Okay, while rewatching The Phantom Menace this evening (actually, it was a year ago, in the run-up to the release of The Force Awakens, and Facebook Memories just found this for me), I’ve come with a fix to my problems with it. Yeah, okay, this film is sixteen (EDIT: seventeen now) years old, so this has probably already been done, but this is the one I wish Lucas had made.
(This post also has a two hour run time.)
I guess there are spoilers to follow:
While attending the negotiations between the Trade Federation and Naboo, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jin bring along their protocol droid and interpreter, C3P0 (because the Trade Federation guys don’t speak English at all, and very definitely not with a racist stand-up comedian’s idea of what a Chinese accent is). When the Trade Federation try and kill them, they flee down to the planet’s surface, where they meet Jar-Jar Binks, a well-spoken, highly-competent Gungan scout who is either a muppet or a human wearing really good prosthetics, because the director’s aware that fully-CG characters using 1999 technology won’t age well.
Jar-Jar is observing the droid army’s landing. Realising that Naboo is in danger, he agrees to take them to the Gungan king, Boss Nass.
Boss Nass isn’t as convinced, thinking he can stay underwater and wait for everything on the surface to calm down, but he lets the Jedi go on their way. They say goodbye to Jar-Jar Binks and go to Naboo City to rescue Queen Amidala and her bodyguards.
As in the original version, they flee Naboo for Coruscant, to tell the Senate what’s happened. During the flight, Threepio meets R2D2, the last remaining astromech droid on the queen’s flagship. Being the only two droids on board, they bond somewhat. Unfortunately, the damage suffered during the escape means they need to make repairs before they can get to Coruscant.
They land on Tatooine to sort that out, where Qui-Gon takes both droids into town to get spare parts, and one of the queen’s handmaidens tags along to experience life on Her Majesty’s behalf. There they meet a twelve-year-old boy, Anakin Skywalker (who is played by someone who won’t hate having been a movie star when he’s older, and who is old enough to convincingly play the older Anakin in Episodes 2 and 3), and his mother, who are both slaves owned by Watto, who most definitely is not a stereotypical Space Jew.
Qui-Gon immediately notices that Anakin is strong in the Force, something that just radiates from him because it’s GODDAMN MAGIC. The kid’s also managed to build his own fully-functional racing pod, which is an incredible feat of engineering for a child with very limited financial resources, even if he is owned by a guy who runs a spaceship spare parts shop. Even more incredible is that, unlike most humans, Anakin can actually drive the damn thing without smashing into the sides of the canyon walls.
Okay, Qui-Gon thinks, we need to get this kid back to Coruscant, because he could become a powerful Jedi Knight. (He’s definitely not The Chosen One though, because that’s just tacky and cliched, even in 1999. Anakin’s just really, really Forcey.) Qui-Gon makes a deal for the hyperdrive they need, but tries to buy Anakin as well. Watto says no, but Qui-Gon, having picked up over the conversation that Watto is something of a compulsive gambler, bets that Anakin will win the pod race. Watto says there’s no chance. Qui-Gon has a good feeling about Anakin’s Force abilities and stakes both C3P0 and R2D2, in exchange for Watto staking Anakin. (Watto draws the line at Anakin’s mother, even for two droids.)
In the meantime, Anakin and the handmaiden (okay, it’s secretly Queen Amidala because Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley are interchangeable) are bonding. This time around, Padme’s flirting with someone almost the same age as her, so it doesn’t count as grooming.
The pod race arrives, Qui-Gon gives Anakin a few tips on using the Force, and it’s all wrapped up in about five minutes of tense, tightly-scripted, racing, which Anakin wins. Watto is an honourable person and doesn’t try and weasel out of his debts like he would if he was a horrible racist stereotype that we somehow managed to not have during the Star Wars films made two decades earlier.
Anakin says goodbye to his mother and promises he’ll come back and free her and all the other slaves when he’s a Jedi Knight.
As they leave, Darth Maul arrives. Badass lightsaber fight occurs, in which Maul actually says a few things using the actual actor’s mouth, rather than poorly dubbing in Peter Serafinowicz later on. (Sorry, Mr Serafinowicz, you’ve got an awesome voice, so we’ll have the battle droids say more stuff to make up for it.) The Jedi get away.
Events proceed on Coruscant much as they do in the original version of the film. Senator Palpatine continues to be awesome.
The Jedi refuse to let Qui-Gon Jin train Anakin, because he’s actually old enough to be believably too old to start training. Qui-Gon decides he’s going to do it anyway, but doesn’t bother telling anyone except for Obi-Wan, whose training he declares complete.
On the way back to Naboo, after Amidala decides she needs to end the oppression of her people, Qui-Gon gives Anakin the basics in a nice little flashback/forward to how Obi-Wan teaches Luke in Episode 4, complete with the helmet with the poorly-designed visor.
On Naboo, they meet up again with Jar-Jar Binks. Turns out that Jar-Jar has been aiding the Naboo resistance in their campaign against the Trade Federation, against Boss Nass’s orders to remain neutral. When the Trade Federation turned on the Gungans, Jar-Jar was promoted to general, partly because of his foresight and skill at warfare, and partly because that’s how easy it is to advance up the military hierarchy in the galaxy far, far away (paging generals Solo and Calrissian…). The Gungans launch a diversionary assault against droid forces, leading to a battle in which all the close-up shots of droids or Gungans are stop-motion or actors respectively, because CG is still too primitive to do close-ups (Spielberg knew that in Jurassic Park, for god’s sake).
Anakin is deemed a decent enough pilot (what with his pod-racing experience) to accompany the orbital segment of the battle, which he does with extreme competence, eventually destroying the droid control ship in a way that isn’t even the slightest bit accidental. As in the original, he has R2D2 in his ship, but in general the parallels with his son’s first space combat are a bit more pronounced.
Meanwhile, Amidala and the Jedi infiltrate the palace to do their big damn hero stuff, and all this goes according to the original script. Qui-Gon dies, closely followed by Darth Maul, and Obi-Wan promises to continue Anakin’s training.
We get to the ending, there’s a bit of smiley chemistry between Amidala and Anakin during the ceremony at the end, and Jar-Jar is rewarded for his heroism in the Battle of Naboo by being made senator now that Palpatine is chancellor. The newly-knighted Obi-Wan reveals to the Jedi Council that Anakin is already partly-trained, so somebody better finish the job, and he did kind of promise Qui-Gon, and Yoda wouldn’t want him to break a promise, would he? Yoda reluctantly agrees to let Obi-Wan take on Anakin as an apprentice.
What could go wrong?
Cut to the Star Wars end theme.