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The Hollywood Insider Star Wars Episode 1 25th Anniversary

“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

This quote from “Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace” not only fits in the context of Anakin Skywalker’s doomed journey to the dark side, but also reactions from super fans of the space opera franchise when this prequel released in 1999. ‘The Phantom Menace’ introduced a whole new cast of characters and was set 32 years before ‘A New Hope,’ during an era of turmoil in the Galactic Republic. George Lucas took a massive risk by pursuing Anakin Skywalker’s story after the success of the original trilogy. Would ‘Star Wars’ survive without Harrison Ford’s devilish charm, Carrie Fisher’s spunk and Mark Hamill’s pure goodness? 

The short answer is yes, but the road to get there was not easy. On its face, ‘The Phantom Menace’ was a commercial triumph — it saw intensive coverage from the media and wracked up $924 million at the worldwide box office upon initial release, making it the highest grossing movie of 1999. Audiences were eager to return to the universe they loved as children, but it undoubtedly looked vastly different in ‘The Phantom Menace.’ Lucasfilm set a bar as high as the Death Star with the original trilogy, and were already at a disadvantage when many people just hoped to relive their childhoods through the prequel films. 25 years later, the faults present in ‘The Phantom Menace’ are abundantly clear, but that doesn’t make the film deserving of the intense backlash it received upon its release.

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The Challenges With an Origin Story

Unfortunately, almost every second of the 133-minute run time of ‘The Phantom Menace’ felt like exposition for the rest of the trilogy. There weren’t any high-stake battles between the light and dark side like there were in the original trilogy. Instead, the plot of ‘Episode 1’ revolved around The Trade Federation blockading the planet Naboo in preparation for an invasion, as a young Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman, though cleverly disguised as Kiera Knightley throughout much of the film) fought to protect her people. The Supreme Chancellor of the Republic sends Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), to negotiate peace and protect Padmé. 

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‘Can I Go Home Now?’

For a so-called “space opera”, the plot of ‘The Phantom Menace’ was extraordinarily dull. After Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Padmé become stranded on Tatooine while trying to reach the Republic Capital planet Coruscant, they meet a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), enslaved by a creature named Watto (Andy Secombe.) Anakin is a boy gifted with engineering skills, and Qui-Gon senses a deep connection to the force inside him. Instead of simply planting the seed of Anakin’s importance and continuing forward with the story, the film spends almost 40 minutes on the desert planet where Anakin wins a pod race for the first time. He is undoubtedly one of the most central characters in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, but ‘Attack of the Clones’ is when his role truly develops. At this time, Anakin is simply a boy desperate to leave home, and that could’ve been shown in a much more concise manner.

None of the trade dispute drama matters in the grand scheme of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to becoming Darth Vader. When looking back on the prequels, nobody refers to ‘The Phantom Menace’ as containing any critical moments — with the exception being Anakin and Padme meeting for the first time, foreshadowing their romance. In a scene inside Watto’s shop, Anakin seemingly flirts with Padme (five years his senior) but shows his immaturity when he lashes out at her for calling him a slave, and then brags about his skills as an engineer and pilot. This scene has been dubbed excessively awkward and unnecessary since the release of ‘The Phantom Menace,’ and upon revisitation, it’s not any better.

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Attacks on the Actors

‘Star Wars’ fans are incredibly passionate, which should’ve been positive for a franchise trying to return after a 16-year gap. But when they didn’t like what they saw in ‘The Phantom Menace,’ many blamed the actors and violently attacked them for “ruining” the series. A majority of the animosity was aimed towards Ahmed Best, who played the eccentric, and sometimes incredibly annoying, Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was an exiled Gungan creature from Naboo with a peculiar manner of speaking that made his character impossible to take seriously. At his best, he was comic relief. At his worst, he was so unlikeable to some fans that they harassed Best for years, leading him to contemplate taking his own life.

A similar response was given to Lloyd for his performance as young Anakin, who was recently checked into a mental health facility after struggling with schizophrenia since 2008. His mother, Lisa, spoke out to NBC News last month stating that his mental health issues were not a result of the ‘Star Wars’ hate.

I protected him from the [‘Star Wars’] backlash,” she said. “He was just riding his bike outside, playing with his friends. He didn’t know. He didn’t care. Everybody makes such a big deal about that. And it’s rather annoying to me because Jake was a little kid when that came out, and he didn’t really feel all that stuff because I didn’t let him online.”

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Reflecting on the Good

‘The Phantom Menace’ is by no means one of the best ‘Star Wars’ films. The issues with the script, visuals and plot prevent it from being as rewatchable as others like ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi.’ However, that doesn’t mean the reactions from the fans and media were appropriate, especially when Lucas was attempting to continue one of the most beloved franchises of all time.

The final lightsaber battle between Darth Maul (Ray Park) and Qui-Gon is one of the most beloved fights in ‘Star Wars’ history, soundtracked to John Williams’ masterful ‘Duel of the Fates’ score. Qui-Gon and Maul’s lightsabers clashed with a fluidity that was lacking in the original trilogy because of VFX restrictions, and Qui-Gon’s death followed by Obi-Wan stepping up and battling Maul in his place foreshadowed the impact he would have as a future Jedi Master. 

While the trade dispute might not have been the most gripping ‘Star Wars’ storyline, it helped enhance the political intrigue of the franchise and paved the way for the animated series’ like ‘The Clone Wars’ and ‘Rebels.’ By focusing on life before the Empire, Lucas unlocked potential for fan-favorite characters like Ahsoka Tano, Ezra Bridger and Kanan Jarrus. Without ‘The Phantom Menace,’ the ‘Star Wars’ universe would not be as rich and expansive as it is today.

By Kaitlyn Murphy

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