Darth Vader – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Anakin Skywalker – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
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And that right there is the single greatest problem most people have with Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace, if not the entire Prequel Trilogy. The true identity of Anakin Skywalker, his descent into the - literal and metaphorical - hellish abyss of the dark side, and his eventual rebirth as the epitome of evil had been the greatest mysteries of the Original trilogy. Yet seeing this Magnificent Devil, this lusus naturae, reduced to an annoying brat was not only reason enough to undo the effects of that captivating enigma, but also managed, single handedly, to have a retroactive effect on the entire saga itself.
In the wake of the film’s release, “George Lucas raped my childhood” became the rallying cry of overzealous, melodramatic fanboys and manboys of questionable wit. And it wasn’t just the nerds whom nostalgia, the subtle usurper of reason and good sense, had plagued. In fact, a certain portion of the film’s 400+ million USD box-office take could be attributed to the inherent human desire to stop and gape at a train wreck.
Primal feelings of longing and schadenfreude aside, the film was far from perfect and audiences had good reason to dismiss it. Firstly, it went against all previous Star Wars lore which had, by then, permeated through the consciousness of even the most ambivalent filmgoer. Everything, from the film’s general tone to production design, seemed somehow different, and not for the better. The acting, already not the “saga’s” strong suit was more at home at a school play, and the characters were nauseating at best, and furor inducing at worst (I am referring, of course, to Jar Jar Binks). Perhaps most importantly, the plot had a literalness to it that was completely out of place with the arcane mysticism of the more memorable moments of the original trilogy.
But, now that the prequel trilogy is over and almost a decade has gone by since TPM opened, is the film really the disaster that it’s perceived to be in the pop culture zeitgeist? Hardly (Come on – you knew it was coming). It towers over the other two prequels (both of which are wank), and a slew of summer blockbusters that have come before, or since. It has a tight narrative, some outstanding action, and presents a whole new universe while staying true to the Star Wars legend. It’s not only the best of the prequel trilogy, but also the most imaginative. In fact, most of those elements that jar (no pun intended) on the surface only contribute to the film’s overall quality. But even more crucially, if not essentially, the film is a lot of fun, and that is all one wants (or should want) from a Star Wars flick.
It is almost impossible to remember a time before the prequels, or at least talk thereof. In fact, only a few months after the original flick turned out to be the behemoth it became, it was Lucas himself who started going on about them. Twelve films, he said, had been his original intention. By the time the twelve had inexplicably became nine, Lucas had perfected the spiel, the variations on which still form the backbone of everything Star Wars: that he had started with the middle trilogy since it was the one with the most amount of commercial appeal, and that the original story he had meticulously conceived of had been grander and far more intricate. This brief history of Star Wars time which I have just recounted, and which everyone and which everyone knows by heart, is actually horseshit. There exists absolutely no proof to suggest that particular course of events in the films’ development cycle – in fact, that account of the prequels’ conception is now so commonplace that no one dares question it. This revisionism is of the essence to all Star Wars films. And it must be clarified further before delving deeper into The Phantom Menace.
The earliest drafts of Star Wars are terrible beyond belief. They read like a blind pick and mix session through the worst Flash Gordon serials, which is what the series evidently is anyway. An overabundance of characters, contrived plots, and wacky humour make up for a convoluted mess (sound familiar? We’ll get to that). There are no indications of a much bigger family saga.
First of all, Darth Vader and Luke’s father, by the later drafts that bear at least a modicum of resemblance to the final film, are two very separate people. In fact, records show that Lucas came up with the idea of their being one and the same well into the development of Empire. From the first transcript of the story conferences between Lucas and Leigh Brackett, entitled “Chapter II: The Empire Strikes Back”, through to the two subsequent treatments written by Lucas, to the imaginatively titled first draft, “Star Wars Sequel,” Vader is most definitely not Luke’s father (in fact, even the concept of Ben’s force-ghost appears in the first draft – in all the previous treatments, Luke uses a talisman that used to belong to Ben to find out about Yoda).
The notion of Vader’s being Luke’s father appears in the second draft. Lucas nowadays argues that that was the idea all-along, and that he kept it quiet. Through five separate treatments and a full first draft of the script? OK, from Leigh Brackett maybe, but from himself? Eh? That’s either bullshit, or batshit. Besides, it makes no sense whatsoever as, in the earlier treatments and the first draft, Luke contacts Ben during his training, and the latter brings along with him Luke’s father from the netherworld for an interplenary father and son tête-à-tête.
Hell, the possibility of romance between Luke and Leia, already pretty icky, is full-on in the earlier drafts. And even though Yoda says, in ESB, that “there is another,” Irvin Kershner explains in the DVD commentary to Empire that it was a later addition to unsettle the audience with regards to Luke’s apparent invulnerability. It’s clear that Lucas never thought ahead to the third film, and this, too, i.e. Lucas’ aversion to coming up with an overall storyline (even though Star Wars lore argues otherwise), is the second important motif (along with revisionism) to consider later.
Aside: My favourite discarded sub-plot comes from the earlier drafts of Jedi, where Vader and Moff Jerjerrod, the officer in charge of the second Death Star, go through this wonderfully homoerotic struggle, alternately vying for the attentions of The Emperor, or conspiring against him. Vader reads like the Jim Halpert to Jerjerrod’s Dwight Schrute. It’s glorious.
It’s obvious that Lucas had an extremely vague general outlook for a whole bunch of Star Wars films. However this, in itself, is totally unreliable, and essentially meaningless, considering the gargantuan deviations from the original treatments that the final scripts for all Star Wars films display. The history of Star Wars was not written in stone by Lucas in 1973. Revisionism, inconsistency, and short-sightedness define the saga. In fact, it is not really accurate to think of the Star Wars films as a saga made up of two separate trilogies. Instead, they are a series of sequels to the original Star Wars. And that makes a huge difference to our understanding and appreciation of Star Wars as a whole.
Before I get back to The Phantom Menace more specifically, I’d like to address the effects of nostalgia on the entire series. Well, one effect, really: it’s made everyone think the original trilogy was fucking great until the Ewoks showed up. Horses for courses, and I am a huge fan of the series (or why would I bother with this interminable diatribe in the first place), but all three original films leave a lot, LOT to be desired. They all have scenes that seem to go on forever: the trench-run in the first film, the Endor chase and the subsequent battle in Jedi, and, yes, the entire Dagobah sequence in Empire, fully devoid of verve, with its plodding pseudo-mysticism. There are many more shortcomings to all three films, and this is not the place to get into them. The fact remains, however, they are still, even with all their flaws, great films. It’s just that their apotheosis through nostalgia has resulted in an overestimation of their quality, which, in turn, has had an adverse effect on The Phantom Menace.
Which is why a more pertinent question to ask while analyzing TPM is whether it was at all necessary. The short answer is an unequivocal no. The world wouldn’t have stopped spinning if it had remained clueless as to how Luke and Leia’s parents met. The global economy would not have imploded had we not gone through not one, not two, but three fucking laps of the podrace. And fanboys would not have stopped buying Slave Leia action figures if they hadn’t got to see a CG camel fart in Jar Jar’s face.
“So where’s the defense part of this positively biblical philippic, you twat,” I hear you ask, only to add “and why are you using words like philippic?” Well, thanks, and having broken down Star Wars to its elements, and tackled nostalgia, I can now start waxing poetic about The Phantom Menace.
Yes, I fucking love it. And most of the reasons why are exactly those that make people hate the film. Considered on its own terms, as a summer blockbuster sequel, it’s just about perfect. I love that there is absolutely NOTHING dark about the film whatsoever. Anakin leaves his mother behind, probably never to see her again, and yet two scenes later, he is all “bitch, I know how to fly a spaceship – I own lightspeed, and wacky maneuvering, and shit.” Jar Jar steps on crap twice, gets farted on twice, gets his mouth zapped only for his tongue to dangle like a flaccid phallus for five minutes afterwards, and manages to singlehandedly bring down an entire squadron of battle hardened droids by jumping on one’s chest. Supposedly one of the more dangerous planets of the outer rim territories, not to mention a hive of scum and villainy (I know, that’s Mos Eisley, but still), Tattoine feels like a beach that’s missing its ocean. It’s just fun. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s look at the plot, not forgetting to put it in the context of actual Star Wars history.
It’s a bit of a lame way to start a space opera with a scroll about trade routes, taxation, blockades and peace keepers, sure. But that’s just the fricking starting point to kick-off the plot. It is the pregnant moment that gives birth to the story, and its coolness quotient is irrelevant. Nothing about taxation or trade routes is even mentioned after the first scene anyway, and I have no idea why, after a decade, people still go on about trade routes as if the first part of the film were spent listening in on a senate sub-committee hearing. The fact that the opening crawl is so heavy-handed is annoying, but it gets the job done: For some flimsy reason, the Trade Federation has besieged the planet Naboo, and the Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, Master Qui-Gon and his bitch Obi Wan, to see what the hell is going on. This idea of “Jedi as peacemakers” is inspired. The Jedi’s religion does not overwhelm the Republic, and it’s established throughout the film that they are legendary figures who command respect. They’re kinda like the Maharishi with a katana blade. That they’re not soldiers, definitely not soldiers, is a nice touch.
Anyway, the Jedi get aboard the Trade Federation’s command ship, in a meta moment that’s lost on most viewers, realize that something as shitty as a trade dispute is way too wank to go to all this trouble for, get attacked, kick some ass, and fly down to Naboo in order to save the Queen. It’s straight-forward, and the plot is kicked into motion within the first ten minutes: classical Hollywood storytelling at its most economical. In comparison, most summer blockbusters spend their entire first acts just establishing stuff. Even small plot points, such as the age-old animosity between the respective human and alien races of Naboo, are handled fairly gracefully – for a Star Wars film, at least.
The way the story develops afterwards is radically different from the original three films, which all have one single plotline each that dominates them. Rather than a sub-plot, Lucas introduces a parallel plot once the Jedi and the Queen arrive in Tattooine to fix their ship. Very soon, Qui Gon realizes that he is unable to use his Jedi charms on Watto, a Jewish junkyard owner, who will only make do with hard cash (Aside: much has been made of the film’s racism by way of thinly veiled stereotypes, which is understandable. I don’t think the stereotypes betray prejudice on Lucas’s parts, but that he is obviously out of touch with the way of the world in general). It is at this time that they meet Anakin Skywalker, who, besmitten by Padme, offer shelter to her, Qui-Gon and Jar Jar from a sandstorm in his hovel.
We meet Anakin’s mum, Shmi (which, incidentally, is the name of my cat), and find out that they are Watto’s slaves. In a sequence of expository scenes that seem to go on forever, we find out that they have podracing on Tatooine, it is a very dangerous sport, and Anakin is the only human who can do it. Discovering the bind his guests have found themselves in, Anakin offers to enter the next day’s race, with which Qui Gon et al could buy the spare parts they need. Shmi agrees, not too reluctantly, but Watto is not as easy to give in. Eventually, he and Qui Gon reach a deal: if Anakin wins the race, Qui Gon gets the spare parts he needs, and can take Anakin with him. If he loses, well, who bloody cares, it’s obvious he won’t.
The Anakin storyline comes to the foreground during the Tattoine sequences. Characters’ motivations change, as does the focus of the film, which, in turn, starts to concentrate on the boy. It’s a novel approach for Star Wars – not all that successful as the urgency of the first act is never re-captured – and frames the Anakin story perfectly. Even though there are few throwaway scenes to Darth Sidious and Darth Maul (who have a meeting on a balcony across a city skyline, thus draining all mysticism out of the Sith), the middle part of the film is squarely about Anakin and who he is – strictly speaking, it never becomes a subplot. This narrative shift ensures the audience to get sucked into Anakin’s story. You start to wonder why the developments of the first act have now been jettisoned to concentrate on this annoying little shit.
The answer is soon revealed: This kid might be , which, again, is an original concept for Star Wars - in the original trilogy, the saviour storyline could be described as subtextual at best. “Overthrowing the Empire” does not dominate the characters’ particular “plights of fancy” in the original films, where the actions are governed by momentary twists of fate. In the new films, however, whether or not Anakin’s dangles over everyone’s heads like the Sword of Damocles. It gets tired soon in the second and third films, but, in The Phantom Menace, it has a kind of obscure mysticism that resembles Empire and Jedi.
A few revelations help achieve this effect. Firstly, a Jedi prophecy is spelled out that a Chosen One will bring balance to the force, and this, in turn, goes to underline every single scene about Anakin, and most of the scenes with him (not just in this film, but the next two as well, as previously stated). In fact, one of the subtler plot points of the prequels is whether or not the Jedi misread the prophecy, and it’s a shame this avenue never gets fleshed out further. Qui Gon suspects that Anakin might well be this long foretold figure, and when he asks Shmi who Anakin’s father was, her reply both confirms his suspicions, and stuns him: “There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth to him, I raised him. I can't explain what happened.”
Even though virgin birth is prevalent in world cultures (Lucas’s hero and mentor Joseph Campbell argues that Mithras, too, had a virgin birth, for example), the allusion to Christian Mythology is clear. Anakin is presented as Christ Figure, and the film’s amalgamation of the legends of Jesus and Lucifer into one is ironic. But for Luke’s Freudian emasculation in the hands of Vader at the end of the duel in Empire, this is the only other time where Lucas intentionally injects Star Wars with subtext.
Even though Qui Gon is certain Anakin is , he performs on him a blood test, thus introducing one of the prequels’ most universally hated additions to Star wars lore: midi-chlorians. It turns out Anakin’s blood is full of them, and somehow the midichlorians determine one’s affinity to the force. It was felt that this literalism was anathema to the hitherto abstract nature of the force, but it just happens to be one of my favourite bits of the whole movie.
I’ve always loved stories where the boundary between the scientific and the fantastic is obscured. I remember a Tales From The Crypt story I read when I was five, where an Egyptologist, Indiana Jonesing his way through a pyramid, figures out that the edifice is actually a space ship, and ends up meeting Anubis himself. “This is unbelievable,” gasps the scientist, to which the god of the underworld(actually an alien in the story) replies: “The Unbelievable is a science you are yet to master.” I am also reminded of Clarke’s Third Law, which states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” You see my point: I love the fact that scientific knowledge in the Star Wars universe has reached such extremes that the line between technology and fantasy, or, if you like, spirituality, is almost nonexistent. In fact, midichlorians serve as a metatextual wink at the Star Wars movies, an amalgamation of science fiction and fantasy themselves.
Getting back to the narrative, once the apparently interminable pod race is over, demonstrating, nay, bludgeoning the audience to death with how great a pilot Anakin is, he joins Qui Gon et al, and the party leaves for Coruscant, the Galactic Capital, to plead Naboo’s case with the Senate. The Coruscant sequence is relatively quick, and it manages to convey two important details. The Jedi don’t want to train Anakin because he has “too much fear in him,” and the Senate is unable to help the Naboo because the Trade Federation is a stronger presence in the congress than a little planet from the outer-rims (I am trying hard not to use words like “outer-rim” but sometimes it’s just not possible). During the consultations with the Jedi Council, Anakin sees in his mentor a defiance which makes an indelible impression in him that, combined with his own brashness, will lead him to later disregard all instructions to the contrary, and pilot a starfighter. On the other hand, the Nubian Party (Nubian is the official adjectival form of Naboo – I like a film with the audacity to impose its own grammar on the English language) realise that they will have to take up arms against their oppressors, but not before making their peace with Jar Jar’s people. These two turning points set the film on an inexorable course to its natural climax and conclusion. And even though the Coruscant sequence is the weakest one in the film, but it’s not unnecessary. Even at their most plodding, all the scenes in The Phantom Menace serve a purpose, and this is in no small part due to Lucas’s editorial talents as well as the film’s editor Ben Burtt’s.
The final action set pieces are all excellent in their own way even though they’re fundamentally different from those in Star Wars and Empire. The Queen’s quest to recapture the throne room makes up for what it lacks in the suspense stakes with the opulent interiors, which were shot at the Caserta Palace in Italy (as opposed to the Caserta Palace in Idaho). In fact, the locations of The Phantom Menace display a magnificent balance of real world and CGI. In comparison, all the environments in the next two sequels have a synthetic, plastic, quality, owing much to crappy sets and an overabundance of CG (Matt Zoller Seitz makes a good point to the contrary in his contribution to the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-thon here).
As silly as it might be, the Gungan battle with the battle droids have a pleasant, sugary quaintness which, at its best, is reminiscent of the Agincourt Battle in Olivier’s Henry V. However, this sequence is a refrain of a darker motif introduced in Return of the Jedi with the Ewoks: primitive natives against a technologically advanced invading force. It was a Vietnam metaphor in Jedi, and watching TPM now, the Gungan battle has an ominous allusion to real-life. And even though the space battle is the weakest in the trilogy, there is a clear goal, and a far greater purpose that’s lacking in similar scenes in other summer blockbusters like Independence Day.
All those sequences are but side-orders to the main dish. What distinguishes the action climax of The Phantom Menace is the final lightsabre duel. No. Let me correct that. The FUCKING lightsabre duel. It’s grand, it’s violent, it’s beautiful. Against John Williams’ masterly opus “Duel of the Fates,” with its bombastic horns, and bass vocals, the beautiful yet deadly dance of the combatants flows gracefully from one gigantic set to another. That the three swordsmen are silent only adds to the intensity of the scene. Pure and simple, it’s poetic.
I do have my problems with the film, and for once in this protracted harangue, I shan’t use them as rhetorical devices. The relationship between Anakin and his mother is one. The two will never see each other again, yet Shmi sees her son off the way my mum used to on my way to a sleepover (if only she knew). Anakin wants to take her with them (and why Qui Gon does not pull a fast one on Watto anyway is beyond me), but Shmi doesn’t think so and her reply is priceless: “Son, my place is here.” As a slave? Freak.
Then there is the acting. Sure, it’s worse than the original films, but even then I always find myself going along with it (unlike in the sequels). There is no defense for Natalie Portman and Jake Lloyd’s performances, but they were just kids, and I don’t understand how anyone can feel such hatred towards a fricking child. Yeah, they’re rubbish, but, what are you gonna do? And I actually like Liam Neeson’s wooden portrayal of Qui Gon, not to mention MacGregor’s Obi Wan as a humourless twit (his is the only character that shows any growth in the prequel films). My one great problem is with Ian McDiarmid, whose hammy performance grates not just in this movie, but in all the prequels.
But the real problem stems from something I brought up earlier. There is way too much plot in this film. It’s definitely a tight picture, but even so, one feels like being bombarded with information overload. In that respect, it is very similar to the earliest drafts of Star Wars. Having been a life long fan of the franchise, I think the solution was simple: a final draft by someone other than Lucas. It would have kept the story the way Lucas intended, but also trimmed away all the unnecessary parts that read more like fan-fiction (that whole distinction between the “living force” and whatever is not the living force – who gives a crap?).
The Phantom Menace is not a perfect film, and The Phantom Menace is not a perfect Star Wars film, either. But it is what it is. A glorious, child-friendly, summer blockbuster. It doesn’t deserve its terrible reputation, and it’s sure as hell better than many other blockbusters, including its two sequels. There is a lot beneath the surface if one wants to delve deeper. But that would defeat the film’s purpose. It’s there to be enjoyed with an open mind.
So that it can fill it with wonders.
 I shall refer to all Star Wars films with their various colloquial titles.
 This piece uses Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent “Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays” as reference.
 Luke is a twin in early story conferences, too, but Leia is most definitely not his sister. Instead, she is a heretofore undisclosed character who is going through Jedi training in another part of the galaxy.
 I know, I know… Journal of the Whills. Son of the Suns. Whatever. All apocryphal, and all irrelevant. And if this footnote means nothing to you, consider yourself lucky, and good for you for having a well-balanced childhood.
 Most people hate this scene, but I find the matter-of-fact way Shmi talks about Anakin’s parthenogenesis is not incongruous with a universe where weird crap is an everyday occurrence.  This cross-pollination of the spiritual with the scientific is also prevalent in The Subtle Knife, the second book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, to varying results.
 The Coruscant sequence has one excellent bit of – probably unintentional – foreshadowing. Frustrated with the Senate, Queen Amidala tells the future Emperor Palpatine “This is your arena, Senator.” In the final film, it is indeed in the vast senate chambers that the Emperor and Yoda have their (anti)climactic battle.
[This is a contribution to the Deeply Superficial Blog-a-thon at South Dakota Dark.]