In Defense of Star Wars—The Phantom Menace

Star Wars contains within it two contrasting notions – the childlike sensitivity of a film that tries very hard to be adventurous and the Taoist calm required to wonder why you would go on an adventure in the first place. George Lucas is deathly serious about visual innovation (delaying his prequels for decades until computers could catch up with his imagination) but not about balancing this essential contradiction, which goes back to the original two films, the first which was made as philosophy for children (at the 40 Years of Star Wars Panel, he called Star Wars, "A film for twelve-year-olds" which is about "Friendship, honesty, trust, and doing the right thing") and the second which was made by someone else in the hope of propelling those children into mysticism and revelation. Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace seems to be Lucas' attempt to turn the clock back to that other, simpler time. It was concocted in a setting so clinical by Lucas’ unrestrained imagination that his conscious control rivals that of the great auteurs, of Buster Keaton or Orson Welles. Lucas said in an interview that his mindset was to say, “No matter how outrageous, I’m just gonna see if I can pull it off.” The film certainly reflects this design, both in the wonderment of its vistas and in the bankrupt economy of its unedited vision.

If the opening of Star Wars is an oxygen-rich breath of visual storytelling, The Phantom Menace hyperventilates in literal exposition. In words and pictures, it immediately overexerts, as though the audience belongs to a species the movie doesn't recognize, with whom it doesn't quite know how to communicate. In 1977, we were introduced to a blatant battle of resources between an empire whose reach extended as long as a battlecruiser and an underprivileged rebellion skimming in enemy fire and unable to escape. In other words, we got the story through images. The Phantom Menace is more talkative but less informative: we hear words like “trade dispute,” “blockade,” “negotiation,” and we are introduced to characters before contextualizing them by the situation. Star Wars never had so much babble.

I admire the kernel of inspiration at the heart of this setup: to place the universe in context, a textual framework that can be built around the old material (beginning the titular star war, for example, as legal proceedings manipulated into conflict by an ambitious politician). This is so much braver than what J. J. Abrams did with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which instead of attempting to refine Lucas’ scheme of visual storytelling relegated anything risky or new to the opening text. The title crawl of The Force Awakens is the only establishment we ever receive for how Episode VI became Episode VII, since the movie itself was manipulated to conveniently take place in a universe where all the pieces are aligned for an exact copy of Star Wars. Abrams achieved the impossible, as far as this fan is concerned: with sheer corporate sleaze he made me miss the sloppy, misplaced, childlike creativity of these prequels.

Yet even though the story has context, it constantly strangles itself in its own threads. A forensic analysis of The Phantom Menace would require such point-by-point detail that this review would be longer than the script, as characters take such backward logic as the shortest distance between pre-written script points that nothing, of great or little consequence, makes the slightest sense in The Phantom Menace. People go places and do things, not because it makes sense for them to do so, but because they must for the sake of the plot. The smallest details confound me, as in the fact that all the Jedi act like Sir Alec Guinness did: distant, aloof, and monkish, as though the one Jedi we’ve seen must be the template for the whole order. I always assumed he was just a wry British actor with zero passion for his material; the aloofness translated magically into withdrawn wisdom. Now all Jedi are Xeroxes of someone who said of Star Wars, "Apart from the money, I regret having embarked on the film." This is what happens when you're a screenwriter with imagination but no creativity.

With such dislocated details, even the pretentious effects excitement can become alien and uninviting. A race over Tatooine’s sandy wasteland tempts to be exciting, for instance, but the tension is unraveled by the contrivances that lead up to it. A confusing, multi-tiered bet by stoic Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) leads him to enter the race on a blatant lie. Before that, the backwards logic of a queen (Natalie Portman), CGI companion Jar-Jar Binks, and robot R2-D2 wandering around getting sand in their trundles allows them to find young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who solves their problem on a whim (“We must not attract attention,” someone says, as those that are helpless and clumsy wander out into the sands while the responsible and professional personnel stay behind, for no good reason). From the path the Jedi take across Naboo, to finding Anakin, to fighting the robot army at the film’s climax, the infamously awkward slapstick in The Phantom Menace isn’t merely annoying – it infects and debilitates the film’s exciting parts, alienating any possible investment in the story by directing its plot in reverse, as though everyone’s read the script already and tries to make tripping into the next plot look as convincing as possible. But remember that this is the series that solved its entire trilogy with a build-a-bear planet ("for twelve-year-olds"). Our modern response seems to be to make it more acquiescent, rather than better. That’s how we got The Force Awakens. And it's why I'd much rather take The Phantom Menace.

This practice of hamming everything up so much that it no longer makes sense applies equally to every line of dialogue, which is not merely butchered by actors as ignorant of their context as in Ed Wood’s old one-take wonders, but which seems to predict the script’s future without any context to do so. For instance, the Jedi council refer to Anakin as being surrounded by a feeling of “grave danger.” This is because Lucas, when writing this film, knows that Anakin will of course become Darth Vader, and not because there is any pretext in this film for that to be the case. Every situation unfolds in this reverse logic; only things that are important to us viewers have any presumed importance in the story. The “prophecy” offered in The Phantom Menace as an explanation is really only our desire to see Star Wars stuff given a hasty and convenient name in the script. The council authorizes the training of Anakin despite sensing great danger because at some point he really does have to become Darth Vader. “But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future,” young Obi-Wan pleads. “Not at the expense of the moment,” his master replies. Lucas wrote it but he didn’t hear it.

Thus, original characters like Anakin, R2-D2, and C-3PO are picked from a crowd as by some force of pre-destiny to adorn Episode I’s cluttered toy shelf. The exception is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), mysteriously relegated to the sideline of a film that should have featured him, and not merely for the actor’s wasted talent but for his potential as a more sensible protagonist to The Phantom Menace. Instead, we get Jake Lloyd’s excruciating Anakin, made exertive and unlikely by combining his babyish acting with his overblown relevance in a universe that, admittedly, always did have trouble negotiating between space opera and space sitcom. And like the recycling of old faces, recognizable elements like the lightsaber and starship become bawdy and artificialized while the story dies in stasis. What once dazzled with internalized energy is now a series of fixtures in a sterile, epileptic series of colorful video game images and static references.

Everyone complains about the midichlorians, the reveal in The Phantom Menace that the Force comes from microscopic lifeforms that reside in living cells. But these are merely the name given out of necessity to the decision in Return of the Jedi to make the Force hereditary: that was the moment that these prequels became misguided, because it introduced the opportunity to have a genetic chosen one in a series about ragtag adventurers. That's something the fans have argued about so much that I think they've finally rationalized it.

But trivializing the Force is peripheral to the larger issue in The Phantom Menace – that the script has been composed in reverse of Lucas’ expectations of his fan’s desires. It’s not enough that Anakin is strong in the Force by design, but that Lucas believed we wanted to see how. And he wasn’t wrong – The Phantom Menace did no shirking at the box office. But the creative energy that once pushed an innovative film past a studio system unprepared for it now seems to be too enabled by that very system to be reliably artistic, too unrestricted in its medium to be thought-out, and too restricted by the series’ past to resist being tacky. Disney has brought this prophecy to more blatant fruition than I could have feared.

But Welles and Keaton made masterpieces with this kind of full control. The greater impediment than absolute power would seem to be the need to be liked by everyone. People accuse Lucas of abandoning his fans with these prequels, but I don’t think this is the case. Faced with having to top Star Wars, a film of near-universal appeal, he tried to reverse engineer that appeal in The Phantom Menace, thinking that a film for all ages is one that incorporates things directed at each age individually. It’s a film that features puny word comedy and poopy jokes one moment, and in the next will linger on a chancellor as he says, like an alien who read Shakespeare without quite knowing what it meant, “Will you defer your motion to allow a commission to explore the validity of your accusations?” Welles made Citizen Kane most of all for himself, if history has it right. Lucas, ever since he became a religion, cares about his followers way too much.

Pretty images in The Phantom Menace – the underwater city, Venetian Naboo palace, and catacombic senate chamber stand out – were cited by critics at the time as evidence of its value through innovation. Even Jar-Jar Binks (motion-captured by Ahmed Best), a bold-faced annoyance as a character, is technologically a template for such other figures as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and the whole cast of Avatar. We could call Episode I the first of the modern “digital epics.” It is perhaps the single most influential film on today’s Hollywood, the film that introduced the concept of the prequel, that turned a film series into a brand that could be rebooted and remade into an extended universe beyond the traditions of the sequel. There are almost no major studio motion pictures today that would be the same without this one.

It’s hard to recall Lucas as a stalwart innovator, and easy to see the pimp of the modern brand-recognition epidemic, visual effects addiction, and prequel fetish. This explains Disney’s recent effort to douse his blatant creativity in more recognizable marvels, to pave the way for a clean, familiar brand that no one can smudge without becoming a party-pooper. In recent interviews, the once-stalwart effects pioneer looks like a divorcee to his own work. What made his work so indispensable to begin with? A book would be in order to get it down right, but in short I believe it comes more from the dusty boots of the films to which it owes its life (and dedicates its gunslingers and cantinas), than to any specific ship or any one lightsaber. Yes, in case you were wondering, I am getting to that "Defense" I mentioned in the title of this article.

Star Wars was made by a cinephile, by a young man who wanted to give kids the gift of Kurosawa and Lang and Leone through something that looked an awful lot like Flash Gordon and took an awful lot of concepts from Dune. The Phantom Menace is not always in the same tradition, but it takes a version of it to heart by following a structure that recalls heavily the Harryhausen works like Jason and the Argonauts, or the travelogue of fantastical locations in The Thief of Bagdad, complete with a climactic swordfight and a numinous underwater city. The logic is barren but the locales are endless: as far as his imagination is concerned, Lucas does pull it off.

I think Lucas just wanted to make his stories and be liked for them. Has it been long enough that we can finally say something unequivocally good about The Phantom Menace, despite its spiritual idiocy? Well here’s the heart of the thing, and it has nothing much to do with Star Wars: modern movies are so, so much worse. Nowhere in The Phantom Menace is there a macerated love story between blatant tweens. It is inventing the reliance on other series installments that now poisons everything, and perhaps deserves some forgiveness as the original sinner, the backstory prime. The podrace is a breathless dream of driving cars and saving the day: every one of Lucas' films contains a reminder that he used to want to be a racecar driver. Even as we're gallivanting around to yet another ecosystem, another space battle, another monster, The Phantom Menace trips itself on plot-relevant references to the original trilogy. But it never devolves into Abrams’ blatant manhandling of all its old mechanisms in favor of a hand-me-down plot designed to make fans believe that the corporate takeover is in their best interest. Disney is exactly the kind of organization that Star Wars has rebelled against from its first moments above Tatooine. All of Lucas' films, no matter how silly, taste like someone's passion for their own stories.

The Phantom Menace infrequently reveals a self-serious heart for weird adventure, an Asian fusion swashbuckler, a technocratic religious odyssey, free of the self-congratulatory irony of the modern “cinematic universe.” It's often jagged and unformed as a child’s drawing, and sometimes feels as innocent, and many times threatens through sheer force of straight-faced will to be completely charming. This is no solace for those that only love the original Star Wars, and are unstuck from time in the new digital film spaces. The world you have to enter to take the visuals as the end in themselves is one where children live, where many blatantly wonderful bad movies have lived since the days of the old serials, and in which I resided when The Phantom Menace was released. Watching it again even tempts to take me back to that special place, despite the fact that it seems so far, far away, now that Disney has opened t-shirt kiosks there.

***

Image is a screenshot of the film.

Originally appeared on Bright Lights Film.

Cast & Crew

George Lucas

George Lucas

Qui-Gon Jinn Liam Neeson
Obi-Wan Kenobi Ewan McGregor
Padme Amidala Natalie Portman
Anakin Skywalker Jake Lloyd
Senator Palpatine Ian McDiarmid
C-3PO Anthony Daniels
R2-D2 Kenny Baker

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