StarWars.com celebrates the 20th anniversary of Episode I by asking two writers to defend what they feel is the best scene in the film.
One of the great things about Star Wars is that it inspires endless debates and opinions on a wide array of topics. Best bounty hunter? Most powerful Jedi? Does Salacious Crumb have the best haircut in the saga? In that spirit, StarWars.com presents From a Certain Point of View: a series of point-counterpoints on some of the biggest — and most fun — Star Wars issues. In this installment, two StarWars.com writers mark the 20th anniversary of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace by defending their favorite scene in the film.
Qui-Gon kneeling is an essential part of the best scene, the Duel of the Fates, says Lucas.
During their fateful duel on Naboo, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, and Obi-Wan Kenobi are separated between energy gates.
Like many of the best confrontations in Star Wars, the Duel of the Fates has its own contained narrative. Throughout the fight, Darth Maul repeatedly attempts to separate the two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. He finally succeeds, sending Obi-Wan far over a ledge within the massive generator plant, and leading Qui-Gon down a hallway filled with energy gates.
Good stories build suspense. For the lightsaber duel, George Lucas chose to halt the action when Qui-Gon, Maul, and Obi-Wan are each separated between the energy gates. Qui-Gon quietly kneels, closes his eyes, and breathes. Maul paces like a tiger. Obi-Wan, the farthest removed, hovers with expectation.
It’s a moment that brings an audience to the edge of their seats. It’s also a courageous move on the part of a director busily intercutting two epic battles, one in space and another on the fields of Naboo. Could such a contrast in energy work? Of course it can! And it’s not the only time George Lucas tried this.
The Star Wars saga is all about symmetry, sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle. One intention Lucas described was the symmetry between The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. It seems like a head scratcher at first, but the more one contemplates, the more plainly the similarities appear.
In this case, take the third acts of each film, themselves smaller three-act stories intercut between a ground battle (opposing nature and technology), a space battle (to destroy the source of that technology), and a lightsaber duel (serving as the emotional fulcrum of the story).
The Duel of the Fates sits opposite Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with the Emperor and Darth Vader. Each presents a heated saber fight, but also, intense quiet in contrast to the raging battles elsewhere. It keeps us close to the heart of the story lest we stray off-trail amid the action.
“Duality is one of the main themes of [The Phantom Menace],” Lucas explained in 1999, the same year The Phantom Menace was released. It’s found to varying degrees throughout the film, one literal sense being this separation of Qui-Gon and Maul in the penultimate moment of the duel. Their body language even contrasts, their expressions differ. No one speaks. It’s essentially a silent film. Qui-Gon is patient, immediately deactivating his lightsaber. Maul is dubious, running his blade into the energy gate to see for himself if it holds.
It’s only conjecture, but Qui-Gon probably knows the likelihood of his fate in this moment. It’d be a daunting realization to most, but a wise Jedi lets go, even of their own death. The presence of the moment demands focus.
Qui-Gon isn’t necessarily thinking here, but feeling, using his instincts, to borrow a phrase. He is ready. His bodily life is just one step along the way. It’s worth noting that we’ve lost the sweeping score from John Williams at this stage. Only faint trickles of music, like magic dust, remain. We have come to the heart of the temple.
For some time, we leave the warriors and check in with the other plot lines. Lucas stretches the tension as far as he can. But then finally, we return to the pacing and breathing. In the last seconds of this intermission, drumbeats echo as if part of some ritual. The gates open. Sabers ignite. Lucas cuts to a few frames of Qui-Gon opening his eyes. The dance of death resumes. The myth cycle plays out.
This scene is one of those wonderful moments to stop and enjoy the view of George Lucas’s mythology. Star Wars is often fast and fun, but it’s also slow and thoughtful.
The podrace is the greatest scene in the film, says Dan.
Lucas has done an excellent job of breaking down the Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan/Maul duel, and why it’s so successful. It’s a marvel of choreography, drama, and anticipation. It’s my favorite duel in all of Star Wars, and I’ve always especially loved the moment that Lucas calls out: “Qui-Gon Waits,” as unofficially dubbed by Star Wars author Jason Fry. But, ultimately, we’ve seen lightsaber duels before. When it comes to the best scene in The Phantom Menace, I’ll quote a Jedi Master: “There is another.”
The podrace sequence -- a fast and fun and original piece upon which the story and fate of our heroes completely hangs -- stands as the film’s finest scene.
Consider the set up: Their ship damaged, Qui-Gon Jinn, Padmé Amidala, R2-D2, and Jar Jar Binks head into Tatooine’s Mos Espa looking to acquire the needed parts. They find a junk shop owned by the shifty Watto (“Mind tricks don’t work on me. Only money!”), and in the process discover the alien’s slave, young Anakin Skywalker. Watto has the parts, but he won’t accept Qui-Gon’s Republic credits. With his new friends out of options, the selfless Anakin devises a plan: he’ll enter the Boonta Eve podrace with his own racer, Watto can pay the entry fee, and Qui-Gon’s share of the winnings will pay for the parts. Sure, Anakin’s never won a race, let alone finished one, but that’s neither here nor there. Qui-Gon has faith in him, and believes there’s something special about Anakin; indeed, he soon confirms that the Force is strong with the boy. Before the race, the Jedi Knight extends the stakes of the deal -- ultimately, if Anakin wins, he also wins his freedom, and will train to be a Jedi.
So there’s a lot riding on this race.
And then there’s the sequence itself, of course. To start, there are the podracers: two engines tethered to a rear, exposed cockpit. They’re super cool, strange, and each one is unique. Anakin’s podracer features slimmer engines and a curved seat chassis, with yellows and blues; the goofy Ben Quadinaros drives a podracer with four massive engines, which ultimately don’t serve him that well. Podracers are, to my mind, the dream vehicle of every kid and kid at heart.
George Lucas has always loved cars and racing, and I see this sequence as coming straight from his heart. That’s one reason the race itself is gloriously long -- he loves racing and wasn’t going to rush this.
Throughout the race, drivers tear through the course, a mixture of an arena filled with fans and rough desert terrain. Racing, in our world, is dangerous; in Star Wars, that takes on a whole new meaning, and it’s really, really fun. From a filmmaking perspective, it’s masterful, mixing first-person POV, wide shots, and driver closeups seamlessly, all while the action is screaming by.
The race comes down to Anakin and his rival, the villainous Sebulba, who has sabotaged the boy’s pod. When they’re finally neck and neck, Anakin’s racer begins to fail; but Anakin, “the best starpilot in the galaxy” as once described by Obi-Wan, is too smart and too good. He works around Sebulba’s cheat, and figures out a way to restore full power. He eventually catches up to Sebulba, and when the Dug tries to ram Anakin, their pods become locked. The impatient Sebulba tries to pull his racer free; Anakin waits for the right moment and floors it, tearing ahead, while the force of his move pulls Sebulba’s engines apart, leaving him at a full stop in the Tatooine sands. Anakin streaks forward toward the finish line, winning in exhilarating fashion.
The podrace encapsulates so much of what I love about Star Wars. It drives (pun kind of intended) the story forward with smart, character-building action. It’s weird. And there’s nothing else like it in Star Wars. All of these traits make it completely Star Wars. And that’s why it’s the best scene in The Phantom Menace.
Lucas O. Seastrom is a publicity writer at Lucasfilm. He grew up on a farm in California’s Central Valley and is a lifelong Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.
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