[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.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. 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....]