For years, this Star Wars fan subsisted on re-watching the original trilogy. I viewed the first three movies so many times I had them memorized, shot-for-shot, word-for-word. In high school, when my know-it-all teenaged self would get bored with whatever it was the teacher was saying, I would play one of these films in my head. I got through many a long day in the classroom sitting in a movie theater inside my head with tales of a galaxy far, far away. Outside of the confines of institutions of learning, I would read the various officially licensed novels that came out over the intervening years. Authors like Aaron Allston and Timothy Zahn carried on the storylines of my favorite characters from my favorite movies. Still, it was nothing like seeing them on the silver screen. That is why, like most of my fellow fans, I was beyond excited to see that they had decided to release a new series, finally showing what many wanted to know: how Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) became Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones). I remember sitting outside my local AMC theater the day the tickets for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) went on sale, making friends with others in line, and playing Star Wars Trivial Pursuit (and winning). Like most, I was initially overwhelmed with what I saw, lacking the capacity to view it critically. In the years to follow, mostly thanks to Red Letter Media, I was able to see its deep flaws. As a result, these days when people ask me for recommendations about Star Wars, I usually tell them to pretend like the prequels do not exist.
Since The Phantom Menace is a Star Wars movie, I will be switching to my special style by which I go about talking about these films. In truth, though, it will be hard not to repeat much of what has been said by Red Letter Media, particularly in regards to the first of the prequel trilogy. For example, given what I said in the first paragraph, you might expect that Anakin would be the main character. After all, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) has Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as our protagonist, the kid from the boonies who takes his “first steps into a larger world.” We meet him a lot earlier than we do Anakin in The Phantom Menace, and after he helps win his freedom by coming in first in the pod race on Tatooine, he has little influence over the rest of the events. Excuse me, but I thought these films were supposed to be about how he becomes Darth Vader? It is a little hard to see how any of this matters, particularly when the rest is about a dispute between the Republic and the Trade Federation that centers on the planet Naboo. A little kid is not going to have much say in such proceedings, and the Jedi that bring him along for this journey, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), seem more annoyed by his presence than anything else. It is Qui-Gon’s idea, yet he has to constantly remind an eleven-year-old to keep his head down in the middle of a battle. That does not seem all that wise for a Jedi. Still, this leads me to something not covered in Red Letter Media’s Plinkett Review that always bothered me about the film, something that I noticed even before I learned to be more critical of it. It is on Naboo that we meet Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the elected ruler of the planet. I guess Star Wars systems of government work differently, and their monarchies are not hereditary? Then again, they wanted to make George Washington king of the United States at first, but I digress. Whatever her status is, it is not the main thing with which I had trouble. Instead, it is the fact that she is quite a few years older than Anakin. As the old saying goes, age is just a number. Nonetheless, for example, if you read the advice the Catholic Church gives on finding the right spouse, it says that it is best that two people be a lot closer than they are at this point in their lives. Maybe I am crazy, but how many of you met the person you were to marry when you were almost twenty, and he/she was barely past ten? Granted, there is nothing in this film specifically that would suggest their future relationship. As a Star Wars fan or even a casual observer, however, you know Luke and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) had to come from somewhere.
In talking about the criticisms of The Phantom Menace, many of you will undoubtedly want me to talk about Jar Jar Binks (Ahmad Best). Yes, he is eye-rollingly clumsy, and one has to wonder at the logic of making him a general to lead his native Gungans against the Trade Federation’s droid army in the climactic battle. He is the first person that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon meet on Naboo when they sneak down to the planet after negotiations with the Trade Federation broke down. After the Jedi convince the Gungans to help the human population resist the invasion, despite their differences, the Jedi are, for no good reason, stuck with this lunatic for the rest of the film. Those in charge of making the movie would probably want you to believe that he is there for comic relief. I do not know about you, but I can only take so many of what are essentially pie-in-your face moments before I grow tired of it. He knocks over robots in Watto’s (voiced by Andy Secombe) junk shop, gets electrified before the pod race, and generally fouls up the battle with the droid army. I am trying to maintain Christian charity here, so I will cease with voicing my frustrations. Clearly, they could have done the comic relief in a less annoying way, but truth be told, I did not pay much attention to it the first time I saw it. As with so many other aspects of the film, it was something I learned to despise as the years passed. This is not what God wants of us.
Speaking of which, perhaps the worst aspect of The Phantom Menace is the making of Anakin to be on par with Jesus. Why do I say this? When Qui-Gon is talking to Anakin’s mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), she mentions that the boy has no father. In other words, Anakin is the result of a virginal birth. Come on, George Lucas. Now, I do not want to go so far as to say that the creator of Star Wars wanted to make his future Darth Vader, one of the most famous villains in cinematic history, to purposely share characteristics with Love Incarnate. I get that in Western Culture, when you want to mark a character as being special, you give her or him unusual features. Outside of Jesus, most people come into this world as the result of mom and dad having intercourse. One may call my issue with this aspect a bit of a selfish one. If you have this be something that marks many characters as being different, then it loses some of the luster that should be given solely to Our Savior. At the same time, let me offer an alternative: Anakin could just as easily been the result of a normal coupling. Where is dad? Well, Qui-Gon, he died in a Tusken Raider attack. This would actually help set up what happens in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) when an older Anakin (Hayden Christensen), now a Jedi Padawan, slaughters an entire Tusken village to avenge his mother. At the same time, having more of a sensible backstory for Anakin might have warned Qui-Gon further that maybe you should not be showing so much interest in the boy, no matter the prophecy of someone bringing balance to The Force. They still could have saved their hides when Anakin is presented to the Jedi Council. At first the boy is rejected for training, but after Qui-Gon is killed by Darth Maul (Ray Park), they suddenly change their minds. I understand. Christians do not always follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, they do not always involve a person destined to murder millions.
Having said all this, what could have saved The Phantom Menace? For starters, George Lucas should not have been involved. He can be credited for the original idea for the franchise. As happens so often with some artists, you get too close to your work and you forget what it is that made it special. In the original trilogy, it was clear which side you needed to root for, and that was refreshing. As a Christian, I know there is evil in the world. It should be fought against, though fighting does not have to involve fists, or lightsabers. Incidentally, those novels I read so many of in the years between 1983 when Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of Jedi was released and 1999’s premiere of The Phantom Menace fleshed out the Jedi as more than just a bunch a people in robes with laser swords. There was more of an emphasis on peace, and that is one of the reasons why this Christian loves the lore of Star Wars. My only wish is that Lucas saw the same thing.
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