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Why Episode I is Brilliant
When Shakespeare finished Henry IV Part 2, the public cried out not only for more young Hal, so recently made King, but also for more Falstaff, the comic foil of the preceding plays. What they were greeted with instead was a complex tale of political machinations, wherein a boy King faces a seemingly insurmountable army only to finally gain victory; and in which their comic favorite is rejected by said King, and dies an unceremonious death off-screen. Was this the play they were to see? Hadn’t they been deceived? What had happened to their Hal? What had happened to Falstaff?
But Shakespeare knew that he had a story to tell, and that some would not like it. Just as George Lucas does.
“Whenever you do a trilogy, no matter how you do it, the first part is always about the characters. It is like the first act of a play. It says, 'Here are the players. You have the good guys and the bad guys. The bad guys want to get the good guys, and here are the relationships that exist among each of them.' It is not until the second act - or, in this case, the second episode - that the plot really thickens. And it is not until the third act that everything comes to an end and gets resolved.”
Very few films in history have ever been made as was Phantom Menace: with the foreknowledge that there would be two sequels. It is not quite the same as Lord of the Rings, in which, if you really wanted to know what was going to happen, or if you were unclear on a plot point or a piece of motivation, you could simply trek down to the nearest Barnes and Noble, pick up a copy of the book, and discover the answer for yourself, long before the sequels arrived. With Phantom Menace, you are left to wonder, and argue: not necessarily in that order.
What most consider Phantom Menace’s greatest weakness is actually its greatest asset. Star Wars films have always been told from the point of view of the heroes. Luke, for instance, was our guide through the original trilogy: as he learned information, so did we, the audience. Our guides through the prequel trilogy are Qui-Gon and, now that he is gone, Obi-Wan. But neither is any more well informed about the reasons for the invasion of Naboo at the end of the film than they were at the beginning, so neither are we. This allows great room for discussion and rumination.
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.” Like the Dickens schoolmaster who opens Hard Times, however, people want answers, not questions; this is unfortunate, as it is often more important to ask a question than it is to get an answer.
We are left with a great many questions at the end of Phantom Menace: intentionally. The film is a complex, multi-layered tale of political intrigue: it is truly like no other Star Wars film before or since. And we should have seen this coming. In the preface to the original Star Wars novelization, it is written that the Emperor rose to power using the agencies of commerce and trade. Why were any of us expecting anything else? Because it was convenient for us at the time to expect Lucas to change his mind?
“Well, [The Phantom Menace] is a fairly complex movie. I don't go into it much, but there are lots of levels. It took two years to write it, and there are lots and lots of thematic levels, and various levels of various characters, plots and issues that are going on there that aren't directly on the surface of the movie. As these other movies come about, a lot of those issues will begin to fall out because they're dealt with more concretely in the new movies--and then they will reverberate in the old movies. But I think a movie has to be about something. It can't just be plot that says,"There's a bomb that's going to go off and somehow we've got to defuse it before everybody dies." Inevitably, if you want to make a good movie, you have to ask, "Why does somebody want to blow up everything, and what do they hope to accomplish? Why is it that the people who want to save everybody? And what are they like as humans?" Those are the things people forget about. There's a lot of humanity in Star Wars, even in the robots and the Wookiees. They're not cardboard characters.”
The most immediately important plot of The Phantom Menace is that of young Queen Amidala, who, like Henry V, first tries to rally support for her cause, then leads her people in a campaign against her enemy. She’s not trying to be a hero. She’s simply trying to take back what belongs to her.
Another plot point in the film involves the Jedi coming to terms with the fact that the Sith have not only returned, but never really went anywhere to begin with.
"In The Phantom Menace one of the Jedi Council already knows the balance of The Force is starting to slip, and will slip further. It is obvious to this person that The Sith are going to destroy this balance. On the other hand a prediction which is referred to states someone will replace the balance in the future. At the right time a balance may again be created, but presently it is being eroded by dark forces. All of this shall be explained in Episode 2, so I can't say any more!"
The one member of the Council is Yoda. This can be seen in a few key scenes.
Ki-Adi: "The Sith have been extinct for a millennium!"
Mace: "I do not believe the Sith could have returned without us knowing."
Yoda: "Ha. Hard to see the dark side is."
The Sith have not been extinct. They have secretly passed down their traditions over the years, from one person to the next. There is always a master and an apprentice, and only a master and apprentice. When one dies, be it master or apprentice, the surviving party takes on a new apprentice and continues the line. Yoda knows this. The rest do not believe him.
Notice how Mace turns to Yoda to deliver his line, though he had been speaking to Qui-Gon. This is an old point between him and Yoda. He's emphasizing this comment to Yoda for a reason. But Yoda scoffs. He knows better.
At this point, Mace does not even refer to Maul as a Sith. He calls him an "attacker" and a "dark warrior." It is not until AFTER they've tested Anakin that he refers to Maul as a Sith. He's begun to believe that Anakin is, possibly, the Chosen One, and you don't need a Chosen One unless you have Sith around to get rid of.
Their first reaction is indicative of the condition of the Council, and what will ultimately lead to their downfall. They are reactionary, not proactive. Their initial reaction is to bury their heads in the sand and pretend the kid isn't there. They say he is too old, offer up excuses, but the fact is that they're afraid of Anakin and what he represents.
Once Maul has been killed and positively identified as a Sith, they are now certain of what they need to do. Key is the discussion between Mace and Yoda:
Mace: "There is no doubt. The mysterious warrior was a Sith."
Yoda: "Always two there are, no more, no less. A Master and an apprentice."
Mace: "But which was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?"
What Mace is telling Yoda here is, You were right, we were wrong. We no longer doubt that. Now what do we do?
They change their stance on Anakin because they are now more convinced that he IS the Chosen One, and realize that if they're going to stand any chance at all it's going to be with him on their side. They don't realize that the damage has already been done, and that it's already too late.
But this is something that is never stated in the film, and exists solely between the lines. Like many of the great films of the seventies, you have to be willing to think and use your mind to put together all the layers of the subtext that exist beneath the surface of this film.
Which brings us to Anakin’s story, another plot point of the film, though, at this time, a less important one. He has started off a slave, and though he would appear to have become free at the end of the film, he has simply traded would form of bondage for another. He will not find with the Jedi the freedom he has sought. He will still have a Master; he will still answer to someone else. It will not be for years, until he finds the will to sacrifice himself and kill the Emperor, that he sets himself free. In Phantom Menace, Anakin spoke of how a slave would be blown up were he to try to leave. This would haunt Anakin his entire life. He would never feel free to make his own decisions, to do the things he wanted to do. There would always be someone who would be angry, or disappointed with him. Phantom Menace starts him down that path.
Another important plot point of the film, the most successful, is that of a Senator trying to ascend to the highest office: Chancellor. This plot is the backbone of the entire film, but seems a subplot because you are not meant to realize, at this point, that this is what is really going on. Palpatine is meant to be viewed as a good guy, at this point. You are not meant to question his actions or his motives, but they are left hazy enough for future reflection to pull back the surface layer. This part of the film is handled perfectly, and the subtle performance by McDiarmid carries home both the apparent good and the inherent evil in the man.
“One of the main themes in The Phantom Menace is of organisms having to realize they must live for their mutual advantage.”
But the most important plot point is that of symbiosis, of working together to achieve a goal. This is represented diametrically, by two characters: Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. Qui-Gon sees usefulness in things. While Obi-Wan would have left Jar Jar to die, Qui-Gon recognized the importance of Jar Jar’s role in the events that lay ahead. Qui-Gon was intelligent enough to know that even the annoying have their uses. Jar Jar is there not only to give children something to laugh at; he is there to point the finger back at the audience.
The Sith oppose symbiosis. In order for symbiosis to function, both sides must not only receive, but give in return. The Sith do not do this. They take without giving. They are antithesis to this theme, and their actions will wreck havoc on what symbiosis exists in the universe.
“As you're building to the climax of an endeavour such as this, you want the situation to get more and more desperate and you want the hero to lose whatever crutches he or she has helping along the way.”
In Phantom Menace, we saw Anakin lose his father figure: Qui-Gon. At the end of the film, we saw the first real moment of concern for himself in the film. Up till then, he had been concerned primarily for others. But here he was, without any parental control or support, and forced to form a bond with someone he already knew did not trust him. “What will happen to me now?” is his primary concern. As the films continue, he will continue to lose his support structure. What relationships he has with Padme, Obi-Wan and his mother will either fail, or be lost to unfortunate circumstance, so that he is, in the end, forced to face his destiny alone, without any crutches. Phantom Menace subtly sets Anakin up for this, though it is a delicacy that many have overlooked.
All of these themes resonate not only through this film, but throughout the events of the original trilogy. We tend to look to the prequels for our answers to the original trilogy, when, in truth, we are looking at it backwards. We should be looking to the original trilogy for our answers to this trilogy. Only then will things become clear.
If I’ve one complaint at all about the film it is the way in which the score was edited to fit the film. When The Beatles were recording “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” George Martin took a reel of carnival sounds from the EMI vaults, cut it into tiny pieces, strewn the pieces over the studio floor, and randomly reassembled them for the background of the song. The score for Phantom Menace sometimes reminds me of that. The film is rarely less enjoyable for me to watch; but it certainly makes it less enjoyable to listen to on CD.
Some seem to think they could write Star Wars better than George Lucas himself. In fact, I’ve actually seen the comment, “We need to take Star Wars back from George Lucas.” To me, this is asinine. Film, like theater, is art; and art is subjective. Shakespeare would no sooner have let an audience member write dialogue for him than Michaelangelo would have given his chisel to a stranger and said, “Here, knock away at David, will you? He doesn’t seem quite right to me.” Phantom Menace succeeds admirably at exactly what it set out to do: introduce the characters and set them on the path for the next two films. That was all it was trying to do. Any film critic worth listening to will tell you that films should be judged not by what you want them to be, but at their success at being what they were trying to be. Phantom Menace succeeded at that: a complex political tale that could appeal to children as well as adults, which is an extraordinarily difficult accomplishment. Anyone who thinks they can do better would succeed in creating a film only he could watch.
TheForce.Net Guest Editorial
October 4th, 2001