When I posted my May the 4th review of The Phantom Menace, I was shocked – SHOCKED – to discover a comment saying that the film was unnecessary! That it didn’t serve the overarching story enough to justify its existence! That the events that mattered could fit easily into a ten-minute prologue! And this is from someone who claims to enjoy the movie!
Naturally I sat there mouth agape. My brain could think of nothing but synonyms for “idiocy” which I would not say due to a (probably misplaced) sense of politeness. To my mind, that’s tantamount to saying “Hey, let’s just skip to The Two Towers and tell The Fellowship of the Ring in a ten minute prologue!” I’ve heard people go even farther, claiming that Revenge of the Sith should have been Episode I. This just keeps proving time and again how the people who hate on I-III the most are those who just don’t get what Star Wars is about.
The story of Episodes I-III, in case you missed it, is the story of how Anakin Skywalker became a Jedi Knight and ultimately turned to the dark side. It’s the story of how the noble Republic caved in on itself and became and evil Empire. It’s the story about how, though going about it wrong may lead to ruin, love can always reignite hope in the universe.
This is an over-simplified version of course, there’s much more to it than that, but those are the most important beats. And The Phantom Menace contributes more to this than you’d think. I could tell you a million reasons why I love the film, but I think I’ve narrowed it to [#] reasons why Phantom Menace matters narratively and cinematically.
7. It’s the Calm before the Storm
Let’s face facts here. I-III is the story of how the bad guys win. It’s ultimately depressing. You need an installment that has fun with itself, that rekindles that sense of humor and adventure that A New Hope had before things got mucky. There is tragedy in Phantom, as there is tragedy in Hope, but in both cases there’s far more excitement and entertainment on a joyful level. That’s important because it keeps the audience’s spirits up until it all starts crashing down (giving first-timers a false sense of security doesn’t hurt either).
6. It Eases us back into the Galaxy Far, Far Away by Showing us Obi-Wan’s “More Civilized Age.”
Along the same lines, in order for an audience to be sold on this story, the setting needs to be established. And it is a very different setting in many ways. It is important for us to see how things work in the Republic era before Palpatine takes power. Not that they work all that well, but it’s a much better time than under the Emperor. Speaking of which…
5. It Establishes how the Sith – and Palpatine – Operate
This is the film that officially introduces us to the Sith, aside from a title Vader had in certain published works. It sets up the Rule of Two and explains why they were able to get as far as they did without anyone noticing – everyone thought they were extinct! More importantly, though, it shows how Palpatine gained office, how skillful a manipulator he truly is, and how adaptable he is. But even with all that, he can’t turn a democracy into a dictatorship overnight. Nobody can. Fortunately, Palpatine is the patient type.
4. It Establishes the Jedi in their Prime – and Why they Ultimately Failed
Just as it’s important to show how the Republic operates well before any kind of major war, it’s also important to show the day-to-day dealings of the Jedi Order before they effectively became military leaders. And what do we see? A bunch of stuffed robes up their own butts with Dogma. Oh, they’re the good guys. They’re usually right, but they’re big picture people. They can’t see the tree for the forest. All except for Qui-Gon. Qui-Gon is the Cassandra that nobody believes, and I believe he was the only one capable of effectively training Anakin. This is the most important thing, because we see how by-the-book Obi-Wan is, the great Obi-Wan we met as an old man. That’s why the trainer of Luke could not keep Anakin from Palpatine’s machinations: he was not his former master.
3. It Brings the Force to the Blood
Ahh, the Midi-Chlorians, the Force’s Babel Fish. Many maligned them simply because they didn’t pay attention to Qui-Gon’s explanation of them and got it into their heads that they were the Force. To this day, I still can’t fathom how that happened. But it is here that the concept is introduced to us and allowed to breathe, and the bacteria are vitally important to the messages of I-III in a number of ways. First, it establishes Anakin’s potential power, which is why everyone is so interested in him. Second, it introduces the “virgin birth” that is not only an archetypal staple, but also establishes Anakin’s need of a father figure, and he certainly starts to go through those. Finally, it brings up the subject of Force-sensitive bloodlines. It won’t be for another movie until we learn that the Jedi are forbidden from attachment, but by allowing the Midi-Chlorians to be introduced to us this way, and letting us digest this before moving on to the next subject, we see the setup for the ultimate theme: Life wants you to love. Life wants you to keep your bloodline going.
2. It Introduces us to Padmé without Feeling like she Came out of Nowhere
If Padmé’s story were told with the events being the same but as a summation, then we flat-out would not care about her. She’d be Anakin’s conquest, important only as the mother of the Twins. By having her embroiled in the story this way and central to the plot, we see a real character in her. One that can grow as the films go on. One that has her own agendas, her own demons, and able to go toe-to-toe with any of her compatriots (well, in a spiritual sense, not being Force-Sensitive).
1. It Gives us Time with the Real Anakin.
This is who Anakin Skywalker is. Not the hulking black armor, not the chalky shell of a man underneath it, not even the handsome but troubled young Jedi who can’t reconcile his own emotions. Anakin Skywalker is, at his core, this happy-go-lucky little boy. He may come from a hard life, but he knows who he is and what he wants. He wants to build things and race pods and help anybody who needs help. This is probably the most important part of Anakin’s character development, and it’s all exclusively in The Phantom Menace. This – THIS is the real Anakin Skywalker, and it’s crucial to establish this because of what we are going to see him become later on. And yes, it had to be a child. This whole mess had to start when he was a child, where leaving the life he had always known and the only parent he ever knew could sow those seeds of fear and doubt that Yoda sensed and Palpatine later exploited.
That is why The Phantom Menace was made. That is why it matters.
That and Podracing. There’s nothing more awesome than Podracing, and I will fist-fight anyone who disagrees.