Welcome to a new type of post here at All Timelines. In this series, I will provide a detailed analysis of a specific film. For starters, I’m talking about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the first of the Star Wars prequels, released in 1999 and directed by George Lucas. In these posts I will provide a scene by scene breakdown of the film in extreme detail. Think of it as a audio commentary if you could pause at each couple of shots and talk about it. For me, it’s a way of getting all my thoughts on these films out in the open.
This analysis will be primarily textual, meaning that I will only use the “text” of the film. That refers to the dialogue, sounds, music, and visuals of the film itself. I will also draw from deleted scenes and the film script. These are my only primary texts. I may include links or references to other sources, but will only cite these as “fun facts” or “FYIs.” They will not become a basis for my analysis. I may also reference other Star Wars films where appropriate.
The Game Plan
For The Phantom Menace I hope to accomplish some of the following goals with my analysis:
- Point out what works well (because I believe that the Star Wars prequels do have a lot to offer, stuff that critics often overlook)
- Identify what doesn’t work and give suggestions for improvement (if remaking the film were an option)
- Reveal background elements or other connections you might not have noticed before
- Have fun!
This analysis will likely show some personal bias, but since criticism is inherently subjective anyway, I don’t worry too much about that. I will, however, try to consider both sides of common arguments for and against this film. Each post will proceed chronologically through the film, though I may pause to have a post entirely about one character or concept. I plan on having a full post about a young Anakin, for example.
Additionally, this post assumes that you have seen Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and simply want to delve deeper into the film.
So without further preamble, let’s dive right in!
The Phantom Menace
Let’s start with the title. There’s a small amount of debate about what exactly is the “Phantom Menace” referenced in the title. The obvious answer is that the Phantom Menace refers to Darth Sidious and his apprentice Darth Maul, as they lay their plans for galactic domination. But there are others who argue that Anakin’s dark future, that master Yoda later refers to as “clouded” could also be a phantom menace. Additionally, the faceless droids who provide much of the conflict for this film could also be a phantom menace.
I’m inclined to believe that there’s more than one meaning, but ultimately I find Darth Sidious and his plans to be the primary menace. It may also refer to Anakin’s future, or to the faceless battle droids, or any other possibilities. But this seems to be the clear threat to those of us who get a peek at the dark and sinister plots that originate with Darth Sidious in this film.
The Opening Crawl
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Okay, okay, good, we’re off to a good start.
CHEERS! I will admit that the first time I saw these words hit the screen in 1999, I could not have been more excited to see more of my favorite film saga. I was eleven at the time. Little did I know the journey that these films would eventually take me on. Anyway, sorry, enough about me. Getting back to the crawl.
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic.
Okay, this is a decent start. Goes along with the sort of cheesy Flash-Gordon-type text that I expect from Star Wars opening crawls. Drama!
The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.
Oooookay. So I get why people have a problem with this line. It’s not that exciting. It’s the opposite of exciting. It’s un-exciting.
Let’s keep in mind, that George wasn’t necessarily trying to make a film that brought back nostalgia or excitement from the original films. He was trying to tell the story that made sense to him, what really “happened” within this universe. Under that guise, this line actually makes sense. Because this is Episode 1. Uno. As in the first. The galaxy hasn’t had time to become exciting yet. Trade disputes are literally the most drama this galaxy has seen in years. George is giving us a starting point so that we comprehend just how much the galaxy is about to fall in the next few films. From peaceful Republic, to civil war, to an Empire, to more civil war. It’s not going to be pretty.
Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.
Okay, so now we know who the bad guys are. A greedy Trade Federation, preying on the small, innocent planet of Naboo. Still not that exciting, but I stand by my earlier comment. This is a relatively insane day for the people of Naboo.
While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict….
Noooow you’ve got my attention. Jedi! JEDI! We’re going to see Jedi! Forget the boring opening, all I need to see is the word “Jedi”. As a newbie to this film, I’d been waiting to see Jedi in action, not just an old man, a young kid, or a shriveled frog that we saw in the original films. Real Jedi in their prime.
And that’s exactly what we see in the upcoming first scenes of the film.
Landing on the Trade Federation Ship
The camera pans down to see a Republic ship passing the camera and converging on large Trade Federation ships. You know, a lot of people talk about how much the prequel films overdid special effects, but The Phantom Menace actually had more practical effects than any of the original films, things like miniature sets and model ships. These ships that you see in this opening shots are all real hand-made starships. And they’re lit absolutely perfect for the scene.
We next get our first look at Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, albeit from behind, covered in cloaks. The interior looks a lot like Star Wars ships that we’ve grown to love, though perhaps with a few more flashing lights, because budget.
What I like about these first few shots is that there’s a palpable sense of mysticism. The Jedi are mysterious. Lucas is drawing out this moment, allowing us to savor the full reveal of these Jedi in their prime.
Introducing Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon
Well eventually the ship lands, and Qui-gon and Obi-Wan embark onto the Trade Federation ship, greeted by the friendly TC-14.
“I have a bad feeling about this”
Bam! The first words out of Obi-Wan’s mouth are the classic Star Wars line. While this film was quite different from what fans expected, it is not without its familiar qualities.
I also find it interesting that Obi-Wan’s bad feeling refers to something “elsewhere, elusive.” Could he be sensing the “phantom menace” out there somewhere? Perhaps Obi-Wan was wiser than Qui-Gon seems to think here.
In this scene, we get the first inclination of the relationship between these two main characters. They are a master and apprentice, where Obi-Wan is the learner. Again, George Lucas is establishing contrast. We all know where Obi-Wan will end up. His young, inexperienced self has a lot to go through.
The Neimoidians and the Actual Phantom Menace
We break away from Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan to get our first real introduction to the primary antagonists of the film. Annnnnd…..they’re not that frightening. In fact, they seem pretty stupid and cowardly.
For some reason, they haven’t figured out until now that their ambassadors are actually Jedi, and they’re scared spitless by them. This continues to add to the mystique of the Jedi, further building our anticipation to see them in action.
Enter Darth Sidious. Even the hologram of this Sith Lord is far more terrifying than the Neimoidians. I understand there was some debate on whether this was the man who would eventually become Emperor Palpatine. I, for one, never had any doubt from the first time my eleven-year-old ears heard his voice.
Is stupidity a bad thing?
Now as a quick side note, I know many complain about the Neimoidians and the droids as not being much of a threat. While I think this is a valid concern in some instances, I think it serves the correct purpose at this stage in the film. Remember, these first scenes are meant to build up hype for the Jedi and really give us a chance to see how brilliant they are in action.
The stupidity and cowardice of the Neimoidians serve two purposes. First, it gives us a chance to see the Jedi shine, cutting through the droids like butter and striking real fear into the Neimoidians. Second, it gives us a chance to see how much of a puppet-master Darth Sidious is. It’s clear from the very start that he has the Neimoidians on a leash. Therefore, it’s easy to see that the real threat, right from the beginning, is not the Neimoidians or their droids, but the phantom menace himself.
Now, one could argue that having more competent underlings might have made Sidious’ manipulations more impressive, or the Jedi’s destruction more exciting. I, however, think that more competent Neimoidians would have resulted in the Jedi looking, perhaps a bit too powerful. We have to draw the line somewhere.
And also, we want to see the Jedi kick some Neimoidian trash!
Jedi in Their Prime
Now we’re at the good part. All that waiting (of only five minutes guys, come one) has paid off. The moment we see those lightsabers ignite from within the gas, and the music swells, and we’re in Star Wars heaven. This is the moment that all of the first few scenes of this film have built towards. It’s a relatively quick build-up, but it’s effective.
I have never not smiled during this scene. It’s great. Sure the droids aren’t much of a threat, but that didn’t matter to my eleven-year-old self. And frankly, I think this is one of the best scenes of the prequel trilogy. I really mean that. You won’t see me fanboy-ing all over many other scenes like this. It’s a great introduction, despite a few disappointments later on. This is Star Wars.
Side note: A friend of mine one told me of a physics problem he did as part of his major. In that exercise, he and his group calculated the heat that Qui-Gon’s lightsaber would have to be to melt through that solid metal door. Apparently, it would have to be something like five times hotter than the surface of our sun. Huh. Neat. I could give you the geek-ified answer to how that works, but let’s face it, Star Wars isn’t about science.
Eventually, the Jedi run off down the ventilation shaft (using Jedi Speed, which had not appeared in a film before). That’s where we’re going to end this first episode of Scene by Scene Breakdown, but join us next time when we meet the most fan-polarizing character of all time. No joke.
Before you go…
As always, be sure to check out our Star Wars timeline or subscribe to be notified when the next post in this series hits. And let me know in the comments below what you thought of this post and anything you would add about these particular scenes.