Published in Film Criticism 24.3 (Spring 2000) pp. 23-44. Copyrighted.
Professor of English
University of Toronto
Hype, merchandizing, special effects: should film critics pay serious attention, in any non-marketing or non-technological ways, to the much-touted movie event of summer 1999, George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace, which many reviewers have essentially summarized as great special effects in a convoluted plot, with uninteresting characters and a couple of excellent action sequences? The film has been, of course, in part a victim of the extraordinary success of the first Star Wars trilogy: A New Hope, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Return of the Jedi, 1983. Public anticipation of this fourth instalment in the planned 6- or 9-film epic saga (1) ran so high, and advance media and internet attention was accordingly so lavish, that at least some public and critical disappointment was almost inevitable. And marketing overkill also created a backlash; many media commentators had difficulty finding the movie beneath the shelves of Star Wars toys and a plethora of other commercial tie-ins (2).
Beneath, however, all the hype and the merchandizing lies a film fully deserving of serious critical attention: for The Phantom Menace is a film different from any other released since 1983's Return of the Jedi. In the Star Wars series, George Lucas is creating something unique in twentieth-century popular film: not a series of narratively-independent sequels and prequels (the normal mode in movie sequelization), focused on film genre conventions and/or on specific actors/roles, nor an old-fashioned serial with (merely) narratively interlocking episodes, but an epic mythological saga--full of exotic locales and monsters, like the sagas of old--consisting of at least six mutually-dependent parts interrelated in an intricately-designed narrative, mythological, and metaphoric whole. The Phantom Menace, as the fourth instalment in the Star Wars saga, is not a film intended to stand alone, or simply as a regular sequel (or prequel) or a serial episode; and to read it in any of those ways (as most reviewers have done) is inappropriate in terms of its design and purpose. The film is very much, though chronologically the first episode in the Star Wars story, the beginning of a second trilogy and the fourth-made part of an epic sextet, with patterns of plot and structure, cinematic allusions, and visual imagery acquiring meaning above all from its interrelationships both with the three prior films (episodes 4-6) and with at least two more (episodes 2-3) yet to come. Building backwards as well as forwards, each Star Wars episode also revises in retrospect our readings of some aspects of the earlier films. The Star Wars films have thus together become a unique spectatorial experience for Star Wars-knowledgeable popular audiences, who, despite lukewarm and sometimes hostile media reviews, have placed The Phantom Menace far at the top of the 1999 film box office (3). Hype, action, and special effects alone do not create such popular success. How, then, does an integrated Star Wars reading of The Phantom Menace work?
The original Star Wars trilogy is based on what mythologer Joseph Campbell has called the cultural monomyth of the hero: in cultures around the world, a leader or potential leader who is called upon a quest ("departure"), goes through a series of ordeals or trials culminating in a near-death or actual-death experience ("initiation"), and then is symbolically or literally resurrected to go forward in triumph to a victorious conclusion both for himself and for his people ("return") (4). The myth is more importantly metaphoric than literal, and often allegorical in method; the hero's physical experiences (e.g., taming a monster) stand for emotional and pyschological experiences (e.g., controlling general or specific emotions). Star Wars 4-6 attracted a massive popular following for its combination of this mythology--in which the hero is all of us, expressing what Campbell (see especially Hero 17-19) has described as the dreamwork of the culture, our conscious and unconscious aspirations and fears--with familiar characters both archetypal and everyday (e.g., the young boy yearning to leave home for a life of adventure), imaginatively creative and thematically rich visuals (e.g., the skull-like Death Star, representing death and fear of death, in Return of the Jedi), dazzling special effects wholly innovative for their time, and narrative focus on what is of elemental, emotional, and psychological importance to people from all cultures through all time: growing up human, above all in relation to one's family and friends, from youth (A New Hope) through adolescence (The Empire Strikes Back) to maturity (Return of the Jedi). The overall message of the first Star Wars trilogy--that life’s ordeals, and even death itself as fearful, can be overcome through human growth towards mature and compassionate love and self-sacrifice (as seen clearly at Return of the Jedi's climax, when the death-dealing Emperor is defeated by Luke's refusal to fight his father and by the self-sacrifice Luke’s father then makes for his son)--is in part the message of some of the world’s most successful religions. The enemy--the dark side, the Emperor, the Death Star--lies within, more significantly than without, as demonstrated in the magic tree-cave sequence of The Empire Strikes Back, where the adolescent Luke discovers that his dreaded enemy is his own dark side, his emotions of fear, anger, and hatred, and in the allegorical Rancor monster (spiteful anger) the maturing Luke must defeat in Return of the Jedi in order to become able to save his friends and himself (5). Lucas presents this message with a late-twentieth-century spin not only technological and futuristic (“in a galaxy far far away") but also nostalgic (“a long time ago”). He brings the human past, present, and future together, and works with a wide variety of cinematic allusions, mythic and literary sources, and stunning special effects to deepen the thematic and emotional experiences created for the audience by his storyline, which is also entertaining, often comic, and richly inventive in visual details (6).
In proceeding to expand his first Star Wars trilogy into a six-part integrated whole, Lucas counts on an audience already immersed in the saga to recognize and to appreciate, consciously or subconsciously, and eventually if not immediately, his intertextual patternings based on repetition, variation, and, most importantly, integration. He begins his series of carefully-designed interrelationships between The Phantom Menace and Star Wars 4-6 by basing the narrative pattern of the new film (episode 1) clearly on that of A New Hope (episode 4). A New Hope, the first film of the original trilogy, begins with Luke's boyhood, has a more comic, positive, and straightforward plot than the two episodes following it, and has fairly shallow characterization. Complications come in its immediate sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, along with a deepening of the characters; the dark potential in A New Hope then becomes apparent through rereading the first film in the light of Empire. The Phantom Menace, the first film of the new trilogy, is in narrative terms basically a rerun of A New Hope; it begins with the boyhood of a new hero, Anakin Skywalker, and, like A New Hope, is superficially positive and more plot-centered than character-centered. The deepening of characters will presumably come in Part 2, as in The Empire Strikes Back in the original trilogy (7). As is not the case, however, with A New Hope, the dark potential--with its attendant thematic complications--is already overtly present in Phantom Menace, and this deliberate variation becomes an important aspect of the otherwise repeated elements of A New Hope in the new film.
Anakin Skywalker (eventual father of Luke) is this film’s version of A New Hope’s Luke, going through narratively similar situations and experiences. Anakin, like Luke, is a young boy on the desert planet of Tatooine, from a “broken” family (8), who is suddenly given the opportunity to embark on an epic quest involving a beautiful, royal young woman in need of his help and a Jedi knight who becomes his mentor. Like Luke, Anakin accepts the opportunity, and is flown through space with his mentor to face a test (for Luke, the Death Star rescue of Leia; for Anakin, a literal test before the Jedi Council). Like A New Hope, the film then ends with the boy’s special powers (including his capacity for friendship and love) permitting him to save his friends from annihilation by destroying an enemy battle station. Details of the narrative also correspond from one film to the other: the Jedi mentor's advice to the protagonist to rely on his feelings, the death of the mentor in a light-saber duel, the association of allies with ancient sacred ruins.
Importantly, in repeating the narrative pattern of A New Hope in The Phantom Menace, Lucas deliberately repeats the first film’s mythological pattern as well. Like the plot of A New Hope, that of The Phantom Menace takes us through the three stages of Campbell’s monomyth: the hero’s departure (on his quest), initiation (testing experiences), and return (the emergence from tests to achieve a final victory). This is also both the plot pattern of each of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (with Empire’s “return” phase completed only at the start of Jedi) (9) and, as well, the overarching pattern of the first-made trilogy as a whole (A New Hope as departure, The Empire Strikes Back as initiation, Return of the Jedi as return). The integrating viewer can now perceive that Star Wars 1 through 6 will give us the same pattern arching over all 6 films, in relation to Anakin as hero: with his departure in The Phantom Menace, initiation in Episodes 2-3, and return in 4-6 (beginning with his discovery of his son Luke in 4-5, and ending with his self-sacrificial death for Luke, and therefore resurrection, at the end of 6) (10). The narrative and mythological patterning of all six eventual Star Wars films will thus create a sense of repeating, increasingly complex cycles of human experience: within individual lives (both Luke's and Anakin's), and from Anakin's generation to Luke’s, within the overall movement of Anakin’s entire life from boyhood to death.
The repeated patterns of plot and myth thus together have significant thematic purpose, to which Star Wars-knowledgeable audiences consciously or subconsciously respond. Through the repetitions Lucas implicitly comments on the general experience of humankind over time, both repeatedly within individual lives and from one generation to another, in terms of life's ongoing tests, failures, and triumphs. Other Star Wars characters, such as Leia, Han, and Lando in the first trilogy, also go through less prominent versions of the same patterns: as probably now too will the young queen Amidala in Episodes 1-3 and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episodes 1-4 (11). And there is also, with this second trilogy focusing far more than the first on politics, a strong sense as well of repeating social and political patterns in human history more generally. Lucas begins, in episode 1, with a political state, the Republic, in crisis and beginning to disintegrate. Episodes 2-3 will see its demise and the rise of the Empire. In episodes 4-5, the Empire is in control, but by the close of episode 6 the Empire in turn is collapsing. If episodes 7-9 are ever made, they will supposedly focus on the building of a new Republic (Clarke Empire 51 col. 2), and thus create an overarching mythological structure, for all of Parts 1 through 9, of departure (seen largely in retrospect), initiation, and return in relation to the Republic as a political system: with an implied potential, in its parallels with the human experiences we see, for this cycle, too, to repeat itself over time. Lucas’s visual and verbal allusions in The Phantom Menace to the Roman Republic and Empire--most notably in the visuals of the arena-based podracing sequence and in the very names “Republic” and “Senate/Senators” (also American political names, many republics and empires after Rome)--increase our sense of the repeating cycles of human political history (12).
But repeating narrative and mythological patterns in The Phantom Menace do not only provide audiences with a conscious or subconscious sense of cycles and repetition in human life and in political movements. They also allow, through variations, and emotionally and intellectually complicating emphasis upon difference and change. The broad pattern of human life, from youth to maturity to death, remains constant, but individual circumstances within the pattern inevitably differ, creating different possibilities and problems. Major variations in The Phantom Menace from A New Hope make this thematic point and turn The Phantom Menace into a film which, unlike A New Hope, emphasizes the fallibility, not the strengths, of humankind in the characters now presented, and the difficulties of the human situation. A teenaged Luke, for example, at the start of A New Hope has no parent alive, that he knows of; furthermore, his decision to set off on his epic quest, to become a Jedi like the father he learns about from Obi-Wan Kenobi, is made easy for him by the deaths of his aunt and uncle. The film moves positively forward; Luke’s decisions are easy and correct. (Psychologically, Luke must become an adult, for good or for evil, by finding and replacing his father.) The younger Anakin has a slave mother, and no father that he knows of; leaving his mother behind, as he sets off on his quest, is clearly a problem for him, and Yoda notes (in the Jedi Council testing sequence) that Anakin’s mother is all-important in terms of Anakin’s future as a Jedi. (Psychologically, Anakin must become an adult, for good or for evil, by leaving his mother.) The emphasis of episodes 4-6 on problematic fathers is shifting to problematic mothers (13), and the focus on moving forward in hope is changing to a focus on looking back in doubt. The narrative and monomythic patterns are the same, but the characters, situations, and concerns point--as not in A New Hope--towards possible failure as much as towards possible success in the human maturation process. The films together move, for the integrating spectator, towards an increasingly complex view of human experience.
Similarly, at the end of The Phantom Menace repetitions and variations function, in a consciously or unconsciously integrated viewing, to give audiences a darker view of general human possibilities than in A New Hope. Both A New Hope and The Phantom Menace end with a ceremonial celebration of self-defensive military victory, which visually culminates (in both films after three figures have together ascended a flight of steps to receive a royal reward) in a group shot of the triumphant protagonists. These celebratory sequences significantly differ, however, when narratively compared. In A New Hope we have seen no real weaknesses in the characters yet (although that will come in The Empire Strikes Back), only growing friendship and loyalty, while by the conclusion of The Phantom Menace all main characters have been revealed to be significantly flawed. Integration emphasizes the flaws. Anakin, much younger than Luke in A New Hope, is fearful and misses his mother (to whom he has promised later to return): major obstacles, Yoda advises, to his development as a Jedi (14). The young Queen Amidala, unlike Leia in A New Hope, has been apparently outmaneouvered, because of her political idealism and inexperience, by the ambitious Senator Palpatine. She has helped him politically to rise to control the Republican Senate, by demanding--at his suggestion--a non-confidence vote in the existing Chancellor, her ally; in episodes 4-6, audiences recognize, Palpatine has become the ruthless Emperor (16). Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn, who dies in a light saber duel shortly before the finale, has demanded of an unwilling Jedi Council that Anakin (whom he believes to be the Jedi's prophesied "chosen one") be trained; audiences know that Anakin by the start of episode 4 has become Darth Vader (17). Qui-Gon's young apprentice Obi-Wan, through a promise to Qui-Gon, is now burdened with an apprentice (Anakin) he considers to be “dangerous” (18). Audiences are aware that Anakin later turns against Obi-Wan. We see from the start of this new trilogy, as not in A New Hope (though later in episodes 5-6), the potential problems created through unexamined decisions and promises based on apparent positive factors such as personal religious conviction (Qui-Gon), political pacifism and trust (Amidala), and love of family and friends (Anakin, Obi-Wan). Through such an emotional promises, indeed, perhaps both Obi-Wan and Anakin have become tied in part to the past, without full freedom to adapt to change: an adaptation necessary, the film begins to suggest in relation to episodes 4-6, for appropriate human maturation. When Anakin, about to leave Tatooine, expresses unhappiness at the change involved in leaving home, his mother Shmi twice tells him, "Don't look back," and counsels him, "You can't stop the change, any more than you can stop the suns from setting": those two suns of Tatooine which, in the original trilogy, represent Luke's good and bad fathers, both of whom have died by the end of Return of the Jedi as Luke himself becomes a man.
Cinematic allusions, to which audiences of episodes 4-6 should be alert and responsive, also play a significant and complex part in the design of The Phantom Menace as an alternative, darker version of A New Hope: a mythological journey of an idealistic hero who, unlike Luke in the original trilogy, in episodes 2-3 will go very wrong. Most obviously The Phantom Menace makes extensive use of the dark The Empire Strikes Back and of Return of the Jedi to add moral and thematic complexities to its basic A New Hope pattern. Qui-Gon’s cockpit decision to fly to Tatooine to repair his ship, for example, is similar in visuals and in dialogue to Han’s decision in The Empire Strikes Back to fly to Bespin for repairs. The similarities create parallels, for integrating Star Wars audiences, between The Empire Strikes Back’s Bespin (a moral and political trap for all Empire’s protagonists) and The Phantom Menace’s Tatooine (where Qui-Gon finds the “dangerous” Anakin and where Darth Maul--human evil personified--first appears to the Jedi (19). The final multi-strand battle of Naboo is similar not so much to the final, comparatively simple battle in A New Hope as to the more complex battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, which features similar diverse plot strands (a light saber duel, a battle on a planet's surface, a space battle); but whereas in Return of the Jedi the cross-cutting among the plot lines establishes an ordered sequence which makes a moral statement (Luke and Vader, battling before the Emperor, must sacrifice themselves for one another before, metaphorically, the planet Endor [home] can be one and the Death Star [death and fear of death] can be destroyed [see Lancashire "Once More" 60-62]), in The Phantom Menace the ordering of events does not make any such clear moral point (20). Moreover Qui-Gon's sacrifice is involuntary and Anakin blows up the enemy control ship accidentally. Through the contrasts with Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace suggests its characters' inexperience and moral flaws; and Qui-Gon's dark funeral pyre, following the battle, also contrasts with Vader's pyre following Return of the Jedi's battle. Vader's pyre involves a purification rite by a mature, self-aware individual, Vader/Anakin's son, and a camera pan up to the vast expanses of space, followed by celebratory fireworks and Vader/Anakin's astral resurrection. Qui-Gon's pyre is claustrophobically encircled by fearful, partially ignorant non-family spectators, two of whom discuss the Sith, the hidden evil now threatening the state. Parallels and contrasts between The Phantom Menace's final light saber duel and the light saber duels in episodes 4-6 also alert perceptive audiences to the moral failures of all three combatants in The Phantom Menace. The three aggressively attack one another, and aggression--as intellectually integrating spectators of episodes 4-6 should recognize--cannot succeed more than temporarily. Only understanding self-sacrifice (Obi-Wan in episode 4, Luke and Vader/Anakin in 6) ultimately wins (21).
Cinematic allusions beyond The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are also important. The reference to early swashbuckling films in the initial rescue of Amidala by two Jedi knights provides nostalgia and fun, but other allusions have largely dark significance. The visual opposition of Gungan and Trade Federation forces on a lush green, hilly battlefield in part echoes battle scenes from period-piece films such as cinematic versions of Shakespeare's history plays: generalizing, as do also the previously-noted nomenclature and visuals alluding to the Roman Republic and Empire, the warring conflicts and political processes we are watching as repeating patterns in human history (and art) (22). The "Battle of Britain" allusions of A New Hope's final space battle, which in retrospect now become part of the pattern of historical repetition, seemed in 1977 entirely positive, although the visual parallel between A New Hope's medal-presentation ceremony and Leni Riefenstahl's 1934 Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will puzzled some reviewers (23). The allusion's indirect comment on militarism as morally dangerous was then recognized after the release of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: an example of the first film's initial re-creation, within the saga, when integrated with its two immediate sequels.
Most importantly, a major cinematic allusion near the start of The Phantom Menace points to a darker thematic development for the new trilogy than was indicated for episodes 4-6 by a similar reference near the start of A New Hope, and simultaneously points to the positive ending of Return of the Jedi. In A New Hope Lucas visually refers, in Luke’s finding of his destroyed homestead, to the classic western The Searchers (1956) (24), not simply to bring into A New Hope some of the visual iconography of the western but also to allude at the trilogy’s start to its hero 's quest as centered in emotionally complex family relationships through which ultimately he will find an inner humanity. The allusion invites both intellectual and emotional audience response. The comparable allusion in The Phantom Menace (also just before the hero's departure from Tatooine) is to 1959's Ben-Hur: not only a source for the podrace in The Phantom Menace (as has been much noted), and a means for Lucas to introduce ideas about repeating political systems throughout human history, but also significantly a film about a hero whose loss of his mother (and sister), when in a clash with the (Roman) Empire, turns him to despair and revenge, until miraculously Christ’s crucifixion changes his anguish to peace through love. Visual use of Ben-Hur’s chariot race, in conjunction especially with The Phantom Menace's emphasis on Anakin's mother, brings into the film strong indications of what will likely be major thematic factors in the new trilogy: the hero’s loss of his mother (not father, as in A New Hope) in relation to the Empire, literal and metaphoric slavery (Ben-Hur, when betrayed, becomes temporarily a slave not only literally but also metaphorically to his passions), and the self-destructive power (largely resisted in the first trilogy) of anger and hatred fueled by love of family or friends. The allusion establishes episodes 1-3 as likely a partial Ben-Hur, in which Anakin is similarly brought to despair and revenge at least partly through his love for his mother (and wife?): until Anakin is finally redeemed, not by Christ (the son of God) but by his own son (crucified in The Empire Strikes Back), at the end of the 6-part epic whole, in Return of the Jedi. (Episodes 4-6 have indicated that love and self-sacrifice are a kind of divinity within humankind.) Ben-Hur--a film of spiritual fall and redemption--will thus become an important allusion for the integrated Star Wars 1-6. Significantly, in the light of Ben-Hur's emphasis on the protagonist's mother (and sister and wife-to-be), whereas A New Hope features the two suns of Tatooine and two father figures for Luke (figures further developed in episodes 5-6), The Phantom Menace is full of moons (both full and crescent), the traditional symbol of the female, and emphasizes Anakin’s relationships with two mother figures, his literal mother, Shmi, and the young queen, Amidala, who has a maternal attitude towards him (25). Furthermore, Amidala is much associated with moon imagery, in the circular and crescent visuals of her headdresses, her hairdos, the beauty spots on her face, the chairs in which she sits, the peace globe she gives to the Gungan leader at the film’s end, and even the circular image in which she appears near the film’s start to the blockading representatives of the Trade Federation. Anakin even sees her, at their first meeting, as an angel from the “moons of Iego."
The plot line of The Phantom Menace, like A New Hope's, is single (until the final battle sequences); all characters are focused on the same political events: a Trade Federation blockade of the planet Naboo, Naboo’s appeal to the Republic’s Senate for help, and Naboo’s final independent battle victory over the Federation. The plot is, however, deliberately contrasted with A New Hope's in being considerably more complex and not (yet) altogether clear: not only because The Phantom Menace is not a stand-alone film but also because Lucas intends his increasingly knowledgeable audiences nevertheless to be unsure, narratively and morally, about its events and characters. (This strategy indeed has frustrated rather than appealed to some of the film's spectators.) A New Hope, with a simple, "boyish," and inspirational plot line, made audiences feel positive and secure about Luke's choices, and The Empire Strikes Back followed as a hallucinatory journey into the id, or into the conflicting emotions and uncertainties of adolescence. The Phantom Menace makes audiences immediately uncertain, as a way of introducing its dark, related themes (as found now only retrospectively in A New Hope) of the unreliability of appearances (26), of unpredictable human duality (every individual as potentially both evil and good), and of the "menace" of the evil, both outer and inner, not recognized (i.e., "phantom") and controlled. Neither characters nor audiences understand why the Trade Federation is attacking Naboo; only the "greedy" Trade Federation representatives know, literally and metaphorically, of the existence of Darth Sidious (political greed personified); and the large ensemble cast of characters features different kinds of doubles who metaphorically indicate opposing sides of human nature and/or the potential of any one individual to move in either direction. There are two good, largely non-aggressive Jedi (Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan) and two evil, aggressive Sith (Darth Sidious and Darth Maul). These visually resemble one another, especially at the film’s start, in both wearing hooded robes that partially hide the face; and the difficulty in determining true character and purpose from appearances and the potential for individuals to change from one side to the other are indirectly suggested in Qui-Gon’s line to Anakin when the latter states that Qui-Gon must be a Jedi because he has a light saber. “Perhaps I killed a Jedi and took it from him” (31). There are two Amidalas, the "masked" public queen (also represented by a decoy, fooling even the film's audiences) and the natural private Padme. Amidala seems (probably temporarily) to merge/balance these identities as, discarding her decoy/mask before the Gungans, she moves from the politics of dependent pacifism to aggressive, independently communal self-defense (28). There are two Chancellors, the seemingly weak Valorum and the aggressive Palpatine: the latter apparently "kindly"--the adjective used in the published screenplay (Lucas 13)--but who may also double as the politically ruthless Darth Sidious (29). There are two “mothers,” Anakin’s self-sacrificing birth mother and the maternal, sometimes aggressive Queen Amidala. There are also two peoples on Naboo, the peace-loving inhabitants ruled by Amidala and the warrior Gungans associated with a primal water world. Obi-Wan suggests (Gungan City sequence) that the surface dwellers and the water dwellers are two parts of a larger whole, a “symbiont circle”: perhaps conciliatory and aggressive impulses, the conscious and the subconscious, or the ego and the id, that make up the whole of everyman and must be recognized and brought into a proper balance (30). Only a new balancing of the Naboo and the Gungans finally brings peace to the attacked planet. Balance is introduced as a key idea in The Phantom Menace (as in the Jedi prophecy of the "chosen one" who will bring balance to the Force), and duality is everywhere in the film. Prominent also is duplication (associated with deception and/or mechanization): in decoy queens, droid armies, Darth Maul's light saber, and even Darth Maul's fall down the Naboo power-generator shaft.
Smaller details such as color symbolism in The Phantom Menace further emphasize for intellectually integrating spectators, as not in A New Hope, the potential darkness in human experience. The chance cube which Anakin’s owner, Watto, rolls in a bet with Qui-Gon over Anakin’s or his mother’s freedom from slavery is red and blue. Blue (the colour of hope and of an apprentice Jedi’s light saber) is assigned to Anakin, and red (the colour of blood, passion, and hell--and of the light sabers of the Sith (32)) to his beloved mother, to whom Anakin later promises to return. No character in A New Hope is dominantly associated with red. Amidala’s two main costume colours, as queen, are red and funereal black, raising questions about her role in episodes 1-3. Only the Emperor's guards wear red, in all of episodes 4-6, while black is Vader's color. In the celebratory finale of The Phantom Menace Amidala wears white, like Leia in the similar ending of A New Hope; but A New Hope's white is qualified both by its storm troopers and, in retrospect, by the finale's Riefenstahl allusion. (32A) Camera shots are also designed, as not in A New Hope, to create immediate complexities. Palpatine's double identity is especially well signalled as Yoda and Mace Windu, at Qui-Gon’s funeral pyre, wonder whether the destroyed Darth Maul was the Sith master or his apprentice. The camera cuts and pans along the line of mourners to show, right foreground, Palpatine: literally and metaphorically, in his quest for power, either the dark master, Darth Sidious, or about to become Sidious’s apprentice.
Locations in The Phantom Menace are also designed to signal increasing complexity to integrating audiences, in relation to A New Hope, which moves simply from the Tatooine wasteland to the regenerative green world of Yavin's fourth moon. Time of day is also associated with moral point of view. In The Phantom Menace, for example, we see Coruscant--the seat of the Republic's government--as double: literally and metaphorically both light (utopian) and dark (dystopian), and moving towards the dark. Coruscant is a city bathed in light when first seen by the idealistic Anakin and Amidala, a dark Gotham City (with a symbolic full moon hanging over it) when the evil Darth Sidious and Darth Maul first appear in it, and a sunset city, in transition, when the Jedi Council tests Anakin and when Qui-Gon resists the Jedi edict against Anakin’s training. It is also sunset on Naboo when Anakin is eventually accepted as Obi-Wan’s Jedi apprentice. Night, integrating spectators now realize, is finally redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi (when Luke, wearing black, accepts and controls his moral status as Vader's son): with funeral purification, fireworks, communal dance, and astral resurrection.
The Phantom Menace, of course, has not appealed to all its spectators through all or some of the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic pleasures to be obtained in a conscious and/or subconscious reading of the film in terms of its part in a total--and ongoing--narrative, mythological, and metaphoric Star Wars epic design. For some, indeed, an integrated reading has in the short term been an appealingly demanding (and as yet too incomplete) with episodes 2-3 still several years away. Other appealing aspects, however, have included impressive special effects and action sequences, creative and sometimes eerily beautiful visuals (as when the Gungan forces, with their strange mounts and streamers, mass for battle), the current openness of the second-trilogy text (though within the overall Star Wars frame), and inventive, sometimes also playfully self-referential comedy (as when a two-headed--i.e., dual--sportscaster spouts play-by-play podrace clichés). Audience interest in communal immersion in an ongoing popular story has also been a powerful box office factor. On the negative side, the film (like Return of the Jedi) has also put off many spectators: through, for example, deliberate use of an unclear plot and a young, largely unformed protagonist, and through narrative techniques, such as allegory (with its one-dimensional characters), unfamiliar and unappealing to modern popular audiences. Misjudgments have also antagonized some, such as overuse of the irritating (to adults) Jar Jar Binks: a Disney-type cartoon-like character seemingly developed largely to appeal to very young audience members and to show off advanced CGI techniques (33). The film's metaphoric meanings also do not always work; the underwater trip through the core of Naboo, for example, though clearly designed metaphorically to show primal appetite/greed at work in this galaxy of disputes over trade, taxation, and political power ("There's always a bigger fish," Qui-Gon remarks as various monstrous creatures pursue and devour one another), is so prolonged and elaborated that the metaphoric comment becomes overwhelmed by the special effects. Some of the visuals also seem overly artificial and the number of supporting characters somewhat distracting.
But (cinematically) unfamiliar narrative techniques, some misjudgments, and unusual viewing demands are to be expected in an ambitious, intricately-designed project of the extraordinary length and complexity of the Star Wars saga, which stands in a long line of non-cinematic mythological and metaphoric narrative epic sagas of considerable length and interwoven complexity, extending far back in both written and oral tradition. The Phantom Menace, however judged at present by negative or positive audiences and critics, will only be finally understood and evaluated in the context of the finished Star Wars whole. Meanwhile, however, it should be recognized as part of a unique cinematic work-in-progress and as acquiring significant and complex meaning, providing various kinds of integrative spectatorial pleasure, in relation to episodes 4-6, about which it also begins further to complicate our perceptions. Repeating dialogue lines--such as Darth Sidious's addressing of Darth Maul as "my young apprentice" as the Emperor addresses Luke in the final temptation scene in Return of the Jedi--now even begin to reverberate backwards and forwards throughout the series, not merely repeating, but accumulating meaning, from one episode to the next (34).
Finally The Phantom Menace, in its emphasis on doubles and contrasts, also now provides to integrating audiences, as it builds on episodes 4-6 and points ahead to 2-3, the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic pleasures of an overarching metaphoric way of reading the 4-film Star Wars saga as we have it to date. Episodes 4-6 have already presented to audiences the return/redemption of the hero (humankind) to his developed potential to become a Jedi: (self-)knowledgeable, controlled, compassionate, and powerful through self-sacrifice. Episodes 1-3, repeating and varying 4-6, will apparently now show a contrasting mythic initiation failure/fall through the hero's developed potential to become a Sith: aggressive, self-centered, and powerful above all through anger, hatred, and human fear of death. Jedi and Sith, an integrated Star Wars reading of The Phantom Menace indicates, are in significant part the manifestations of human duality: the ever-present, never-extinct, opposing moral possibilities within every human individual and state. Individual human lives (and political systems) are not predetermined by "destiny" but are defined and redefined by difficult and continually recurring moral choices, and all of Star Wars to date--an old-fashioned epic saga of morally-significant heroes and monsters--can thus in part be read as a densely packed, visually exhilarating, and narratively absorbing metaphor for the never-ending conflict between the evil and the good within us all. We ourselves contain the phantom menace--and a new hope.
1. George Lucas was cited shortly before the release of Phantom Menace (e.g., Leibovitz and Kamp 125) as saying that he now intends to make only six films rather than the nine which were talked about in the early 1980s. For an account of the nine-film plan see Clarke Empire 51 col. 2.
2. Newsweek, e.g., ran along with its review of the film (Ansen, c. 26.5 column inches of text) a longer article (Kaplan, c. 47.5 column inches of text) on the selling of the film; and its cover headlined not the review but "The Hyping of Star Wars."
3. Another late twentieth-century popular film series also working seriously with narrative, structural, and thematic integration is Coppola's 1-3 The Godfather: which, however, is not mythological and metaphoric, was not originally planned as a whole, and comes nowhere near Star Wars in integrative complexity.
4. Campbell Hero passim; Campbell was a direct influence on Lucas (see, e.g., Clarke "My Life" 67 col. 3, and Campbell Power xiv). An excellent short summary of the basic mythological patterning in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back was provided in 1980 by Clarke ("Ulysses" 52); and the seminal article on mythology in A New Hope is Andrew Gordon's "Star Wars: A Myth for Our Time." Lucas himself has often commented on his conscious creation of Star Wars as classic myth: see, e.g., Moyers "Myth" 48. The October 1997-January 1999 Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian (in Washington, DC) emphasized the mythic nature of the films.
5. For more detail on the above readings of the original three Star Wars films, see Lancashire, "Complex Design in The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi: Once More With Feeling."
6. For a listing of a number of articles on the attractions of the visual effects, allusions, literary and psychological sources, etc., of the first Star Wars films, see Lancashire "Once More" 64n3.
7. Richard Corliss in his Phantom Menace review correctly notes (56)--looking ahead to episodes 2 and 3--that the original A New Hope "was at times a stilted enterprise" and that with episodes 5 and 6 "the series . . . grew into emotional resonance." Episode 2 is slated, like Empire following New Hope, to move its main characters into adolescence and romance.
8. Luke in New Hope lives with an aunt and uncle; Anakin in Phantom Menace has a mother only. Lucas in Phantom Menace is also working associationally with the mythology of the virgin birth of the hero; Campbell gives an account (Hero 297-314) of this mythology's multicultural nature.
9. The Empire Strikes Back: departure to Dagobah, initiation on Dagobah and Bespin, return on Tatooine at the start of Jedi; Return of the Jedi: departure to Endor, initiation before the Emperor, return also before the Emperor and on Endor.
10. Lucas has recently described Anakin (Leibovitz and Kamp 125) as the real center of Star Wars.
11. Obi-Wan near the end of Phantom Menace in part echoes Luke ("No-o-o-o!") near the end of New Hope, in each case as the character's Jedi mentor dies at the hands of a Sith lord. Obi-Wan's "departure" has taken place before episode 1 begins; and episodes 2-3 will doubtless cover his initiation, as episode 4 provides his return. Amidala has gone through the pattern once already, in episode 1 alone.
12. The shared Star Wars/Roman/American nomenclature may also allow us to reread episodes 1-6, once 1-3 have been completed, partly in terms of a dystopian view of the autocratic potential within the American political--and/or perhaps current global economic--system. The trilogy is likely to contain a good deal of direct and indirect political commentary: given the emphasis of episode 1 on political ambitions (Palpatine/Sidious), within a republic, as underpinned by economic greed and fear (the Trade Federation). The visuals of the Republic's Senate in Coruscant--of massed rows of floating, national box seats--are also totalitarian in their effect, like the visuals of the massed rows of Trade Federation battle droids both in the Federation ship and as deployed on Naboo. Imperial forces in Jedi have a similar look. (Also suggestive in this respect are Campbell's comments [Power 144] on Vader as a "bureaucrat" within an "imposed system.")
13. Lucas signalled this shift in 1980 when he commented (Harmetz 23) that "Darth Vader is the bad father; Ben Kenobi is the good father. The good and bad mothers are still to come."
14. Anakin protests that he is not afraid; but aboard the Naboo spaceship on its way to Coruscant he admits to being "cold"--like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back at the magic tree-cave, which Yoda tells him is filled with the dark side of the Force and in which Luke finds only what he takes inside the cave with him, his own fear and anger. Anakin is then again "cold" when being tested by the Jedi Council, and Yoda remarks "I sense much fear in you," linking this fear to Anakin's love for his mother. The film's first trailer emphasized this aspect of the film: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering" (Yoda, Jedi Council testing sequence). Here and elsewhere in this article, quotations are from the films themselves (original versions) and not from their published screenplays, which are not wholly accurate representations of the finished films.
15. See also Bettelheim 7. Director Irvin Kershner read Bettelheim while working on Empire ("Dialogue on Film" 51).
16. In Phantom Menace Amidala is at least once visually an Eve ripe to fall, as Palpatine speaks in her ear about politics, in the Senate, as in Christian visual tradition the devil is represented as speaking in the ear of Eve (though the Senate here is not an unfallen Eden).
17. The audience's knowledge permits it more easily also to recognize that Qui-Gon has challenged the Jedi Council before, has lied to Anakin when taking a blood sample from him, and is more impetuous and less wise (by his own admission) than his apprentice Obi-Wan.
18. "The boy is dangerous; they all sense it. Why can't you?" Obi-Wan to Qui-Gon, as they prepare to return to Naboo from Coruscant.
19. Darth Maul has been described by Lucas (Moyers "Myth" 48) as "the evil within us" (i.e., within humankind); and Jedi has made clear (Lancashire "Once More" 58-59) that Tatooine is a type of hell.
20. Qui-Gon is mortally wounded; the droid army is victorious over the Gungans; Amidala has been captured but now turns the tables and captures the Viceroy; Obi-Wan is knocked into the shaft; Anakin blows up the Trade Federation's control ship; the droid army collapses; Obi-Wan defeats Darth Maul; Qui-Gon dies. (The order is somewhat different--more morally sequential--in Lucas's printed screenplay, where Obi-Wan's victory and Qui-Gon's death precede Anakin's success and the consequent collapse of the droid army.)
21. As Darth Sidious cautions Darth Maul before the final battle of Naboo, "Let them [i.e., the enemy] make the first move"--a warning Darth Maul does not heed, and dies. Obi-Wan is struck down into the Naboo shaft because he neglects this principle; and Qui-Gon dies after he springs aggressively towards Darth Maul out of the shaft's security doors. For the moral, non-aggression message of the light saber duels in episodes 4-6, see Lancashire "Complex Design" 41 and "Once More" 61-62.
22. The October 1997-January 1999 Star Wars exhibit at the Smithsonian has also provided ("The Look of Star Wars," parts 1-3) details of how weapons and military uniforms in episodes 4-6 were based in design on those from different past cultures and eras in human history.
23. Reviewers noting the allusion in 1977 are listed in Lancashire "Once More" 64n5.
24. Gordon 318, citing Roger Copeland, "When Films 'Quote' Films," New York Times 25 Sept. 1977: Dl.
25. In episode 2 or 3 Amidala will marry Anakin: an event interestingly complicated by her maternal relationship to him in Phantom Menace, and suggestive of Campbell's description (Hero 111) of the mythology's goddess figure as simultaneously "mother, sister, mistress, bride." The moon, of course, is also traditionally associated (in its relationship with the female) with cycles of life, and with the subconscious, and the "lunacy" of romantic passion.
26. In New Hope's light-saber training sequence, on the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan tells Luke, "Your eyes can deceive you; don't trust them." Luke has to rely on his feelings.
27. Anakin's home, as they all eat together. Qui-Gon's theoretical suggestion becomes actualized, though still as metaphor, when Anakin becomes Darth Vader: in New Hope Obi-Wan tells Luke (in Obi-Wan's home) that Vader killed Luke's Jedi father Anakin (a story defined by Obi-Wan in Jedi, as Luke leaves Dagobah, as truth "from a certain point of view").
28. Darth Sidious comments to the Trade Federation representatives, on Naboo shortly before the final battle, "This is an unexpected move for her [i.e., Amidala]. It's too aggressive."
29. Palpatine has become Emperor by episode 4; Darth Sidious's face beneath his hood, though partly hidden, resembles Palpatine's, as does his voice; and there is no separate credit for Darth Sidious at the film's end. A possible alternative is that with the death of Darth Maul the politically ambitious Palpatine will become Darth Sidious's new apprentice and eventually kill and take over from his master.
30. Interestingly the visual design of Gungan City involves globes (compare the fetus-in-womb image, associated with the hero's journey and the infantile psyche, in Campbell Power 124 and also near the beginning of Moyers's Campbell video).
31. Luke's light saber in both New Hope and Empire is blue; when he survives Empire and so becomes more advanced as a Jedi, he makes himself a green light saber. In Phantom Menace Qui-Gon, the master, has a green saber, and Obi-Wan, the apprentice, a blue one until Qui-Gon is killed and Obi-Wan takes up Qui-Gon's saber. Luke presumably in New Hope has inherited his father's (Anakin's) apprentice light saber, though it remains to be explained why Obi-Wan in New Hope also has a blue light saber.
32. Lucas has noted that red is associated with hell, aggression, and evil, and that he has been using the color "with the Emperor and the Emperor's minions" (Moyers "Myth" 48).
[32A. 2016 correction. Amidala wears pink, not white, in the celebratotry finale: which indeed qualifies the positive aspects of this ending further than Leia's white in A New Hope.]
33. The CGI techniques are indeed impressive; and Jar Jar also goes through a comic version of the human maturation process; but the character, for all but the very young, is exasperatingly intrusive. An additional complication has been that Jar Jar, with what has been perceived as a partly-Caribbean accent, has also been regarded by some as racially or ethnically offensive: although the Gungans visually appear to be a thorough cultural and imaginative mix and Jar Jar also appears, from a short pre-release TV ad featuring him, to have been intended in part as a way of encouraging children to accept "difference" when reacting to others. (The ad provides a female voice, over visuals of Jar Jar, saying "Sometimes the one who's clumsy, different, or even a little strange, just might be the friend you're looking for.") Jar Jar's voice, as well as a base for his movements, was created by black actor Ahmed Best, who apparently did not see anything offensive in the character (Daly 35). The post-release media outcry, however, has been considerable and has included comments also on what had been perceived as inappropriate Oriental accents for the Trade Federation representatives and an Italian, Arabic, Jewish, or Palestinian accent for Anakin's alien slave owner, Watto. For Lucas's responses to these criticisms, see Magid 27 and 30.
34. Palpatine's "Together we shall bring peace and prosperity to the Republic," e.g., spoken to Amidala on Naboo shortly before the finale, subtly parallels and contrasts with Darth Vader's urgings to Luke, shortly before the end of Empire, that he and Luke join together to "bring order to the galaxy." This will perhaps become Amidala's political temptation, both paralleling and contrasting with Luke's.
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