George Lucas's great, galaxy-ranging space opera begins with those very memorable words; an invitation to a modern, technological fairy tale.
In the first episode (released in 1999) of the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace, the audience learns that "turmoil has engulfed the Great Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is "in dispute." The greedy Trade Federation, the scrawl tells us, has ceased all shipping to the small planet called Naboo, and two Jedi Knights (Qui Gonn Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi) have been sent by Supreme Chancellor Valorum to negotiate with the Trade Federation Viceroy, Nute Gunray.
What the Jedi Knights discover, however, is a shadowy conspiracy involving a Sith Lord called Darth Sidious. He is the master manipulator, the puppeteer behind-the-scenes, encouraging the Trade Federation's clearly illegal invasion of Naboo.
Obi Wan and Qui Gonn manage to rescue Naboo's Queen Amidala from certain death by getting her off the planet (along with a Gungan named Jar Jar Binks), but their spaceship (A Nubian class) is damaged during the escape. They set down for repairs on a backwater desert world on the outer rim called Tatooine, and Qui Gonn meets a young boy named Anakin Skywalker - a slave - who may prove to be the living embodiment of a prophecy about a "Chosen One" bringing balance to the Force, the mysterious energy field that binds and connects all living things. For Anakin, you see, has a midichlorian count of more than 20,000; a count higher even than that of Master Yoda, who sits on the Jedi Council.
After Anakin helps the Jedi get their spaceship repaired (by winning a dangerous Pod Race), the Jedi get Amidala to the Galactic Senate on Coruscant, only to see the congress bogged down in "endless debate" over the Trade Federation Invasion. With the help of Senator Palpatine, Amidala comes to recognize that the Galactic Senate nees stronger leadership than Valorum can provide, and votes for a special election. As Palpatine becomes the new Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, Obi Wan, Amidala, Anakin, Jar-Jar and Obi-Wan fight a multi-front war to seize back control of Naboo. In the process, the Jedi must defeat the apprentice of Darth Sidious, a devilish creature called Darth Maul. Later, Obi Wan promises to train young Anakin as a Jedi Knight, even though the Council, led by Master Yoda has grave reservations about the boy's future.
Well, in broad strokes, that's the plot of the first Star Wars film, our introduction to this sprawling, exciting universe. I have owned The Phantom Menace on DVD for years, so you can say that I already voted on the film with my wallet, and yet it is a movie that I did not necessarily hold in high regard for a number of reasons. The weight of all the previously produced Star Wars movies (Episodes IV through VI) was too great, and somehow I found this first prequel...lacking. I disliked how it looked; how it was edited, and what it had to say.
However, today - and looking at all the films with a fresh eye - I must say that I have badly underestimated The Phantom Menace. It is not a perfect film to be certain, but it is - ultimately - a fascinating one; and indeed, it is far more successful as an introduction to George Lucas's universe than I think I ever realized. It sets up everything we need to know about this six part movie series.
Firstly, I love the title The Phantom Menace, not merely because it harks back to 1930s episodic adventure serials made by Republic and Columbia Studios, but because it perfectly captures the theme of this film. You will notice that the opening scrawl discusses such things as "the taxation of trade routes" and such. Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, but indeed, that's the artist's point. This adventure begins at a time that is dangerous - but here's the rub - nobody (not even the Jedi) realizes that it is a dangerous time. The danger is thus a "phantom" danger, and even the film's dialogue heightens this feeling of foreboding. Qui Gonn notes that the trade negotiations are something "trivial," and surely nobody is expecting that out of this "dispute" over trade and taxation, the Republic will eventually fall. A phantom is defined as something "apparently seen, heard or sensed, but having no physical reality," and that is surely the nature of the threat embodied throughout the film. Notice that in his introductory sequence, Obi Wan states that he senses something "elusive," "elsewhere" -- yep it's that Phantom Menace of the title; something only detected but not understood or even addressed.
Young Anakin too represents a "phantom menace" of sorts. He will one day grow up to be Darth Vader, a terrible force for darkness in the universe, but that menace (which Jedi Knights Yoda and Mace Windu sense here...) is also still but a "phantom." Not developed. Elusive.
So right off the bat, Lucas's story resonates strongly with his chosen title. As in real life, we are led in the Star Wars universe to understand that a seemingly small thing can lead to much bigger, much more dangerous things. And remember too the context of the year The Phantom Menace was released! President Clinton had been impeached in the United States for personal ethical misconduct (and in the film, Valorum is "mired by baseless accusations of corruption," presumably like Whitewater, Travel-Gate and all the other scandals that failed to secure even a single indictment against Clinton or his staff).
So the impeachment was not unlike the "no-confidence" vote forced by Palpatine in the Galactic Senate, and behind this blatant power grab in real life was a leader named not Nute Gunray. but Newt Gingrich. Coincidence? Well, certainly one might make the argument that the impeachment trial distracted the American government (both parties...) away from Osama Bin Laden and terrorism leading up to the attacks of 2001. This was a time when a newly elected President (Supreme Chancellor?) was able to piece-by-piece reduce our Civil Liberties (The Patriot Act), resort to torture, and lead us into an unnecessary war in Iraq. A small thing (baseless accusations of corruption) led in real life to a big thing (an attack and an endless, Orwellian War on Terror.)
But enough of earthly politics. We're in a galaxy far, far away not Washington D.C. Suffice it to say that The Phantom Menace reveals how a seemingly "trivial" thing can serve to give a duplicitous leader the reins of power on a promise of restoring honor and dignity to government. In the Star Wars universe, that's just what Palpatine achieves, and the movie ends with him serving as Supreme Chancellor.
Another thought that struck me while watching The Phantom Menace is that George Lucas - like John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg and other movie "brat" directors - is a great visual classicist. Many of the set-pieces in this film not only refer to baby boomer history, but to famous imagery from classic Hollywood films. The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates. But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment. And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature. Interesting, isn't it?
I believe much of the background dynamics of The Phantom Menace arise from George Lucas's history both in terms of favorite movies, and the recent history he grew up with, in particular World War II and pre-World War II imagery...the context of a young baby-boomer. The people of the Trade Federation speak in a manner that I can only term Pidgeon English. Their eyes, if you look closely are made of lightning-bolt like "slants" (a derogatory name for the Japanese) during World War II. Now, this is either a direct reference to World War II, or simply another movie reference to the so-called Yellow Menace as it was depicted in adventure films of the 1930s-1940s, or maybe both. I also feel that the imagery of the vast Trade Federation war machinery rolling through the wide avenues of a very-European-looking Naboo directly relates back directly to the Nazis in Paris, or some other World War II vision. This period represents the rise of fascism in Europe; and it's no coincidence that in The Phantom Menace, totalitarianism is also beginning to rear its ugly head.
I detect this World War II, 1920s-1930s metaphor even in the (outstanding) art and production design of the film. You will notice that the spaceships and skyscrapers of the Galactic Republic and its planets resemble not the lived-in, almost junky universe we are accustomed to in Episode IV, but rather the Flash Gordon standard of the 1930s. The spaceships bear tipped wings and are unbelievably ornate and beautiful, cast in glittering, reflective silver. The buildings are ostentatious and gorgeous, representing a 1930s "futura" fashion of art-deco design. This design works perfectly because the Galactic Republic at its height does represent a sort of idealized or perfect "space age." The symmetrical, smooth designs reflect the perfection of a democratic society, and also the more perfect age of "innocent" space adventures in the cinema like the 1930s Buster Crabbe serials. This is before "real" space travel in the late 1960s changed spaceships of the imagination to be less aerodynamic, less beautiful and more utilitarian (like the Discovery in 2001; or the Eagles of Space:1999).
All of this subtle design works quite beautifully in The Phantom Menace. I know many people (myself included) worried that the new films would look so much more advanced than the old films, even though they occur earlier in time. But George Lucas creatively found a way around this problem (which Enterprise failed to do...). He reveals to us a "more civilized" age with the art-deco designs, the spaceships with needle-noses and the like, and we buy it as an earlier, better time, before the dark ages of the Empire. It's a clever conceit. If A New Hope reflects a 1970s ideal; the prequels represent 1930s ideal, and so historically we can accept these movies.
The Phantom Menace also (if we are going in sequential order...) gives us the first example of another favorite George Lucas tenet: that the primitive can defeat the advanced in battle every time if their cause is just. Throughout the Star Wars film cycle, we see this again and again. Here, Gungans destroy a Droid Army. In Revenge of the Sith, Wookies win a key battle against the Trade Federation, and in Return of the Jedi, Ewoks win a critical battle against the Empire on Endor. The idea that appeals so much to Lucas is apparently that primitive societies may have lesser weapons than their technologically kitted-up nemeses, but ultimately more heart...and more cunning. We see this again and again in Star Wars, though I think it is imperfectly presented in The Phantom Menace because the Gungans obviously do possess a technological society, at least by our standards. They have gleaming underwater cities, large explosives called "boomers" and other items that we would consider beyond our current capacity to construct, but of course, as Obi Wan may say, this is all based on "a point of view." To the Trade Federation (and even the Naboo, I'd say), the Gungans do indeed represent a more "primitive" race, so perhaps the metaphor does hold here. If not for the audience, then at least for the participants in the drama.
Again, I think Lucas knows his history. The attack on Naboo by the Trade Federation is not unlike the attack on Ethiopia by Mussolini in October of 1935. Though the beleaguered leader of Ethiopia petitioned the League of Nations (The Galactic Senate?) to intervene on its behalf, the League of Nations was unable to do anything but impose mild economic sanctions. So again, I think you can see how Lucas in The Phantom Menace is actually combining history and myth and filmmaking to tell a story of "star wars" not unlike our second World War. It's interesting that he tells his story with metaphors we are familiar with (from our history), but with contemporary touches (like Clinton/Valorum's impeachment), thus creating a warning for today's audiences. As one character says in Attack of the Clones, "the day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it."
Now, I'd like to offer my thoughts on Jar-Jar, one of the most controversial aspects of The Phantom Menace. I don't like him; and I don't like his brand of slapstick humor -- I just don't think it's funny. But as a character in the saga, he bothered me less on this viewing than ever before. Honestly, I think people probably overreacted to him (the way people overreacted to Adric, or Wesley Crusher, or Neelix, or any other "unpopular" character in a well-loved franchise). Looking at Jar-Jar this time, I hold by my assessment that he's no Chewbacca. But 3PO is certainly equally annoying. I definitely decry the need for childish humor in these films, but Jar-Jar is ultimately put to interesting use in this trilogy, and I think his presence augments Anakin's tragedy. I mean, the sweet little kid who played around with the farting, belching, tongue-snapping, clumsy Jar-Jar Binks is also the kid who became Darth Vader! That's pretty devastating, isn't it? And it's all part of The Phantom Menace conceit too. We can be distracted by the hijinks of a Jar-Jar Binks, all right, because we think there isn't that much at stake. Of course, we're wrong to think that...
One of the scenes I absolutely once hated involving Jar-Jar saw him accompany Qui Gonn and Obi Wan through the planet core of Naboo in a transport called a "Bongo." I hated how calm Qui Gonn was in that scene; and how over-the-top Jar-Jar was in his panic. But watching this film as though it were the first in a cycle, I didn't feel that way. I realized that this scene serves a critical purpose. This is Episode I (and early on, at that), and we must understand that the Jedi are cool customers. That they are calm, not impulsive or passionate, and the scene with the giant fish attacking their bongo perfectly expresses this fact. Jar-Jar reacts as WE would - with utter terror; but the Jedi are a different breed. This scene, which I once thought was simply an excuse for special effects, actually tells us some important information about the Jedi Order, and the demeanor of the Jedi Knights. It's amazing how if you try to watch this film with an open mind (and with a blank slate), you can see all kinds of values that you once missed. The things which once seems ridiculous or out of place instead seem quite motivated by the needs of a committed storyteller.
I know I promised not to fuss about the oppressive use of CGI in the Star Wars prequels, but I also figured out what the heck my problem is with CGI (and with the appearance of Jar-Jar) while watching The Phantom Menace. I consider this an important epiphany. Here's my thing: special effects exist to augment the story and make it seem more real. The best special effects you ever see are the ones that you don't realize are special effects, right? They look so real that you don't think twice about them. My philosophy is that special effects shouldn't draw attention to their own cleverness, but instead should fit seamlessly into the tapestry of a cinematic work. My problem with Jar Jar is not his silliness, but that he violates this edict. I can pinpoint one scene as an example. Jar Jar plans to lead the Jedi down to his underwater city. He steps to the bank of a river, and dives into the water. But he doesn't just dive into the water as you or I would. He leaps up into the air about twenty feet, does a big perfect flip, makes a silly cry, and disappears under the surface. So, from this one motion, we see that Jar Jar defies gravity, has perfect form, and is...silly.
The scene would have been much better had Jar Jar slunk into the water like one of us; or some animal in nature (like a crocodile maybe?). If we had recognized his movements as being natural and real, rather than being show-offy, it would have worked much better. Jar Jar's terrific leap and back flip into the river is an example of a special effects man drawing attention to himself, trying to do something funny with his work rather than accomplish something believable. But ultimately the silly dive only points to the unreality of Jar-Jar as a creation, I think. He would be so much better if he didn't stand out; if he didn't draw attention to himself. He could still be funny, but he shouldn't be a "look-at-what-I-can-do" spectacle.
I'm frankly ambivalent about my next observation. I don't know if I'm missing something or what. But early in the film, Qui Gonn states that "nothing happens by accident." Yet, so often in The Phantom Menace, things do seem to happen randomly. I can accept that it was fate, prophecy or the Force that brought the Jedi to Tatooine to meet Anakin. No problem. But isn't it an accident when a gun gets stuck on Jar Jar's ankle and starts blasting droids? Isn't it an accident, when Anakin ends up in the cockpit of a fighter and then, finally, in the hanger bay of the droid control ship? An accident that he should fire torpedoes in exactly the right direction to destroy the ship? I don't know! Maybe the Force is indeed guiding all of these actions, but I have a hard time reconciling Qui Gonn's statement about "accidents" with Jar Jar and Anakin, who seem to continually benefit from seeming accidents.
I have much more to say about this film, but I think I'll stop here for now. I'll sum up by saying that there is much more going on in The Phantom Menace than I ever gave it credit for. The presence of Jar-Jar, the oppressive over stimulation by CGI effects and a weak plot all conspired to keep me from enjoying the film on its own terms. What I found on an objective watching this time is that the plot is actually visually rendered in a brilliant sort of way...it plants all the seeds that will pay off later. More to the point, the film is layered with cinematic and historical allusions that speak directly to us and the times we live in. Many of these come up as notes of production design: the look of things. And since I believe film is primarily a visual art, these touches are welcome.
What about you? What do you think? Join the Star Wars experiment: watch this film again and see where it leads you...
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) is available on DVD.