Director: George Lucas, 1999.
16 years after the conclusion of the original Star Wars trilogy and 22 years after Lucas first directed the Episode 4 masterpiece he returns to helm his second installment. Sadly, this is not in the same league. Certainly it has better special effects; that is to be expected after two decades and the emergence of computer generated imagery. But it is the fundamentals that let it down: little story and what there is seems unengaging; two-dimensional unappealing characters; and too much telling with not enough showing.
This is clearly an introduction to a new series. Using the same opening title card crawl to the familiar John Williams music, we read:
Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict.This is Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp), not Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who is the behind-the-scenes phantom menace of the title, maneuvering himself into position for power. From the earlier trilogy we know that he will become Supreme Chancellor and is in fact Darth Sidious, the insidious evil Sith Lord who uses the Dark Side of the Force for personal position.
When the two Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson, Taken) and his apprentice the young padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting), come aboard a Federation ship their negotiations prove very short. Before they can enter discussions they are facing a new kind of cool attack droids.
But escape they do, and they meet Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best), the animated Gungan. The Gungans live underwater on Naboo and are at odds with Queen Amidala's people. Jar Jar is one of the least liked of all the Star Wars creatures, and it understandable. He is a clumsy comic character who is simply not very funny. The Gungans, and Jar Jar in particular, are a race we could do without cinematically.
Eventually, after an exciting submarine chase through the core of Naboo, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan rescue Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and her entourage and escape to Tatooine, where it all began so long ago . . . in the future. It is here that they meet the young slave boy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and his master Watto, the flying Toydarian junk dealer. When his mother Schmi (Pernilia August) relates his birth story, Qui-Gon knows Anakin is someone special: "There was no father. I carried him. I gave birth, I raised him. I can't explain what happened."
As the Force is a pointer to new age religion, this is a clear pointer to the virgin birth of Christ. Isaiah prophesied, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14). Centuries later, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to foretell this birth, she said: " 'How will this be since I am a virgin?' The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Lk. 1:34-35). Just as the Force conceived Anakin, so the Spirit of God conceived Jesus.
Anakin's ability to handle a pod-racer, a super-fast hovercraft, further solidifies Qui-Gon's suspicions. He turns to Master Jedi Yoda (voice of Frank Oz) and Jedi Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) telling them about this "vergence in the force" located around Anakin. "His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians." To this Mace Windu responds, "You refer to the prophecy of The One who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it's this boy?" Qui-Gon does indeed. Later, just before he dies Qui-Gon tells Obi-Wan, "He is the chosen one. He will bring balance. Train him."
This prophecy of Anakin's future makes him appear to be a Christ-figure, though we know this is not so. But it points back to biblical prophecies of the true Christ. Micah had foretold of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem: "for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (Mic. 5:2, Matt. 2:6). Isaiah had said, ""Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations" (Isa. 42:1, Matt. 12:18). He is the chosen one. And then when the baby Jesus was presented in the temple, the old man Simeon prophesied over him, "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, 'My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.' " (Lk. 2:30-32) Jesus would bring balance to this sin-infected world by providing the means for redemption (Rom. 3:24).
The two highlights of The Phantom Menace are the pod-race and the light saber duel between Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. Even though the savage pod-race is a modern version of the Ben Hur chariot race, it is nevertheless thrilling, pitting Anakin against Sebulba in a race for Anakin's freedom. Then the saber fight sets Qui-Gon's traditional saber against Darth Maul's dual-ended sword. Unfortunately, we see too little of Maul and learn next to nothing about him. He is no Vader.
As The Phantom Menace draws to a close, Senator Palpatine gets elected as Chancellor and Anakin has his freedom. This sets us up for the next installment, that will bring an adult Anakin into the forefront.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs