Redemption of the Jedi: The Phantom Menace- PREFACE
Welcome to a brand new year, and let it be known: its a great time to be a Star Wars fan. With the first installment of a new Post-Return of the Jedi trilogy expected to start shooting in April and the prospect of seeing the return of our heroes from the original trilogy, fandom is going into overdrive as we eagerly (or worriedly) await the release of Episode VII some time next year. This isn’t the first time we’ve felt this kind of anticipation. Fifteen years ago (has it really been that long? God, I’m getting old…) Star Wars fandom was hitting a fever pitch as we awaited the release of the first of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy. The end result was met with mixed and often hostile reactions from many fans and despite the positive vibe this new trilogy seems to be generating, I’ve no doubt there are many fans out there who are feeling a tad gun shy after their experience with Episodes I-III. The Prequel trilogy has been a sore spot for many a Star Wars fan in the years since its it’s release, and is often used as the butt of numerous jokes. In many ways, it almost seems that hating on the prequels is the hip thing to do if you’re a “real” fan. At that, I cry bulls**t. In my opinion, truly being a fan of something, really and truly, is taking the good with the bad but always loving it no matter what. I see this all the time with sports fans and people who obsess over certain bands. I don’t see why it can’t be the same for Star Wars. I will go on record now and state, with no shame, that I love the prequels. Do I love them as much as the original trilogy? No. Honestly, there are so many memories and so much emotional baggage tied to the originals for me that I’d say it’s near impossible for me to ever love any Star Wars movie more than those. Yet even so, I love the prequel (yes, all of them) and can find enjoyment and merit in every one.
With Star Wars being back in the public conscience in a big way these days, I thought now would be a good time to take a look back at the much maligned Prequel trilogy, that divided fandom right down the middle. There’s a lot more to these films then meets the eye and having had all three available to us now for close to a decade allows us a chance to really look at them in greater detail and judge their significance to the overall saga. From here on out I will be taking the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and dissecting and disassembling it film by film to find the hidden meaning and themes that have always been there, but never fully acknowledged. Some of what I have to say or suggest will be backed up with sources and quotes whenever possible. Some will be my own interpretation of the material and shouldn’t be taken as the actual intention of the filmmakers. There’s a lot to cover and this will likely be broken up into several segments and may take a while to cover everything. Many of the opinions I have to express are likely to annoy or infuriate some of you. And that’s fine. I don’t expect that any of this will miraculously change your opinion of the Prequels. The opinions that are to be expressed are mine alone, and I stand by them. You can choose to ignore them and disagree with them at your leasure. However, if I’ve presented my case properly, I at least hope that some of you will look at these films in a fresh light and with a more open mind. If you’re willing to take the journey with me, then continue reading. If not, feel free to turn back now.
As a wise green guy once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Every Article Has A Beginning…
The Phantom Menace
The Phantom WHAT?!
There’s no better place to start our discussion then at “The Beginning.”1 Or, as it was eventually to be re-christened, The Phantom Menace. To this day, one of the most controversial aspects of Episode I is it’s title. As with everything else surrounding the film at the time, the revelation of just what the first prequel would be called had unfairly high expectations. People wanted something epic, something profound. When the official title was finally revealed in 1998 the overall reaction was a resounding “Huh?” It didn’t sound epic. It wasn’t really catchy. It didn’t have that ring to it that the other three titles had. (Keep in mind that a lot of the more casual fans still referred to Episode IV as just Star Wars and conveniently “forgot” the title of A New Hope.) Aside from not being incredibly catchy, it also sounded kind of cheesy. Worse, it didn’t seem to really make much sense. The Phantom Menace? What the hell does that mean?
As time passed people got used to it but very few really seemed to like it. Even today the title seems to have been lumped in with several other aspects of Episode I that most people don’t like. Lucas’s own tentative title, “The Beginning,” sounded better to a lot of people. Hell, even “Episode I” was starting to have a better ring to it then “The Phantom Menace.” The argument would only get worse a few years later when Lucas unveiled Attack of the Clones as the title of Episode II. The only prequel title that really got no backlash from the fans was Revenge of the Sith, and that was probably only due to its being a mirror reflection of Return of the Jedi.
What most people tend to forget is that none of these titles are meant to be profound or epic or anything even close to that. All of them to some degree are cheesy. More to the point, they’re meant to be cheesy. If you leave your childhood memory baggage aside and look at them from an objective point of view, none of the titles of these movies are particularly “good,” and that includes the original trilogy. A New Hope? The Empire Strikes Back? C’mon, they’re cheesy. I’d love to have anyone come up to me and try to argue that “The Empire Strikes Back” is somehow not as cheesy sounding as “Attack of the Clones.”
To gain a better understanding of the significance of these titles we need to remind ourselves that the entire Star Wars saga, including its inception, is based around George Lucas’ love of the old Saturday Matinee Serials from the 1930’s and 40’s. Specifically the three Flash Gordon serials released by Universal Pictures starting in 1936. The conception of Star Wars actually grew from Lucas’s original desire to make a big-budget film version of Flash Gordon before eventually deciding on making his own original space opera. Even so, the influence of Gordon and other serials can be seen in every frame of Star Wars as well as other Lucasfilm projects. If you want proof, take a look at any subsequent installment of Universal’s Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe or The Green Hornet Strikes Again to see where the inspiration for the famous opening crawl originated from. While you’re at it, check out Republic Pictures’ Zorro’s Fighting Legion to see the origins of the famous truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When you boil it all down, the Star Wars Saga is nothing more than a large-scale serial; a ‘B’ movie with an ‘A’ budget. The title of the serial, in this case, is Star Wars. Each Episode title is just the equivalent of each Chapter title of those old serials. And the type of titles that Lucas uses are his way of paying homage to those serial chapters.
To illustrate my point, let’s look at the titles of the first 6 chapters of the original Flash Gordon serial from 1936:
Chapter 1 – The Planet of Peril
Chapter 2 – The Tunnel of Terror
Chapter 3 – Captured by Shark Men
Chapter 4 – Battling the Sea Beast
Chapter 5 – The Destroying Ray
Chapter 6 – Flaming Torture
And compare them to the titles of the 6 episodes of the Star Wars Saga:
Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace
Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones
Episode 3 – Revenge of the Sith
Episode 4 – A New Hope
Episode 5 – The Empire Strikes Back
Episode 6 – Return of the Jedi
You can almost smell the cheese just wafting in the air…
With all of that being said, it’s time for me to make my claim that “The Phantom Menace” is actually the perfect and most appropriate title that Episode I could have had. Calm down, I have proof.
Stay Tuned next week as we get into more on Defending the Prequels- The Phantom Menace