“…for my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it. Makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we; not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere. Yes, even between the land and the ship.” —Yoda
“When I first knew him, your father was already a great podracer. But I was amazed how strongly the Force was with him. By which, I mean a little device told me his midichlorian count was even higher than that Muppet you just saw die. Over 6,000. Never mind how many units; that’s crazy high. And that’s to say nothing about the whole Christ complex we sort of affixed to him by committee. In retrospect, I guess we really set up your dad for failure, huh? But I digress… I took it upon myself to train him as a Jedi.” —Obi-Wan Kenobi
One of the most pivotal moments in the entire Star Wars series hardly seems pivotal, particularly when pooled with the six sequels that followed. Luke Skywalker comes to after his ambush from a Wampa Ice Monster. Feet frozen to a cave ceiling and dangling like a meat stalactite, Luke reaches in vain for his father’s lightsaber, resting in the snow just out of reach. Knowing how little time remains before the ice monster gets peckish and raids his fridge, Luke’s eyes roll to the back of his head, and he stretches out his hand. For the first time in the movie, John Williams’ familiar melody, the musical banner for an all-powerful Force controlling everything, rumbles up. Remarkably the lightsaber jerks forth, slowly, until it springs squarely into Luke’s hand. Luke cuts himself down, cuts the beast down, and scrambles to the bitter cold outside.
This is a remarkable development for the Star Wars mythology, even if the scene’s not crafted to feel like one. Intuitively, we simply accept Luke’s manipulating the Force to will his weapon hither. We acknowledge the superpower’s a concept to be carried over, alongside the main characters and plot, from the preceding movie. We understand there exists in this world a supernatural power to be learned and mastered by an extinct clan of space-wizards, enabling its users to manipulate the weak-minded, to “feel” your shooting target in a way advanced technology cannot, and under darker circumstances close off the windpipes of annoying people.
But this is the first instance we’ve seen of full-on telekinesis. The second we see Luke’s hand outstretched, when we hear the music play and that lightsaber lurch forward, we’ve seen a truly grand expansion of the possibilities in this universe. By the time Luke encounters the ghost of his dead mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, who instructs him to seek out the Jedi Master Yoda, this renewed call to adventure feels inevitable. We are primed to explore realms whose unknowns grew slightly more infinite.
The Empire Strikes Back is about the propulsive power of mystery. That may sound like a silly thing to say about a movie known for the medium’s most famous reveal. But it’s interesting to consider how the decision to close off the series’ one great mystery—the truth of Darth Vader’s identity—serves primarily to stimulate new questions about the characters, their places in the galaxy’s history, and what is truly at stake in the narrative. Couple this with a few other developments whose introductions to the story feel sudden —previously unseen wizardry, announcing another Jedi Master (apparently, when Ben called the Jedi “all but extinct,” the operative term was “all but”), announcing “another” Skywalker urchin—these leaps and expansions don’t exactly feel especially organic to the storytelling. But at the same time they work. Because they season these stories in such a way to make them feel part of something grander, more rife with possibilities. The mysteries are what deepen not just The Empire Strikes Back, but many of the other films in this series.
The Phantom Menace, on the other hand, means to narrow one’s understanding of the universe. It feels smaller than its predecessors, even if the sophisticated special effects convey the illusion of infinite landscapes, cityscapes, and space-scapes. The impetus of the story—and the two stories to follow—is not to take established characters, and to see in what new ways they can be or pushed to new limits. Rather, they are meant to take established characters and understand how they got pushed to their original limits in the first place. While that’s not an inherently uninteresting approach to tell a story—especially when that story is a character study of a great villain—narrowing focus means there is less to see. As it pertains to the story of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace functions not to expand on the mythology, but to explain.
Again, that isn’t to say retrofitting an explanation for an already-started story is an inherent problem. And unlike many of its critics, I am not particularly down on the idea of spelunking the inner turmoil of Darth Vader. But as storytelling, it remains a fundamentally inorganic approach. If your choice of narrative flow is to push the water back upstream, to bring the Mississippi back to Itasca, less important is the stream itself than the tributaries feeding in. That is how you explain the waterway, how you broaden the story without necessarily expanding it. Context matters most.
I give George Lucas’ credit, perhaps more than most, that his approach to the prequels convey a basic appreciation for context. As The Phantom Menace and its sequels recount the tragedy of Darth Vader, they depict a political ecosystem atrophying around it. They depict a Jedi Order nearing the end, their vision fogged by some Dark Side-y (wait for it!) phantom menace. They depict a federation of greedy capitalists who circumvent justice and democracy for power. Finally, they depict the most unfathomably wicked man of the Galaxy and his masterful ability to capitalize on every vulnerability he sees.
Simply listing all these components of The Phantom Menace, absent any consideration of their execution in the material, is kind of thrilling. You can see not just the ingredients of a great personal tragedy, but the framework for a grand epic about how easily a great society can fail itself. Lucas plainly conceives a space opera at its most operatic. Never mind that this arguably demystifies the original trilogy’s conception of Darth Vader. (It stays sufficiently “mystified” if you do the sensible thing and watch these movies by order of their release date.) These prequels show the promise for a story of the many roads leading to a burning Rome. If the original trilogy was a children’s fable, a return to naivete, then these stories might have proffered the embrace of a sadder, if nevertheless true, descent into cynicism. If you squint just hard enough—and squint especially hard at The Phantom Menace—you can actually see that.
Again, though, this is all absent of consideration for execution.
Certainly the listless pacing, risible acting, and racist characters remain Phantom’s most egregious creative obstacles. When I say “execution,” though, I don’t simply mean the formal misfires riddling the movie. As a filmmaker who’s gone from expansion to explanation, Lucas’ appreciation for context only ventures so deep. He still feels more obsessed with the flow of mystery than with the tributaries he’s (brilliantly) concocted. He comes infuriatingly close to a fresh tone and look for the prequels establishing it as its own species. Yet sadly he seems to balk at accepting the inorganic nature of his story. He declines explanation, and instead opts for what’s merely the pretense of mystery and expansion.
Most frustrating is that the central mystery of The Phantom Menace is, as Lucas tells it, not much of a mystery. Mace Windu speaks at one point of finding clues “to unravel the mystery of the Sith.” Yet it’s probably self-evident to viewers who’ve seen the previous movies—or has even a modest ability to distinguish noses, mouths, and chins—the Sith Lord orchestrating everything is the Senator/Chancellor played by the actor who played the evil Emperor in the previous films. Though I can’t blame the characters for their ignorance, Lucas crafts his story under the presumption audiences have no clue what’s going on either. In the movie’s final line, Windu also posits a question, following the demise of the Sith Lord Darth Maul: “Which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?” This is clearly framed as this trilogy’s inciting development, its defining question. Its great mystery. And yet, directly following that question, Lucas deflates himself with a winking, yet obvious close-up of the newly elected Chancellor Palpatine. How exactly Lucas intended for this mystery to unfold is clear only to him.
I believe resolutely in the power of imagination. As such, I can buy into a scenario where a storyteller can craft a still-surprising mystery to which the answer is already known. But Lucas falters in his inconsistency, in his lack of clarity. Though I genuinely believe the prequels aren’t without their merits, and that Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith as executed fall comparatively less short of their ambitions, it remains near-painful to consider what might have been. The Phantom Menace, as prelude to a fable that fundamentally doesn’t need one, was conceived at a creative disadvantage. Yet everything about Lucas’ thematic conceptions suggests he could have superseded it. A pity his narrative grasp wasn’t given as much thought. His end result compensates for a lack of mystery not by deepening and clarifying the context of its tragedy. Instead it tries needlessly, and fatally, to perpetuate the mystery.
This is the fourth in a series of film essays on the Star Wars film series. The schedule for the series and links to all posted essays can be seen below:
- It’s the Sound that Defines Star Wars (1977)
- Darth Vader is a Terrible Boss in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
- Essay on Return of the Jedi (1983) — Friday, December 8
- Essay on The Phantom Menace (1999) — TODAY’S ESSAY
- Essay on Attack of the Clones (2002) — Sunday, December 10
- Essay on Revenge of the Sith (2005) — Monday, December 11
- Essay on The Force Awakens (2015) — Tuesday, December 12
- Essay on Rogue One (2016) — Wednesday, December 13
- Final Thoughts — Thursday, December 14