Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, released on May 19, 1999, is now 20 years old. And once older Star Wars fans get over that shock, the old arguments about the movie begin anew. After two decades, it is still a divisive film among Star Wars fans – but then, what topic isn’t a point of debate among the fanbase? Things have subtly shifted as a generation of kids who never knew a Star Wars galaxy without Episode I grew up to champion some of its merits. It also has writer/director George Lucas singing its praises 20 years after its release, as recently as last month’s Star Wars Celebration Chicago. In a video message to fans, he praised the movie’s groundbreaking visual effects and referred to is as “one of my favorite movies.”
Now, to an older Star Wars fan, that statement might sound absurd. The Phantom Menace is a bad movie in its own right. Currently, it’s a rotten 55% on the Tomatometer thanks to a bunch of new reviews that came in following a 2012 conversion to 3D, but even before that, it was squeaking by in the low 60s. Despite its technical achievements, it told an obscure story with thinly drawn characters. And so many political discussions.
But we’re not here to re-litigate the quality of the film. Instead, we want to examine Lucas’s fondness for it. While there’s certainly a paternal love he must have for all the films he personally directed – even Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – the film must have an extra-special place in heart for one key reason: The Phantom Menace is the purest Star Wars film ever made. That may also sound absurd, but join us on a trip back to the mid-1970s to learn how it most closely resembles Lucas’s original idea for a film he first called “The Star Wars.”
In the beginning, Lucas was a frustrated experimental filmmaker. More aligned with the avant-garde cinema emerging from France and the envelope-pushing films of contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius, the last thing Lucas wanted to do was make crowd-pleasers. According to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, Lucas thought it would be too easy. He proved himself right by making the extremely crowd-pleasing American Graffiti for Universal. In the wake of that success, he decided to roll the dice on making a science-fiction film like the Flash Gordon serials he enjoyed as a child. But when the rights to Flash Gordon proved to be unavailable, he simply fashioned his own space opera in a script called “The Star Wars.”
The plot of what is now known as the rough draft of “The Star Wars” told the tale of Annikin Starkiller, the son of an exiled Jedi Bendu warrior. After his family is discovered hiding on the fourth moon of Utapau and his brother is killed by the villainous Knights of the Sith, Annikin and his father Kane return to their home world of Aquilae. There, they aid Princess Leia in evading capture by forces from the New Empire, which wants to control the planet’s unique cloning technology. At the same time, Annikin becomes the Padawaan apprentice of the great Jedi Bendu warrior Luke Skywalker when Kane reveals he is mostly made of machine parts and cannot train his son properly. Soon, Annikin, Leia, and Luke – along with two droids – set off on a mission to find aid in the friendly Ophuchi system.
Their path takes them from the Aquilae royal seat to a seedy spaceport (with a very familiar cantina) to a perilous meteor belt to the planet Yavin, where Skywalker teaches hairy giants called Wookees to fly disused snub fighters. In Skywalker’s mind, the gambit is the only way to defeat the Empire’s new space fortress in orbit above Aquilae, where Leia ends up as a prisoner. Annikin mounts his own rescue mission and finally comes face-to-face with a deadly Knight of the Sith named Valorum. The Sith Knight is swayed by Annikin and the pair save Leia from the quickly crumbling space station. With the crisis averted, Leia becomes Queen of Aquilae and appoints Annikin as Lord Protector of the planet.
The ideas all sound familiar – particularly the ones lifted from Hidden Fortress. The names are certainly recognizable from the six Star Wars films Lucas developed. And in subsequent interviews – including one conducted by Leonard Maltin for the final VHS release of Star Wars in its original form – Lucas would say he took a look at the script and saw it was just too big for what he could realize on a 1970s budget. His solution was to cut the script into thirds and redevelop the first act into something more practical. Although, even a cursory glance at “The Star Wars” plot reveals he imported the destruction of the space station to his first film. It was the right impulse, as it is a crowd-pleasing ending.
But even as Star Wars developed into the phenomenon it became, Lucas never really let “The Star Wars” go.
Like “The Star Wars,” The Phantom Menace cuts a strange circuitous route around the galaxy. It begins with two Jedi Knights, roughly analogous to Luke Skywalker and Annikin Starkiller, on a mission to prevent war between the peace-loving planet of Naboo and the Trade Federation. When their peace talks fail, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) decides to bring the Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman) to the galactic capital in an attempt to get the central government to intervene. When that fails, she decides to return to Naboo and mount a defense of her planet. An orbiting control ship with a resemblance to the space station described in “The Star Wars” is destroyed by an unlikely starfighter pilot.
While all Star Wars films feature a certain amount of planet-hopping, the loop back to Naboo to resolve the plot is unique to The Phantom Menace, even as it echoes the structure of “The Star Wars.”
And while we’re noting similarities in plot and structure, both that script and The Phantom Menace also feature a Jedi and the representative of a benevolent monarchy crossing the stars and failing to find aid in a supposedly sympathetic star system. The revival of these ideas cannot be an accident.
The script and the film also share a scope not seen in the Original Trilogy. Those films featured two key locales with an occasional third sketched out. “The Star Wars” and The Phantom Menace feature multiple worlds rendered with astonishing specificity. As we know from DVD special features, realizing these worlds on the scale Lucas always envisioned for “The Star Wars” was a key ambition in developing The Phantom Menace. And when you compare the startling grandeur of Coruscant and Naboo to the scrappier vision of Mos Eisley spaceport, the Moon of Yavin IV – and even the Death Star in Star Wars – it is easy to see why he was always a little disappointed in that film even as it changed the world. The Phantom Menace represents the galaxy as he saw it while writing alone at his typewriter all those years ago.
Unlike the final forms of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, “The Star Wars” and The Phantom Menace share an obvious love of the Flash Gordon film serials. Both envision worlds of people wearing capes and fine robes. But since the Flash Gordon films were made on the cheap, those serials only suggested a world of lavish production design to future filmmakers like Lucas. Also, the wooden acting, hard-to-parse names, and political maneuverings among all the action scenes are elements “The Star Wars” and The Phantom Menace share with Flash Gordon.
While Hidden Fortress gave him a plot to emulate, Flash Gordon served as the visual starting place for Lucas while writing “The Star Wars.” The sparser landscape of Utapau recalls the California deserts used in those serials, while Aquilae (and later Naboo) could easily be seen as another vision of Ming the Merciless’s opulent throneworld. As “The Star Wars” became Star Wars, Lucas’s universe became more rundown and utilitarian. It was an aesthetic he ultimately came to admire and promote, but his wish to realize the worlds his child-mind envisioned while watching Flash Gordon never waned. When it finally became feasible to do so, he employed an army of artists to make those places as awe-inspiring as his imagination viewed the Kingdoms of Mongo.
This is also why there is a certain artificiality to them. While the worlds of Star Wars are credible and relatable, Naboo and the descriptions of Aquilae ultimately lack a certain reality. It’s an unfortunate inheritance from the plywood sets and backdrop paintings of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. But when one can accept that aspect of the aesthetic, there is beauty to appreciate.
The realization of fantastic environments was not the only technical limitation hobbling Lucas’s plans for “The Star Wars.” Roughly 30 pages into the script, Skywalker goes to a cantina at the Gordon space port where he meets up with one an old friends: Han Solo. But the character is nothing like the charismatic rogue we know today. In the script, he is described as a reptile-like Ureallian with green skin, no nose, gills, and large eyes. The creature clearly has more in common with the reviled Gungan Jar-Jar Binks than the Corellian ace who flew the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
Because of his interest in pushing cinema forward, an interest that went back to the first time he picked up a camera, Lucas couldn’t help but set up incredible challenges for himself in writing “The Star Wars.” Han was meant to be a featured character, but the creature as described in the script would require another 20 years worth of special effects advancements to be even remotely feasible. In subsequent drafts, Han would split into two characters and change considerably. The Solo character became human and inherited some traits from Annikin – who was himself on a journey to becoming the Luke Skywalker we know today – while Lucas’s desire to feature an alien as part of ensemble would see the “Wookee” Chewbacca promoted from a relative guest-starring spot late in “The Star Wars” to Han’s co-pilot.
Nonetheless, he never stopped trying to make his original vision for Han Solo a reality. While filming Star Wars, he shot a now-infamous scene featuring gangster Jabba the Hutt. Though performed by actor Declan Mulholland on set, his intention was always to paint over the performance with a stop-motion creature. This proved unfeasible and the scene was scrapped until the 1997 Special Edition of the film. On The Empire Strikes Back, he took a different direction in creating a key alien character by hiring Muppet stalwart Frank Oz to help devise and perform Jedi Master Yoda. In Return of the Jedi, Lucas re-imagined Jabba as a large-scale Muppet. But even beyond these featured characters, every alien in the Mos Eisley Cantina, the Ugnaughts of Cloud City, and even Jedi‘s Ewoks represented attempts to create realistic yet alien characters he could seamlessly integrate into his cast.
“The Star Wars” never gets too in-depth about the Jedi Bendu – they resemble the wandering samurai of the Akira Kurosawa pictures Lucas came to love in film school. Instead of an all-binding Force, the script’s vague religion refers to a more ambiguous “Force of Others” with both the Jedi and the Sith described as accomplished fighters lacking entirely for special abilities. Nonetheless, the relationship between Skywalker and Annikin more closely resembles the Master and Apprentice roles of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) in The Phantom Menace than the ultimate relationship between Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) and Luke (Mark Hamill) in Star Wars. That is to say a direct mentoring relationship.
Clearly, this notion remained in Lucas’s mind through the invention of both the prequel-era Jedi Order and the Sith in the mid-1990s. In both disciplines, the bond between teacher and student was key.
While it is unclear if the Lucas who wrote “The Star Wars” was thinking of a continuing story, the Lucas preparing Star Wars in 1976 planned for Obi-Wan to continue mentoring Luke in a subsequent film. But just before Guinness accepted the role, Lucas wrote a new scene in which Obi-Wan died, recalling Kane Starkiller’s sacrifice in “The Star Wars.” Going into production, Lucas remained uncertain about the character’s fate – it would become a point of contention between the actor and the director throughout filming.
But in ultimately altering his plans for Obi-Wan, the intended teacher/student relationship from “The Star Wars” would not be seen until Qui-Gon warned a much younger Obi-Wan to be mindful of the living Force in one of their earliest moments together in The Phantom Menace. With its arrival, the strong bond between a Jedi Master and their Padawan became a key element in Star Wars storytelling. Lucas and Star Wars: The Clone Wars executive producer Dave Filoni would go one step further with this idea by introducing Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, and making their relationship a major focus of the show.
The Phantom Menace would also turn this essential idea on its head by revealing there are only two Sith Lords at any given time: a master and an apprentice. A definite innovation as the evildoers in “The Star Wars” – a Darth Vader more like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) than the masked character voiced by James Earl Jones, a scheming council of bureaucrats, and a narcissistic Emperor named Cos Dashit – are some of the least developed ideas in the entire script. But the Sith, as realized in The Phantom Menace, still derives from a concept first expressed with Skywalker and Annikin.
The Phantom Menace will never be the movie a lot of Star Wars fans want it to be. In fact, no version of Episode I could ever live up to the hype and speculation accrued over the 16-year break between it and Return of the Jedi. But it is the purest form of the story George Lucas was always trying to tell: a Flash Gordon–inspired epic of space knights trying to defend a benevolent monarch from an encroaching tyranny. Perhaps in trying to recreate that story within the established Star Wars framework hobbled it. Or, perhaps, the story was always just too idiosyncratic with its various influences and technical challenges to work in the way the more spartan Star Wars did for viewers across the years. And yet, Lucas managed to finally realize that original creative spark with as few compromises as possible. Whether you think the end result is good or bad, Fresh or Rotten, there is something to admire in that pursuit as well.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was released in theaters May 19, 1999