I’ve been working my way through the Star Wars films in a modified Machete Order to prepare for the release of Episode VII next month. The true Machete Order dictates to skip Episode I entirely, but my modified version retains the order but keeps all six films, because I’m a completist. I also think Episode I gets an unfairly bad reputation and has a lot of good to offer.
The Trade Dispute
A lot of ink has been spilled about how horrible the decision was to begin the series with a boring trade dispute about taxation of imports to Naboo. However, I actually think this was one of the smartest things Lucas could have done, because it’s such a realistic depiction of the sorts of events that have sparked war in the real world (e.g. the Boston Tea Party).
I think it was pretty brave of Lucas to speak to the audience’s intelligence rather than assuming that such political allegory would be too much for us to handle. The original Star Wars opening crawl simply states that “it is a period of civil war,” but without knowing what is actually being fought over, the space dogfights can start to feel like just an endless series of shootouts with no real stakes (and nothing to really differentiate the good guys from the bad guys other than that the bad guys tend to wear a lot of black).
The way Senator Palpatine manipulates the minor dispute to consolildate power for himself in a time of uncertainty is a pretty scathing critique of some of the demagogues that have managed to do similar things in recent history here on planet Earth. The whole series largely started out as a critique of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War, after all.
I’m not going to say Jar-Jar is a great character, but for all the high-minded political stuff going on, there needed to be some comedic relief to keep the younger people in the audience interested. I realize I’m damning with faint praise, but Jar-Jar is really hardly in the movie, and it’s pretty easy to just ignore him if you don’t think he’s funny.
I don’t think he’s really any more distracting or annoying than C3P0’s constant naysaying in The Empire Strikes Back, and similarly, most of the comedy really comes from how even the characters in the movie don’t really like him, much like Han’s antagonism toward the C3P0 in that film.
I actually think there’s a pretty good mix of political stuff, comedic relief, space action and military strategy, and the movie would not keep younger audience members engaged if you just took out Jar-Jar and the Gungans entirely. It’s also telling that people who saw Phantom Menace first as kids aren’t bothered by Jar-Jar at all. It’s the devil you know, I think.
For my money, the three-way lightsaber duel in Phantom Menace between Qui-Gonn, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is actually the best one in the series. It’s tense, balletic and dramatic, and set to my favorite piece of score in the series, “Duel of the Fates,” which is just an all-time great piece of orchestral music.
All the lightsaber duels in the original trilogy are more just about brute-force hacking, and the ones in the other prequels (especially Episode II) involve one of the participants being CGI (Yoda vs. Count Dooku, Obi Wan vs. Darth Sidious) or are again just two poeple hacking at each other (Anakin vs. Obi Wan).
I love the moment in the Darth Maul fight where all three participants are stuck between those blast-shield gate things and forced to pace back and forth waiting for thae gates to open, able to see each other but unable to do anything. It’s such a great, unexpected and operatic sequence.
All in all, I think The Phantom Menace is undeserving of it’s negative reputation, and it stands comfortably alongside the other movies in the series. It may not be quite as good as the original or Empire Strikes Back, but I think it’s at least as good as Return of the Jedi, and if you follow the “true” Machete Order and skip it, I think you’re missing out on a lot of the political groundwork which actually gives the series weight, and also one of the very best action sequences in the whole saga.