Rose Tico once said that we’re going to win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love. That wisdom is pertinent for Star Wars fans; amidst seemingly incessant criticism, I want to spend time actually liking Star Wars. I love all Star Wars, so in this series, I’ll walk through each of the films identifying five things I love about it. That’s not to say there are only five, but I’m limiting myself to five here. One note: because I think John Williams’ work on every Star Wars film is fantastic, I’m going to essentially assume that would make every list, thus I’m leaving it out intentionally. But without Williams’ music, we don’t have Star Wars as we know and love it.
We begin today with The Phantom Menace.
1. Qui-Gon Jinn is the most underrated Star Wars character
When I think of the most underrated Star Wars character, my mind often goes first to Qui-Gon Jinn. Though he’s appeared in some books and comics (as well as a couple of cameos in The Clone Wars), this is Jinn’s only appearance in a Star Wars film. Jinn carries himself with a stoicism and calmness in the midst of even the most unexpected of circumstances, yet underneath that is a genuine compassion and care for people – something that the rest of the Jedi had lost sight of. Jinn refused to compromise, which is what cost him a seat on the Jedi Council – as his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, tells him in the film that if he’d just follow the Code he’d already be on the Council. But for Qui-Gon Jinn, there’s something more important than following the Jedi Code: following the will of the Force.
He is a Jedi master whose wisdom surpasses most of his peers, yet who possesses a remarkable empathy; he uses his wisdom to serve and protect others. And though he is eventually killed by Darth Maul, he manages to hold his own (twice!) against a Sith, as he and Kenobi become the first Jedi to face off against a Sith in a long time.
2. Jar-Jar Binks is better than he gets credit for
Going along with Qui-Gon’s compassion for others is a character who has been oft-derided by fans, often excessively: Jar-Jar Binks. It is clear that George Lucas’s vision for Binks was to be a character endearing to kids, who provides moments of comedic humor, but also serves a larger theme in the film (not to mention making revolutionary advances in motion capture technology).
I really appreciate Bryan Young’s take on Jar-Jar, and I think he’s absolutely right in terms of how the character is an important one thematically. Qui-Gon has compassion and care for this Gungan, even though Jar-Jar didn’t really have anything to offer him. Obi-Wan couldn’t understand this, wondering why they were wasting their time with Binks, but this further goes to show how Jinn saw things differently than the rest of the Jedi. Young explains how this actually is a theme that carries on throughout the rest of the saga (including with Luke and Yoda on Dagobah, and later Luke on Endor), but it’s established here: show kindness to everybody, regardless of whether they have something to offer you.
And ultimately, Jar-Jar is good-hearted, yet clumsy. His motives are good (none of that silly “Darth Jar-Jar” stuff), but he’s sometimes misguided (something Palpatine will take advantage of years later). He tries to help, and he actually does: if it wasn’t for him, the tensions between the Gungans and the Naboo probably would have continued, and they therefore probably wouldn’t have emerged victorious against the Trade Federation. Jar-Jar is the one who bridges the two peoples and brings them together.
3. Political Intrigue
Another frequent criticism of The Phantom Menace (and the prequels in general) is the political nature of it, but I actually find it fascinating.
(1) Firstly, it sets the stage and lets us know that we’re an entirely different era than the original trilogy. There it was the evil Empire, clearly pictured as the villains; here, it’s the Galactic Republic, whom the heroes are loyal to. It provides a stark contrast between the two eras, which was needed when Lucas ventured back in the history of the galaxy to begin the prequel trilogy.
(2) Secondly, the political aspects of the film set up so many key elements. For example, it establishes that the Republic is so caught up in other things that they lose sight of suffering systems. And as another example, we see how Sheev Palpatine goes from a Senator from Naboo to the Chancellor of the Republic. In the grand scheme of galactic history, that’s a pretty infamous development.
(3) Third, this is probably as pure and unadulterated as George Lucas’s vision for Star Wars has ever been. It’s him returning to the galaxy with a slate that’s completely empty save the broadest of story details, there’s not the nightmares of working with a studio, and there’s not the fan backlash hating on the prequels. This is Lucas’s vision for Star Wars, and I love the political side of the galaxy that he develops.
4. The Worldbuilding is Excellent
Closely connected with the previous point is that we get to see the political side of three (very) different planets. Coruscant is, of course, the capital of the Republic and the home of the Senate. It’s a sprawling planet-wide city, bustling with commotion at all hours. This film is the first true focus on the planet, though it was first created by Timothy Zahn in the landmark book Heir to the Empire and added by Lucas into the special edition of Return of the Jedi, showing a victory celebration on Coruscant after the fall of the Empire.
Then there’s Naboo, one of the most visually beautiful Star Wars planets ever created. The planet has the sophisticated capital of Theed City, where Queen Amidala and the government reside, but it also has luscious countryside, waterfalls, forests, and lakes. It’s a paradise. But this paradise is also the center of the conflict in the movie, as the Trade Federation has decided to block all shipping to them. Why Naboo? Well, I presume it’s because they can. Amidala won’t stand for it, but she has trouble convincing the Senate to help. Once again, Lucas is showing us the failures of the Republic, as they’re too caught up in other things to care about people suffering from an invasion. One of the other aspects of Naboo that I love, though, is that the Naboo and the Gungans form a symbiotic circle despite not liking one another. The Gungans live under-water in Otoh Gunga, a visually creative city formed by a series of bubbles that contained air, despite being under-water. It’s a hidden city. But the Naboo didn’t look out for the Gungans, and the Gungans didn’t care for the Naboo either – until Jar-Jar Binks and Qui-Gon Jinn helped bring both sides together and restore relations between them, something that continued on in the years to come.
But in contrast to both Coruscant and Naboo is a planet we’re already familiar with: Tatooine. But we don’t simply return to the same parts of Tatooine; Lucas expands things here and takes us to Mos Espa. We meet Watto, a junk dealer, and his slaves: Anakin Skywalker and his mother, Shmi. The Hutts run things on Tatooine, so as opposed to the Galactic Senate or the government of Naboo, this planet is run by crime lords. The Skywalkers were owned by Gardulla the Hutt before Watto won them in a bet. Additionally, we see a major course of entertainment on Tatooine: pod-racing, which is a thrilling, high-speed, and very dangerous racing. We see that Skywalker races in the Boonta Eve Classic, an annual race that even draws the attendance of his high-exaltedness, the great Jabba the Hutt. So we see a different side of the planet than what we had previously been introduced to (even though this is the third film to feature it), and it serves to introduce us to Anakin Skywalker and to further display the brokenness of the Republic. Despite the Republic’s anti-slavery laws, they can’t enforce it on an Outer Rim planet like Tatooine.
So what we have is a Republic caught up in squabbles on Coruscant while the Naboo are invaded and slavery runs rampant on Tatooine. If the Republic is a government that doesn’t or can’t protect its people, then it’s a failing government. It’s something that Sheev Palpatine – himself a Senator from Naboo! – uses to his advantage, which in this film means getting elected Supreme Chancellor. And all of this accompanies the stunning visuals provided by these planets. George Lucas does a terrific job of worldbuilding in The Phantom Menace.
5. The Duel of the Fates
Ok, you’ve probably been waiting for this one: by far the most well-known and fondly-remembered scene from the film is the climactic lightsaber battle between Darth Maul and the Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I could have included Maul on this list, but let’s be honest: the reason Maul is such an incredible character isn’t so much due to The Phantom Menace (because here he has a few lines but is basically there to look cool and fight) but The Clone Wars and Rebels. So this film introduces us to Maul, but also gives us that amazing fight (made even better by John Williams, as always). From Maul’s use of a double-bladed lightsaber (the first time that was seen on-screen) to the length of the fight (the most extensive duel we’d ever seen) to the scenery (having the fight take place in the inner-workings of the Theed Royal Palace), to the emotional stakes (obviously capped off with Qui-Gon’s death) to the use of both lightsaber skills and the Force mixed together (giving Qui-Gon the chance to meditate for a moment in the midst is great) to so much more, this fight is tremendous.
But as Dave Filoni articulated splendidly, the significance of this fight is far more than just a cool-looking and exciting sequence. Why’s it called the Duel of the Fates, after all? It’s because it’s the duel for the fate of Anakin Skywalker. And as Qui-Gon loses, so too does Anakin. So too do the Jedi. So too does the Republic.