In Focus

Friday, May 15, 2009

Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace

by Bob Clark

 

Prologue: In the Beginning

1999 stands as an important year in film, if for no other reason than for the historic return of three of American cinema’s biggest icons to their respective director’s chairs. It was the year that Terrence Malick came back from his decades-long sojourn into the wilderness of French academia after his celebrated couplet of 70’s filmmaking—Badlands and Days of Heaven—to finally offer a third effort with the World War II drama The Thin Red Line. It was the year that Eyes Wide Shut opened in theaters, a movie which proved to be not only Stanley Kubrick's return to filmmaking after twelve long years, but his swan song, as well. Finally, it was the year that George Lucas returned to hands-on directing with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a movie which enjoyed far more popular success than either director’s combined filmography, but still remains unaccepted by followers of cinema at large.

Unlike Kubrick and Malick, Lucas remained an active filmmaker in the twenty-two years following the original Star Wars, since retitled A New Hope. While nominally delegating on-set duties to men like Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, seasoned veterans with steadier hands in the delicate art of actor-wrangling, Lucas’ eagle-eye vision for panoramic tableaux, crisply cut montage and dynamic compositions remained intact. In The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Lucas proved himself a modern-day Alexander Korda, the kind of man who involves himself so heavily in his productions that he holds a legitimate claim to be called auteur over his directors. Like a somewhat less maverick, somewhat more sane version of Howard Hughes, he successfully orchestrated his movies as a backstage mastermind, calling the shots through storyboards and occasional set-visits, even manning the cameras himself for scenes he deemed too important to let fall into the wrong hands. Every frame of both films is so deeply ingrained with Lucas’ visual stamp, it hardly seems to matter how much time he spent in the office while strangers minded the making of his movies—he could be every bit the director over the phone without ever phoning it in.

Therefore, when the time came for The Phantom Menace to begin shooting, it struck many as surprising that Lucas would decide to direct another film by himself, especially after having repeatedly sworn that he’d never do it again, following the nightmare that A New Hope’s production became in the face of an indifferent British crew. Thanks to the rapid advancements of 90’s CGI technology, however, Lucas felt confident that his attention could successfully remain engaged on-set for the duration of shooting, free from the obligations of tending to the minutia of his army of special-effects artists which kept him so preoccupied in the past. Like Kubrick and Malick, his work was criticized, accused of having lost some of its touch in the time he’d spent away from directing. Yet while Eyes Wide Shut and The Thin Red Line have gained appreciative followings over the years, The Phantom Menace has yet to find a home outside of mainstream popularity and the cult of fans the previous Star Wars movies built, of whom a vocal many were about as happy with the film as most serious-minded critics were.

Those who write off Episode I, however, do so at the risk of overlooking a vibrant, if occasionally shaky enterprise in strong, assertive movie storytelling. Throughout the picture, and the rest of the Prequel Trilogy, Lucas displays the same sharp filmmaking instincts that for better or worse shaped the cinematic zeitgeist for the better part of the last 25 years of the 20th century. Crafted with an expressive sequence of visionary set-pieces and cliffhanger driven storylines, The Phantom Menace succeeded in capturing both the imaginations and attention-spans of audiences worldwide, despite the loads of aesthetic baggage that its detractors remain unable to overcome. While the film’s critics have rightly pointed out a number of drawbacks it suffers from, it’s important to note that many if not most of these faults arrive not due to any lack of talent on its director’s part, but rather from the fact that with the Prequels, Lucas attempts to tell a set of stories significantly different from those of the Original Trilogy.

 

I: A Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle

First of all, there’s the story—set during the fabled days of the Old Republic, decades before the conflict between the Rebel Alliance and the Evil Empire, Episode I starts as the Trade Federation invades the peaceful planet of Naboo, ruled by the recently elected Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). When the leader of the Galactic Senate secretly dispatches Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, respectively), they gradually discover a mysterious plot hinging upon the life of a gifted young slave, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the political ambitions of Naboo’s own Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), and the return of the Dark Lords of the Sith, with the attack led by the deadly Darth Maul (Ray Park). Taken as a whole, the narrative of The Phantom Menace displays a rather wide scope of complications and intrigue, certainly outpacing the Manichean storylines of its predecessors. Considering the range of items any given filmgoer had to keep track of, it’s no wonder that some felt the film suffered from a confusing, overly political story, hinging upon what even the film’s characters describe as a “trivial trade dispute”. Lucas’ legendary tactless ear for dialogue certainly didn’t smooth over any roads on the bumpy ride he’d cobbled together, owing equal parts to Buck Rogers and Noam Chomsky.

However, while the myriad of different characters and plot strands can all be a little overwhelming to the casual viewer, especially those expecting the simplicity of the Original Trilogy, there’s also a rather refreshing quality to the ambiguity that Episode I plays with. Far more thematically ambitious than even The Empire Strikes Back, the film manages to fill its running time with debates on taxation, impeachment and class differences, meditations on loss, power and the relationship between the biological and the divine, and the vices and virtues of pacifism in an increasingly violent world. With that many subjects to tackle, it’s almost surprising the movie finds any time left over to devote to lightsaber fights, laser gun battles and fast-paced action sequences, much less a high-concept reimagining of the chariot race from Ben-Hur shot with the style of John Frankenheimer’s Grand-Prix. While the Star Wars films of the 70’s and 80’s were often accused of indulging in an oversimplified view of good and evil, one which found itself all too easily co-opted by conservatives like Ronald Reagan, The Phantom Menace drinks deep from the wells of Byzantine complexity, resulting in a story that can’t quite so easily be explained away with black-and-white morality.

Furthermore, the prevailing attitudes of ambiguity inherent in Episode I and its subsequent follow-ups correspond to the relationship the Star Wars series has had with its time. A New Hope and its sequels naturally entertained far more simplified ideas regarding political conflict, arising at the waning days of the Cold War and its Us vs. Them mentality. Lucas’ sympathy has never identified with conservative values—he’s even stated on numerous occasions that the battle between the primitive Ewoks and the Empire in Return of the Jedi was at least partly inspired by the guerilla warfare perpetuated by the likes of Che Guevara and the Viet-Cong against technologically superior forces of American Imperialism—but his creative efforts in the 70’s and 80’s remain primarily shaped by the time’s binary perspective of human conflict. The Phantom Menace, however, arriving a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in the midst of the 90’s rise of Clinton politics and the globalization of corporate America, marries its simplistic Jedi vs. Sith story with a dense maze of cover stories and puppet armies, distracting audiences from the true threat in the same way the film’s real villains disguise themselves with doublefaced dealings and false-flag terrorism.

Case in point: in the November following the film’s summer release, thousands participated in the massive protests against a meeting of the World Trade Organization—the so-called “Battle of Seattle”. As protesters were eventually beaten back by police armed with tear-gas, bully clubs and bullet-proof shields and body armor, many comparisons were made to the Stormtroopers of Star Wars films past. Furthermore, the most prominent villains of the latest film were the tax-evading representatives of the Trade Federation, occupying territories with private remote-controlled armies and bribing their way through a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. Though far more subtle and implied than the commentary of later episodes, The Phantom Menace betrays a surprisingly subversive streak in its treatment of modern capitalism, sharing far more in common with contemporary multiplex cousins like the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy or David Fincher’s incendiary Fight Club. Coming from the older, more experienced mind of George Lucas—a man who once brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government to stop Reagan’s co-opting the name and reputation of Star Wars for the SDI missile-defense system, and allegedly going so far as to refuse the President’s request to visit Skywalker Ranch afterwards— the movie openly displays a rather bleak and cynical view of politics as ineffectual, hypocritical and, in the end, doomed to despotism.

 

II: Performance Anxiety

Thanks to these mysterious, often obscure narrative machinations, however, Lucas drives his team of performers into the second major complaint critics often raise—the acting. Granted, when compared to the high-impact emotions and broad theatricality people like Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford displayed in the Original films—especially The Empire Strikes Back, where Kershner’s talent with handling actors paid off, allowing Lucas to focus exclusively on the film’s story and visual palate with one-of-a-kind cinematographer Peter Suschitzky—the acting of the Prequels, and The Phantom Menace especially, can feel somewhat distant and remote to say the least. Many otherwise impressive actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor can often sound hushed and grave, buzzing through their lines in uncertain monotone as though the fate of the universe rested on their ignorant shoulders, which of course, is precisely the point. While the performances of the film betray little in the way of open emotions, it’s because they do so in service to a story which thrives upon hidden agendas, secret messages and truths bound up in religious and political doublespeak. Lucas pushes his actors to speak as though they’re afraid of being listened to, and must therefore choose all their words carefully. That’s why so many of them betray so little emotion to the camera—their characters demand they arrive onscreen with their best poker faces on.

Done well, it can redeem the overly bureaucratic and officious script, letting key actors stand out amongst the crowd. Chief among those performers is Liam Neeson, who shines as the Jedi maverick Qui-Gon Jinn, ably filling the same archetypal position that Alec Guinness perfected in A New Hope, guiding the young prodigy in the ways of the universe. At the same time, Neeson is given the awkward task of exposition regarding several of the script’s more unusual elements, such as Anakin’s virgin birth and the nature of midichlorians. The latter aspect proved controversial among fans, who found the inclusion of a microscopic biological agent to the ethereal Force disturbing, to say the least. While Lucas was writing this character, with his more holistic approach to the Jedi ways, it’s reported the main actor he was considering for the role was Kyle MacLachlan, a favorite player in David Lynch’s repertoire, just as he originally considered Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope. As Paul Atreides in 1984’s Dune—the film Lynch famously turned down Return of the Jedi to direct—and Jeffrey Beaumont in 1987’s Blue Velvet, MacLachlan exhibited a youthful craving for adventure and excitement that wouldn’t have been out of place in Luke Skywalker. Even his adversaries have a hint of Star Wars-like archetypes, especially Dennis Hopper’s deranged Frank Booth, who shares Darth Vader’s black leather, respirator-breathing and Freudian father-figure obsessions. MacLachlan is most famously known, however, as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and it’s easy to see how Lucas could have imagined the Zen-spouting, dream-following FBI man as a Jedi Knight, right down to the long, tan robes they share.

Lucas has always had a savvy eye during casting, careful about the associations audiences would have with familiar faces when playing different characters. It’s why he famously cast unknowns like Mark Hamill and Hayden Christensen throughout the series, thus making his use of star-players that much more meaningful, even when the part winds up going to somebody else. Had Mifune been the one to wear Kenobi’s robes, the Kurosawa connection would’ve been that much more obvious, yet casting Alec Guinness, seasoned veteran of many David Lean productions, produces very much the same psychological effect—an actor best known for his military roles (Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress for Mifune, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai for Guinness) playing a former general in a long-ago military engagement. MacLachlan might’ve done a good job of pulling off some of the mystical nonsense and mumbo-jumbo peppered throughout Qui-Gon’s dialogue, having already convincingly plied Tibetan method in the quest to find out who killed Laura Palmer, and the associations he had with the role would’ve helped bright out some of the Lynchian pop-surrealism that lies sleeping beneath the surface in Lucas’ work.

But Neeson’s performance is too good to pass up— knowingly calm, playfully confident and generous with his experience, talents and affections unto the end. And while his own major associations aren’t anywhere near as mystical or avant-garde as MacLachlan’s—the historical heroes of Michael Collins and Schindler’s List, literary icon Jean Valjean in Bille August’s Les Miserables, the scarred pulp-avenger of Sam Raimi’s Darkman—bring both gravitas and grit to The Phantom Menace, a combination present in many other casting decisions. Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson all arrive onscreen with the scars borne by their hardbeaten, oversized characters in collaborations with Luc Besson, Danny Boyle and Quentin Tarantino, respectively, while in Lucas’ hands, they exhibit unexpected restraint. The film’s best performance, however, probably comes from Bergman player Pernilla August, whose simple maternal warmth and compassion provides a solid anchor for the film’s budding protagonist. It’s a role she more-or-less inhabited before, playing the Virgin Mary to Christian Bale’s Jesus in a made-for-TV movie, and the mother of Ingmar himself in Bille August’s The Best Intentions. As Anakin’s mother, she wisely underplays the emotional undercurrents of the most important character relationship in the movie. Like Agnes Moorhead’s brief turn in Citizen Kane, her quiet restraint gives the scenes of a young boy leaving his mother for a better life abroad a sadness both dignified and discreet—it conveys the sentiment without condescending into sentimentality.

If all the film’s most expressive acting were like August’s then Episode I would be as finely composed tonally as it is visually—a portrait as balanced as the Jedi themselves. Unfortunately, there is one piece of the picture which threatens to disrupt that carefully composed balance, and that piece is the now infamous Jar-Jar Binks, an alien creature of digital smoke-and-mirrors, its voice and wildly gesticulating antics supplied by performer Ahmed Best. Joining the Jedi’s party on Naboo, the clumsy Gungan provides what can only be described as the lowest variety of common-denominator comic relief through pratfalls, slapstick and English that is hopelessly broken even by pidgin standards. A hopeless cross between village-idiot tomfoolery and silent-film era cluelessness, Jar-Jar has since become an infuriating figure among the critics and fans of Star Wars alike. Most troubling, many even accused the film of racism, in the character’s creation and Best’s performance, mixing a muddled dialect with an alleged Caribbean accent to produce a CGI-assisted minstrel show, raising the painful memory of blackface’s prominent role in the film industry of ages past. Granted, Star Wars has faced similar accusations in the past and survived long enough for audiences to rightfully dismiss them. The fact that Lucas has now, after more than twenty years of planning, begun production on Red Tails, his long-delayed film chronicling the World War II heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, should be proof positive against any serious belief of racism, conscious or otherwise. The reason why Jar-Jar doesn’t belong in The Phantom Menace isn’t a matter of race—instead, it’s a matter of volume.

The cast of The Phantom Menace performs with their defenses up, intoning their lines with a guarded, muted realism that is absolutely drowned out by the cacophony that is Jar-Jar Binks. Closer to the wildly animated antics of Disney cartoons from the 1940’s, the character spawned from Ahmed Best’s voice and the misbegotten efforts of Industrial Light & Magic feels woefully out of place throughout the movie, a bystander who doesn’t feel anywhere near as real as the special-effects surrounding him. Watching Jar-Jar careen through the space-opera universe of Star Wars is like picturing the cartoon characters of Who Framed Roger Rabbit being dropped into Chinatown, and the effect is distracting to say the least. Everyone else diminishes, and feels more wooden, because of how much focus he occupies, how many scenes he steals, for better or worse. As long as you view Jar-Jar in the context of the whole picture—or just ignore him altogether—then the actors and their sustained, under-the-radar performances survive and pay off. Lucas downplays his actor’s presences throughout, and if it weren’t for Jar-Jar’s distracting antics, the audience’s attentions would be focused onto his true priorities—the film’s elaborate, Byzantine plot, and its equally elaborate visual palate, which is where the filmmaker truly shines, as usual.

 

III: Pretty as a Picture

If Jar-Jar Binks marks the low point in George Lucas’ creative output, then the Darth Maul stands as its best face put forward in the opposite direction. Portrayed with a sinister glare and acrobatic finesse by stunt-man Ray Park, Maul represents a zenith in character design and execution in sci-fi and fantasy film. Standing tall in sparse black robes, a devilish crown of horns atop his mottled face, tattooed red-and-black like the opening credits of The Last Temptation of Christ, Maul dominates the film during his all-too-brief appearances onscreen. While many fans and critics debated the quality of the film’s story, writing and acting, all agreed that Maul made a fine addition to the franchise, as visually arresting as anything seen in the Original Trilogy. In fact, the many stirring sights of Episode I earned it high praise from many who looked at the movie largely as an exercise in visuals—the skeletal battle-droids, their angular bodies and long-beaked, droop-backed heads recalling Egyptian hieroglyphics armed with blaster-rifles. The sleek, inconspicuous battle-ships of the Trade Federation, smartly designed with the rounded curves of a space-station from 2001: A Space Odyssey than the sharp, triangular Star Destroyers of episodes hence. The art-nouveau of the underwater Gungan city and the art-deco of the city-planet Coruscant, homeworld of the Galactic Senate, a location fleetingly mentioned in A New Hope, but never seen onscreen. With two decades’ worth of special-effects research and development under his belt, Lucas could finally show the seat of legislative authority, investing it with the atmosphere of an opera-house by way of Albert Speer, a vast, dark echo-chamber filled with hundreds of floating pods for politicians to filibuster from.

A feast for the eyes in every way, the world of The Phantom Menace is a bright and shining one, far different than the war-torn landscapes of episodes past—starships are sleek and smooth, interiors and exteriors alike are posh and decorate when compared to the battle-scarred, asymmetrical vehicles and the narrower, less colorful architecture of the Original Trilogy. Every aspect of the film’s style is far more elaborate than the films of twenty-something years ago—Doug Chiang’s production design of art-deco futurism and Old Europe classicism contrasts sharply with Ralph McQuarie’s mix of World War II inspired militarism and Old West practicality. Trisha Biggar’s belle-époque style costumes bear little resemblance to the sparse uniforms of the Originals. Even David Tattersall’s crystal-sharp cinematography outshines much of the first three films—only Suschitzky’s glowing work on The Empire Strikes Back has the same luminescent quality, ably demonstrating why Lucas wanted him to help shoot A New Hope instead of the stubborn, unambitious Gilbert Taylor. As far as surface details go, the film practically appears to exist in a world that bears little resemblance to the classics of the 70’s and 80’s, and for good reason—while Episode I might have marked the return of American cinema’s most familiar and popular series, the work done by Lucas and his team make it look and feel refreshingly unfamiliar.

This blend of familiar techniques in unfamiliar surroundings produces an uncanny effect, which throughout the movie proves particularly effective at gathering the momentum which its slow-paced, expository story cannot afford. Part of the reason it disappointed some viewers, yet engaged everyone else, is the fact that despite being a Star Wars movie in every sense, The Phantom Menace holds back many of the series’ most classic and recognizable elements, substituting them instead with sights and settings that feel at once alien and indigenous to the continuity Lucas established years before. Some differences can be accounted to the advanced special-effects techniques—the city-planet Coruscant would have been impossible to put on screen decades ago—but are heightened by the new design choices. Others are subtler, noticeable only to trained eyes or repeated viewings—in the Originals, the bad guys fire green laser bolts from their starships, and the good guys red, while in the Prequels, the opposite is true. Most of the changes happen by omission, such as the iconic image of stars streaking in the cockpit of starships jumping to hyperspace, an indulgence which Lucas refuses to give into throughout the entire new trilogy. While many of the changes simply reflect the careful plotting of times set before the initial three films, others are there to redefine the elements in play or keep the integrity represented by the Originals intact.

These changes in setting and artifice, so distinctively fashioned by the creative team of McQuarie, Joe Johnston and the armies of Industrial Light & Magic, depends upon a uniformity of cinematic presentation—the dialectics of editing, camera movements and positions—which Episode I has in spades. While most of the planets, technology and even fashion sensibilities contrast sharply with the previous films, Lucas’ directorial habits remain intact, making sure that Star Wars style lives strong, even as the substance reinvents itself. Repeating the movie-serial wipes, dissolves and irises from A New Hope and onward, the film’s structure bookends itself with nuggets of scenes that end on important beats, passing the torch from one sequence to the next like chapter breaks in a novel. Spread out across the 2:35.1 aspect-ratio, the films’ angles, compositions and cinematic choreography favor the sparse, but dynamic style enforced from the earliest days of the franchise. Lucas favors the Langian approach to directing, playing scenes out through the static tableaux of masters and long-shots, bringing in close-ups and camera movements mostly to punctuate the action of crucial scenes.

Moreover, as the first film to fall under his explicit hands-on direction for over twenty years, and the first since American Graffiti in which he could maintain control over the entire production without nervously eyeing a crew’s mutiny on the set, it marks the first production in over three decades in which he could oversee the entirety of a film’s visual palate without distractions, detachment or creative disengagements of any kind. The Phantom Menace looks and feels more like the visionary THX-1138 than any other of Lucas’ films in the nearly forty-years since its creation and release— a shadowy, visually busy reflection of the minimalist sci-fi gem. Both films rely heavily on using real-world architecture, like Caserta Palace in Naples and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center in California, as backdrops for their science-fiction worlds. Both films feature an extensive use of cameras fitted with telephoto-lenses shooting from a distance, even for medium and close shots, a trick which flattens the image and subtly increases the film’s resolution, emphasizing the two-dimensional aspects of elements onscreen and enhancing the pictorial qualities of their tableaux compositions and stark profile shots. Finally, both films contain numerous instances where Lucas uses camera angle and set-design to evoke the element of classical perspective-lines in order to assert a visual dynamism on the behalf of static images. In the hallways and bottomless pits of each movie, Lucas composes his shots to draw a cinematic equivalent of comic-book speed-lines, conveying rapid motion and vertigo heights even in still shots.

 

IV: The Politics of Fencing

While these techniques were used in the previous Star Wars films, they grew in frequency and focus throughout Episode I and the Prequels that followed it. Bolder are the differences Lucas creates in terms of the action he shoots, which at once represents a sequence of strong, tightly plotted set-pieces that lean heavily on the visual fireworks of movies past while stridently reinventing what the Star Wars movies could be made of. Starting with A New Hope, each film has based its action-sequences primarily through a series of fast-paced chases and dogfights, laser-gun shootouts and lightsaber duels, alongside other assorted cliffhanger perils. In the Original Trilogy, the emphasis rested largely on the dogfights, where spectacular special-effects of the day were put to use to showcase the Rebel assaults on the Death Stars and the Imperial invasion of the Alliance’s stronghold on Hoth. At times closely modeled after wartime documentary footage and films like The Dam Busters, these sequences presented something at once new and old to audiences. These sequences are almost entirely absent from the Prequels, and The Phantom Menace especially. Even in the scenes where young Anakin takes place in the space-combat during the Battle of Naboo, his involvement is largely unintended—he only joins the fight after accidentally turning on a starfighter’s auto-pilot, and only manages to destroy the enemy battle-ship by accident after crash-landing inside it.

Instead, the emphasis in the newer films is placed upon the various lightsaber fights, any of which are much more frenetically paced than any from the first three pictures. While the fencing of the Original Trilogy was all impressively staged and shot, none of it matched the sheer scope of Nick Gillard’s choreography in the Prequels, which stands alongside Yuen Wo Ping’s work on The Matrix films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as some of the finest fight scenes of the past decade. While the scenes of sword-fighting remain far and away some of the most entertaining moments in the new films, especially The Phantom Menace’s now iconic “Duel of the Fates” between a pair of Jedi and the double-sword wielding Darth Maul, it’s important to point out that the cultural logic they present is entirely at odds with the dogfighting highlighted in the Originals. Though set on far-flung alien planets and distant galaxies, the starfighter battles in sky and space from A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi remain recognizable enough for filmgoers to feel familiar with them. Aerial-combat draws on a relatively short cultural memory, at least as recent as World War II, and therefore provides a scenario ripe enough to excite an audience, yet down-to-earth enough for them to relate to it, and experience that excitement on a personal level.

Fencing, however, invokes an archetype far more distant—swords have long been absent from military practice, except as ceremonial props—and removed from the daily lives of audience members, save for martial-arts experts. Requiring years of patient and diligent training and serving no practical purpose amidst the technologically advanced military hardware of today, the swordsmanship exhibited in the Prequels, though fancy, impressive and all sorts of fun on the screen, represents a breed of action that few can honestly identify with on an immediate, visceral level. While the dogfighting and shoot-outs of the Originals invited audiences to vicariously participate in an adventure composed of action not too far removed from the military engagements of the 20th century, the swordfighting of The Phantom Menace kept filmgoers on the outside, looking in on a type of violence that had started to die out since the invention of gunpowder. Kurosawa famously portrayed this pivotal shift in films like Seven Samurai, where the only warriors who die are the ones cut down by the bandit’s guns, their expertise with steel increasingly irrelevant in the face of new technology.

While the cultural memory invoked by The Phantom Menace and its swordplay is a fairly distant one, it is also rather universal, as well—no matter how old-fashioned and outdated fencing practices are in practical combat, bladed weapons remain one of the most common inventions throughout human history around the world. While the dogfighting and gunplay of the Originals rewound a recent, vivid memory of World Wars past, it replayed a memory that only had true meaning for the industrialized nations that took part in those global conflicts. The Prequels cast their net to the wider audience of a younger generation, less attached to the history lessons of the modern world than to the fantasies and daydreams such bloody conflicts afford. After all, the only place that swords have occupied any level of importance in the cultural imagination for centuries since has been in the realm of romanticized, heroic fiction, from dashing Musketeers and swashbuckling pirates to masked avengers like Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel or McCulley’s Zorro—heroes who proved their honor and ability by besting their foes against incredible odds with antique, limited weapons.

Though the laser-blade of the lightsaber can cut through metal and repel blaster-fire, it directly invokes the spirit of older technology, and as far back as A New Hope Lucas reinforces their heritage in Obi-Wan’s description of it as “an elegant weapon for a more civilized age”. Like Zorro, the Pimpernel and the Musketeers, the Jedi represent a fighting force that fights on the behalf of “peace and justice” for the underdog while occupying an elite, somewhat aristocratic position in society. Because of their diminished nature in the Originals, the initial Star Wars films were able to entertain audiences with small-doses of Jedi action, keeping as much focus as possible on the more relatable spectacle of Old West-style shootouts and WWII-style dogfights, inviting a wide margin of filmgoers successfully suspend their disbelief. The emphasis on the Jedi’s swordplay acrobatics throughout the Prequels, and especially Episode I, psychologically excludes audiences even while entertaining them, portraying the astonishing abilities of superhuman beings. Even before Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi start using the Force to defeat their enemies, their mastery is displayed on pure visual terms right from the film’s start, as they slice-and-dice their way through countless battle-droids with their lightsabers. Unlike the downtrodden Rebel figures of the Originals, the Prequel’s Jedi Knights consistently occupy a position of power.

 

V: Man and Superman

This difference is key, because it exposes the types of storytelling inherent in each trilogy—Episodes IV through VI are almost entirely a series of military conflicts are settled by guns or starships, save for a handful of pivotal fencing duels. Episodes I through III, on the other hand, highlight the swordplay and relegate traditional modern military engagements to the sidelines. The Jedi’s lightsabers figure deeply as visual signifiers of their empowerment, both in terms of brute-force and the social position they and other similarly armed popular heroes share in common. For a film with a broad focus on class differences and the opportunities they provide—Natalie Portman’s disguising herself as a mere servant on Tatooine rather than the regal role she plays before the Senate on Coruscant invokes the vagabond Princess from The Hidden Fortress, a longstanding influence on Lucas’ films—The Phantom Menace carries a nostalgic air about it when it comes to the Jedi which is appropriate for the whole enterprise. The Original Trilogy, by and large, was a war story, while the Prequel Trilogy stands as a tale where all-powerful individuals shape the galaxy’s destiny instead of the armies and masses of ordinary people they command. In other words, it’s a superhero story.

Throughout the Prequels, the Jedi Knights and Lucas’ treatment of them on the screen share many similarities with many classic comic-book characters—capable of making tall leaps in single bounds, all manner of psychokinesis, the power to see into the future as well as reading and manipulating minds through the Force, they carry a mixture of superpowers as potent as a team-up between Superman and the Shadow. Armed with equipment like their trusty lightsabers, two-way communicators, homing-beacons and grappling-hooks, all of which they carry in what can only be described as utility belts, they recall characters like Batman and Dick Tracy, heroes helped by technological marvels and driven by their commitment to social justice. Acting as equal parts warriors and detectives, and struggling against the mysterious plots of an all-powerful archenemy with armies of henchmen, metropolitan lairs and a secret identity to boot, the Jedi Knights less resemble King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table than the comic-book team-ups of the X-Men, the Justice League or especially the Green Lantern Corps—intergalactic lawmen inspired, like the Jedi, by E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series. Lucas’ penchant for looking to comic-books for inspiration is no secret—Darth Vader recalls classic supervillain Doctor Doom, complete with his own cape—but starting with Episode I, he not only references them through visuals and characteristics, but dedicates his movies to stories in which super-powered individuals are the main protagonists on-stage, and not just one part of he ensemble.

When A New Hope debuted in 1977, its mythological storytelling and special-effects wizardry reinvigorated the audience’s interests in movies of heroes and villains with powers beyond the likes of ordinary men, leading to screen versions of classic comic-book characters in films like Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Tim Burton’s Batman. While neither picture led to any other immediate successes in their respective genre, they introduced new filmgoers to the old stories and helped pave the way for the tidal-wave of superhero movies currently delighting audiences and critics alike, and The Phantom Menace arrived in theaters just as that tsunami began. In the years surrounding the return of Star Wars, filmgoers would see Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Superman Returns, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and perhaps most notably Christopher Nolan’s dramatic reinvention of the flagging Batman film franchise with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the Prequels arrived at the same time as films like The Matrix, Alex Proyas’ Dark City and M. Night Shyamalan’s underrated Unbreakable, all of which, like Lucas’ films, borrow extensively and comprehensively from superhero and comic-book literature to invent their own mythologies on superpowered individuals and the powers-that-be.

Shyamalan’s film is of particular note—like the Prequels, it features Samuel L. Jackson in an effective, uncharacteristically underplayed performance as a mysterious, crippled comic-book aficionado who seeks to discover a real-life superhero. The film spends a good deal of time making the same connections between comic-book stories and the legends that inspired the likes of Star Wars and its ilk. While filmmakers like Lucas or the Wachowskis hold such connections as self-evident, never explicitly making reference to any mythology besides their own internal ones, Shyamalan concocts a theory in which the comic-book adventures of Superman, Spider-Man and other such superhuman characters follow a direct continuity with the tales of Gilgamesh, Hercules and the like—visual representations of heroes as old as etchings on stone. While this literal bond between pop-culture and old culture is clever and motivating for the film’s own story, it ignores the greater tie between heroic epics both ancient and modern-day. Star Wars’ debt to myths, legends and fairy-tales has been well publicized since the release of the first film, and while the Original Trilogy was always compared to comic-books both for their larger-than-life subject-matters and perceived two-dimensional characters, the prominence of superheroics in the Prequels does something very important.

By the time Lucas began production on The Phantom Menace, the dominant filmic influences of the Original Trilogy, Westerns and World War II, had largely fallen out of use, save for a handful of widely acclaimed but increasingly violent modern classics like Unforgiven and Saving Private Ryan. Therefore, their genres made for difficult for a movie whose target audience wouldn’t be able to recognize or appreciate references to them—children. Superheroes, therefore, provide a useful alternative point of reference—always popular with children, and by 1999, prevalent enough in mainstream movies for audiences to be familiar with them as well. As part of the cultural shift towards the superhero genre in general, it communicates the same mythological resonances in a cinematic language tailor-made for modern audiences raised on a different sort of adolescent power-fantasy. But no matter what century the tale hails from, a story about heroes or superheroes is, above all else, a coming-of-age story.

 

VI: About a Boy

As the most direct, active representations of positive human potential, heroes with great strength, ingenuity and will remain inspirational examples, especially for younger people seeking to find their own paths in an uncertain world. It’s why most superhero stories and myths alike place special emphasis on their protagonists’ origin stories—in the transition from ordinary to heroic life, younger audiences can find easy, direct characters with which to identify with, and make sense of their own life stories. They may lack the emotional maturity that most adults require to take seriously, but all evidence to the contrary aside, adults are never the intended audience for superhero stories. It’s why many superhero stories, direct or otherwise, highlight adventures and tragedies suffered by heroes in their formative years. Batman and Superman are both defined by their childhood losses—one lost a pair of parents to a mugging, the other an entire planet to an exploding sun. Stan Lee’s Spider-Man and X-Men characters started out as ordinary teenagers, suddenly gifted by or discovering phenomenal powers in themselves. Even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels begin when the characters are all in grade school.

Having devoted the early 90’s to portraying the childhood and young adulthood of his other defining cinematic creation, Indiana Jones, on television, it’s fair to say that Lucas was keenly aware of the important commonality in the narrative trope of the hero’s youth. It’s this commonality, above all else, that explains the casting of then ten-year old Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, the boy fated to become Darth Vader, which still stands as perhaps the biggest complaint among The Phantom Menace’s critics. Lloyd’s performance itself, however, has never been the true source of that complaint. While his somewhat proclamative delivery irked some, it’s actually one of the more subtle, tolerable pieces of film-acting you’re likely to find from a child, save for the much-touted likes of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Dakota Fanning in everything she’s done so-far except Hounddog. Instead, most fans were disappointed by the fact that Lucas decided to cast a ten-year old in the first place, and not portray Anakin as a young man, already that much further along on his path towards the Dark Side. But his decision to begin Anakin’s story during childhood is an established narrative trope, common not only in the aforementioned recent examples, but found throughout old world myths and legends, as well.

Perhaps the best example is showcased in The Sword and the Stone, the first book of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, which tells the tale of Wart, an awkward youth who, under the wise tutelage of the wizard Merlin, grows to become Arthur, rightwise King, born of all England. Darth Vader, however, is not King Arthur, and therein lies the first hurdle of Lloyd’s casting. By having a ten-year old play the part of Anakin Skywalker, Lucas uses an archetype of protagonists for a character best known as the classic modern example of antagonists—invoking the image of the superhero in the story of a supervillain. It’s part of a dramatic revision to the whole Star Wars franchise that the Prequels creates, reframing the entire series not as the story of the noble youth, Luke Skywalker, but as the story of his father, Anakin. Whether or not Lucas actually did plan all along for his series to ultimately concern itself with “The Tragedy of Darth Vader”, a point which many remain skeptical, if not openly hostile to, his efforts to recast it as such carry a heavy draw. Evil or not, Vader was from the outset the most iconic character from the Original Trilogy, and his evolution throughout, from the brutal villain of A New Hope, the surprise-twist father of The Empire Strikes Back to the redemptive-savior of Return of the Jedi makes him an appropriate fit for the dramatic arc of a fallen hero. In the long-run, it’s a gambit that paid off, capturing the public’s imagination and pulling in large crowds, eager to watch a gifted, seemingly innocent young boy grow into the definitive image of cinematic evil.

An inversion of the Arthurian archetype, young Ani’s growth from slave, to Jedi and ultimately to Sith Lord is one that the film fuels with some of the most primal dreams and nightmares common to all children. In Anakin’s victory as a high-flying pod-racer and his aspirations for Jedi Knighthood, Lucas toys with two of the most basic fantasies for young children—driving fast and leaving home for a life of high adventure. Of course, in his departure from home, there is also the corollary anxiety over being separated from his mother, a key fear which nearly all children can relate to, wherein lies the second, and perhaps most crucial hurdle created in the depiction of Anakin’s childhood. While a child protagonist can be a powerful identification figure for an audience of children, the same cannot be said for an audience of adults. The conflicts that Anakin faces are childish ones, either because they can only happen in a space-opera divorced from any plausible fashion of reality, such as his victory in the pod-race or his destruction of the battle-ship, or because they play on fears and anxieties that healthy adults have long since outgrown. It’s hard for most adults to relate to Anakin leaving his mother, having long since left their own nests—it would probably be easier for them to relate to the mother, instead. No matter how it plays into the larger thematic structure, Lucas’ decision to center on a child-protagonist may have cost him admirers in the short term, especially among even devoted fans, many if not most of whom had themselves, tragically, grown up.

In the end, perhaps the same conclusion can reached on the adolescent power-fantasies of Episode I, the Prequels and all of the series in general. While the reputation of the Original Trilogy coasts on the inflated memories of A New Hope’s novelty and The Empire Strikes Back’s darkness, everything since Return of the Jedi has mostly suffocated between the rock of being written off as childish fluff and the hard place of being taken for granted as a fading, antique monument of pop-culture. But Star Wars is better than that—no matter how dire the writing, how stiff the acting, how juvenile the story or how ubiquitous the endeavor, this monumental, decades in the making film-cycle remains a one-of-a-kind treasure, as influential and inspirational as the movies, books and legends that influenced and inspired it. As vital to the history of cinema as Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, as important to the tapestry of children’s storytelling as the Brothers Grimm or J.M. Barrie, and as valuable to the iconography of popular culture as Andy Warhol or the Beatles, all six episodes of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga will remain an essential part of the future for at least as long as the arts of storytelling and movies remain. Even The Phantom Menace will remain with us, until the end of time—maybe by then, everybody else will like it, too.