The Phantom Menace works as both a continuation of the Star Wars universe, as well as a study in politics, detailing the rise and fall of a rebel force through a series of palatable strokes and narrative beats. This slick, highly charged thriller is dated primarily by its use of digital effects and strange editing strokes, but the treatise of the film is relatively sound, detailing the collapse of a man’s soul in the search for redemption. The film stars Liam Neeson, now persona non grata, but then riding on an artist high, thanks to stellar turns in historical epics Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, giving the film a sense of purpose and place.
His Qui Gon Jinn is a man of deep research and meditation, cognisant of the journey he has set upon himself. He is aided by Obi-Wan, played by an exuberant Ewan McGregor who does everything in his power to play Alec Guinness, as the two of them happen upon a boy who could very well bring the galaxy under one voice. George Lucas, as a writer, has concocted a chamber piece, where the characters serve to highlight the undertones and textures of the work itself. On one side of the script comes the perspectives of an alliance waving the flag for a virtuous society, represented by warriors of a dogged nature, while the other side is a more nefarious force, led by splashes of frenzy and rage, yet centred on calculation and icy cool demeanour.
As it happens, the film also features Darth Maul, a knowing victory lap for the series, as it presents a physical powerhouse, expertly gauging a swordfight through a hefty combination of swordplay and slide movements. Indeed, the closing battle between Darth Maul and two Jedi’s might well be the most impressive swordfight in the series, radically breaking the rules set by the “hit, dodge” techniques of the original series. But unlike the pyrotechnic heavy close of Attack of The Clones, the duel embodies a certain flavour that feels real, as the battleground is a moody, industrial backdrop that pivots over a giant hole.
Compared to the more recent efforts J.J. Abrams packaged as acceptable fodder for the world at large, the film’s sense of geography and environment is that of an expert, as Lucas places his characters in the middle of a large landscape, detailing their routines from the sanctity of a control room.
But the director was happy to use the computer-generated effects his disciple James Cameron had brought to the forefront during the seismic Terminator 2: Rise of The Machines. And in the heart of the Tunisian desert, Lucas decorates the space with a collection of diverse extraterrestrials.
“Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn’t constrained by anything,” Lucas recalled.”You can’t write one of these movies without knowing how you’re going to accomplish it. With CG at my disposal, I knew I could do whatever I wanted”.
By the time he spearheaded the scripts for followups Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith, Lucas made the mistake of allowing the technology to dictate the plots, and although Clones is the worst offender, Sith made the mistake of pandering to fans of the originals, in the hope of forcing nostalgia into the work. The Phantom Menace is refreshingly free of the trappings of its predecessors, and although there are nuggets – particularly in the orchestral flourishes and musical overtures – the film could very easily be enjoyed by audiences walking into the series for the first time.
As Qui Gon and his band come into close quarters with a force of tremendous evil – an impressively stoic Jake Lloyd, who plays the performance of a nine-year-old forced to leave the only home he has ever known or loved – they let their innate optimism and belief in the world lead their way to absolution. And by the time they come into close quarters with a more mercenary force, they have happily realised that the foundations of their core beliefs only serve them to a point, as their ventures and dealings with the devils that the heavens have cast down upon them.
Rian Johnson would go one further with this pervading sense of antiestablishmentarianism and abandon, creating a liturgy that showed the freedom that awaited a viewer, if they had the courage to free themselves from the shackled that had tied them to traditions. But it was rejected by the Star Wars community, who favoured the more frolicsome works that catered to the same level of fan service that had cost Lucas some of his credibility. Because there’s much more to The Phantom Menace than mere fanservice, as it demonstrates a plot that is angular, and deeply cognizant of its mission statement.