Episode 1: Star Wars the Battle of Naboo (a.k.a The Phantom Menace).
For this review I’m just going to provide a commentary transcript. I’ve decided that this isn’t a film deserving of a Red Letter Media style expose. In fact, I think there are a few simpler explanations for the rather Disney-esque feel to this film. It was a Disney film even though it predated the Disney takeover.
The opening scroll presents the alarming idea that there has been an alarming chain of events.
I’ll summarise the whole movie here, because it avoids the need to keep asking “Why?” so often. First, some heavily weaponised group called the Trade Federation stops trade with a small outer rim planet called Naboo, then invades it and starts the Battle of Naboo. The Trade Federation lose, mostly because of the good luck of an adopted Jedi pilot kid, and that’s the End. Wars have been fought over less I suppose, but even Qui Gon Jin (“QGJ”) described it as a ‘trivial’ thing.
It truly is an alarming trade dispute because the movie occurs without any of the participants, particularly the Trade Federation, having any obvious motive. Here on earth, trade federations are probably collections of traders, and if there is a bad tax, well you should take it up with the tax creators rather than your trading partners or clients or whatever Naboo is. Why Naboo has to suffer and become party to the invasion or do anything else is never explained at all. Is the plight of one planet enough to get the whole galaxy upset? It’s enough for the Chancellor to send a couple of Jedi knights to get things moving on Naboo again.
[THE TRADE DORKS LACK OF MOTIVE]
The Trade Dorks are a bit nervous about proceeding with the blockade, even before being pressured to start the invasion. Why should they be apprehensive when they’ve invested in armies and weaponry and are apparently “Battle Hardened”? They’ve entered into a deal with a Dark Lord of the Sith but we don’t know what that deal was. Who cares about motivations? I do.
As soon as the Jedi arrive outside Naboo, the not-so-mysterious Dark Lord of the Sith tells theTrade Dorks to kill the Jedi and put the troops on Naboo. Why did they wait? Why are they taking orders from this guy? I don’t know. Naboo don’t want to legalise an invasion. Do the Trade Dorks have a sideline in genocide? None of these political or commercial matters make any sense in the movie. The lack of deliberation downplays the moral choices being made.
This movie should have been called “TomorrowLand” or the “Battle for Naboo” or “Psychopathic Trade Dorks” or something obvious. At least it would have given it a focus. If the “Phantom Menace” is referring to Palpatine all along, why does he harbour this dislike of his own planet? Even after Return of the Jedi we are no wiser. If it’s just part of his no-confidence trick to become Chancellor, then it’s unnecessary to follow through because that plan is a success even before the Battle of Naboo commences.
Calling the film the ‘Battle of Naboo’ would remind people that there is always a battle scene in a Star Wars film. Are we supposed to care about the Gungans and Trade Dorks in the Battle of Naboo? I don’t think we’re inclined to; as official representative of the Gungans Jar Jar Binks is not a great ambassador. I don’t think we feel the need to know the outcome of this battle in the same way care for the Rebel plot to get rid of the Death Star in Episode IV. The Battle of Naboo might as well be a McGuffin moment: all of it is pretext for putting some Jedi into action, but the Jedi spend most of their time sorting out their own affairs and battling the Sith. QGJ’s arc: adopt Anakin, get rid of Obi Wan, lose to the Sith and then get out of the movie.
So what about Jar Jar Binks (JJB)? There’s one reason he’s there: there’s no C3PO for comic relief. The big problem is that C3PO is unfinished and so will be stuck on Tatooine. There’s no opportunity for banter between him and R2D2. It makes sense that JJB is a Gungan because it allows him to keep up the gags during the climactic Battle of Naboo. But do we need gags then? No. They feel out of place, and confuse the tone of the scenes.
Now this is the problem: JJB is chosen to be a self-sufficient comic, but he gets no time-outs for scenes by himself, as C3PO and R2D2 did. The mis-step is that he becomes part of all the main scenes, instead of being part of the subplot and comic asides. He’s inside the action instead of providing commentary and distance. In Star Wars, C3PO is not making jokes whilst the battle for the Death Star is on. He knows his place.
JJB’s life debt to QGJ is little more than an excuse to keep him in the picture. It comes about because Qui Gon saved him from a serious chance of a Darwin Award for running in front of a hover tank. Here, QGJ has to consciously acknowledge JJB, and often he’s not needed. He certainly doesn’t save QGJ’s life, that’s for sure, and he’s never in a position to do so.
The Jedi then travel to the other side of the planet in a ‘journey to the centre of Naboo’ voyage, which lacks a lot of sense. Their ultimate destination is the city of the human-looking inhabitants for whom the planet is named. Tough luck Gungans. It turns out that the Trade Federation originally had no idea what was going on under the sea, and ironically the Gungans seem to bear the brunt of the later battle. As for symbiotic relationships between the Naboo and the Gungans, it’s hard to see what that means at all.
[TO CORUSCANT VIA TATOOINE]
For some reason, the Trade Federation stops all communications with the Republic, and wants to invade secretly.
Perhaps the communication blackout is just a plot point to justify Padme and the Jedi going back to Coruscant for some more scenes there. We have a needless discussion about R2D2’s heroics on the ship as it makes its voyage to the galactic centre. Paranoid Padme has gone undercover again, and QGJ knows nothing about her duplicity. She seems to have the same powers as Senator Palpatine. These Naboo really are mysterious: Padme also has no idea why JJB is on board, even though it’s her ship.
Apparently the communication breakdown is not so severe that the Dark Lord of the Sith can’t find out what is going on in the outer rim. So he sends Darth Maul to Tatooine to make sure Queen Amidala will sign a treaty. Curiously, Maul does nothing for a while, long enough for Anakin to perform in a ridiculously dangerous pod-race (where only Jedi-esque humans can compete), and be freed as a slave, but without his mother. If he’s the only human who can compete because only his force powers give him the necessary reaction speed, then the Jedi ought to recruit a lot more non-humans. The time taken for this detour to Tatooine and the pod race seems more than necessary, except to indulge the myth that Anakin was always a good pilot. QGJ wasn’t really interested in freeing slaves, and he said so. He can make an exception for someone who can become a Jedi though. Bad luck Schmi, better luck in Episode 2.
“I’ll watch out for Anakin” says QGJ to Schmi, unaware that despite his Force ability to see things before they happen he’ll soon be unable to do so, because he’ll be dead. So much for JJB’s life debt promises.
Only when they return to the ship and the Anakin backstory has been completed does Darth Maul first try to destroy the Jedi. He fails, because it seems he can’t jump as high as QGJ onto a spaceship when it counts.
Palpatine is waiting when Padme and Team Jedi arrive back at Coruscant. The leader of the Senate, Valorum, doesn’t seem to have a position on the dispute at Naboo. He is having a dream about being General Zod. QGJ goes off to speak to the Jedi Council.
Meanwhile, Palpatine says it’s all too hard to get any intervention for Naboo from the Senate. Padme speaks like a robot. Does she know that melancholy doesn’t suit her? Why doesn’t anyone else ask her what’s wrong with her voice?
In the Senate, Palpatine states the obvious, namely that the taxation is the start of all this trade dispute and sits down. The Trade Federation adopt the strange position of denying they are invading Naboo. Why don’t they just call for an adjournment and talk about the treaty? Why do they need to do it in secret on Naboo? For some reason there is still no good intelligence at Coruscant on this issue, even though the movie starts with two Jedi (Obi Wan Kenobi, hereinafter OWK; and QGJ) being sent to Naboo to resolve the blockade. Padme falls for Palpatine’s suggestion to move a no-confidence motion, and he slips deviously into the position of Supreme Chancellor.
Anakin passes his Jedi gameboy test with Mace Windu using the same iPad design that everyone out at the outer rim pod race was using to watch the race. Despite being remote, Tatooine must still have good JB Hi-Fi or Apple Stores. QGJ hears about it and devides he will train Anakin if no one else will.
On the eve of going back to Naboo, QGJ has time to convey some information to Anakin on the tarmac about the Force then he and Padme head back to Naboo. They take Anakin, of course – why wouldn’t he be safer elsewhere?
Sidious has not force-choked Maul for his failure to kill the Jedi; he simply sends him off to Naboo. Maul doesn’t seem like the talkative type, ready to get someone to sign anything. Palpatine says he’ll make sure nothing happens at the Senate. Why would it?
[BATTLE FOR NABOO]
Padme has decided to return to her people, and as a result, is talking like a robot again, in her spaceship, even before she arrives at the planet. This might be a royal thing, but it’s annoying.
On arrival, Amidala and the Jedi can’t find the Gungans. They are actually at the sacred place (a bit like the Tree of Souls in Avatar). Good on you JJB for pointing that out to everyone. But JJB misses the next trick as Padme slips out of her queen role into being one of the handmaidens. Why was it necessary for Padme to deceive even the Gungans? She seems as equally paranoid on Naboo as on Coruscant. What dark secrets lie in her past that make her such a wanted woman? She seems the only personality-shifting leader in the Galaxy (apart from Palpatine that is: it seems to be a Naboo thing)
If you think the Gungan leader is mad, it helps to remember it’s really just Brian Blessed being his usual rumbunctiously loud self, complete with cheek wobbling. If he’d appeared in his own likeness with Beard, I think it would have given the role greater gravitas, Blackadder style.
The good thing is that Padme, having revealed herself as the Queen, largely stops using the stupid robot voice for the rest of the film. She also is prepared to go into Battle without any identity concealment, even though her life is probably in danger more often. Padme’s plan is to capture the Viceroy. “Get the Leader” strategy. She doesn’t have much of a backup plan, and this simple plan is her masterstroke, in her own mind: ‘everything depends on it’ she assures everyone.
Palpatine clarifies that the invasion does not involve any taking of prisoners. He instructs the Trade Federation to wipe out all the Gungans, or Naboo, maybe both.
The Gungan army finally emerges out of the mist in a scene reminiscent of the well-received Phantom Menace Trailer. By this stage all of the good feelings associated with seeing that trailer have been forgotten. The Gungans, surprisingly, have hi-tech shields and weapons and are ready to meet their opponents on the very short, grassy plain well suited to marching droid animations. Presumably, it is short because there are herds of grazing animals or groundskeepers just out of sight. In Episode 2 we’ll see some frollicking in much longer grass.
Meanwhile, at the Naboo palace, QGJ encourages Anakin to hide – as if it wasn’t obvious this would not be a safe place to bring a small kid.
The Trade Dorks watch an on-screen display that looks like the next edition of ‘Battle for Naboo” game or something. Are they doing anything? The strategy looks fairly simple: drive forward.
In the palace, Padme does a good job of running around looking busy. Her plan is still pretty simple – find the Viceroy.
The two Jedi meet up with Darth Maul who seems to have little direct interest in the Queen because he is more concerned to have his “revenge” on the Jedi.
Anakin ends up piloting a ship in space, putting into doubt QGJ’s ability as an adoptive parent/Jedi Master. Is it just me or does the general audience not really care how he does this? Anything goes for Anakin in cartoonish fashion.
Meanwhile, in the Gungan army, JJB is in the middle of the battle being the stand-in for the foolish C3PO who is unavailable for the cringeworthy comic gags.
Near Naboo city, there are grappling hooks at the ready as Padme gets nearer the Viceroy, who is obviously staying in the Penthouse very high above the ground.
The place where the Jedi fight Darth Maul is so awesome and Death-Star like you might forget it is on a peaceful planet shared by fashion-loving humans and weird amphibians. It has that fascist industrial look that is found nowhere else on Naboo.
The Battle of Naboo continues. Substitute some ice for grass, and AT AT for the silly droid machines and you have something like the Battle of Hoth: lots of people running around as the main attack craft try and mow them down.
Anakin continues to fly his plane with kid-sized goggles, helmet and earmuffs. His force powers are so strong, he can have helmets made before they are needed.
Unfortunately, QGJ dies at the hands of Darth Maul. Obi Wan subsequently shows a lot of emotion for a Jedi, and perhaps, like Rey in A Force Awakens, gets a bit of an advantage over Darth Maul as a result.
Padme arrives at the ViceRoy’s presence, and the game is up. More fake Amidala, and the other girl begins using the monotonic robot voice this time. Switch to Padme using a little bit of the robot tone with the Viceroy.
Darth Maul gets the better of OWK fairly easily with a force push thing, something he should have tried earlier instead of all that messing around with lightsabres.
Meanwhile, Anakin blows things up above the planet and takes down the droid army control as a result. So the Battle of Naboo is won by a kid that says “so this is pod racing, wooo!” The trade federation command ship explodes like a smaller version of the Death Star. Poetry.
Darth Maul slashes away at the metal floor above OWK a bit like Ren in Force Awakens. Obi Wan rises and slices Maul in half. How could anyone survive that fall into a pipe, that looks a lot like the one in cloud city?
More emotion from OWK and QGJ. “He is the chosen one. He will bring balance” says QGJ in his dying words. Sure will: half human, half machine.
It turns out that the Jedi and the Sith are really on the periphery of the Battle of Naboo, in that they are more concerned about fighting each other than with particular battle milestones. The Jedi Council think that two jedi can handle it. Well, the main Jedi result for the Battle of Naboo is the little Jedi pilot kid, who did more than Padme’s dubious strategy of taking the Viceroy. So it’s the Jedi that save the day, once again.
Palpatine arrives on Naboo, looking happy and not worried about the loss of Darth Maul at all.
He promises peace.
Yoda makes OWK a Jedi Knight in a surprisingly informal and solitary ceremony.
For some reason, this significant event occurs on Naboo and that’s why there is no sign of the Jedi Council. Yoda must have been in a hurry. Maybe you can’t have padawans running around without a master. They argue about training Anakin, but it’s a waste of time as only Yoda has dissented to that suggestion now.
They’re burning the body of QGJ on Naboo and watching at close range. He must smell a bit, in those close confines. To pass the time in what is obviously an uninteresting process, OWK and Annakin have time to chat about being a Jedi, and Yoda and Mace chat about the Sith. Now the interesting thing here is that everyone has had time to get to Naboo. So you’d think that Yoda could have waited to make OWK a Jedi. The ceremonial cutting of the hair and so on.
Brian Blessed as Gungan leader and JJB both get the final opportunity to yell some throaty nonsense, and it looks like that will end the dialogue for the film, until R2 beeps. Unfortunately, C3PO is not there to translate. Then there’s a big photo opportunity for the surviving cast, just like at the end of Star Wars.
Goodnight and Goodluck!