Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
reviewed by Ari Armstrong
This essay is not a teaser-review of the new Star Wars film. It is an analysis of the ideas and story-telling of the movie, and, as such, will reveal significant elements of the plot. Stop reading now if you don't want to know such details before viewing the film.
What made the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV) so great? In a word, its Heroism. One can over-look the occasionally corn-ball acting, the simplistic plot devices (like the giant man-eating worm in the garbage shoot), and the childish innocence of the film. When Princess Leia refuses to sacrifice the Rebel Alliance to the Emperor, when Han Solo and Luke Skywalker daringly rescue Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader, when Obi-Wan Kenobi disables the tractor beam and fights Vader to the death to save his friends, when Luke pilots his way into the trench of the Death Star and when Han returns to protect him from fire, those are the moments of the film that create a passionate epic of heroism.
The Phantom Menace retains some element of heroism among its characters. Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn (played well by Liam Neeson) and the young Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor, who also does a fine job) battle robots and Darth Maul in stunning light-saber sequences. R2-D2 repairs a ship while dodging fire on the outside of the hull. Natalie Portman's Queen Amidala leads an insurrection against hostile forces on her planet.
For the most part, though, heroism gives way to blind luck and the "will of the force." Thus, the characters become peripheral to the story.
Perhaps a third of the movie is devoted to Qui-Gon finding young Anakin Skywalker. The two meet completely fortuitously: it is the "will of the force" that brings them together. The entire sequence seems disjointed from the rest of the movie, and it is not interesting in itself. Anakin's canyon race, while a visual wonder, is a pointless distraction from the plot.
Light-saber battles, high-speed races, and the assault on an evil space station -- sound familiar? Only this time, the destruction of the space station does not occur by heroic deeds, but by dumb luck. Anakin just happens to hide in the cockpit of a space ship, just happens to push the wrong button to fire the engines, just happens to be taken by auto-pilot to the space station, and just happens to blow up the central power generator of the station while shooting robots. Nothing like blind chance to inspire the human soul.
Another disturbing sequence of chance is the animated character Jar Jar's cowardly "fight" against robots during Queen Amidala's insurrection. He doesn't stand up to be counted: he beats a hasty retreat and in doing so accidentally destroys many of his robot foes. For instance, he just happens to spill a load of ammunition which takes out many enemy machines. Contrast this with the true heroism of the Ewoks in Episode VI.
In previous installments, comedy supplemented, but did not seek to replace, heroic deeds. The antics of C3-PO, the frantic optimism of Han Solo as he tries to push his ship into hyper-drive, the spats between Solo and the Princess, the humorous deeds of the Ewoks -- these provided relief from the intense heroics of the movies. In Phantom Menace, the comedy drives out heroics.
If there was anything dull about the first three movies (Episodes IV through VI), it was the reliance on "the force" over bravery. The destruction of the original Death Star is spectacular, but Luke's inability to fire his torpedoes into the shaft without the guidance of the force is anti-climactic. To the extent that characters are driven by outside forces rather by their own skill and bravery, they become boring and uninspiring.
Curiously, the Rocky Mountain News film critic Robert Denerstein says about the film:
The prequel comes up woefully short on traditional delights, little things such as character development. It also misses the kind of quasi-spiritual aura that gave the earlier movies heft. (May 19, 1999, page 14D)
True, the characters are not well-developed, precisely because of George Lucas's over-reliance on the determinism of "the force." A hero takes charge of a situation and creates solutions to problems. Qui-Jon counsels, "don't think, feel." Stymied by his inability to repair his ship, he also says, "a solution will present itself." Not, "we'll come up with an alternate plan," but just, "well, the force will provide." I found the Phantom Menace uninspiring for precisely the same reason I found the Prince of Egypt uninspiring: some supernatural power drives the story, leaving nothing for the characters to do but stand around and look cool.
Anakin is pre-determined to train as a Jedi knight and to bring "balance" between the good and dark sides of the force. Darth Maul has little to do other than look scary and weild a double-bladed light saber -- he doesn't help drive the story. There is no fundamental clash of wills.
But Denerstein inadvertently hits upon a deeper truth with his comment on spirituality. In his book The Art of Living Consciously, Nathaniel Branden distinguishes spirituality from a belief in a particular religion. Branden describes spirituality as "pertaining to consciousness and to the needs and development of consciousness" (180). Branden argues that often religious beliefs interfere with spirituality because they encourage passivity and reliance on some external power. Much of what the Jedi Knights are about embodies authentic spirituality, such as the quest for self-knowledge and self-control. But the Jedis' reliance on "the force" to guide their lives runs counter to true spirituality.
Branden's one-time associate, the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, defines romantic art as "based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition" (The Romantic Manifesto 99). Lucas's first three Star Wars films are predominantly Romantic in spirit. His latest, Phantom Menace, is predominantly non-Romantic (though it retains elements of Romanticism as described by Rand). Rand describes the difference:
If man possesses volition, then the crucial aspect of his life is his choice of values -- if he chooses values, then he must act to gain and/or keep them -- if so, then he must set his goals and engage in purposeful action to achieve them. The literary form expressing the essence of such action is the plot. (A plot is a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax.)...
Hopefully, Lucas will return to a more consistently Romantic approach in his subsequent Star Wars films. Then his plots will be more coherent and his characters more engaging and inspiring.