“An Apology For the Star Wars Prequels,” Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Folks, I’ve had it. I’m tired of people bashing the Star Wars prequels.

I’m not tired of hearing a well thought out, articulate explanation of why they aren’t as good as the originals (I agree). I’m not tired of hearing a true Star Wars fan say that Lucas made huge mistakes in his decision making (I agree). I’m not even tired of people saying Jar Jar Binks was a mortifying disaster (I don’t agree but am sympathetic).

What I’m tired of is inarticulate, tone-deaf expressions of: “The original Star Wars movies were the real ones. The prequels are just money grabs.”

If you really think the prequels are not in the spirit of Star Wars, the odds are good that your opinions of the first three movies are influenced by nostalgia rather than fact. The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are all three very faithful to the spirit, story, and delivery of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Criticizing the PT (prequel trilogy)  is valid; but what I hear quite a bit is criticism on a categorical basis, the idea that the OT (original trilogy) occupied some sort of different stratosphere of energy and love and joy than the PT.

The three PT films could be judged the worst movies of all time and this criticism would still be dead wrong.

What follows, in three installments (one covering each film), is my perspective on the Prequel Trilogy. My argument will be simple: That each of the Prequel movies is true to the spirit, story, and delivery of the original trilogy. Note what I’m not saying: That the prequels are superior in any way, nor are they necessarily compelling in their own right. I do believe they are good movies, but that’s not my point here. My point is that the PT is every bit as “Star Wars” as the OT.

First up, I will look at the first prequel, Episode I.

******

Though Episode II is generally considered the “least good” of all the prequels, it is Episode I, the Phantom Menace, that usually elicits the strongest exclamations of hatred.

I was 10 years old in May 1999, when the crushing weight of media hype was almost unbearable. Even looking back now, I remember how Star Wars was everywhere that summer. Taco Bell and Burger King had like 84904 different toys that could you pick from to throw away in a year. Even without perfect clarity, I remember how incredibly excited everyone was for the return of Star Wars.

Did the movie live up to its hype? Honestly, that’s a trick question. No actual thing can live up to an unreal expectation. It reminds me of Luke telling Han in Episode IV that the reward for the Princess’s rescue would be more than he could imagine, leaving Han to retort, “I don’t know–I can imagine quite a bit.” That’s the thing about anticipation: Once a mythology of fandom has fully blossomed, no amount of reality can satisfy it.

So let me begin by saying: I don’t care about your hurt feelings. I don’t care that you were “let down” by TPM or that George Lucas committed a sexual felony on your childhood. No amount of disappointment or jaded aspiration can change reality. And the reality is, The Phantom Menace is a pretty darn good–and very Star Wars–movie.

Spirit

Of all the prequels, TPM is, in my (correct) opinion, the most in keeping withe spirit of Star Wars. This movie just drips with 1977. Actually, I take that back: It really drips with 1983, which is when Return of the Jedi released. If you are paying attention to all six films carefully, you will notice something obvious yet subtle: The Phantom Menace and the Return of the Jedi are very similar films.

The reason most people don’t see this is because they understandably associate parallel order. Based on that habit, you would compare TPM to the first Star Wars, A New Hope. Based on that comparison, it is difficult to see how TPM works as a Star Wars movie. But that’s because ANH occupies a different point of view and a different conflict than TPM (I’ll say more about that later). The story of ANH is told from the perspective of a kid who is neither Jedi nor soldier. TPM’s perspective is that of Jedi, and not just of Jedi, but of Old Republic Jedi. I’ll spare those who are not as nerdy as the rest of us by simply saying that the Old Republic was a much different government and culture than what is depicted in original Star Wars movies.

There is however an OT film that is told from the perspective of  a Jedi, and that is Episode VI. That perspective is key to understanding the tone of TPM. The stories of TPM and RotJ are both told from the viewpoint of Jedis: TPM sees the galaxy through Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, while RotJ is told through the lives of Luke and Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader). I submit to you that the difference that this POV makes in the story can be seen by the way the respective opening scenes affect the tone of the film. Whereas ANH opens with a dramatic, music-laced spaceship fight; and Empire Strikes Back (ESB) opens with a mysterious snow planet and probe droids, RotJ and TPM open quietly, in a cockpit, onboard a ship that is headed to enemy territory.

There is a maturity, a gravitas if you will, about how each of these films opens. The tone that is set for the emerging story is not necessarily an upbeat, Indiana Jones escapade. That’s because both TPM and RoTJ are about the philosopher-warriors and the mysteries of the universe. Unlike ANH, TPM is not about an accidental hero. It’s not even about the Armies of Good versus the Armies of Evil. It’s about the quest of Jedis to uncover the truth about the Dark Side.

Story

That leads us into discussing how the story of Episode I fits in the greater tale of the Star Wars universe.

At the movie’s center is the discovery by Qui Gon Jinn of Anakin Skywalker. Skywalker is a slave boy who can do unusual things, things that Qui Gon knows are usually reserved for Jedis. Quin Gon’s journey takes a pivotal turn when Anakin’s mother tells him that she conceived Anakin by herself, Immaculately. The literary references to Christ are obvious, but that news confirms to Qui Gon that Anakin is indeed someone special.

That is the story at the center of TPM, but teleological destination of the story is discovering the truth behind the reemergence of the Sith. It is very important that the Sith warrior, Darth Maul, engages the Jedis in the presence of Anakin. This intertwining of the truth about the Sith with the truth about Anakin becomes the core drama of the entire PT.

Unlike ANH but like RotJ, the core of TPM’s story is mythology rather than war or heroism. This is why the concept of the midichlorians was introduced. The midichlorians are, according to Qui Gon, the sub-atomic substances that carry, like DNA, the Force. Jedis have very high midichlorian counts; non Force-sensitive beings have very low counts. What makes Anakin remarkable is that he has more midichlorians than Master Yoda, which means, at least on a certain level, he is more Force-sensitive than the greatest Jedi in the galaxy. Qui Gon concludes that Anakin was conceived by the midichlorians themselves, which would make him a prophesied “Chosen One.”

Of all the stinging criticisms of TPM, perhaps nothing is brought up more often as an example of the “joylessness” of the film than the midichlorians. Why, Mr. Lucas, did you feel the need to turn something wild and mysterious-the Force-into a biology lesson? Behind this criticism is an assumption that I think is laughable, namely, that if you have a name for something it is less wondrous. But let me explain why the storyline involving midichlorians is absolutely appropriate for a Star Wars movie.

The Force is introduced in ANH as an “energy field” that lives inside all things. It is a nebulous type of existential matrix that is both the glue that holds the universe together and the accessible source for manipulating said universe. The Force is what the Jedi derives his power from. In ESB, Yoda expands on this with some very Buddhist philosophizing: “Luminous beings are we,” he says. “The Force surrounds us and binds us.” In other words, the Force is a sort of light or spirit that is the ultimate source of Who We Are.

Then we come to RotJ, and here’s where it gets interesting. Luke discovers that he has a sister, and that this daughter of Anakin is also sensitive to the Force. “The Force runs strong in my family,” he eventually tells Leia. So on top of everything we’ve heard about the Force to this point, there’s something else: The Force is genetic. Force sensitive beings give birth to other little Force sensitive beings. And how does this happen? Through the midichlorians.

The midichlorians are not a vile attempt by George Cashcow Lucas to again rob your childhood of its wonder and mystery. The midichlorians in fact explain what would otherwise be not wondrous, just patently absurd: The idea that an “energy field” that some can sense and others can’t could actually result in the conception of a child. Midichlorians explain why Leia was like Luke, and also why she didn’t realize it yet.

You see? Evidence of something like midichlorians is all over the third act of RotJ. Which means that, like it or not, the midichlorians belong in the Star Wars universe.

Delivery

Finally, what about the actual filmmaking itself? This category is the easiest of all three. TPM is a wonderfully organic film that is brimming with sets, puppets, and 35mm glory.

The podrace sequence might actually be Lucas’s finest achievement in the entire Star Wars saga, at least as far as the combination of digital and live action set pieces. If you watch the superb documentary that accompanies the TPM DVD, you’ll know that a life size podracer was built for each of the pods that you see during the race. You can absolutely tell the craftsmanship and art direction that went into the designs of the pods. The podrace has an extraordinarily “earthy” feel.

If that’s not Star Wars, I don’t know what is.

Some people have complained the final lightsaber duel is too acrobatic and not true to how the fights were in the first movies. I have to concede that this is a true observation, but its a false criticism. The reason the cliamctic duel between the Jedi and Sith is so much more high flying than anything we saw in the OT is because you are actually seeing real warriors fight to the standards of their spiritual and ancient practice. Luke Skywalker, by contrast, was a farm kid. Doesn’t it make sense that he would hold onto his lightsaber with both hands?

TPM is far and away superior to the other two prequels in the non-CGI department. A great example is R2’s last minute repair of the Naboo starship. Watch the sequence and notice how deftly Lucas uses the real set pieces of the droids and ship to allow him to get very close to the action.

I freely admit that Lucas went on to make some mistakes in his digitalizing of Star Wars. But TPM has some truly amazing moments of live action filmmaking that deserve credit. If you watch the movie, you will see for yourself just how much of it is obviously real.

Conclusion

You are wrong about The Phantom Menace. TPM is a delightful space opera that fits in quite well with the more serious tones of the later OT movies. The idea that TPM representes a huge break with the Star Wars tradition is bunk. Criticize it all you want, but don’t say it’s not Star Wars.

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