The Origins of Evil

[The following is the first part in a multi-part series exploring The Phantom Menace. As the 3D version of the film opens next week, film reviewers and hateboys will be out in force throwing feces from their cages in hopes of obscuring the fact that Episode I was positively reviewed upon its release, remains immensely popular and is a far greater film than they want people to believe. This is my pre-rebuttal.]

THE PHANTOM MENACE is a great film.


No apologies.

It’s a film that took risks despite the burden of overwhelming expectations. It’s a film that undeniably broke new cinematic ground. It’s a film that expanded the landscape of a story many people thought they knew by heart. It’s a film that accurately foresaw massive political lies and corruption. It’s a film that blends history, social commentary, pop culture and mythology into an entertaining fantasy for both children and adults.

Most importantly, it’s a film that artfully illustrates the central theme of the Star Wars saga: that evil can lurk in even the purest of hearts.

I love THE PHANTOM MENACE. I usually don’t rank the six Star Wars films in order of preference — I like them all — but if I did, TPM would rank very high. Certainly the highest of the prequel trilogy. That obviously bucks the conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is as permanent as a Hollywood marriage. In previous posts I’ve explored why I’m cool with Jar-Jar and why I respect George Lucas for including midichlorians in his story, but one of the big reasons I loved this movie is because I went into it in 1999 knowing it was going to be very different from the original trilogy. I expected Lucas to throw nothing but curve balls and to challenge what fans thought they knew about that galaxy far, far away.

I was willing to unlearn what I had learned.

Lucas could’ve played it safe. It’s not like fans weren’t vocal about what they wanted or expected from another Star Wars movie. In the years between 1983 and 1999, the kids of the 70s and 80s had grown up and invested Star Wars with all the overblown expectations of Gen-X angst. They all had their own ideas about what it should and shouldn’t be and the arrival of the Internet gave them a way to broadcast those ideas to the masses. Lucas could’ve made the next episode as dark and pretentiously hip as any other 90s pop art. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed true to HIS origins. He channeled the same pop culture elements from his youth and interests from his personal life that fueled the creation of the saga in the first place: cheesy movie serials, fast cars, science fiction, Japanese samurai films, current events, anthropology, politics, etc. It’s the same approach he took when he made ANH in the mid-70s. The difference, however, was that TPM would land in a very different time and a very different America.

The 70s were a time of cynicism and national weariness. Vietnam, Watergate, a sluggish economy and the impotence of Washington had created a sense of malaise. The mid-90s, in contrast, was a time of a booming economy and bright prospects. Government was consumed by greedy, squabbling politicians, but who cared since the stock market was going up, up, up. There was money to invest in Internet start-ups, independent films and new ideas. The arty cynicism of the moment was born not out of frustration or weariness with current events, but out of the boredom of affluence. ANH resonated with audiences because it carried the counter-culture message that freedom and happiness comes from rebelling against the status quo. TPM, however, carried a much different message about a once great and prosperous society rotting from within. It arrived at a time of wealth and relative peace (especially compared to the following decade) to suggest that there is danger lurking in the shadows. That’s a harder message to resonate at a time when things are good. When the government is running a surplus and the stock market is breaking records, no one wants to listen to the guy saying, “Warning! Danger ahead.” Whereas the subtext of ANH was about the possibilities of renewal, the subtext of TPM is about the dangers of decay — hope vs. menace. That’s a subtext people weren’t ready to accept — and perhaps still aren’t.

TPM also had to illustrate a backstory that the public thought it knew. In 1977, the ghost-written STAR WARS novelization featured a prologue that lays out the political backstory of the Star Wars galaxy. It describes the fall of the Republic at the hands of ambitious Senator Palpatine, and how treachery and deception led to the extermination of the Jedi Knights.

Every journey has a first page.

After the original film’s success, there was talk of plans for “several” Star Wars sequels, including some featuring the adventures of Luke’s father and young Ben Kenobi. Long before the first sequel, The Empire Strikes back, had even been written, the foundation of the prequels had been built. The OT films themselves provided some tantalizing clues about this backstory. There were the mythical “Clone Wars” and how General Kenobi had served Bail Organa of Alderaan. The pivotal event, however, was the seduction of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side and the creation of his evil persona, Darth Vader. Essentially, the prequels would be an origin story.

Foreshadowing -- now with actual shadow.

A big reason I love TPM is because I love origin stories. I love seeing how great characters evolved into what they are. Origin stories, however, carry an inherent storytelling flaw: we already know the outcome. We know Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda survive the Clone Wars and the Jedi purge. We know Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Among the major characters, we know who lives and who dies. It’s a structural dilemma that immediately puts TPM at a disadvantage it’s predecessors didn’t have to face: we knew what was going to happen. It’s because of this fact that TPM would face an inevitable backlash. Many fans, including myself, spent those long years between 1983 and 1999 contemplating how the backstory would unfold. We imagined, we speculated, we dreamed, we played. People wrote fan fiction while EU authors created backstory adventures for characters like Boba Fett. In a very real way, fans imagined the prequels the same way the blind men in the famous parable try to describe an elephant. Each fan extrapolated an image of the whole beast based on limited information and inaccurate assumptions. Every fan had a dream scenario — and we all knew for certain our ideas would be awesome on-screen.

Of course, George Lucas also had ideas. And his first big idea was to make a very different type of Star Wars film than the ones that had come before. People’s assumptions were going to be upended and their expectations challenged — which is exactly what I wanted to happen.

[To be continued....]

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7 Responses to The Origins of Evil

  1. taffysaur says:

    i really appreciate you writing this, there aren’t a lot of intelligent assessments of the phantom menace to be found online, + you’re right, the wannabe film critics (i can’t think of anything i’d ‘wannabe’ less) are out in force now due to the re-release + red letter media’s ‘irrational foaming hate revival’.
    but i’ve also noticed that as the children of ’99 enter their teens + early twenties the field is beginning to level out a little, + i’m seeing more + more even-handed appraisals of the movies.
    i wrote pretty much the same thing a few days ago regarding the intro to anh, in the interest of negating people’s complaints about there being ‘too much politics’ in tpm. besides the fact that its structure is very similar to empire, including its action-to-drama ratio.
    i’ve also been busy reminding people that on the whole, the prequel trilogy was reviewed better than the originals at the time of release. it mightn’t look good if you only bothered to do as much research as checking the fresh-o-meter, but consider also that most ‘reviewers’ these days are fanboys w/nothing more than a laptop + an opinion.
    an appeal to public opinion means nothing to me anyway, because i hate the public. + that’s the first + best argument a lot of the time; ‘everyone’ else hates it, you must just be stupid. but besides the fact that tpm is one of top-grossing movies of all time anyway, besides the fact that it was reviewed favourably before the backlash gained momentum, the masses are the worst judge of art anyway. why should anyone ever even bring it up? because they aren’t capable of critical thinking + are afraid not to go along w/the crowd.
    no-one liked empire strikes back when it was released either, + now look.
    geez, *people* are the reason lucas found it so hard to get the movies made in the first place.

    i also wrote something similar about the reason i loved the movie as much as any previous sw movie + others didn’t may be because i grew up largely ignorant of eu, + wasn’t even aware a prequel trilogy was even in the cards.
    even as a kid i just thought ‘episode iv’ was an artistic choice, so while sw was my favourite set of movies, they were over, + there was no reason to formulate preconceptions of what more movies would be like.

    i love how you illustrated the difference between the messages of the trilogies + the correlation between it, the respective times of release, + people’s reaction. very, very insightful.
    that was what i loved about phantom menace most at the time of release, was the political machinations. anticipating how this leads to the fall of the republic. finding real-world analogues, + you make a salient point; it was a remarkably precient movie in that respect (tho unfortunately this speaks more to our inability to learn from history than any pre-cognizance on lucas’ part).
    here’s what i wrote the other day, to illustrate where i was at in this process;

    “my sister + i were talking last night about how the jedi are basically the *baddies* in the prequel trilogy, + wondering if that’s not part of the reason people say they don’t love the characters as much as in the ot.
    instead of a scrappy + small band of rebels fighting to overthrow the corrupt + indifferent empire, it’s a small scrappy group of sith trying to overthrow a corrupt + indifferent republic. it’s very hard to know who to root for, but this is what i love. it’s nowhere near as black + white as the ot, it’s much more subtle, shaded, ambiguous + morally unsatisfying. i’m not saying the ot was simplistic, only that by that time, it was pretty clear-cut what had to be done (kill the empire. it’s evil). whereas in the pt, the ‘goodies’ are running around clueless for three movies unwittingly doing all the baddies dirty work *for* him.
    this is especially why characters like qui-gon + padmé + bail organa are among my favourites, because they are the voices of reason in the pt (+ to a certain extent yoda, but he’s pretty bad too). ”

    this leads me to your comments about the ‘origin’ story. i love origins too, + the prequels have added so very much to my appreciation of established characters like obi-wan, as well as fleshing out characters that were previously only mentioned, like bail organa who is now one of my favourite characters too.
    yeah, you know a lot of what’s gonna happen in an origin story, but if that mattered to people, superboy wouldn’t have been the most popular comic of the 50s. of course superboy is going to survive each adventure, but it’s about seeing how he survives, what he learns from it, + how it contributes to the man he’ll become.
    besides, i mean, did anyone ever believe there was the chance luke skywalker was going to get eaten by the wampa? ‘course not, even tho his future wasn’t known at the time. kids don’t think about things like story convention. they don’t care. this is a much more pure receipt of stories.

    one thing i disagree with is that the prequels *were* all that different from the ot. they were certainly different, but not like a totally different movie, not the way some people act like they’ve abandoned ‘that star wars feeling’.
    if they were too very different, i probably wouldn’t have instantly loved them as much. the way i describe it is that the trilogies are constructed to be like mirrors to each other. the image seen in a mirror is not the same, it is an exact + symmetrical *opposites* of each other. one is just the reflected other, as you yourself alluded to, by mentioning the inversion of the ‘protagonists’.

    anyway, looking forward to reading more.

  2. Keith Palmer says:

    That’s an interesting point about TPM‘s connection to the zeitgeist of the late 1990s, although I do recall thinking in 1999 that “corporate power” being the (apparent) enemy seemed to fit in with the concerns of that exact time. More lately, I’ve seen the suggestion advanced that Fight Club, The Matrix, and The Phantom Menace all made the same critique of the society they were released into, just to different audiences…

    If the argument “the ‘prequels’ should have been made for those who saw the ‘original trilogy’ as kids from 1977 to 1983″ has indeed been made, my personal response is to wonder just what sort of lasting work would result; it would seem to amount to “you have to watch these three movies as a kid, then wait a decade and a half to watch the followup.” At the same time, I can imagine detractors saying “what we really mean is the old movies could be viewed on multiple levels, but the new ones are just pitched at children,” and while I’d of course disagree with that I’m not quite sure what my specific counterargument would be…

  3. lazypadawan says:

    You know, a big part of why I loved TPM was the reason you gave…Lucas could take something we thought we were familiar with, something we thought we knew, and still totally surprise us.

    taffysaur had some great points in her reply: “instead of a scrappy + small band of rebels fighting to overthrow the corrupt + indifferent empire, it’s a small scrappy group of sith trying to overthrow a corrupt + indifferent republic” and “the way i describe it is that the trilogies are constructed to be like mirrors to each other.” The Why We Love The Prequels panel at Celebration V mentioned that the prequels are all about the Dark Side. It’s what drives everything in the story, just as the Light Side drives the first set of Star Wars movies.

  4. tatooinesand says:

    George Lucas always surpasses expectations. :)

    I think it should be obvious that the PT can’t be the same as the OT, because of the story of course, but also because the OT already exists. (Why create another Han Solo-like character if we already have Han Solo? Han is one and only, no one can replace him, and this is true for every SW character.) George Lucas chose to spend time, energy and money to tell us something he hasn’t told before. Something that doesn’t deny what’s already been told, but complements it.

    Awesome piece of exploration. Looking forward to more!

  5. Eddie says:

    This is thoughtful and great, as are the comments–I’m really looking forward to reading the next part.

    That element of surprise and weirdness (weird in a good way) in all of the prequels, but specifically and overwhelmingly in TPM, is something that I love, too. Despite the ultimate wish of the hateboys to have him hand Star Wars over to somebody else (or their despicable pining for his demise), nobody else can bring that quality to Star Wars like GL can. Sure, somebody else may be able to give you lightsaber battles, armored troops, bounty hunters flying around in jet-packs—though it’s worth noting that all those things came from GL himself—but nobody else is going to give you Watto, Boss Nass, Dexter Jettster, Jira, EV-9D9, Jar Jar, Neimoidians with Flash Gordon view-screens, or countless others…and that’s not even taking into account the unexpected course of the actual *story*.

  6. taffysaur says:

    “(Why create another Han Solo-like character if we already have Han Solo? Han is one and only, no one can replace him, and this is true for every SW character.)”

    exactly. but they just wanted dash rendar i guess.

    • Adam D. Bram says:

      I hated Dash Rendar when I read “Shadows”.

      I’d say “I liked it when he died and was disappointed when I found out he survived”, but it sends the wrong message because it’s not necessarily for the reasons you’d think. Throughout that novel, Dash was an annoying Han Solo wannabie, except he was far worse. The sacrifice he made at the end of that novel made his character arc make sense: he finally stopped being a douche and his redemption lead to his death. And that, to me, made his character worth it. To find out form other EU sources that he survived cheapens the effect.

      But, that’s my opinion. I’m sure Dash resonates with some people, and that’s okay. He just didn’t do anything for me.