. Stay tuned for more headdresses. That will be a recurring theme, I think. He immediately comes across as an officious functionary. Read: not a good guy. He also speaks in a halting accent that comes across to me as stereotypically Asian.

If you’re not sure whether you should be offended, just hang on. There’s more to come.

I’m going to pause here, mid-snark, just to say that the special effects in this movie, at this point, are nothing short of amazing. The space cruiser ferrying the Jedi has a wonderfully weathered look. It’s painted a dull red and the paint looks distressed. Star Wars has perfected the used-tech, lived-in appearance, and it’s admirably on display in the movie. I realize the effects are more digital than practical these days, but that’s a good thing, overall. These space scenes look good.

The red spaceship docks with a larger spaceship shaped like a huge donut with a marble in its hole. As the ship comes into the hangar bay, we get our first look at the different types of battle droids. Battle droids become an important addition to the Star Wars canon that are curiously missing from the original trilogy. I like the idea of battle droids. I don’t like their execution entirely. Too much comic relief.

Take note: too much comic relief may also be a recurring theme.

A protocol droid (think C-3PO) greets the robed Jedi in the hangar, introduces herself (yeah, that’s right) as TC-14, and offers to escort them. This is the sort of thing that protocol droids excel at. In this first appearance, both Jedi have their hoods up and remind me of both Ben Kenobi from the true first Star Wars and the evil Emperor Palpatine.

Oh, by the way, expect spoilers throughout. I will assume, as your unreliable narrator, that you’ve already seen all of the Star Wars movies. If you haven’t, stop reading now and return when you finish…

Okay, let’s continue.

As soon as TC-14 leaves them, both Jedi remove their hoods. Young Obi-Wan’s first lines are: I have a bad feeling about this.

I was overjoyed hearing these words. This line has become a Star Wars trope. We expect to hear it in every movie. And this was a spectacular introduction to the Ewan McGregor version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Here’s where it hurts to think too much about this. The Phantom Menace is supposed to be 32 years before A New Hope (which was known simply as Star Wars before 1981). This means that this version of Ewan McGregor plus an additional 32 years equals Alec Guinness. Three decades can be a bitch. I could show you some of my own pictures. But, I’d say that this earlier version of Obi-Wan looks to be in his early 20s. The New Hope version? 60s, maybe? We can agree to suspend our disbelief here. This will be a habit that will come in handy, believe me. We will one day revisit this topic when I remind you that Revenge of the Sith is only 19 years before the events of A New Hope.

I love the casting of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. They are a study in contrasts. Older and younger. Taller and shorter. Master and student. The teacher-student dynamic is immediately obvious. Neeson brings a certain gravitas to the role of Qui-Gon, while McGregor seems like an impetuous young disciple. Qui-Gon is a new character to us old Star Wars fans, and he is interesting. When Obi-Wan says that he senses something elsewhere…elusive (somewhat ironic since the Trade Federation is about to make an attempt on their lives), Qui-Gon counsels him to keep his focus on the here and now. Qui-Gon is a live-in-the-moment kind of guy. He also predicts that their negotiations with the Trade Federation will be short, because these Federation types are cowards.

As a fan of Star Trek as well (we exist: live with it), I wonder if this was an intentional swipe at the United Federation of Planets. If so, I still give George Lucas and everyone involved a slow handclap of admiration. I happen to know that J.J. Abrams will one day cross the line between universes successfully.

TC-14, while gaining distinction by being the first female droid we’ve met (I think), also becomes a stool pigeon when she tells Nute Gunray and his companion Daultray Dofine that the ambassadors sent by the Chancellor are Jedi Knights. Uh-oh. The proverbial jig is up. Rather than being all cagey with the Jedi, one of the two—Nute, I think—says something like distract them, I’m contacting Darth Sidious. I had to rewind this section and listen to the line three times. My interpretation makes sense, but I’m open to the fact that I could be mistaken. In any case, this line is nowhere in the script. The other guy, Dofine, tells Nute that he’s brain-dead; he’s not going in there with two Jedi. It appears that being a Jedi demands a modicum of respect. Not enough, as we shall see.

Back in the conference room, Obi-Wan, who is Qui-Gon’s apprentice, or Jedi Padawan, asks if it’s in the nature of the Trade Federation types to make them wait this long. Qui-Gon answers in the negative, saying that he senses an unusual amount of fear for something as simple as a trade dispute.

Nute and Dofine speak to a hologram of Darth Sidious, whom Daultray Dofine refers to as Lord Sidious. Dofine tells Sidious that his game has failed, that the blockade is finished and they dare not go up against Jedi Knights. Sidious tells Nute that he doesn’t want this stunted slime—referring to Dofine—in his sight again. He tells Nute to accelerate his plans and begin landing their troops.

Daultray Dofine is obviously an idiot. Like Darth Sidious, I will refer to him only as Stunted Slime henceforth.

When Nute asks Sidious if landing the troops is legal, Sidious answers that he will make it legal. He then orders Nute to kill the Jedi immediately.

Back in the hanger, guns drop from the ceiling and blow up the ship the Jedi arrived on. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan hear the explosions and leap up from the conference table just as gas begins seeping into the chamber. One of them says that the gas is Dioxis.

I always thought they said Dioxin, which as it turns out is a real thing. Close-captioning has corrected my mistake, however. Dioxis. Which is something else that doesn’t exist in our universe.

Nute Gunray appears in hologram form in front of his battle droids and tells them the Jedi must be dead by now and to destroy what’s left of them. The door opens and the chamber is fogged with gas. TC-14 comes out, politely. Then the droids talk to each other. Why do droids need to speak out loud to each other? I don’t know. But, they speak in that irritating mechanical voice that I will grow to dislike intensely. Roger, roger.

We see the lightsabers of the Jedi before we can make them out clearly. They are the opposite of dead, it seems. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan proceed to kick serious butt.

Brief pause to discuss Qui-Gon Jinn. The character’s name, according to that infallible source Wikipedia, is derived from the Chinese word qigong, a system of coordinated body movement, breathing, and meditation used for health, spirituality, and martial arts training that allows access to higher realms of awareness, and balance of life energy, similar to Tai Chi. This is paired with the Arabic world Jinn, meaning genie or tutelary spirit. This means the name translates almost literally as “Guardian Spirit of the Living Force.”  Also, again according to this source, the word Jinn could refer to the Chinese word for power, Jin, and the martial arts concept of fa jin, which is the explosive release of internal strength or power. Or, George Lucas could have just made this shit up.

Nute and Stunted Slime order the bridge to be sealed off. Qui-Gon uses his lightsaber in a way I hadn’t seen before this, cutting through metal and turning it molten orange. It’s a cool effect that I’ve always loved. Nute orders the blast doors closed, but that’s not enough either. The destroyer droids roll up and open fire. They seem more formidable than the cartoonish battle droids.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan think so, too, and beat a hasty retreat into the ventilation shaft. They reappear in a massive hangar where battle droids are being assembled as an invasion force. Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan that they will split up and stow away on vessels headed down to Naboo. They need to contact Naboo and warn Chancellor Valorum. Obi-Wan, forever the smartass, says that Qui-Gon was correct about one thing: the negotiations were short.

Side note: not once do Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan mourn the untimely demise of the captain and crew of the ship that brought them to their parlay with the Trade Federation. Jedi are cold-hearted bastards.

Nute Gunray receives a transmission from Queen Amidala of Naboo. This is our first look at the queen, in her red Ming the Merciless costume, white kabuki face, more elaborate headdress work (see? told you). She also has a jewel on her forehead, two red dots on her cheeks and a red stripe in the middle of her lower lip. What the Hell, Natalie Portman?

Amidala is not pleased. She tells Nute that the blockade is over now that the chancellor’s ambassadors are with Nute now. What ambassadors? Nute says. There are no ambassadors here. Amidala speaks in a weird accent with a lot of vocal fry, telling the viceroy to beware, that the Federation has gone too far this time.

Now we get our establishing shots of the Naboo surface. A majestic palace sits atop a cliff. There are waterfalls falling and birds flying. Gorgeous. Truly fine effects work. Then we cut to a palace interior, with its expansive windows, loads of natural-looking light, columns and refined ornamentation. Again, I realize that much of what I’m seeing is probably CGI rather than practical effects, but it’s still impressive.

Senator Palpatine makes his appearance as a hologram. In the years since I first saw this movie, I had forgotten that Palpatine wasn’t chancellor yet in the first movie. He was already Darth Sidious, but we’re suppose to pretend like we don’t know this yet. Here, he is merely a senator from Naboo. I had always thought of the prequels as the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side of the Force, just as the original trilogy is ultimately about his redemption. It occurs to me now that it is equally about Palpatine’s rise to power (with the original trilogy being his fall). Neat.

The book  Star Wars and History,  published by Lucasfilm, describes Palpatine’s story as being similar to that of the Roman Octavian, who renamed himself Augustus. He insisted that corruption in the Senate was hampering his effectiveness as head of state, using a crisis to gain extraordinary powers that he promised to rescind, then didn’t because he had strong control over the military. We could all learn lessons from Augustus and Palpatine.

In the here and now of the story, Senator Palpatine is confused that the ambassadors haven’t arrived, because Chancellor Valorum has assured him that they have. Then, the transmission cuts out. Governor Bibble, one of Amidala’s advisers, says that it can mean only one thing: Invasion. He’s correct, of course, but why does he immediately leap to this conclusion? Every time my cable goes out, should I assume I’m being invaded? The queen and others seem to believe that the Trade Federation wouldn’t dare invade Naboo. Captain Panaka takes the pragmatic view, saying that it’s a dangerous situation and that their volunteer security forces would be no match for a battle-hardened Federation army.

The peace-loving Naboo citizens have a volunteer security force, not a standing army. Okay, I’ll accept that. But why would the Trade Federation have a battle-hardened army? I’ll also point out that they are droids, presumably made out of metal. They are not battle-hardened; they are just hard.

Amidala will not condone a course of action that leads to war. At this point in the narrative, we’re two-thirds of the way through our first 15 minutes. A lot has happened. Many characters have been introduced already, and the action has been good, even with all the boring politicking going on. I’m on the edge of my seat.

Then, at the 11-minute mark, we are introduced to Jar Jar Binks.

I don’t have to tell you my opinion of Jar Jar. It’s redundant. Odds are, you share this opinion.

I didn’t initially hate him, however. Not before he spoke. I thought he was cartoonish, with floppy ears like Goofy from the Disney cartoons (on whom he was partially modeled, I’ve discovered). The CGI effects used to create him are stunning. When Qui-Gon Jin saves him from being run down by some huge tank-like thing, both characters appear to be physically there, in the flesh. Amazing work, I’ll say again.

Then, Jar Jar says Was’n Dat? And Mesa your humble servant, since he believes that he owes Qui-Gon a life debt, one demanded by the gods.

Joe Morgenstern, in The Wall Street Journal, described Jar Jar Binks as a “Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen.”  Ouch. While I subscribe to the belief that Americans have become too politically-correct in many regards, and that we can often be overly sensitive and too quick to take offense, it’s hard not to see this depiction of Jar Jar as openly racist, even if that depiction was unintentional. George Lucas and Ahmed Best both denied this, however.

I’m not going to personally level claims of racism. My dislike of the character transcends offensive racial stereotypes.

Obi-Wan comes up on the pair, running from some droid-operated STAPs (that’s Single Trooper Aerial Platforms, if you want to know). Qui-Gon uses his versatile lightsaber to deflect laser fire and blow up the STAPs and droids. As the trio continues running through the forest, Jar Jar says Ex-Squeeze-Me. Yeah, ex-squeeze-me. If I didn’t already dislike the character, that would have pushed me over the ledge. Da mostest safest place would be Gunga City. At this point, the viewer already knows we’re going to Gunga City, whatever that is, but Jar Jar has second thoughts. It seems he’s been banished from Gunga City and things won’t go well for him if he returns. The Jedi threaten him with the approaching droid army and he relents, leading them into the swamp.

Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan insert rebreathers that they stole from Batman into their mouths and swim after Jar Jar into a murky lake. Gunga City is an underwater city of warmly lit domes. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, if Kinkade had done production design for Lucasfilm. Another good-looking Star Wars environment.

Jar Jar leads the Jedi into one of the domes through a permeable entranceway. The trio are immediately accosted by mounted guards, the apparent leader telling Jar Jar that he has to go before the bosses and that he’s in big dudu this time. I nearly chose Big Dudu as the subtitle of this post. When another guard zaps Jar Jar with an electric pole, Jar Jar says How wude! This was a blatant ripoff of Stephanie Tanner’s catchphrase on Full House. I didn’t care for it there either.

As we reach 15:00 mark, Jar Jar and the Jedi are standing before Boss Nass in the Gungan Officials chamber. The previous four minutes of this section nearly ruined all of the feelgood vibes that had been generated by an otherwise exciting beginning to a movie.

At this point,  I was happy to stop the DVD. We’ll pick it up from here next time. It can only get better, right?

Right?

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