Say what you will about The Phantom Menace, but it’s crucial to what makes Star Wars great. Sure, it introduced lots of not-so-popular characters and concepts, but it balanced that out with even more things that, in the 20 years since its release, have aged quite gracefully. Things that improved and expanded the franchise drastically. So much so, they almost certainly outshine things like Jar Jar or midi-chlorians.
And so, as we celebrate two decades of Episode I, which opened wide on May 19, 1999, we decided to highlight the great things The Phantom Menace gave to Star Wars.
Liam Neeson’s turn as the stoic, powerful Jedi was the first time fans had seen a true Jedi Knight, at the peak of his abilities, doing the job the Jedi had been doing for thousands of years. It was something fans had only dreamed about in the past, now fully realized.
Sure, we’d seen Alec Guinness play Obi-Wan before, but McGregor’s take on the character somehow elevated that. We saw Obi-Wan as a young, hungry Jedi apprentice. One that, we’d learn, fibbed a bit to Luke in A New Hope with regards to his relationship with Anakin. Plus, the character continues to grow throughout the trilogy and through The Clone Wars. All because of this movie.
Yup, the mother of Luke and Leia was finally revealed in The Phantom Menace, and she was so much more than just that. Padme was a powerful young queen who stood by her beliefs, fought for what was right, and wasn’t scared to get her hands dirty by posing as her own handmaiden. She instantly became one of the most iconic characters in all of Star Wars. Plus, where would Star Wars cosplay be without Padmé’s incredible outfits?
Simply stated, Darth Maul is maybe one of the most recognizable Star Wars characters ever alongside Darth Vader and Yoda. And, interestingly enough, he’s almost as powerful too, though we never quite get to see him blossom to his fullest in this movie. Thankfully later works, like The Clone Wars and Rebels, would add real depth to the stunningly designed, evil, kick-ass Sith.
The original trilogy was fairly limited to what planets we saw in a galaxy far, far away. But in The Phantom Menace, we saw the center of it all: Coruscant, a full city planet. To this day, Star Wars creators have barely even begun to scratch the surface of its potential.
Okay, the idea of the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy just sitting together in a room isn’t great. What is great is that, because of this council, we meet Mace Windu. We also meet Ki-Adi Mundi, Plo Koon, Adi Gallia, and many others. In a single scene, The Phantom Menace exploded the idea of what a Jedi could be or look like.
Some people think Battle Droids are lame. I am not one of those people. Are they mostly worthless as soldiers? Undoubtedly. But their physical design, transports, formations, voices, all of it is just so freaking awesome. And, it’s flawed—which also gave a strong explanation for the Stormtroopers coming to prominence later.
From its buildings to its ships, its guns to its clothing, and even under its water, everything about Naboo is just gorgeous. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful, unique Star Wars planets in that it’s one where we actually see a fully functioning culture that’s not defined by its landscape. Naboo isn’t a snow planet, a forest planet, or a desert planet. It’s a diverse, Earth-like location built and designed by people, which is a rarity in Star Wars.
First of all, podracing is cool. It just is. The ships are awesome, the characters flying them are fun, and the race is just a well-intentioned and executed scene. It’s also a great example of how The Phantom Menace humanized Star Wars. Unlike a speeder chase or trench run, podracing was a fun event people attended to blow off steam—a Star Wars-specific group recreational activity. Which made Star Wars relatable in a way it hadn’t been before.
Before Darth Maul unleashed his double-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace, we thought all lightsabers were the same. After Maul’s saber, they could be anything they wanted to be. Plus, like podracing, it was just cool.
Before The Phantom Menace, we thought of Star Wars as a galaxy at war. Everything old. Grimy. The Empire ruled and it was up to the Rebels to stop them. But, that’s not the world of The Phantom Menace. This is the galaxy at peace. People live well. They prosper. They trade and enjoy themselves. It’s the ideal that Luke, Han, and Leia were fighting for in the original films, fully realized. So when it’s lost, it hurts more.
John Williams has written a lot of iconic Star Wars themes and one of the best is undoubtedly “Duel of the Fates,” which plays during the climactic lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul. It’s such a rousing, memorable piece of music that it elevates an already good scene to one of the best in the series.
Say what you want about Jake Lloyd (who played young Anakin), but the mere fact The Phantom Menace shows how Anakin was discovered is the crucial event to kick off everything we know and love about Star Wars. Without Anakin, maybe there isn’t an Empire. There definitely isn’t Luke or Leia. The Clone Wars turn out differently. That one event is the crux of almost everything that happens after and we wouldn’t have that without The Phantom Menace.
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