Much maligned, Episode I was once the most anticipated film in cinema history, a stigma that surely set it up for massive let down. While the movie lacks much of the charm and with the originals came to define, it more so burdened by a weighty script that focuses far too much on politics and disputes than on real character development, something that the others were so good at doing. Critiquing the film is practically pointless now, as the Internet has filled more than its quota on stripping apart nearly every frame of the movie, and as time passes, the movie has come to represent a gold standard for disappointment and has become a sort of punchline.
Written and directed by George Lucas, the convoluted story has a number of branching stories that involve interplanetary trade, but essentially, and the only reason anyone was interested inis watching, was the origin of film’s most popular villain, Darth Vader. Looking back, this was probably the larger problem with the film as it ended up voiding the iconic character of his enigma and mystery, replacing it with a bland tale of a boy who is destined to bring balance to the force. That said, there is some spectacle to be had and despite the heavy criticism of the tone and over-indulgence in special effects, there are some very satisfying moments. There are alos plenty of expertly-crafted reviews of this movie, so to indulge in more, would be pointless. The Phantom Menace is not the epic it should have been, and misses the mark for both older and younger audiences.
That Moment In: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Scene Setup: The Federation has launched its Battle Droid ground attack and is facing the Gungan army on the fields near the Naboo capitol. In the city, the Queen, along with Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and a small squad of security forces have made it to the palace and are planning to take down the Viceroy in the throne room. From the main hanger, they gather their limited forces, leave young Anakin “safely” in the cockpit of fighter, and head for the interior. When the main gate opens though, they are met by a Sith Lord who has already made an indelible impression on the Jedi.
That Moment: Darth Maul is a Sith lord working for the Emperor, who is of course, also the new Chancellor under the name Palpatine. Mostly mute in the film, he becomes the primary antagonist, a constant shadow and threat to the Jedi. His red and black Rorschach patterned face with crown of horns certainly resembles a classic version of the devil and as such taps into our deepest fears and nightmares. Lucas was wise to leave him shadowed and as mysterious as possible. While his little flying hover bike looks ridiculous, he is overall a very effective, creative, and terrifying character. So terrifying one might see it as an example of how much this movie isn’t a kid’s film, but I won’t argue that. For most viewers, we all wanted to see more of him, which is exactly what any filmmaker strives for. While the title of the film certainly refers to Palpatine’s manipulation of the Senate, one might just as easily ascribe the name to Darth Maul and his almost ethereal presence throughout the film. When he makes his final appearance, it is sudden and actually a little spine-tingling because the build-up as been palpable. Accompany that with John William’s rousing choral score, and it’s one of those, “Hell, yes” movie moments that puts you right on the edge of your seat. No debate: it’s the single best image in the movie.
I quibble with the moment though, as I still don’t understand why Qui-Gon tells the twenty or fully armed combatants with him to simply open fire, though I suppose a Sith Lord as powerful as Maul could easily deflect the incoming attack. I could even argue that Qui-Gon orders the others to move on knowing that by forcing them away, he is saving their lives. So, it’s up to the Jedi and it’s time for the film’s epic lightsaber fight to commence. I’ll note that I briefly wrote in my review of Return of the Jedi that the duel between Luke and Darth is far superior to this fight between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Maul, and I still stand behind that statment, as good as this one is. It has depth, emotions, consequences and rich backstory. We are invested deeply in the two characters and are driven not by the action of the swinging lightsabers, but by the crackling dialogue between them. Here, we know nothing about Maul. We don’t know his motivations other than to satisfy his master. We’ve only known Qui-Gon for a short time and until this movie, never even heard of him. We know Obi-Won of course, but he is nothing like what we expected, but we’ll give that a pass. The fight itself isn’t even about anything, and really, is just an excuse to have an choreographed fight. But’s a solid fight, nonetheless, with both high and low moments.
It starts when Maul reveals his secret weapon, a duel-bladed lightsaber. I won’t lie. When that happened on screen in the theater, there was a collective howl of joy from the audience. The battle is basically a performance, where it’s obvious these are well-practiced actors in a carefully constructed display, but it has such great momentum to it, it’s hard not to be excited. Perfectly timed swings, misses, parries and blocks, along with kicks and and spins that are so cleanly executed it feels like a dance rather than a fight. Comparing it with the exhausting hacks and awkward lunges of the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker fight and it’s no contest. There is a powerful sense of vulnerability with that battle that resonates throughout. That battle is personal. This one is not. It’s slick, highly produced and glitters with CGI, but it has its appeal.
In fact, there is a glimpse of true greatness that actually comes when the fighting momentarily stops. The trio get separated when Maul gives Obi-Wan a shove and he falls a few levels down. He’s a Jedi so he survives. That leaves Qui-Gon and Darth to continue where they left off on Tatooine. They work they way along this enormous corridor with odd red light cycling beams that periodically opens and closes a narrow passageway from one gigantic chamber to the next. Obi-Wan leaps up to the catwalk and gives chase, but is quite a bit behind and clearly won’t make it in time to join the fight before the see-through red light gates close again. In fact, for a minute, all three are separated and there’s this wonderful moment of the three standing just out of reach of each other, waiting for the gates to open and get back to the fight.
When the gates open again, Qui-Gon and Maul go at it as Obi-Wan tries to catch up. It’s actually a pretty tense moment, and how ever the ridiculous glowy laser gates are in theory, they are wonderful metaphors for the fight itself and provide an excellent device for creating tension. The apprentice is restricted by underdeveloped talent and untrained skills, unable to keep up with his master. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon, aged and cynical, must fight the more powerful nemesis alone. You sense he is in over his head and can see the strain in the elder Jedi. Liam Neeson, an actor of exceptional talent, plays this last bit of Qui-Gon with exactly the right tone. He is done and he knows it. The Sith lord is far too strong, and when the lightsaber does cut the Jedi Knight down, it is both expected but ultimately surprising. Darth Maul doesn’t even blink. He moves directly to his next foe, still trapped behind the see-through electrified wall. And it is here where we get our second spine-tingling “Hell, yes” moment. Obi-Wan watched his master fall, and for a second, let’s that wash over him. Maul paces in front of the Jedi, staring at him with a taunting eye, the body of Qui-Gon behind him. Then Obi-Wan shakes it off and the expression turns to rage. He starts bobbing on his toes in anticipation, like a pumped up boxer waiting for the bell. It’s spectacular filmmaking. It almost feels like it will be when Luke finally defeated Vader, by letting go and just beating him down.
When Episode I burst into theaters back in 1999, for a few weeks it was magical, our minds clouded over like a Jedi mind trick, believing what we were seeing was that old Star Wars magic again. We convinced ourselves it was great, hoping against hope that it lived up to the hype. Of course, we came to our senses and as the years have passed, it simple doesn’t hold up. Still, there is some fun to be had in the limited adventure. The last saber battle is a roller coaster ride of good and bad, mostly saved by the magnificent score. Duel of Fates is some of the best music that John Williams has ever put to film. When we think about this movie, it’s always Darth Maul who comes to mind, a colorful and creative villain that should have had a larger role and a better death. And we think of the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, who faces his first great challenge, loses his best friend and teacher, and takes the next step to being a Jedi Master.