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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (again) (review)

The Balance of the Force

[spoilers]

First, a disclaimer: This is not a review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I did that already, back when the film first opened. (Check it out here. Though I tried to acknowledge the gap between appreciating the movie as Star Wars and appreciating it as a film, I had some fans telling me I was too down on the movie and others telling me I was too kind. So I was either too objective then, or not objective enough. You decide.) Instead, this is a geeky rehashing of The Phantom Menace, after a summer of six viewings of the movie and endless debates and discussions with other fans and friends in person and via e-mail, and in response to some of the criticism that has been aimed at the film by various folks online and off.

And another disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of George Lucas’s universe, and while I can recognize the many problems that all four Star Wars films evince, I also haven’t let those problems interfere with my enjoyment of them. Nevertheless, I don’t wish to be seen as an apologist for Lucas. I’m just a fan who finds some serious fun in Star Wars, and thinks others need to put things a little more in perspective.

Okay.
Mesa a racial stereotype?
The biggest cultural debate over The Phantom Menace this summer had to be the supposed racism in the film. Newspaper editorial writers were having a field day. Brent Staples in the New York Times (“Shuffling Through Star Wars,” June 20), for example, took offense at Jar Jar, seeing him as a negative stereotype of blacks, as did Eric Harrison in the Los Angeles Times and Bruce Gottlieb at Slate.

Fine: If people want to approach The Phantom Menace from a racial point of view, let’s do that. But let’s not be disingenuous enough to look only at the supposed negatives while ignoring the positives. If Jar Jar is, as many people implied, a negative stereotype of blacks, then how are we to take the rest of Jar Jar’s race, the Gungans, who move and talk precisely the same way that Jar Jar does, the same way that people found so offensive? The Gungans are proud, brave, loyal, technologically advanced (I am incredulous that anyone can call primitive a people with underwater cities, force shields, and little glowing doohickies that short-circuit electronics), and — with, notably, Jar Jar as one of their generals — more than hold their own against the robot army in the film’s climactic battle sequence. And how are we to take the fact that Queen Amidala (who is a white human) must beg, literally on her knees, for the Gungans’ military help?

Staples and others saw negative stereotypes of Asians in the film’s chief villains, the Trade Federation. But do they not also see that those they are oppressing, Queen Amidala’s people, the humans of the planet Naboo, are also obviously inspired by Asian culture?

Watto inspired a lot of ire as well. We heard that he was a negative stereotype of, variously: Turks, Jews, Arabs, and Italians. If Watto’s characteristics were not clearly indicative of one particular ethnic type, then I don’t think we can call him a stereotype of any of them.

(And how about that gratuitous characterization by Captain Panaka of the Hutts as “gangsters”? Everyone knows the Hutts are legitimate businessbeings, yet Lucas has no compunctions about slapping them in the face, either.)

If folks want a positive depiction of people from different backgrounds interacting without racial hostilities, why not look to Anakin Skywalker? Here is a white, American-accented boy who speaks multiple languages and has friends of every human race as well as friends of alien species.

While we’re talking about putting certain ethnic groups in a bad light, should I take offense, as someone with some English blood, at how the original trilogy seems to imply that all English-accented people are evil? Using the same arguments as The Phantom Menace‘s detractors, I should infer that all Brits are bad simply because all the Imperial officers spoke with English accents. It was obviously a conscious choice on the part of Lucas, because American James Earl Jones sounds quite British as Vader, and Rebel pilot Wedge speaks with an American accent even though the actor who plays him, Denis Lawson, is Scottish. Also note that Carrie Fisher’s British accent disappears by the time her involvement with the Rebel Alliance is no longer a secret to be kept from the Empire.

But it would be silly for me to get worked up over that, wouldn’t it?

Beware the Dark Side?
And then there was SF novelist David Brin at Salon, complaining that Lucas is telling us through his films that giving in to anger is always bad, that it’s not possible to harness negative emotions for a positive good. To which I say: bollocks.

It all ties in with something that lots of critics (including me, originally!) saw as lacking in The Phantom Menace: characterization, especially in comparison to the original trilogy. Well, I watched the trilogy again recently, and really, it’s only over the course of all three films that we get some really meaty character stuff. And I’m amazed to discover that a lot of what we see as deep characterization comes, to a certain extent, from all the yacking and analyzing fans have done over the years.

And that’s the case with The Phantom Menace, as well, which has a lot of very subtle characterization that becomes obvious with multiple viewings and numerous discussions. Something about Qui-Gon, for example, was striking me as not being quite right — he had some kind of deep, fatal character flaw that I couldn’t quite see. After a few viewings, it struck me: He’s blind to the Dark Side of the Force. Not only does he not see the danger in Anakin, which is discussed overtly in a scene with Obi-Wan, but he fails to see it in himself or in his apprentice.

This is where Brin’s argument comes into play. Brin sees the Jedi imperative not to give in to fear or anger, lest one succumb to the Dark Side of the force, as evidence that Lucas believes there is no such thing as righteous anger, that anger cannot be used as a force for good. But though the elder Jedi keep telling their juniors to avoid fear and anger, it’s obvious through their actions that what must be learnt is how to harness violent emotions. Luke, in Return of the Jedi, uses his anger to defeat Darth Vader but also knows when to discard his hatred. Likewise, Obi-Wan uses the darkness within himself to defeat Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace without letting it forever dominate his destiny, to paraphrase Yoda.

The final duel between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Maul is one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve seen on film in a long time — it only gets more thrilling with each viewing — and it perfectly demonstrates the necessity of balancing the Force. I love the contrast between Qui-Gon and Maul, how Qui-Gon is so calm and centered and Maul is barely able to contain his rage. Some fans criticized Lucas for missing an obvious opportunity here to have Maul explain just what the deal is with the Sith, but I think the wordless waiting says more than any dialogue could: Maul has totally succumbed to the Dark Side, where Qui-Gon is just the opposite and can’t or won’t acknowledge that there’s a little Dark Side in all of us and harness that darkness to defeat Maul (as Obi-Wan is able to do). That imbalance in the Force in each of them leads to their downfalls.

Lucas is saying the opposite of what Brin sees: If we’re to defeat evil, we must learn to use our Dark Sides without letting those black emotions get the better of us. A true Jedi must learn to balance the Force within himself.

Virgin births, and just who is the phantom menace, anyway?
Another criticism of The Phantom Menace revolves around the mysterious circumstances of Anakin Skywalker’s paternity, or lack thereof. Some went so far as to suggest that Lucas’s use of a virgin birth was a slap in the face to Christians.

Mythologically speaking, Anakin’s pedigree is above reproach. There are plenty savior types in world mythology apart from Jesus (certainly enough predate him to suggest that he was no more than myth himself) who were immaculately conceived. And Anakin is a savior character — a dark savior, to be sure: If he’s the one who will bring balance to the Force in a period when the Light Side is in ascendancy, balance means bringing the Dark Side to the fore again. If the midi-chlorians are acting in the Yahweh role, conceiving a child “miraculously” for their own purposes, then we could see Anakin’s later destruction of the Jedi as something akin to Noah’s flood — maybe the little Force “cooties” (as a friend of mine has so hilariously termed the midi-chlorians) are unhappy with the state of affairs with the Jedi and just wanna wipe the slate clean and start over.

Back to midi-chlorians in a moment.

On first glance, the phantom menace is Senator Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious) — he manipulates interstellar politics behind the scenes in order to put himself in a position from which (we know from the original trilogy) he’ll be able to declare himself emperor and dissolve the senate. All the action of the film flows from his evil choreography — the blockade and invasion of Naboo, the pursuit of Amidala, and hence the meeting with Ani. And yet Palpatine is so behind the scenes that neither the Jedi nor Amidala are aware of Palpatine’s chicanery. Phantom menace, no?

And yet, isn’t it ironic that it’s a Sith Lord who inadvertently pushes the Jedi into finding Ani? Qui-Gon says nothing happens by chance, implying that the Force allowed him to find the boy who will eventually become Palpatine’s henchman. Perhaps the midi-chlorians are actually the phantom menace, conceiving Ani and then using a Dark Side Jedi to ensure he’s found, all so the little Force cooties can destroy their own handmaidens, for reasons known only to themselves.

The Force is with us
I noticed this summer that the audience at each viewing I attended was more into the movie, more enthusiastic, than the previous one. The first screening I went to, the day after it opened, was rather subdued, but by my final screening a few weeks ago, there was a definite Queen Amidala fan club cheering her on, Obi-Wan had a sprinkling of supporters in the crowd, and Maul got the most cheers of anyone except R2D2. I suspect that by the time The Phantom Menace is rereleased before Episode II opens — that’s gotta be inevitable — the audience reaction will be even better. By then, we’ll all have had three years of endless video/DVD viewings/rehashings to really fall madly in love with the characters and the places.

Like its predecessors in the series, The Phantom Menace is bound to become a fannish touchstone, one that we’ll be talking about and rewatching for years to come.

[reader comments on this review]
[more reader comments]

see also:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: The Trailer
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace


MPAA: rated PG for sci-fi action/violence

viewed at a public multiplex screening

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