Episode I opens with the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi arriving in orbit around the planet Naboo, in an attempt to open diplomatic discussions with the Neimoidians of the Trade Federation who have blockaded the planet. The Federation Viceroy, Nute Gunray, confers with his shadowy master Lord Sidious about what to do, and is ordered to kill the Jedi ambassadors. However, the Jedi are able to escape from their assassination attempts, and when they discover a waiting droid army in the ship’s hangar bays, they stow away on the landing craft as the Federation begin landing their droid troops.
On the planet, the droid invasion succeeds with a relatively bloodless coup, capturing Queen Amidala and her court easily. Gunray suggests that the Queen signs a treaty to legitimise the Federation’s occupancy of the planet, and at her refusal he tells her that the suffering to be inflicted on the planet will in time change her mind. However, before the Queen and her entourage are taken to a detention camp, the Jedi arrive to rescue her, along with the Gungan native Jar Jar Binks, who has sworn a life-debt to Qui-Gon after the Jedi rescued him out in the swamps. Qui-Gon suggests the Queen accompanies the Jedi back to Coruscant, where she can plead their case directly to the Senate. Leaving her courtiers behind, the Queen and her handmaidens manage to escape the blockade, although during their flight the ship was damaged and so they are forced to put down on the nearest world outside of Trade Federation control: Tatooine.
The desert planet doesn’t hold much hope for the party, but Qui-Gon discovers the parts they require to repair the vessel at the junk dealer Watto’s shop. However, Watto refuses to accept Republic currency, and proves resistant to Qui-Gon’s mind tricks. There, the Queen’s handmaiden Padme befriends a young slave named Anakin Skywalker, who later offers them shelter when a sandstorm blows in. During the storm, Anakin offers a way for the party to get the parts they need by gambling on a pod race that is scheduled to take place the following day. Anakin himself is a decent pod racer, so offers to pilot a pod for Qui-Gon, betting against the cost of the parts. Qui-Gon is intrigued by the boy, and under the guise of cleaning a cut he sends a blood sample to Obi-Wan back at the Queen’s ship, to be tested for his Force potential. The results are off the chart.
Darth Sidious has grown exasperated with the Trade Federation’s inability to get the treaty signed by the Queen, and so has sent his apprentice, Darth Maul, to track her. The Sith are able to track the Queen to Tatooine, and Lord Maul leaves at once for the Outer Rim.
Despite the efforts of his fellow competitors to sabotage the race, Anakin is able to win the pod race and so Qui-Gon gets the parts to repair the ship. Unbeknownst to Anakin, Qui-Gon had also contrived to release the boy from his slavery, although he unfortunately couldn’t do the same for Anakin’s mother. After a tearful farewell, Anakin and Qui-Gon return to the ship but are ambushed by Darth Maul, who fights a brief duel with Qui-Gon before the Jedi is able to flee on the newly-repaired vessel.
The party arrives on Coruscant and meets with Senator Palpatine and Chancellor Valorum, who has called for a special session of the senate to hear the Naboo case. Palpatine privately confides to Queen Amidala that the Chancellor has grown weak, however, and he does not think it likely the senate will support their cause as a result. He suggests that she call for a Vote of No Confidence in Valorum, and when the session pans out as Palpatine suspected, Amidala calls for the vote. Meanwhile, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan report back on their mission, informing them of the possibility that the Sith have returned, as well as his discovery of Anakin, who he believes to be the fabled Chosen One who was prophesied to restore balance to the Force. Upon testing him, the Council agrees that he is strong with the Force, but refuses to train him at the current time, as the diplomatic incident at Naboo is escalating and they need to focus their efforts there. The Council orders Qui-Gon to return to Naboo with the Queen, who has decided to take the fight back to the Trade Federation in the face of the lack of action on the part of the Republic.
The group are able to land on Naboo, as the blockade has been reduced to a single vessel now that the planet is occupied by the Federation forces. Queen Amidala asks Jar Jar to help her broker a peace between the human population and the Gungans, and it is revealed that Padme is in fact the Queen, who has been using her handmaiden Sabe as a body double. The Queen plans to use the Gungan army to draw the droid army away from the capital city of Theed, allowing for a small strike force to penetrate the Palace and capture the Viceroy, forcing the Federation to surrender. In order to minimise Gungan casualties, Queen Amidala further proposes to send the handful of pilots they have into orbit to destroy the droid control ship that is left there, which should shut down the army.
Everything begins to proceed according to this plan, however when Darth Maul ambushes the strike force in the palace hangar bay, the Jedi break off to deal with the Sith Lord while the Queen and her group are forced to take the longer route to the throne room. They are able to capture the Viceroy thanks again to Sabe acting as the Queen’s double, while Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan duel Darth Maul but become separated, and Maul is able to defeat Qui-Gon. Anakin, who had taken refuge in a starfighter, is taken into orbit by the autopilot but, once R2-D2 is able to override it, he accidentally flies into the Trade Federation vessel and launches a pair of proton torpedoes that destroy the reactor, starting the chain reaction to destroy the vessel and shut-down the droids on the planet. Obi-Wan is able to defeat Darth Maul, and with his dying breath, Qui-Gon requests for his erstwhile padawan to train Anakin as a Jedi.
At a ceremony to celebrate the defeat of the droid army, the Gungans and the human population of Naboo are formally brought together, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is formally given the rank of Jedi Knight. He is permitted to train Anakin Skywalker, despite the latter being too old by the Council’s standards.
I think it’s important to say that I have a tremendous amount of affection for the first movie in the series, despite its many flaws. I mean, it isn’t a cinema classic; at times it’s downright painful to watch, but even so, I can’t help but find myself enjoying it whenever I do watch it. When George Lucas came to write the Prequel trilogy, he wanted to make them feel like a spectacle, and give a sense of splendour and whatnot – to “blow open” the universe that we had seen in the original trilogy. The broad sweep of Naboo, Coruscant, even the podrace sequence on Tatooine. Everything feels much bigger than it did back in the original trilogy, even if there is perhaps an over-reliance on CGI effects to achieve this. Nevertheless, whereas the original trilogy had a lot of dirt and grime from places like Tatooine, Endor and Dagobah, it’s interesting to see the clean lines and fabulous grandeur of Naboo and Coruscant.
There are some fairly awkward moments along the way, though. I don’t particularly mind Jake Lloyd’s acting as Anakin – he is supposed to be a nice kid, after all – but many people seemed to hate him to the point where he pretty much gave up on acting as a career. It’s a similar story for Ahmed Best, who did the voice and motion capture for Jar Jar. In recent years, it has come to light how the vitriol from the fanbase caused him to suffer a severe depression, something which makes me really ashamed to call myself a Star Wars fan. The complaints made against this film are too many to go into, of course, but I just wanted to bring out these two in particular as I wanted to distance myself from those especially.
My principal issue with the film lies in the fact that we don’t really get the background to the trade dispute, from either the opening crawl or from exposition within the film. Indeed, it took a whole novel to give us this background, which came out a couple of years after the film. Lucas has stated many times that his original plan was to have his story broken down into chunks, and each chunk would be a trilogy of films – the middle chunk was the exciting action-adventure war story, which was filmed first, and the first chunk was always going to be a more political thriller kind of story, which he thought wouldn’t appeal as much. The fact that the film’s catalyst is a trade dispute was deemed to be boring back in the day, but personally I love the political thriller type of story, so wanted more, if anything!
The novelization of The Phantom Menace was written by Terry Brooks, of Shannara fame, and features a lot of material that was written specifically for the book. While there are many scenes that are lifted wholesale from the script, often with little to no additions beyond the dialogue, there are whole chapters that were never written for the film, where we see Anakin in his previous pod race, and going out into the Jundland Wastes to scavenge for scrap / barter with the Jawas for Watto. There is a famous section where Sidious broods on the history of the Sith (at the point in the movie when he has his little chat with Maul on the Coruscant balcony) and we get the first instance of the name Darth Bane. It’s always great to get these additional little bits and pieces that help to flesh out the story, and in the case of this particular book, Brooks and Lucas spent a long time thrashing out details to ensure that the additional material is as close to G-canon as is possible.
As far as cut scenes from the movie go, there are a number of scenes related to the pod race that were finished for the home video release, and added back in to the DVD release back in the day. For bonus content, we have the slightly unfinished waterfall sequence where Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar arrive at Theed City only to then almost drop over the edge of one of the waterfalls. There are a couple of Tatooine scenes, where Anakin gets into a fight with a young Greedo when he suggests Anakin cheated – meant to foreshadow Anakin’s anger issues – and another where Anakin says farewell to Jira, and Qui-Gon slices through one of Darth Maul’s probe droids, which at least explains why the two are running to the Queen’s ship just prior to Maul’s attack.
Interestingly, among the unfinished scenes shot for the film, we have Adrian Dunbar playing Bail Antilles of Alderaan, shown very briefly seconding the motion of No Confidence immediately after it is called. Dunbar was originally supposed to play Bail Organa, but the scene was cut, the name was changed, and Jimmy Smits was cast for the role in Episode II. It has led to some confusion since, however.
While the movie might not be my favourite from the franchise, I do still hold a lot of affection for it, and I think as far as the Prequels go, it’s one that I can still enjoy a great deal.