Remembering Phantoms: A Reflection on The Phantom Menace by Miriam Orr
Every generation has a legend.
Every journey as a first step.
Every saga has a beginning…
On May 19, 1999, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace premiered in theaters.
Promptly after college released for the summer ,(and after my graduation commencement!), I reasoned the above statement to congratulate myself on a successful graduation, I was going to dedicate an entire day to watching the Star Wars prequels. I was determined, with my crisp new scripts, to take notes as I watched the movies and do a plot and character study (as you can see from page one of my detailed note-taking).
So, I popped in my collector’s edition The Phantom Menace VHS tape, poured myself a glass of milk, and grabbed the nearest pencil and notebook I could find as I settled onto my parent’s couch and waited for the iconic opening scroll.
A bit out of place in the Star Wars universe rests The Phantom Menace. Forecast by many critics as well as fans as perhaps the worst of the films ever to be made (and one of Lucas’ downfalls), the film opens the universe as the first episode and introduces legends Anakin Skywalker, Padmé Amidala, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and multiple others as the heroes and heroines we will all, truthfully, come to adore later in the series.
While I would love nothing more than to delve into a political debacle defending the film, I will abstain. The purpose of this tribute is to give praise where praise is due. A gentle answer turns away wrath, as the Bible says in Proverbs 15, and a sharp answer stirs up anger. I should hope that fans come to rally around TPM to appreciate its place in the universe and the stories of those whom it is set in place to establish with a kind word, or at least a nod of recognition this iconic day of May 19.
With the release of The Force Awakens and the launching of Disney’s new ownership comes perhaps the foggy recognition of the prequel series, Episodes I-III. These films follow the childhood of Anakin Skywalker and the relationship he has not only with the Jedi Order itself but with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi during the unsettling stages of the crumbling Republic and the rising power of the Seperatist movement, which would become the Empire later. It begins the journey of the man known only in the originals as Darth Vader, and launches his epic uprising and tragic downfall.
It is important to remember the purpose of these movies – the purpose of these films is not to provide us with the luck of A New Hope or the flashy battles scenes of the original films, no. While those movies exist to show the rise of Luke Skywalker and the actual struggle between the Rebellion and the Empire, one must realize the war started somewhere. Every war has politics involved with it and congressional disputes, as well as investigations and councils.
Simply put, every war has its beginning.
These two facets of the Empire and Rebellion did not just randomly appear and decide they hated one another, no – they existed together only to move apart and war against their ideals and separate goals. There is an underlying agenda that we don’t necessarily see in the originals. We know there is the Emperor, and we know he has his apprentice – but we don’t know these characters. They’re terrifying to us because they’re evil and we appreciate their darkness, but we don’t connect. They are the distant enigma that enchants us and ushers us into the vein of rooting for the good guys.
The beginning of this war resides in The Phantom Menace. Here we discover Anakin Skywalker as a young, exuberant, precocious young boy on the brink of discovery by a struggling team of Jedi Knights, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn. In the failure of their attempts to negotiate peace with the Trade Federation, whom is secretly being manipulated by the looming Separatist movement, they stumble upon the boy wonder on the remote and desolate Tatooine.
And there, the legend is born. Anakin Skywalker would forever change the future of the Jedi Order and the galaxy would not be the same. This film is plentiful in its political agenda and does not fail to present the inner-workings of the political wheelhouse of the war between facets. It does a fantastic job of laying the foundation for the war and, though it has its gaps, captures the importance of the behind-the-scenes work it takes to run a government. It shows the struggle between diplomacy and peace – highlights the moments of contextual argumentation that surround a government on the brink of war. It depicts the unrest of a world turned upside down; a people who are afraid of the future; a leadership unwilling to back down.
Perhaps one of the most well-done facets of this film is its spectacular development of Anakin Skywalker and the Ben Kenobi of the originals. It gives foundational back story to characters – and thus, makes them even more terrifying and heroically whimsical to us. Once we begin to understand them, we connect with them and begin to identify – and thus they no longer become just the “bad guys” or “good guys”. They become something more. They become believable, relatable heroes. They become people instead of figures.
TPM serves its purpose well – it does not exist to produce flashy fight scenes or the self-discovery found in the originals. Its purpose exists to lay the foundation of the war to come – to provide depth to Darth Vader and give us an attempt to better understand him, and thus grieve with him and rejoice in turn back to the light, however brief it is. It exists to present characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi as not just the wise old mentor that discovers Luke and gallantly lays his life down to the force, but to show us that he is not the perfect god that we had expected him to be. He failed and struggled like the best of us, and gives us hope (and, for many like myself, a knight-and-shining armor picture). The Phantom Menace proves to us these people are indeed human beings who have come through struggles and overcome them – they are more than enigmas and legends. This film also highlights the political arena of war and the deliberation and careful calculation that rests in the undertaking of war, and it does so well.
Though perhaps not the strongest in cinematography or scripting, TPM (and thus the prequels as a whole) itself is a master at what it was created to do – and thus the role it fulfills. These films deserve a nod of appreciation and a better examination of what they do well – they deserve a chance to shine as the foundational pieces of story that they are. They are the political bedrock, the foundation from which the wellspring of conflict sprung.
They are the phantoms of the war begun so long ago, and in a galaxy far, far away.
Since the bright and adventurous age of 5, Miriam Orr has been writing adventures to captivate audiences of all walks of life. She has been published in over ten poetry journals and graduated the creative writing certificate program through the Institute of Children’s Literature in Connecticut. Currently, she possess a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Christian Studies from Crown College (MN). She hopes to respond to the call of Isaiah 6:8 across the globe and venture with the heart of Jesus Christ into the nations. Miriam currently resides in Minnesota and enjoys film, fiction, cars, poetry, and coffee. You can see more of Miriam’s work on her blog https://loudfictionblog.wordpress.com/