STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE Is Still A Miss 20 Years Later

This piece is two years old; I wrote it in February 2017 and posted it on Facebook. Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and I wanted to commemorate it but didn’t have the forethought to sit down and watch the movie again. But this piece, which represents my latest revisit of the film, feels pretty spot-on to me still two years later. I’ve gone back to the Prequels again and again, hoping each time the changes in me have changed the way I see the movies. This has not been the case. In fact, this post came after I bought the Prequels on Blu as an attempt to revisit them in full in a spiritual/Buddhist light. I never made it past Attack of the Clones.

Note: I have made minor edits to this for clarity and grammar, but not for content. This piece is maybe more jargon-y than I would write today, but maybe that’s a problem with me today. I reference a thing I wrote about Yoda’s fear/anger/hate/suffering bit that I have not published on this site; maybe I will at some point. Finally, this was written before The Last Jedi, which I think has a top tier John Williams score.

I just finished the book The Dharma of Star Wars, which finds parallels and examples of Buddhist teachings in the Force and the Jedi, and it really impressed me. Much of the book’s content related to events from the Prequel Trilogy, and it made me wonder if these films – which I had maligned for so long – were actually brilliant Trojan horses smuggling dharma into the minds of impressionable Western children. The book’s pretty good in general – out of all the Buddhist stuff I’ve read/listened to in the last few months it’s the work that moved my understanding of ‘no self’ furthest. So I decided to give the Prequels another shot, with a Buddhist perspective. 

Last night I rewatched The Phantom Menace for the first time in many years. For a little context: when this movie came out I was such a Star Wars nerd that I have the names of all the lame side characters burned into my brain: Captain Tarpals. Ric Olie. Ben Quadraneros. Watching it again was weird in that it felt like rediscovering a section of my brain that had been closed off long before; all this TPM knowledge and memories (especially of the toys I breathlessly collected) came flooding back. 

What also came flooding back: how profoundly bad this film is. Over the years I’ve taken the stance that TPM is the best film of the Prequel Trilogy as it’s the purest; it’s the one film that Lucas made in this series that speaks to his interests. Attack of the Clones was a reaction to the reaction to TPM and Revenge of the Sith was just moving pieces into place. But TPM: this is unfiltered Lucas. This, I have been saying for years, is worthy of note. 

Well…

Here’s what I’ll give TPM: it’s incredibly well-designed. Everything looks cool and gorgeous. It has probably John Williams’ last truly great score – there are cues in TPM that equal the best work of Williams’ entire career. Darth Maul is actually a great villain in that he’s a vicious creature, a true opposite of what the Jedi are supposed to be (Sidious feels more like a twisted Jedi, his wisdom turned to evil. Maul feels feral). Everything else kind of sucks.

That’s not entirely true. There’s an outline here that works, that probably looked great on paper. Two Jedi, caught in what they think is a low level diplomatic mission, find themselves pawns in a game bigger than they could have imagined. I think that Lucas’ basic idea of the fall of the Republic and the of the Jedi is solid (although it’s taken me years to even get there), it’s the execution that’s awful. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that TPM has plenty of good ideas in it, it’s just that almost all of them are executed terribly. 

It starts right up front; setting aside the dreadful opening crawl you get slapped in the face within minutes of the movie opening by the deeply racist Neimodians. Lucas is going for classic pulp era feelings here, but the feelings he has chosen are the racist ones – the Neimodians are clear and obvious Yellow Peril characters. Their accents are insane. I don’t know if it’s that I’ve become more ‘woke’ since 1999 or what, but every time a Neimodian spoke on this viewing I cringed. 

That racism extends to Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans. I get that Lucas was going for Gunga Din here, but a) his two Jedi don’t have half the charisma of the leads of that movie and b) Gunga Din wasn’t insufferable. I get what Lucas is going for with the Gungan/Naboo dichotomy (Obi Wan talks about it when he lectures Boss Nass on their ‘symbiont circle’), but it’s just executed terribly. The concept that neither race is superior to the other falls flat when Lucas presents the Gungans as straight up goofballs, and also codes them as some sort of Jamaican dummies. 

All of that aside, everything else is also quite bad. The acting is uniformly terrible, and after many years of this debate I quite simply don’t believe the woodenness on display was an aesthetic choice. I believe that Lucas couldn’t direct the actors, and that the actors were lost in the then-new blue screen overload. Almost no scenes play out convincingly, and almost no one has chemistry with anyone else. Jake Lloyd is so bad that I’ve begun to weave elaborate conspiracy theories to explain the deep mystery of his casting. How does a movie as huge as this, with resources this vast, end up with Lloyd in such a pivotal role? 

There are good scenes, good moments, good shots, but The Phantom Menace is simply hard to watch. It’s tedious and stuffy, having none of the breakneck excitement that made the original Star Wars work. It has the languid quality that makes THX-1138 such a bore to me, but dressed up in Star Wars drag. 

What’s most disappointing is that Lucas undercuts so many of his own good ideas. He’s raising questions about the Jedi that don’t land because they’re not properly acknowledged in the film; I still remember watching this movie for the first time and trying to figure out why the Jedi sucked so hard. It wasn’t clear that this was a choice, not a mistake, but the way it’s presented doesn’t play. In fact Lucas had to go to the Clone Wars cartoon to really deal with some of the stuff he’s trying to raise in this film (there’s a good bit in one Clone Wars arc where a Mandalorian is giving Obi Wan a hard time about Jedi being generals and killers, and it’s the sort of exchange that belonged in the Prequels themselves). 

I want to give Lucas props for making the first movie in a trilogy about a hero becoming a mass murderer so kid friendly, but he has no control of his tone. The kiddie stuff in TPM is glaring and ham-handed; when even the other characters in the movie hate Jar Jar you know something is wrong (also: Qui-Gon’s reaction to Jar Jar when they first meet frankly sucks ass. I hate it, and it makes Qui-Gon a piece of shit). Lucas seems to forget that Star Wars was a movie that kids loved too, and that R2 and C3P0 filled the role of lovable clowns in ways that didn’t stop the action dead. The reality is that Lucas simply can’t figure out how to make a movie that has Jar Jar stepping in poodoo and has the villain cut in half in a mist of blood; he’s battling against his own desire to be kid friendly. Again, this comes from his adored pulp stuff, which was very violent, but that entertainment never spoke down to kids the way Lucas does with Jar Jar. 

The lesson: we did not overstate how terrible Jar Jar is. 

As for the Buddhist stuff: it’s there, if you squint. The Jedi themselves pay lip service to Buddhist concepts, but they’re overbearing dicks and totally full of themselves. That’s fine, and it has certainly happened to the priestly class in many religions, but again I feel like it’s not explored here. We never get a sense of true Jedi ways to let us understand that the Jedi Council has grown complacent and attached to its authority, wedded to its point of view. 

The Maul fight is complicated, in a Buddhist sense, but then Obi Wan himself has long been complicated. When he’s a Force ghost he tells Luke to kill Vader, that he’s lost and more machine than man. Every piece of that feels wrong and Luke proves it’s wrong, but here’s Obi Wan, one with the Force, giving bad (and un-spiritua) advice. In TPM his final battle with Maul is tough because he seems to be coming from a place of anger, which is Dark Side 101. As Lucas doesn’t explore that in future films (remember when we all thought Anakin would turn as the result of a love triangle between him, Padme and Obi Wan?) I guess we have to assume that in the second when he composes himself while hanging over the pit Obi Wan banishes the anger he had when he saw Qui-Gon killed. I don’t know if Lucas sells this. 

There’s other Buddhist stuff – everybody’s being mindful of their feelings, for instance, and Qui-Gon exemplifies equanimity during the hallway breather in the Duel of the Fates. But his condescension to Jar Jar (“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get out of here.”) might work when said by a master to a student but really just makes Qui-Gon seem like a dick. It’s weird, but this exchange is what sticks in my craw most in the film. The outcome of the Jedis’ encounter with Jar Jar is very Buddhist – keep your mind ever open, as wisdom and answers can come from unexpected sources, and Jar Jar not only leads them to Theed but also gives them a key element of the final battle plan – but Qui-Gon’s dealings with him are not. And Qui-Gon never makes really nice with the Gungan. In a better film this could have been an arc for Qui-Gon, who fundamentally has none (except whining to the Council), but it goes nowhere. 

The big Buddhist thing, which I’ve written about here before, is Yoda’s “Fear leads to anger” speech. It’s pretty super-Buddhist, and even before I knew about dukkha and its causes, I got a lot of wisdom from Yoda’s speech. Yoda’s the only character in this movie who doesn’t come across like a total fucking idiot, by the way. Even Padme gets outmaneuvered by Palpatine in about sixty seconds flat, after all. There’s something tragic about Yoda, having all this wisdom and equanimity, forced to deal with so many dummies. Maybe that’s the core arc of the Prequels. 

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