In hindsight of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, where Emperor Palpatine is once again threatening the galaxy from a hidden planet with a new even more massive and powerful fleet, it is fortunate that fans had an opportunity to witness the launch of Darth Sidious’ evil scheme by watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. In the waning decade of the Galactic Republic, a humble, shrewd, and optimistic Senator named Sheev Palpatine did his darndest to triumph the cause of his Queen and his planet who are tragically suffering from an occupation by the hands of the greedy and violent Trade Federation.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 to mixed to poor reviews. It was the first Star Wars in sixteen years, after 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Phantom Menace expanded the Saga a great deal, heaping upon the world such concepts as midi-chlorians, one of the franchises most popular villains, Darth Maul, and arguably the number two greatest song of the entire series, “Duel of the Fates” (second only to the “Imperial March,” of course). “Duel of the Fates” is the only Star Wars theme song to have lyrics and they are sung in Sanskrit to boot.
There are two schemes at play in The Phantom Menace conducted by Darth Sidious. Possibly three, but the third will be investigated later. The lesser scheme is instigating a crisis on Naboo that will lead to his election as Supreme Chancellor. Palpatine uses the droid occupation to convince Queen Amidala into toppling Supreme Chancellor Valorum. The major scheme is gloating to the Jedi Council that the Sith are still a living power in the universe. By this point in Jedi history, the Council is so weak in the force that they can only vaguely sense the dark side, even with Yoda as the central figure.
Qui-Gon Jinn explains his skirmish with Darth Maul on Tatooine to the Council, saying his adversary was trained in the ways of the force and likely a Sith. The Jedi Council does not believe him. They claim that the Sith have been extinct for a thousand years and even go so far as to think that they would easily have known about it if the Sith returned. Darth Sidious is so powerful that he can joyfully mock them by dangling Darth Maul in their faces. At the end of the film, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine comfortably attends the funeral of Qui-Gon Jinn. He confidently sits next to Jedi Masters Mace Windu and Yoda, who sense nothing amiss.
The first ten minutes of The Phantom Menace establish Sidious as the mastermind behind the conflict of the movie, ultimately the entire course of events right up to Episode Nine. The first time audiences see him, as a hologram in the hood of Darth Sidious, he commands the Neimoidians to begin the invasion and kill the Jedi ambassadors. This is his first and main face. The Trade Federation is greedy, weak-minded, and are being misled by Sidious into a greater plan they could never understand. To them, all of this is simply about leverage and taxation. Little do they know that they are disposable, miniscule pawns who will be destroyed by the end of the great game. They are the first move in the chess game. This conflict will be the root germ for the Confederacy of Independent Systems in the later Clone Wars.
After Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape the battleship to planet Naboo, Queen Amidala speaks to the hologram of Senator Palpatine, their representative and link to the Galactic Republic. This guise is the second face of Darth Sidious. Palpatine is the only one in a position to speak for the Naboo off-planet, but his transmission is jammed, signaling an invasion. She is being set up as the next pawn in his game. Palpatine has a seat in the Galactic Senate representing Naboo. A position he is exploiting to gain leverage over the child monarch.
Even Darth Maul is a piece on the board. Maul is a rook, able to move forward or sideways as ordered by his Master. He is sent to find Queen Amidala on Tatooine and bring her back to Naboo, knowing that he will come into conflict with the Jedi. Whether he defeats them or not, he is playing Darth Sidious’ carefully calculated hand. Using Maul against Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Darth Sidious is sending a clear message to the Jedi Council. He is teasing them for the havoc he will unleash in the future.
There is an unconfirmed theory, despite what the Darth Vader comic says, that Sidious is the force-father of Anakin Skywalker. If so, then this is the third scheme of The Phantom Menace, which is for young Ani to be discovered by Qui-Gon and inducted into the Jedi by Obi-Wan; A plant sent to infiltrate the Jedi and destroy them from within and a major part of Darth Sidious’ long game. If Anakin’s parentage is true, then we learn about an even deeper scheme launched by Darth Sidious, that of forging the strongest Sith pair ever in history. There are always two Sith, Master and Apprentice. With Anakin as Palpatine’s apprentice, he will have the strength necessary to establish the Galactic Empire.
In the first ten minutes of The Phantom Menace, we see Darth Sidious playing both sides of the board. He dupes and controls both the bad guys and the good guys. The Sith plot starts as a small circle on the planet Naboo then slowly expands, thickens, and entangles the entire Galaxy. He uses the Trade Federation to invade and terrorize Naboo, a move of hard power. Then he exerts subtle pressure on Queen Amidala to upend Valorum’s seat in the Senate, a move of soft power. The Battle of Naboo at the end of Episode One is the first strike that leads to the Clone Wars ten years later. The Clone Wars is the major conflict that leads to the creation of The Galactic Empire, which then grants The Emperor all the resources of the galaxy to make both Death Stars and force wielding clones of himself.
For a movie so often chided, it is the most important and most meaningful story that seeds the fates of every character and the entire conflict of the Saga. If it were not for the Trade Federation blockade, would Ani and Padmé have ever met? If Obi-Wan never split Darth Maul in half, would Darth Vader have ever cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand? Most seriously of all, if Qui-Gon never saved Jar Jar Binks from a droid tank, would Palpatine ever be given temporary emergency dictator powers in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? Despite some of the movie’s greatest flaws, it is an integral piece of the entire Star Wars Saga.
For a sect of the fandom, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a downward turning point for the franchise. For others, it is considered a cult classic. The regard for Episode One is considered a generational dispute between those who were raised on the Original Trilogy and those who were reared during the reign of the Prequels. The Phantom Menace was once ranked the worst-rated Star Wars film until the Disney trilogy. That title now belongs to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It will be interesting to see if that changes with the next generation in twenty years.