Redemption of the Jedi: The Phantom Menace
You can read the preface to this article by going HERE.
If you break it down to its most basic elements, Episode I is really a movie about mis-direction. It’s about people who aren’t what they appear to be and events that aren’t what they seem on the surface. While the original trilogy is very much black and white, Episode I is shrouded in grays which, I think, is part of what made it so difficult for many fans to like.
Despite its alien settings, Episodes IV-VI have always been very easy for people to identify with and follow due to it’s clearly defined ideas of what is good and what is evil as well as having very clear character archetypes. We’ve all to some extent been brought up on the same mythology and fairy tales. Because of this, we’re all able to easily identify and relate to The Farm Boy, The Princess in Peril, The Pirate, The Wizard, and The Black Knight, even in a galaxy far far away. Episode I isn’t as cut and dry. We find it harder to relate to the characters in this film because who they are is not as clearly defined.
On the surface, we’re supposed to be rooting for Anakin Skywalker. He’s the Chosen One. He’s the child born into slavery, emancipated by the Jedi, and put on a path to become a great hero. The problem with this is that we already know how it’s going to end. Unless you’re someone starting his/her Star Wars experience in numerical order, you already know going in that this little boy is going to be Darth Vader. It’s difficult to make someone into your hero when you know he’s going to be a villain. But that’s the whole point of this film and the trilogy as a whole. If there’s one thing that I feel Lucas did beautifully with the prequels, it’s that he took our preconceived notions of what things should be and gave us something we didn’t expect. Not the least of which is that the Jedi are not the great all-knowing beings we all kind of felt they were going to be (but we’ll get to that later).
Aside from any issues with its hero, the film doesn’t really even have a clearly defined villain. Yes, we have Darth Sidious and Darth Maul; our two relevant Sith Lords. We can take for granted that these are the villains of the piece because we already know that Darth Sidious is the Emperor we’ve known for years from Return of the Jedi. And by association alone, being his apprentice makes Darth Maul an automatic villain as well. (Plus, Maul looking like a devil straight out of hell and both characters sporting a name starting with “Darth” are dead give-aways). Beyond that, our “villains” are kind of sparse.
I’ve never been able to look at Watto as a villain. Yes, he’s Anakin’s slave-owner and yes, he is devious in nature. But he’s never malevolent. Similar to another character we’ll meet later in the trilogy, he’s just a businessman (or Toydarian in this case) trying to make his way in the universe.
Sebulba is technically a villain but really only to Anakin, and in that sense he’s more of an obstacle then a villain.
The basic plot requires us to look on the Neimoidians of the Trade Federation as villains but there’s really nothing overtly malevolent about them either. Their actions can be seen as evil, but most of it is done per the direction of Sidious and all of it is motivated by greed rather than evil. Unlike the Sith, the Neimoidians aren’t looking to take over the Universe. They’re really just looking for a way to resolve the issue of the taxation of trade routes mentioned in the opening crawl. The biggest mistake they make is allowing Sidious to make their decisions.
There really is nobody in Episode I to “hate” or “boo” at aside from the Sith who only make fleeting appearances in the film as it is.
This also feeds into the claims many fans have made that although it looks big, the central plot of the film is rather small and inconsequential. In the original trilogy we’re dealing with a massive civil war between an evil galactic empire and a small band of rebels. In The Phantom Menace we’re given a greedy organization that is in a major conflict with one planet. Not an entire galaxy…one planet. So yes, based on that, it does appear smaller in comparison. In the grand scheme of things, the conflict between the Trade Federation and the Naboo probably registers as not much more than a blip on the agenda of the Galactic Senate. Despite that, this is a major conflict. This is a truly significant battle. It just doesn’t seem so on the surface. To really find the significance, we need to look deeper.
As I said earlier, the entire movie is about mis-direction. Nothing in this is really what it seems. The significance of what’s going on isn’t so much in what you’re seeing in front of you, but in what effect these events are going to have and in what’s going on behind the scenes. The significance, the impact of these events, is in what we don’t see. Lucas alludes to this multiple times throughout the film almost as a way of saying “Psst…look closer.” For example:
– Just before the final confrontation begins, Padme specifically states that: “The battle is a diversion. The Gungans must draw the Droid Army away from the cities.” So even the entire final epic ground battle is not what it would seem on the surface
– In moments of potential danger to her person, Queen Amidala assumes the disguise of Padme, her handmaiden, while a bodyguard takes her place as a decoy. I’ve often wondered if it’s just coincidence that this ploy is used in this film and dispensed with after the first scene of Attack of the Clones
– It’s implied (and later confirmed by Lucas himself in his DVD commentary) that Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are both fully aware that Padme and the Queen are the same person and not fooled by her “disguise” at all. Knowing that on subsequent viewings gives these character exchanges a different context:
PADME: Are you sure about this? Trusting our fate to a boy we hardly know. The Queen will not approve.
QUI-GON: The Queen doesn’t have to know.
PADME: Well I don’t approve.
PADME: You Jedi are far too reckless. The Queen…
QUI-GON: The Queen trusts my judgment young handmaiden…You should too.
PADME: You assume too much.
– Even the final sequence of the film is mis-leading. As with the other films in the saga, Lucas opts to close his tale with a musical sequence which in this case takes the form of a massive parade and celebration. But really, what’s there to celebrate? Our heroes see this as a victory but we as the audience (especially if we’ve already seen the following two films) know that the entire Universe is essentially screwed from this point on. Major events have been set in motion that are going to result in war and the destruction of a democracy in favor of a dictatorship. There’s no turning back at this point. And yet, we’re celebrating with streamers and confetti. When I watch this scene and think about this weird undercurrent I can’t help but get a sense of foreshadowing of a line spoken by Padme in Revenge of the Sith:
“So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”
– If you need any more proof of this mis-direction, consider the film’s final spoken line. Unless you want to count Jar Jar’s “Wahoo!” (which I don’t), the final line of dialogue in the film is spoken by Boss Nass who holds the glowing orb into the air and shouts “Peace!” And yet the events that we’ve just watched will dovetail into Episode II which is essentially about…war.
Which brings us to the most blatant example of mis-direction: Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious
Most die hard fans already knew where this was leading the moment we heard the character’s name and knew who had been cast. With Ian McDiarmid returning to the saga, we knew that no matter how nice he seemed on the surface, Palpatine was the guy we were going to meet again in Return of the Jedi as The Emperor. Therefore, the eventual revelation of the hooded Darth Sidious’s identity didn’t come as much of a surprise to most of us. But if you look at it from the perspective of having never seen the films before and actually going in order from Episodes I-VI, you’re really not supposed to know that Sidious and Palpatine are one and the same. Even so, there are hints spread throughout Phantom Menace; some blatant and others very subtle:
We’re introduced to both Sidious and Palpatine in the same way: via hologram. Sidious is first seen in holographic form on the bridge of the Trade Federation’s ship. Palpatine is first introduced shortly after via hologram in the Queen’s palace on Naboo.
The planet where Sidious has his after-hours meeting with Darth Maul is very obviously Coruscant.
Two lines spoken by Sidious during the film:
➢ “I have the Senate bogged down in procedure.”
➢ “I’ll see that in the Senate, things stay as they are.”
Both lines indicate that Sidious has some kind of influence in the Senate.
In the scene in Palpatine’s apartment just after he’s been announced as one of the nominees for Supreme Chancellor, Queen Amidala reveals her plans to return to Naboo and settle her conflict with the Trade Federation. Palpatine implores her to stay to which Amidala replies, “It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions. I pray that you will bring sanity and compassion back to the Senate.” As she exits we cut back to a shot of Palpatine. Look closely just before the wipe to the next scene and you can actually see just the faintest hint of a smile start to appear on his face. For a long time I debated as to whether this was actually there or if I was just wanting it to be there. However, when reviewing the published Episode I screenplay, the final notation for this scene reads as follows:
AMIDALA and her RETINUE exit the room. PALPATINE
has a self-satisfied smile on his face.
Qui-Gon’s funeral at the conclusion of the film includes this exchange between Yoda and Mace Windu:
MACE: There’s no doubt the mysterious warrior was a Sith
YODA: Always two there are. No more, no less. A Master, and an Apprentice.
MACE: But which was destroyed? The Master, or the Apprentice?
The scene cuts to a shot of the crowd of mourners and the camera pans over slowly to the right, revealing Palpatine in direct focus.
This last one I honestly had never even noticed. I became aware of this through one of the videos posted by ScreenJunkies on Youtube pointing out several easter eggs in movies. It still blows my mind that I never caught this:
The final parade theme used at the end of Episode I is actually the Emperor’s theme played in a major key. Seriously.
While one could easily give credit for this to John Williams, it’s highly unlikely that he would have thrown something like that in without Lucas’s approval.
In essence, the entire plot of Episode I has really been about something else rather than what’s presented to us on-screen. Knowing that Palpatine and Sidious are the same person and knowing how events will unfold in the remaining two films gives us a whole new perspective when going back to watch the film again. Everything we’ve seen happen for the last two-plus hours has been done to cause one event: The election of Palpatine to the position of Supreme Chancellor. This is the first major step in Sidious’s grand scheme and despite any major set backs such as the loss of Darth Maul, it’s still a victory for him. He’s gotten what he wanted.
We’ll go more in-depth later on about Sidious’ overall plan so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say that the deeper meaning of Episode I’s plot is what truly justifies it’s title. Sidious is the Phantom Menace…the evil that is right in front of us and yet completely invisible. The menace that our heroes are blind to seeing but we as an audience are fully aware of. We’ve just watched the fall of the Republic. Our heroes have watched it too. They just don’t know it. It’ll take another two films to be fully realized, but the die has been cast in this film and it’s going to be a ticking time-bomb from here on out. Events have been set in motion that are going to lead to a civil war of epic proportions; the fall of a democracy, the rise of an empire, and the genocide of a religious order. And there’s nothing our heroes can do to stop it. What’s even worse is that none of them are even aware that they should try.
1 Lucas’s original first draft of the screenplay, written in long hand on yellow tablets was originally titled simply “The Beginning.”