'Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time' - Ursula Le Guin
It is the things that are most despised in the prequel trilogy that are its revelations—deliberate signaling of intent—that mark the prequels as different films and unique works of the American cinema. Among the most essential of the many infamous failures of The Phantom Menace is the “taxation of trade routes”—that single phrase that moves a franchise from the realm of fantasy into a cosmos of political details—which is precisely where Lucas’ devils dwell. In a cinematic landscape of fake realism and apolitical cynicism packaged as social critique, Lucas crafted one of the most astute and frankly, pleasurable, political allegories of the neoliberal age. He did this through a structural and narrative distinctiveness that is so apart from the stock three-act structure and rote subtext of studio narratives that it is often received as a failure to achieve the very things it rejects. Lucas translates the metabolism of filmic serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers into a single feature film and harnesses the wooden velocity of cardboard dross to paint a Bruegelian tapestry of politicians, religious dignitaries, warriors, and “pathetic lifeforms”. Using the language of children’s cartoons, he paints one of the most complex and earnest renditions of the fall of a great society—not from invaders or barbarians or nameless hordes—but from the inside out. In a universe populated by whimsy and love, legends and esoterica, Lucas charts how a democratic republic eats itself alive—and it all begins in the obscuring shadow of details, in the taxation of trade routes.
Simply pointing out that The Phantom Menace doesn’t cohere to the three-act structure of narrative features is not to reveal the film’s original sins, but simply to recognize that what Lucas is up to is different. In this first chapter of the fall of a great republic, Lucas frames everything as an interplay of two poles: of the mindfulness of the present as a mode of resistance to the careful plotting systems of venal power. For all the philosophical benefits, mindfulness also makes his heroes a constant moving target to a vast organized oppression. I would put this film in dialogue with the similar structural themes of Feuillade’s Fantômas, Lang’s Mabuse films, Anderson’s Resident Evil series, and Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return—all of which pit shadowy detail-oriented systems against an organic human goodness. They depict an arms race of mutating stakes; symbionts trapped in mutual transformation.
The Phantom Menace announces its rhythms and ideas within the first few minutes. Briskly cutting between dark political machinations and mindful adaptions to the present moment. In an early exchange between two Jedi ambassadors, Obi-Wan attempts to tease out the nebulous future-oriented plot they are rapidly becoming embroiled in. His master, Qui-Gon swiftly rebukes him, “Keep your concentration here and now where it belongs”. When Obi-Won responds that “Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future” his master’s parry is the final word on the matter: “But not at the expense of the moment.” In this way, Lucas introduces the central ideas of this film: that of organic adaptation to the present and invisible schemes of the future. It becomes his central representation of the “goodness” of the Jedi order, a foil to the long-game systemic plotting of the “evil” Sith. But while adaptation saves the day in the end, it is ultimately a loss—a limitation fueled by arrogance—that complicates the central fantastic simplicity of the battle of Good versus Evil.
Lucas plays these ideas out in four distinct movements and a dénouement. The first movement spans the opening crawl to the escape to Tatooine and is framed by the intercutting of the adaptation of the Jedi and the plotting of the Sith. Throughout this movement the two Jedi are always several steps behind their quarry; they are reactive to their environments. Paralleling this, the Sith are shaping these environments; Lord Sidious and the Trade Federation are working out plans within plans. While they too are also adapting to the unfurling situation, it is not in the same philosophical register as the Jedi. They are constantly moving toward specific goals: obtaining the Queen’s signature, legalizing the blockade, legalizing the invasion. The larger plot—that Obi-Wan first senses—is clear in that it exists, but uncertain in its contours. Lucas connects these two conflicting threads through the figure of Palpatine/Sidious with a rhyming visual representation of the hologram as well as the distinct sonic signature of Ian McDiarmid’s voice.
This movement also plants two crucial philosophical seeds for The Phantom Menace: the role of unexpected players and the colonial arrogance of the Jedi. The infamous figure of Jar Jar Binks is the first of two figures in The Phantom Menace that perform the role of this unexpected player in a cosmic struggle populated by warriors, emperors, queens, and princesses. These figures are for Lucas the key to understanding the unfurling thematic investments of the prequels. At a later point in The Phantom Menace Obi-Wan refers to Anakin Skywalker as “another pathetic lifeform” that they’ve picked up on their mission. Lucas is invested in the unexpected and unknown possibilities of the powerless and the contemptable. But here Lucas inextricably ties this notion to one of Jedi arrogance. The cruel dismissal of both Jar Jar and Anakin as little more than burdens reveals the hubris at the heart of the Jedi Order that Sidious is so keenly able to exploit. It also forms another parallel between Jedi and Sith: a shared dismissal of “primitive life forms”. This seed comes to fruition in a later movement when both Anakin and Jar Jar are brought to Coruscant—a point I will return to shortly.
The second movement is firmly anchored in Tatooine as an extended sequence of adaptation par excellence. Lucas gives his Jedi an expansive playground to enact Qui-Gon’s philosophies of the moment. With minimal cutting to dark menacing systems and Darth Maul’s surveillance (just enough to illustrate that they’re closing in) the second movement is given to chance (a literal chance cube), bargaining, and the Daoist virtue of inaction—waiting “for another solution to present itself”. One could argue the role of fate here in the prophecy of the Force and the chance encounter with Anakin. However, Lucas is far more invested in giving space to observe his characters doing what they are best at: tuning into the moment and being “mindful of the living force”. The apogee of this section is the Podrace, a synthesis of sheer movement, velocity, chance, and (you guessed it) adapting to the immediate demands of the moment. The Podrace is also the culmination of Qui-Gon’s “reckless” gambits to both get off the planet and free Anakin. The entire movement comes to a close after these threads arrive at the union of Anakin (“another pathetic lifeform”) with the crew and the galactic plots of Sidious catch up to them in the first brief confrontation with Darth Maul.
After blasting their way off Tatooine and setting course for their destination, the third movement begins. This chapter situates Coruscant as not just the heart the Republic star systems—but of systems and plots. Coruscant is a combination of clear institutional structures and a grid of buildings without beginning or end, overlaid with grids of ceaseless traffic movement. It is here that Lucas gives full weight to his threads of Jedi arrogance and the complexity and momentum of the systemic threat facing them. The steady clip of the film’s opening act returns to move through Palpatine doing his stuff: whispering in ears, pulling strings, playing the game. This is his arena.
Here I want to return for a moment to the theme of Jedi arrogance. Thus far it has been represented in passing statements by Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. Lucas also layers in their flagrant disregard for individual agency in manipulating Boss Nass and attempting to manipulate Watto (a point that the Jedi revisit late in the film). On Coruscant, in the third movement, Lucas exposes the systemic arrogance of the Jedi Order. The attitudes of the council mirror those of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, despite differences regarding Anakin. This is revealed in the Jedi’s dismissal of the existence of the Sith and later in this sequence their initial rejection of Anakin as a potential Jedi deserving of training. These sections always stood out to me. Anakin is an arrogant child. He is self-assured and already a braggart about his incredible abilities. The Jedi council sense fear in him, caution against fear, but also are afraid of what Anakin might become. This becomes a crucial theme of the prequels: the Sith patiently scooping up that which the Jedi erroneously dismiss. The Jedi abdicate their opportunity to fully mentor Anakin into something good, leaving open the realm of doubt, anger, bitterness, and jealousy. In one of the more radical narrative moves, Lucas presents the Jedi Order not as a benevolent group of wise heroes, but a stubborn collective of ideologues utterly convinced of their own superiority. There is something deeply classist in their treatment of a formerly enslaved child, criticizing him for his anger at being enslaved. In more ways than one, The Phantom Menace is the tale of Camelot and its Jedi Knights of the Round Table facilitate their own downfall through hubris with Anakin becoming a dark manifestation of their own oversight. The death of Qui-Gon becomes a crucial catalyst for this unfurling of events. In an interesting (or perhaps confounding) contradiction: Qui-Gon dismisses Obi-Wan’s anxiety of the future, but he is the first to see Anakin and then first to see the Sith, both of which are curtly dismissed by the Jedi Order only to be accepted at the end after Qui-Gon’s death.
The fourth and final movement returns to the rapid intercutting of the film’s opening with three converging representations of this same struggle. Two of them are variations on a theme: Jar Jar’s role in the Gungan battle against the Droid Army and Anakin’s participation in the space battle against the Federation Control Ship. Both are sequences of accidental victories by the “pathetic lifeforms”. However, there are clear distinctions. Jar Jar is played for laughs, a slapstick routine whose accidental accuracy is almost divine—but to no real consequence. He stays alive and knocks out some droids and tanks, but like the other Gungans he is part of a diversion and the success of the battle is not due to any heroics of Jar Jar alone. Anakin, on the other hand, is a combination of preternatural adaptability and accident. Here we see Lucas’ themes of adaptation come into play again. It is Anakin who enables the Queen and her troops to bypass the Destroyer Droids and it is Anakin who destroys the Control Ship, saving the Gungans, and the day entirely.
The three-way showdown of the Jedi and Darth Maul is something else. It is unlike the other two threads because it stylizes the meeting of the two distinct elements of The Phantom Menace: a meeting of mindfulness and scheming in there most symbolic forms. Maul can parry with the best of them and wins, almost. What is revealed is that the Sith are more than shadowy planners of Machiavellian plots, but are capable of the same level of mindful adaptation to their living moment as Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan. To be sure, Darth Maul is the superior fighter, keeping the two Jedi Masters on their toes, killing Qui-Gon, and nearly killing Obi-Wan. It is interesting that Lucas doesn’t frame Darth Maul’s death as a result of hubris (which would elevate the Jedi’s moral position); he never makes a fatal mistake but rather Obi-Wan rallies at the last moment to win a fatal parry.
The dénouement brings some of these threads back into focus: the fear of Anakin, the sudden shift in the Jedi Order to agree with Qui-Gon’s proclamations, and the continuation of Palpatine/Sidious’ plots. But it mostly wraps the film up and establishes a scaffolding for the next installment.
Here I want to spend some time parsing out the film’s racism. The Phantom Menace—like all of Lucas’ Star Wars—draws from the science fiction serials of the 1930s to the 1950s. Without limiting these texts to a single coherent meaning it can be said that these serials were direct manifestations of imperialist and colonialist ideologies. They often depict highly advanced progressive white civilizations (either English or American) and transpose colonial adventures into a form of speciesism where elements of the fantastic replace directly racist representations of citizens marginalized by the imperialist society that violently governs them. This has been Lucas’ great switcheroo for the entirety of Star Wars: characters who would typically be subordinate/subaltern figures within a real-world imperialist/colonialist society are swapped out for aliens and robots. But the contours of those racist stereotypes remain, often in equally speechless roles. This is most apparent in The Phantom Menace. Others have already written on them, but it is crucial to not let these arguments slip away in favor of praising what I find to be a masterpiece. The Neimoidians of the Trade Federation are clear analogues of the Yellow Menace that formed an essential antagonism of serial adventure films of this era. The sci-fi physiognomy, the quality of their speech, and the design of their costumes evokes greedy Chinese merchants and the faceless droid armies of the Orient. Watto can easily be seen as an anti-Semitic figure of the greedy pawn broker. When I first saw this film in theaters with my father, a self-described liberal but casually racist in the way most progressives are, was tickled by the cartoon rendering of what he called a “Space Jew”. Lucasian sidekicks are always racist stereotypes of black vaudeville representations translated through adventure serials: Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO, and in The Phantom Menace: Jar Jar Binks. While these figures are granted various forms of agency and as iconic pop culture figures have taken on lives of their own, their fundamental DNA is traced to a servant class of marginalized people. Jar Jar has been received as the most egregious of the lot, partially due to his annoying presence for nostalgists and because of the obvious representation of blackface tropes of idiotic servants who talk real funny and despite meaning well always fuck things up for the clearheaded, too patient, and superior white protagonists. The Jedi arrogance of the film radiates from this narrative structural formation.
It’s uncertain if these are deliberate formations on the part of Lucas or if they are thoughtlessly carried over from the adventure serial genre. Perhaps Lucas believed that in keeping these figures, but moving “beyond race” to make them aliens and robots, he solved the problem. Regardless of where one falls on this question it does not absolve the film, or Lucas, for such racism.
I don’t really have an answer to these questions so I am leaving them here as a crucial aspect of The Phantom Menace that must be contended with alongside its brilliant narrative and visual rhythms.