Thursday, August 2, 2012

32 BBY: The Phantom Menace

I love The Phantom Menace.  I hate The Phantom Menace.

I love The Phantom Menace because it is made in the image and likeness of Star Wars.  I love The Phantom Menace because it gave me, along with everyone else of my generation back on May 19th of 1999, one of the greatest movie going experience ever – right up until the brass fanfare of the Star Wars theme song and the black and yellow script of the opening crawl. 
I hate The Phantom Menace because after that everything fell apart.  We were treated to horrible storytelling, Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians, and the painful hubris of George Lucas.

I know I’m late to the party here, and really, I’ve got nothing new to add to this conversation.   I can only point to more eloquent writers and voices who have articulated their complaints regarding this film.
If you were a kid back in ’99, and you love The Phantom Menace, or think “It wasn’t that bad” (yes, it really was), and can’t wrap your head around why these “grouchy old fans” hate The Phantom Menace so much, allow me to direct you to some required reading and viewing if you want to seriously know what we were, and to some extent still are, complaining about. 

The best articulation I’ve come across about the fans reaction to The Phantom Menace back in 1999 is Todd Hanson’s essay A Big Dumb Movie About Space Wizards: Struggling to Cope with The Phantom Menace.  You can find the essay in one of the greatest books I’ve ever read regarding the cultural phenomenon of Star Wars, A Galaxy Not So Far Away.
The second commentary on The Phantom Menace I enjoyed, and the most controversial of the three I’m presenting, is redlettermedia’s The Phantom Menace Review.  Though it is 70 minutes long it is worth watching.  I call it controversial because of its misogynistic break scenes.  I get why they are there: to provoke an emotional reaction, but it is just un-necessary.

The third commentary, and the most enjoyable, was Alexandre O. Philippe’s The People Vs. George Lucas.  The film is not all about The Phantom Menace, but there is a good 25 minutes in the documentary dedicated to it.  In my opinion I think it is required viewing for all self-professed Star Wars fans.
All three of these commentary’s critiques of The Phantom Menace basically echo the thinking of a generation of fans who were disappointed with the film.

When I read Hanson’s essay A Big Dumb Movie About Space Wizards I was instantly transported back to ’99 and my own experience of The Phantom Menace Mania that gripped Western culture.  Back in ’99 I was working in a frozen-food warehouse on nightshift, paying my way through University.  I worked Sunday to Thursday, 11pm-7am five days a week.  I’d get home about 7:30 in the morning, sleep until 11am, get up, eat, and go to class.  I made sure to schedule all my classes for the afternoon, and I only took three courses from September to April so my course load was relatively light.  I scheduled my other two classes for over the summer, and they were both night classes that ended at 10pm, giving me enough time to get to work for 11pm.  I’d get home from classes sometime between 5 and 6pm, eat, and go back to sleep until 10pm when I’d wake up and head to work.  I did all my homework on the weekends and breaks at the warehouse.  I worked and went to school all-year-round for four years, with a two week break in August right before September classes resumed.  It was the one of the busiest times of my life and one of the most enjoyable.
When I was working at the warehouse I booked May 19th off as soon as I knew the release date of the film.  My boss, a really good man, was amused by this, and he had no problems with me not being there for my shift that night.

The tickets for The Phantom Menace went on sale on the afternoon of the 18th for the midnight showing.  I left work at 7am, drove to the Colossus cinema in Vaughan (I chose that theatre as opposed to a central downtown Toronto theatre because it was a new movie house in what was a relatively empty suburban subdivision at the time, and I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of people there) and stood in line for the theatre to open.  Surprisingly, there was already a line of about 20 people who had been there the night before.  It was the most fun line-up I had ever been in. I instantly connected with a crew of Star Wars super-fans like me, and like me, they were all Star Wars D6 rpg’ers, though I don’t remember anyone being in costume. The box office opened at lunch and I bought tickets for myself and all my friends. I headed home and went to sleep.
I remember the excitement I felt when I woke up that afternoon, but to be honest, I really can’t remember the details of getting to the theatre.  I must have picked up my girlfriend at the time, I remember getting Gill, my best mate’s girl (he was in Australia and couldn’t be there) and my two friends Pete & Pete.  Like Hanson’s recollection of opening night in his essay, our experience was very similar.  The air was electric and everyone was going nuts.

When it was all over I remember turning to Gill and saying something like, ‘Well, the lightsaber duel was good’.  And like every single Star Wars fan, I went back again.  Sometimes by myself, sometimes with friends, trying to convince myself that it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.  It wasn’t.  It really really wasn’t.  
This discontent with The Phantom Menace was aptly captured in the 7 part YouTube video The Phantom Menace Review by redlettermedia.  Though many people take exception with the narrative and the strange scenes of allusion to women being tortured, all aspects which I think terribly detract from an otherwise good review; it’s the most accurate review of what went wrong in this film.

The most telling moment for me, where it seems Lucas and his yes-men gravely understood they had made a horrible movie, was the first four minutes of part seven.  After viewing the film in its entirety for the first time, McCallum is in horrified shocked, Lucas looks bewildered beyond belief, and the editor is still trying to convince himself and everyone else in the room that it’s not bad.  Lucas picks up on this, and makes the claim that what he has created is “bold”.  It’s all so very painful to watch.
The most disappointing aspects of The Phantom Menace for me are the obvious:  Jar Jar Binks, and midichlorians, but another smaller aspect of the film disappointed me as well: Qui-Gon Jinn.  Though I like the character of Qui-Gon Jinn in the EU, and Liam Neeson’s performance in the film is not terrible (he can only work with the dialogue given him), he’s not needed in the film.  I always thought that the Obi-Wan presented in this film was too young to jive with the Obi-Wan we meet in A New Hope.  Reflecting on the film I think it would have been better had Obi-Wan been the Jedi master, maybe in his late 20s to mid-30s, and he had along with him his own padawan.  At the end of the film it is Kenobi’s padawan who, in his or her headstrong rush to meet the Sith in combat at the end of the film, gets himself/herself caught alone behind the energy shield with Darth Maul, is killed, then avenged by his/her master.  Obi-Wan, now at a loss for a padawan, offers to take up Anakin as his new apprentice.  This makes more sense to me.  But alas, this suggestion is simply one fan’s attempt to imprint himself on a film not of his own creation.

Moving on to the third commentary I’ve presented, Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary The People vs. George Lucas, is a film that also did well in recounting fans reactions to opening night.  We were all in shock, and couldn’t believe Lucas had made something so horrible.  Hanson knew what was coming, but in my own naiveté I didn’t.  I almost wish I was there with him so he could have warned me of the blow that was coming.  One of the most bewildering aspects of the film, and something fans, at first perhaps, were trying to understand but ultimately couldn’t, was Jar Jar Binks.  When the Gungan said “exsqueeze me”, in reference to Mike Myer’s character in Wayne’s World, I was disappointed.  I even think one of Jar Jar’s lines (the line escapes me know) was in reference to one of the catch phrases of the Olsen twins from the 90s show Full House.  I show I fully hated because I wasn’t a 12-year-old girl.
In his film Philippe addressed the question of the racist undertones of Jar Jar Binks, and Steven S. Voorman, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Lutheran University, asked a question in relation to this:

“If Jar Jar Binks is racist because he looks like blackface entertainment but nobody’s seen blackface entertainment that is 12 years old watching a Star Wars prequels, does a racist character whose racism is so coded in history remain a racist character?”
My response to him is yes, it does. It is racist simply because it is so coded in history, as he says.  Jar Jar grated our sensibilities at the time, not only because he was tremendously un-funny, but because he perhaps touched something in our collective unconscious which we all knew just wasn’t right, the image of the caricatured subservient blackman (as disguised as he was in the cartoon packaging of Jar Jar) that just did not need to be recalled back into American cinema.

Even though Jar Jar Binks is the brainchild of Lucas and in my opinion is indeed a racist caricature, I don’t think Lucas himself is a racist. I agree with Tom Carson’s assessment that Lucas is simply politically naïve.  In his essay, Jedi Uber Allies, from A Galaxy Not So Far Away, Carson points out some of the fascist elements of Star Wars, but does not condemn Lucas for this, but simply argues that this element has always been present in these kinds of stories. 

“Face it, it’s not too hard to imagine that well-known cinema addict Hitler watching Star Wars with tears dripping down his cheeks until they soaked his mustache.  He’d simply equate the Jedi with the Aryans, and the Empire with the Jewish capitalists and the powers that imposed the Treaty of Versailles on Germany after World War I…This is partly a matter of imagery – most famously, Luke Skywalker’s apotheosis in the final victory march, whose staging and lighting blatantly mimics Leni Rienfenstahl’s lionizing photography of Nazi rallies in Triumph of the Will. (That Lucas himself was the first to draw attention to this, with an air of pride that he hadn’t wasted his time in film class, just proves that his own political naïveté leaves the average kola bear looking like Cardinal Richelieu.)  But the protofascist side of Star Wars is also built right into the film’s premise, and the paradox is that the propaganda is ingenuous, not cunning.  The attitudes are ingrained in the artistic DNA of the simpleminded pulp adventure tales of another age that Lucas’ movie derives from, and whose disquieting gist he inadvertently made explicit simply by reproducing their appeal with such unthinking fidelity” (Carson, A Galaxy Not So Far Away, 162)
By ‘these kinds of stories’ Carson takes to mean the Hero Quest motif from Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with A Thousand Faces. That desire of the hero to go out, dominate, and create a kingdom that is made in his own image and likeness.

Like I said, I don’t think Lucas is a racist; he’s simply bringing to his movies things that have obviously influenced him from his own movie-going past, and re-creating them in an innocent child-like manner.
As it is, we have had 13 years to reconcile ourselves to the reality of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars history.  And not surprisingly, in the hands of other artists, I’ve begun to like him.  I think I really began to appreciate Jar Jar after his episode Bombad Jedi in The Clone Wars, and also the episode Supply Lines from season three.  In both episodes I genuinely laughed at the Gungan’s antics. 

In Lucas’ defence, maybe Jar Jar was always funny, and I just didn’t get it.  He’s always said the movies are for kids (though that line doesn’t hold water with the taxation of trade routes narrative presented at the beginning of the film), because my four-year-old son thinks he’s pretty funny, so what the hell do I know?  Nothing apparently.  As one interviewee from The People vs. George Lucas observed, Lucas did right by us as kids in the 80s, and it seems he’s still doing right by our own kids today who still enjoy what he has to offer. 
I think that line might be check-mate for the man who captured lightning in a bottle back in ‘77.
For my next post I’m going to engage with Terry Brooks’ novelization of The Phantom Menace.  Until then my friends, may the Force be with you.


  1. I really liked one of Rogue-One-and-a-Half's comments in his review of TPM. He pointed out that if one hadn't seen TPM but had been reading the EU chronologically, by the point one reached this film one would have already read all the Jedi Apprentice series and other Qui-Gon/Obi-Wan stories. The film would come as a shock, then, because it would be like DC killing Batman and having Robin replace him as the main hero.
    I didn't see TPM opening day, but I believe it was opening weekend (Sunday perhaps?). I don't remember a lot except that, like pretty much everyone, I was disappointed. I liked the duels and I was mad that Maul was killed (or at least, appeared to be killed), but other than that it was pretty forgettable. It wasn't until RotS came out that I was at all excited about SW again.

  2. I haven't read Rogue-One-and-a-Half's review. Where can I find it? I agree with him that if one only read the EU it would seem that way. I still think it should have been Obi-Wan who was the Jedi Master.

  3. Some of his reviews are available at his new site,, but he has a lot of others that aren't there yet. His TPM review, unfortunately, is stuck in limbo until TF.N moves from it's temporary boards to the new permanent ones. When that happens, all the older threads will become available again.

  4. Well, I'm back from two more weeks of hopping around in woods, learning to shoot and worrying about my looks. Four more weeks to go, then with any luck I will be trained to be an office worker, which is the least physical job in the army.

    But no way I'm getting anything properly thought out of my head now, I'm too tired for that. I just found out that there's going to be three Hobbit movies, that news takes some swallowing.

    TPM didn't do much for me even as a kid, but ROTS is my favorite SW film (the only one I got to see in a theater) and PT era in EU is endlessly fascinating and I wish that the time between TPM and AOTC would get new material.

  5. Glad to hear your military training is going well, and I'm looking forward to your continued participation.