Hating Jar Jar Binks has officially become a hobby for cranky old people. Sunday, May 19 marks the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a movie that’s more relevant than ever now that we know Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker will bring back Emperor Palpatine.
As we look back at The Phantom Menace and share our favorite memes, it’s also a good time to think about how the first chronological film in the saga sets up huge questions that need to be answered in the final installment coming this year. If The Rise of Skywalker really is the end of a nine-part saga, then it’s time to go back to the start and figure out which mysteries raised by Episode I still remained unsolved, twenty years later.
Speculation for The Rise of Skywalker ahead. As well as vintage spoilers for The Phantom Menace.
Nobody every said figuring out Star Wars was easy. The great maker of the beloved saga, George Lucas, gave up on his unwieldy creation twice; once after 1983, and again, in 2012 when he sold Lucasfilm to Disney. We can speculate as to why the larger story arc of Star Wars has driven so many people mad, but it probably has something to do with the fact that the essence of Star Wars is to tell a simple story in the most complicated way possible.
Famously, in 1999, fans were getting the “beginning” of the Star Wars story, 16 years after most people thought the saga had ended with Return of the Jedi. Though numerous vintage interviews revealed Lucas had always wanted to do a “trilogy of trilogies” consisting of nine movies, once the prequels started happening, Lucas retroactively began claiming six movies would be the entire story. (To be clear, George Lucas changing his mind all the time and pretending like that’s always been the plan is part of why he’s a post-modern genius. He’s basically like if Han Solo was a screenwriter: lazy, adventurous, dishonest, and fun.)
The point is, 20 years after the debut of The Phantom Menace, and 14 years after Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars has had a life beyond Lucas. In fairness, outside of the prequels, this has always been the case: A New Hope featured several jokes inserted by future-Temple of Doom scribes Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, an early version of The Empire Strikes Back was written by fantasy novelist Leigh Brackett, and Lawerence Kasdan polished up both Empire and Return of the Jedi.
There have also been some rumblings that J.J. Abrams has consulted Lucas heavily on The Rise of Skywalker. So, Star Wars has frequently been a collaborative process with George Lucas lurking somewhere in the background, kind of like Darth Sidious manipulating everything that happens in all three prequel movies. Now that we know Darth Sidious (aka Emperor Palpatine aka Giggles the Sith) is back for for The Rise of Skywalker, it does seem like The Phantom Menace carries more weight than ever. After all, according to Lucas (in some interviews), Palpatine IS the literal Phantom Menace.
So, with that in mind, here are three questions set up in The Phantom Menace that could be finally resolved in Star Wars: Episode IX.
3. How Does the Force Get Balanced Again?
Relative to canon consternations, perhaps the most pivotal scene in The Phantom Menace is when Qui-Gon Jinn brings young Anakin Skywalker to the Jedi Council. Qui-Gon describes Anakin “vergence” in the Force, implying a heavy divergence is the status quo. Mace Windu talks about the “prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force.” Then, throughout the film, Qui-Gon insists this mythological person is Anakin.
George Lucas doubled-down on this in interviews in 2005, saying Anakin was the Chosen One, because he destroyed the Sith, meaning himself and the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. But, now that we know the Emperor was not entirely destroyed (he’s laughing like lunatic in the Rise of Skywalker trailer). So it seems like Anakin didn’t balance the Force at all.
Further, the beginning of The Force Awakens has Lor San Tekka saying that “without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force.” Presumably, by the time of the sequel trilogy neither the Jedi nor the Sith really exist anymore, meaning that even if Anakin destroyed the Sith, Kylo Ren and the Knight of Ren replaced them, but just don’t call themselves Sith.
The point is, in The Phantom Menace the prophecy was about “bringing balance to the Force.” But, by the time of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the prophecy was about “destroying the Sith” and “bringing balance to the Force.” Destroying one side of a conflict doesn’t seem like “balance,” at all. So what’s the deal? Was Obi-Wan wrong? Will Rey and Kylo Ren balance the Force in The Rise of Skywalker? If so, how?
2. Who is the Real Chosen One?
Along the same lines, the importance of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace relative to the other eight episodes of the Skywalker saga cannot be understated. As both Anakin and Darth Vader he’s literally the main character of six movies, and through Kylo Ren’s Vader-fandom, his presence looms large in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, too.
If Anakin/Darth Vader was not really the real “Chosen One,” then who is? In the past few years, there’s been a lot of debate about this point, and members of the Lucas Story Group have even gone on record to say that Anakin is still the Chosen One, no matter what Obi-Wan is muttering in the Rebels cartoons.
But how the hell does this work in a movie called The Rise of Skywalker that supposedly concludes events set-up by The Phantom Menace.? There’s no way the movie ends with a scene where Rey says: “Hey guys we have to balance the Force,” and then someone else says, “Oh yeah, Anakin Skywalker did that like 30 years ago,” and then Rey says, “Okay cool, let’s get some pizza.”
Without a wrinkle in the whole prophecy of the Chosen One, the story of The Rise of Skywalker probably won’t work. Then again, if Anakin really is the Chosen One, then the idea that he’ll show up as a spirit in The Rise of Skywalker makes a ton of sense. Who knows? Maybe the spirit of Anakin will possess Kylo Ren and become a hero again!
1. What Was Palpatine’s Plan Exactly?
Throughout nearly every Star Wars movie he’s in, Palpatine either alludes to advanced planning for his evil schemes, or straight-up says shit like “Everything is happening exactly has I’ve forseen.” But, just how far ahead did Palpatine plan?
In The Phantom Menace, it is made fairly plain that Palps creates the crisis on Naboo, which eventually gets him elected Supreme Chancellor. After that, we kind of know what happens: Palps turns the Republic into the Empire and starts wearing a black bathrobe almost exclusively. But what about after that? Just how far did Palpatine’s clairvoyance extend? Because if Palpatine did somehow survive being thrown into the reactor core of the Death Star by Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi, did he actually plan on that happening?
In other words, the return of Palpatine in The Rise of Skywalker is poised to make the entire saga a long-con perpetrated by Palps himself. And if that’s the case, then everything he does in The Phantom Menace might demand a closer look.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out everywhere on December 20, 2019.