This weekend (May 19) will mark twenty years since George Lucas cruelly inflicted The Phantom Menace on his unsuspecting fans.
In retrospect, we should have known it would be bad. Howard the Duck is a byword for failure. Lucas’ “Special Editions” of the Classic Star Wars Trilogy made them both longer and less coherent (and of course made Han Solo look like an idiot for not shooting first).
Still, it had a big nostalgia-fueled opening and at the time folks assumed that the sequels would get better. (Narrator Voice: They didn’t.)
My purpose here isn’t to drop more invective on an already-justly despised film series because the definitive takedown already exists. Instead, I want to point out the path not taken, and describe the movie Lucas should have made.
It’s About The Emperor, Stupid
The fatal weakness of the entire prequel trilogy is that from start to finish, the primary antagonist remains little more than a placeholder rather than a fully-realized character.
Let there be no mistake, the Emperor is the key driver of the story. He’s the one who seduces Anakin to the Dark Side, he’s the one who will destroy the Republic and set the stage for the Original Trilogy.
All of the events in Phantom Menace are the result of his machinations, yet here is what Lucas has to offer in terms of Darth Sidious’ motivation:
Seriously, I’ve been beating up superhero movies of late, but even the weakest MarvelDisneyCorp offering is a veritable bonanza of character development and detailed backstory compared to this crap.
Instead of showing a dude living a transparently obvious dual life, Lucas should have showed the would-be Emperor as a fully-realized human, and might even have given a valid reason for his authoritarian goals.
Political Intrigue Ain’t Rocket Science
As Game of Thrones lurches to its long-overdue end, it at least provides proof that its possible to make political intrigue interesting.
The failure of Phantom Menace to provide even cursory explanations for what the “trade dispute” is about, or how a military occupation will resolve it leaves a massive hole in the story. This entire exchange clarifies absolutely nothing:
Geeez. Who wrote that dialog, Autocorrect?
Seriously, trade disputes are often a source of conflict, and tax rebellions abound throughout history.
Besides, what if the Trade Federation has a point? The film hints that this may be so, but never bothers to explain it. Since our source for this is the duplicitous Senator Palpatine, it’s impossible to make sense of the thing.
It would not be difficult to provide both character development and some context for why the film’s events take place.
The Alternative Version
What Lucas should have done is centered the story on Senator Palpatine, an ambitious back-bencher contemptuous of the decadence and corruption of the Republic.
He’s not a tyrant-in-waiting, but a man of action disgusted with the status quo. The audience could sympathize with his view that the ruling classes are completely out of touch with the needs of the people.
What if the dispute was made clear? Let us suppose that the Republic is involved in a bitter fight over trade routes. The politically powerful and affluent inner worlds are pushing for new taxes on the poorer frontier ones, who resent being told what to do and how to live. The spirit of rebellion – and secession – begins to flare.
The Republic’s leadership turns to the Jedi, but they’re hidebound and inward-looking, incapable of providing any insight or assistance.
Our ambitious senator senses this, and exploits the growing political instability to put himself in power with a vow to sweep away the accumulated corruption and revitalize the tottering Republic. As the war escalates, his power grows until it dominates the galaxy and the Republic becomes an Empire.
A Movie About Nothing
In a lot of ways, Phantom Menace typified the Seinfeld vibe of the late 1990s. In 1999, the world was at peace and the Twin Towers yet soared over the New York skyline. Bill Clinton was in the White House, offering up endless fodder for late-night comedians over such topics as what the meaning of “is” is and whether oral sex counted as adultery.
The economy was still juiced on the dot-com sugar high and in the warm, mellow afterglow of victory in the Cold War, everything seemed safe and under control.
As Winston Churchill said, reflecting on another time before war had upended his universe: “The Old World in its sunset was fair to see.”
Less than a couple of years later that sense of security would be gone, and I would begin my transformation from a soft-handed civilian to a grizzled senior NCO.
That’s why – after all is said and done -- I do still have a lingering fondness for the film and regard it as the best of the prequels. It was a somewhat pointless film, but the lightsaber fight at the end was great. In a sense, it serves as a reminder of a time before phantom menaces became all too real.