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July 01, 1999

  • This is not your parents’ Star Wars
  • It seemed like a wonderful, festive, event at the time. My six year old goddaughter wanted to see the original Star Wars (known within the Jedi Film canon as Episode IV: A New Hope) after seeing the anemic sequel/prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace a week before.

    I disliked Episode I; aside from a great cast, it meandered through two hours of poorly structured narrative with overly-cute characters that threatened diabetic coma at any moment. She on the other hand loved Episode I, and was enraptured by it, which brought back fond memories for this old fogey of seeing Star Wars as a seven year old in its original theatrical release in 1977.

    I thought my goddaughter would love the original. For one thing it has a better story, a consistent protagonist (who was the equivalant of Luke in The Phantom Menace? Liam Neeson’s suave Jedi Knight Qui-Gon? The future Darth Vader, Anikin Skywaler?), a consistent antagonist (Darth Vader’s character is established within ten minutes of the original film; Darth Maul makes barely more than a walk-on until past the half-way point of the prequel) and one of the best examples of clear, linear storytelling known to humankind at the end of the twentieth century. Plus, the space battles are really cool.

    To my utter dismay she was bored by it.

    She squirmed. She fidgeted. She started colouring her Beanie Babies with a magic marker (the marker was taken away). Finally she said something that made my blood turn cold, “I don’t like this one as much as the other one.”

    To someone who was just slightly older than her when the first Star Wars movie came out, this outburst was unfathomable. Star Wars was more than a movie, it was the bedrock on which my popular culture landscape was built. It was the benchmark by which all other experiences were based on. And it was the best virtual roller coaster ride this seven year old ever embarked on and one which continues to please that same inner-seven year old. When the child one has promised to guide and protect in matters of spiritual and earthly importance say they prefer a paltry, inferior sequel to Star Wars, there are two responses: one, plan an exorcism; two, try to figure out just what it is that attracts her so to Episode One.

    In many ways, the assumption of Star Wars into popular culture is precisely what is wrong with Phantom Menace. It calls itself a “prequel” but it requires a knowledge of the Star Wars phenomenon in order to understand it; something which most people between the ages of ten and forty-five in the West have. Ask yourself: if this really were the first movie in the series, would you understand much of what is happening? The answer is probably not. There is talk about “The Force” but calling it “the Living Force” is about as much expository dialogue you get. There isn’t the “The force is that which binds all of us” speech which Alec Guinness gave in the first Star Wars movie’which is odd since they go on to explain how the Force works in Phantom Menace. There’s a simple reason for this; it’s assumed most people going to the theatre above the age of ten have seen the original Star Wars already—probably several times.

    But I digress. I went to see Phantom Menace again (making it the only Star Wars sequel I have seen more than once at the cinema or on video) and puzzled over not only its attraction to my goddaughter, but why the original Star Wars bored her so much. I came out of it realising that perhaps George Lucas is being more savvy than I had previously given him credit.

    For one thing, the lack of a consistent protagonist or antagonist isn’t necessarily a weakness to the narrative of The Phantom Menace. In fact what is so downright clever is that the narrative focus is so ambiguous that any character can be the protagonist. The first time I saw the film, I took Qui-Gon as the main protagonist (and I have to admit, Liam Neeson is marvellous), but on subsequent screenings I found I could equally use Anakin . My goddaughter related to the Queen/Padme (Natalie Portman’s completely underrated role). In effect, rather like many video games, The Phantom Menace lets you choose your own hero.

    Similarly in the eponymous phantom menace (the cloaked Sith Lord who is obviously Senator Palpatine) and Darth Maul, you have characters who are bad only because the visual language of the film says so. You don’t need to establish the character. By wearing cloaks and horns, and riding a futuristic version of a Harley, he already looks bad.

    The increased “cute” quotient in this movie is where you can see what The Phantom Menace‘s makers are triying to achieve. It isn’t just that—having used Ewoks on an unsuspecting populace—George Lucas decided to make every alien cloyingly cute in this film (I shall not speak of the creature known as J*r J*r B*nks). It’s that Anakin Skywalker is portrayed as a child, not a teenager which would make better narrative sense for a future relationship with the Queen (as has been predestined). This is purely and simply wish fulfilment for our inner children (who didn’t as a kid want to be able to fly in a Star Wars dogfight?) but also key identification for the target audience of the film. Which is what the target audience of Star Wars has always been—kids.

    I suspect that all George Lucas has done is understood the needs of today’s kids and simply given them what they want. The Star Wars movies, for all of its hackneyed mysticism, are essentially children’s films. I don’t believe this belittles the series. There is much entertainment primarily for children that can be profound and provide great satisfaction to adults; we need only look to the works of C.S. Lewis, or some of the better BBC children’s serials to understand this. Indeed, George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars was Saturday Matinee serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s’a children’s genre.

    For the kids of “my” generation (and a generation or so afterwards) Star Wars was a great kids movie. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the original series of films were made, we had a cultural landscape and language built by television, by Sesame Street, by books and by the very crudely-made early video games. Perhaps The Phantom Menace is one which speaks to the kids of my goddaughter’s generation—a cultural landscape built by TV, by VH-1, by Teletubbies, by hypertext and CD-Roms and, frankly, Star Wars itself. So we get a film that doesn’t have conventional protagonists, but has cartoon antagonists; a film that moves briskly from one piece of eye candy to the next; a film that references the entire Star Wars phenomenon but doesn’t define much of an identity for itself as a stand-alone film.

    But perhaps that’s alright. The Star Wars franchise is simply adapting to kids needs and reflecting the way popular culture has changed over the past twenty years. And maybe that’s not brilliant filmmaking, but Star Wars has never been Citizen Kane.

    For that reason, I’ll learn to live with my goddaughter preferring The Phantom Menace. Just so long as she doesn’t ask me to give her a Jar Jar Binks action figure for Christmas.


    July 1999


    ©1999 Graeme Burk

    This article first appeared in Movement the magazine of the British SCM

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