Death and Taxes

[Part two of my look at The Phantom Menace on the eve of its 3D release.]

“I don’t want things to change.”

One of the things I admire the most about The Phantom Menace is that it’s very different from the Original Trilogy. Lucas expanded his story with a broader palate of settings and characters while still offering a few comforting sights and sounds from the galaxy far, far away. Unfortunately, the truth of human nature is that many of us struggle with change. This is evident in art, politics, and in our day-to-day lives. Change is inevitable, unstoppable, and healthy, but it’s also scary and potentially dangerous. As a father, I watch my children grow with a mixture of pride, sadness and fear — wanting them to grow and be independent, but at the same time longing for them to stay young forever. Change often brings new life and new opportunities, but it can also bring destruction.

It’s a journey into the unknown.

An inescapable fact is that The Phantom Menace brought seismic change to the Star Wars saga. Since the story is set thirty to forty years before the events of A New Hope, it had the most chronological distance and the greatest contrasts in terms of design, style and content. It’s very nature created the greatest leap between it and any of the previous films in the series. It’s no surprise, then, that the prequels are about the difficulty of accepting change. It’s surely something that was on Lucas’ mind as he began contemplating the story. The simple act of making a new film — regardless of story — would be asking the audience to accept some big changes. As a filmmaker and editor, Lucas knows that the addition of new information — to a picture, to a shot, or to a scene — creates a new juxtaposition and creates new meaning. The old is re-examined through the lens of the new. Simply adding to a story many fans had embraced as a “holy trilogy” meant challenging orthodoxy. It meant change. It meant uncertainty.

The tension of uncertainty runs throughout The Phantom Menace. Even the title, a masterful nod to radio and matinée serial conventions, highlights this tension by suggesting deception and hidden dangers. Unlike the OT, where there is little doubt about the identity of those who are good and those who are bad, The Phantom Menace introduces ambiguity and doubt. As we’d later learn, there are heroes on both sides and evil is everywhere — even in the human heart. The Phantom Menace would begin an uncertain journey into this heart of darkness.

As the saying goes, nothing is certain but death and taxes — which makes the opening scenes of The Phantom Menace a terrifically cruel joke. The greatest, bloodiest conflict in galactic history would begin with a seemingly inconsequential argument about taxes. There are some fans who complain bitterly about the idea of taxes being the inciting incident in the story’s plot, as if the idea of taxes were somehow too real or unseemly for such an epic saga. Going back to Lucas’ inspirations, however, it makes perfect sense. One of Lucas’ favorite films from his childhood was Errol Flynn’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. The conflict that sets that story in motion is that King Richard has been captured returning from the crusades. His treacherous brother, Prince John, begins taxing the peasantry ostensibly to raise money for the ransom. It soon becomes clear, however, that Prince John is only using the money to secure his own grip on power. It’s in protest of this unfair tax, and the oppression it creates, that prompts Robin of Loxley to become Robin Hood. The dispute that sets the broader conflict in motion is over… taxes.

"I have a bad feeling about this."

It’s true that most great conflicts in human history, when stripped of patriotic, nationalistic, or religious pretense, boil down to disputes about money or resources. Star Wars should be no different. Of course, in this case, the tax dispute is a red-herring — the first of many to intentionally obscure the real evil manipulating events. As Qui-Gon points out, nothing about the Trade Federation’s blockade makes logical sense unless seen as a means to a larger end. The tax dispute, the blockade, the Queen’s treaty — they’re all acts of distraction, a phantom menace, to draw attention away from the real goal. It’s no accident that Darth Sidious physically resembles the Grim Reaper while Nute Gunray and his minions resemble ornate chess pieces. Darth Sidious, death, is using them as pawns in the ultimate game of chess.

"Your move."

Into this setting of mystery and obfuscation arrive two Jedi Knights on a secret mission to settle this manufactured conflict. The Jedi are introduced as noble, wise and deliberate in their actions, but they’re also surprisingly flawed human beings (or aliens, in some cases). Qui-Gon arrives at Naboo as if he was on just another routine mission. Even when Obi-Wan senses trouble, Qui-Gon casually dismisses his concern. And why shouldn’t he? The galaxy has been at peace for a thousand years. Whatever cowardly actions the Trade Federation has taken should be cleared up in time for happy hour back at the Jedi Temple. Qui-Gon’s attitude is evidence of the Jedi Order’s complacency — a complacency that is about to be upended.

Of course, the Jedi’s arrival is hardly unexpected. Palpatine is shrewd and has been in the Senate long enough to know that Valorum would dispatch the Jedi to the scene. In fact, it’s likely he was counting on it. It’s the trigger he needs to begin the invasion and escalate the conflict. And conflict is his only goal. One of the most common weapons in a politician’s political arsenal is the creation of chaos. Chaos brings unexpected change and dangerous uncertainty — are we detecting a pattern? Chaos can force otherwise smart and thoughtful people to make rash decisions. It can lead honorable people support dishonorable positions in hopes of attaining an illusionary goal (hateboys, take note). It can lead proud nations to support opportunists willing to fix complex problems with simple solutions. Palpatine has only one goal in the story: to replace Valorum as Chancellor of the Republic. Like the evil that will eventually poison Anakin’s heart, Palpatine knows he must work from the center out. I love Ian McDiarmid’s work as Palpatine in this film. To me he seems closely modeled on Claude Raines’ Senator Paine character from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON: a seemingly kindly patrician whose venerable demeanor conceals corrupt motivations. Throughout the story, Senator Palpatine maintains a persona of hilarious concern trolling as he outwardly supports our heroes while secretly orchestrating their destruction. It’s deliciously evil and perfectly captures the mature nuance underlying an otherwise simple adventure story.

As the squabble over taxes inevitably give way to death and destruction, Palpatine achieves exactly what he wanted: control of the galaxy. The Phantom Menace ends, appropriately enough, as a pyrric victory. The good guys have “won” but at great personal and political cost to the galaxy. Lucas underscores this point with a victory march on Naboo set to the tune of the Emperor’s Theme. In hindsight, what makes this story all the more powerful is that it was so prophetic. The creation of war under false pretenses to justify a political agenda would in only a few years become, sadly, all too real. Future generations will inevitably look back at The Phantom Menace as a clear cautionary tale (or perhaps blueprint) that predicted the decade that followed. No other popular film from this period can make such a claim. It’s a pity that pointless hateboy squabbles have resulted in this achievement being so overlooked.

With The Phantom Menace, change had come to the Star Wars saga. As he had with The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas attempted a different type of story, with a different tone, and offering a new perspective on events in the galaxy far, far away. It was inevitable that such change made some feel uncomfortable (and still does), but, as the film itself points out, you can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting. Fighting change gets you nowhere. It’s no wonder the hateboys reject this movie — it’s a lesson they refuse to learn.

[To be continued....]

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8 Responses to Death and Taxes

  1. tatooinesand says:

    “seismic change to the Star Wars saga” indeed!

    Another awesome chapter! Powerfully written, I think.

  2. Keith Palmer says:

    There are some interesting comments here. While I stopped worrying about “a Star Wars movie about a trade dispute?” a long time ago, the connection to Robin Hood is one I’d never thought of before… and I suppose I was intrigued by Qui-Gon’s casual attitude towards the initial mission being pointed out. The fans I associate with tend to view him pretty highly, and I wouldn’t disagree with their interpretation, but it is interesting to see some evidence of him also being fallible (as I don’t consider his bringing Anakin out of obscurity a “mistake” in itself…)

    • A New Hope says:

      Anyone who complains about “a Star Wars movie about a trade dispute?” could just as easily dismiss the American Revolution as “just a conflict about tea” — it misses the larger picture. It’s not called “The Phantom Menace” for nothing. As for Qui-Gon, I think fans who read the novels and the EU have a different interpretation. I’m not an EU guy. Qui-Gon enters the movie as a “here and now guy” but upon meeting Anakin has a change of heart. He starts talking about destiny and Anakin’s role in the larger scheme of things. It’s a variation on the skeptic who has an epiphany and comes to God idea. In the end, however, Qui-Gon’s main purpose in the saga is as Anakin’s discoverer and the one who convinces an ill-prepared Obi-Wan to train him.

  3. Boba's Vette says:

    ANH,

    I love reading your stuff. Keep up the good work.

    I don’t know if this is the best place to write this, but I’ve noticed that it seems like the haters in the media (the worst ones) are on a mission to give The Phantom Menace a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Judging by what the writers of (RT) have said about the Star Wars prequels in the past (quite snarky and negative mostly), they are willing to roll out the red carpet and fling open the golden gates allowing any old hack critic and their “13 years-too-late” review of TPM get in. This is even without seeing it in 3D, which I would have considered a tad more relevant than a handful of reviews popping up a week to days before the 3D re-release. Not to mention there have been no screenings for critics so there’s no way they could have seen it.

    TPM was once at 62% fresh and just recently it dropped to 60%. Now it seems like every time I go to look there’s a new negative review popping up. It won’t be long until it gets pushed into the realm of rotten. Not that it even matters because it doesn’t change the quality of the movie one bit. The movie will always be fresh to me, but there seems to be a motive to make this happen and it seems very shady.

    Here are some disturbing things I’ve noticed about the more recent batch of negative reviews:

    1. There are 2 within a year of each other that are the exact same review, so one negative review all of a sudden tallies as 2 negative reviews? Not very fair, eh?

    2. One of the duplicates is lists the same person on the previous page where they have given it a very positive review. Same person listed, different publication. Now a negative review.

    3. Of the 3 latest reviews that came out in the last 3 days, the review from “Projection Booth” is a guy who was once or still is affiliated with “Slant Magazine” which is funny since there’s a recent review listed from “Slant Magazine” where the guy gives it 0/4 stars. Seems like an inside job or something. These guys just may all know each other and like I’ve heard you say before, “hateboys with jobs”. This could very well be the case.

    I just figured you would find this stuff interesting. And giving you the heads up when the hateboys come out with “TPM IS ROTTEN! LOL!” in the next few days. Let’s hope some of the good critics bring balance to the force, because we all know that Star Wars deserves so much better.

    • A New Hope says:

      Big thanks for that heads up! Yeah, you know TPM’s “fresh” status was something that just stuck in the hateboys’ craw all these years. I’m sure they’re loving critics taking another bite at the apple. And you’re right, there ARE geek publications and individuals in geek journalism that have a clear anti-Lucas agenda. When similar negative stories pop up across the web, it’s not be accident. If nothing else, when the hateboys gloat over TPM being “rotten” on RT we can always accuse them of the “revisionism” they oh so hate from Lucas.

      • Boba's Vette says:

        Hey, it looks like a positive review just made it in. A very very good one from someone who actually saw it in 3D at the ranch. So the haters will have to wait to celebrate their “Rotten” celebration. Funny thing is, though the review counts, it is not shown with the rest of the reviews when you view them in the list of “most recent”. Hmmmmmmmmmm. Right now it stands as 99-fresh to 66-rotten, and remains at 60%. I’m just waiting for the inevitable hate storm that will bring it down to like 57%. Hopefully not.

  4. Stefan Kraft says:

    I’m looking forward to the OT reviews – either they will try to boost the OT movies sky high (actually, I’m fine with that as long as this is not used as an excuse to bash the prequels once more), or they will (more likely?) end up in a dilemma: “Hm, I love ANH, ESB and RotJ, but these aren’t the O-OT releases, but the Special Editions – so I should give them a very bad review. But wait, this will only decrease the rating on RottenTomatoes… What should I do?” ;-)
    BTW, who knows what will happen in 10 or 20 years when the kids from today will have become movie critics themselves and review the next re-release of the prequels? Maybe “Certified fresh” for all three movies? ;-)

  5. Stefan Kraft says:

    For the moment, it’s down to 57%. We’ll see.