What Did You Think of The Phantom Menace?


The Star Wars universe does not exist.

It does not exist in a very obvious sense—in the sense that it is only pretend, only something that George Lucas made up, a story. Fans need to be reminded of that every once in a while.

But in a more general sense, to talk about 'The Star Wars Universe', 'The Star Wars Saga' and even 'The Star Wars Trilogy' is a fallacy.

Star Wars is not a series of three, or even four, movies. Star Wars is one movie, one classic movie, and a series of subsequent pastiches, parodies, commentaries on and extrapolations from that one classic movie.

Empire Strikes Back is not simply Star Wars II. It is a different type of thing from Star Wars; different in tone, in style, in setting, in assumptions.

Godfather II has a fairly simple relationship to Godfather I: it effectively extends the first film by three hours; it is Act II of the same play, more of the same material. When the two films were cut together for TV, you couldn't see the join. 2010: Odyssey Two, on the other hand, has practically nothing to do with Mr Kubrick's classic. It is, at best, some third party's conjecture about what the original film might mean. I, for one, don't believe in its answers. Empire Strikes Back is firmly in the latter category. George Lucas assures us that he foresaw the plot of Empire Strikes Back from the beginning of Star Wars. Indeed, he tell us that that he knew more or less what was going to happen in Phantom Menace; that he already knows what is going to happen in Episode III. I am absolutely sure that what he tells us is true.

From a certain point of view.

The setting of Star Wars is gloriously un-specific; it is a 12 year olds boy's impression of a sci-fi universe; or a 30 year-old's memory of that impression. Big space ships. Monsters. Robots. You get references to 'The Empire', 'The Senate' and above all 'The Galaxy' without any clear definition of what they are. Terms like 'Jundland wastes' and 'Spice Mines of Kessel' do not really refer to any place; they are signifiers for the exotic, the foreign, the alien. You could substitute, say 'The Universe' or 'Anytown' or 'The Big City' and the film would mean much the same. We hear about 'The Clone Wars', without knowing, or ever expecting to know, what they were. There is very little sense that the universe carries on working when the heroes are off stage.

Where is Star Wars happening? Why, on a movie screen, of course.

The characters are archetypes in the purest sense: film and fairy-tale figures boiled down to their constituent parts, abstract generalised shapes with as little individuality as possible. Without reference to any after-the-fact novelisations, what actually is a Grand Moff? We don't know and we don't care. Peter Cushing is simply in the role of 'military villain from war movie.' Han Solo is Cowboy with Heart of Gold. Darth Vader is simply Villain: black cloak, mask, deep voice. What is his function within the Empire? What does he actually do? We might just as well be watching a pantomime. "Where are those transmissions you intercepted?" "They're behind you!" And Luke Skywalker—Luke is simply Goody, or Everyman, or Hero-With-a-Thousand-Faces or, given Mark Hamill's portrayal, Hero-With-No-Face-At-All.

The Force is almost incidental to Star Wars. The idea that, within the huge cosmic hardware empire, there should be some little guys who can save the day through their secret magic powers is a nice one, a necessary counterbalance to the big spaceships and Death Stars. Calling it The Force is a little joke; a comprehensive school RE version of all religions and none. 'I don't believe in God' says the suburban agnostic, 'But I do think there is a force of some kind.' Ben Kenobi explains the Force in three lines. Granted 'Let go of your conscious self and act on instinct' places it more in the realms of Eastern philosophy than Judeo-Christian Monotheism , but this fits in well with the abstract feel of the whole. The Force isn't a religion, it's a signifier for generalised Californian hippyshit.

The point of Darth Vader is to stick out like a sore thumb. If you look at the first five minutes of Star Wars, it feels very like many other 70s film school movies, from 2001 via Silent Running and Logan's Run into Alien: the same antiseptic corridors, the same larger than life glossy uniforms, the slightly documentary style to some of the film making. (The opening scene is a direct quote from the beginning of the Jupiter probe sequence in 2001. Dave Bowman said "I have a bad feeling about this" ten years before Han Solo did.) When Darth Vader makes his entrance something completely inappropriate and incongruous has gatecrashed 70s sci-fi: into the middle of Alphaville comes someone who walked out of Camelot.

Ben Kenobi represents a different set of clashes. As a hermit, a wizard and a crazy old man he's exactly the type of person you would expect to meet in the middle of a Lawrence of Arabia desert scene. "May the Force be with you" is something one of those johnnies with Turbans might say. But then he goes and pulls out a lightsabre, the ultimate high-tech accessory. But, of course, this high tech weapon represents not the future, but the past, the weapon of the extinct Jedi Knights. Ben Kenobi is the Jedi Knights, and the Lightsabre is the supreme symbol of Jediness. In the middle of a space station, surrounded by white suited storm troopers, a monk in a hair shirt fights a dark knight with a sword. They wandered in from a completely different movie.

Star Wars, then, is a collection of action figures marked 'mentor', 'hero', 'princess', 'companion', and 'villain' being moved deftly around a huge a set of backgrounds marked 'space ship', 'desert' and 'alien planet' by the biggest kid in the universe. It might be that the film affects us because these archetypes make contact with something deeply rooted at the heart of our spirituality. Or maybe its just a cracking good action movie with lots of stuff in it. August blockbusters didn't exist before Star Wars.

But of course, there had to be a sequel, and we wanted there to be a sequel. But a sequel to Star Wars could not ever be simply Star Wars II. In 1977 there was an episode of Howard the Duck which parodied Star Wars. The next issue was entitled "What do you do the night after you saved the universe?" A good question, and one to which George Lucas struggled to find an answer. Luke has been on his hero-with-a-thousand-face quest: the old man has given him the weapon, he has descended into the abyss and come back with the boon that will redeem the world. Where do we go now?

Where we went was away from the abstracted landscape of mythology and into the solidified and fully realised realms of what for want of a better word I will call science fiction. From his original mythic landscape, Lucas extrapolated an imaginary universe, one which had, or at any rate pretended to have, a politics and a culture: one which conceivably continued to exist when the heroes weren't there. The characters too were fleshed out: Han Solo and Princess Leia went from being 1 dimensional archetypes to 2 dimensional movie characters. There was ambiguity in their relationships. There were hints of sexuality. Their world became dangerous; I have often felt that the word 'sordid' best describes the complex web of failure, betrayal and cruelty in Empire Strikes Back—a far cry from the innocence of Star Wars. Most significantly of all, the Force and the Jedi-Knights move centre stage. From an incongruous element to give a mythic edge to a hardware movie, they become the thing which the film is about. In Star Wars, we hear that Vader Was Seduced By the Dark Side of the Force: in Empire Strikes Back, we learn about how the Dark Side operates and what its attributes are. In Star Wars, we think we hear Alec Guinness's voice saying 'run Luke, run': in Empire Strikes Back, he appears as a ghost. This deprives the Jedi of much of their appeal, much of their fascination: as absent mystical figures from the past, they were intoxicatingly exciting: as little green gurus who teach spiritual enlightenment through gymnastics, they become colossal bores. The film ceases to be about Good and Evil simply as such; it becomes possible to discuss its moral content. Do we really believe that Anger and Aggression are necessarily and at all times Bad Things; or that impatience and restlessness can potentially turn you into satan incarnate?

Where Star Wars had a simple, linear structure, Empire Strikes Back has almost no plot, but instead, a sophisticated complex of echoes and foreshadowing. There aren't many X-Wings. The climax of the film isn't an action sequence, but character development. The good guys lose. It is as if Leigh Bracket had pinched George Lucas's action figures and started to act out Ulysses with them.

Good movie, almost certainly: Star Wars II, almost certainly not.

That fans are on the whole not concerned about or even aware of this disjuncture shows the capacity of the fanboy to extrapolate universes where none exist, or perhaps, simply, to read for the plot. Provided the film tells you 'what Luke Skywalker did next' and does not knock over any of the furniture, then the film will be accepted, canonised and treated as a classic. Joseph Campbell said that mythology is psychology misread as biography. I have been trying to think of a way of misquoting that line and applying it to Star Wars. 'Fantasy is imagery misread as history'.

Return of the Jedi took the process a stage further. It was not so much Star Wars III as Empire Strikes Back II. Empire Strikes Back had created a universe based on Star Wars; Return of the Jedi simply set a new story in that world. However, it lacked Empire Strikes Back's moral ambiguity and complexity; a lot of the time, it was just an adventure story. Many of the action sequences simply didn't work. The battles in Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back had choreography—one had a general idea of where the space ships were in relationship to each other — Return of the Jedi seems to be a series of unrelated vignettes: an Ewok does this, and Ewok does that, but the two Ewoks are not related to the overall battle. Where the first two films had been based largely on the tensions between an ill-matched group of characters, Han, Leia and Luke are now uniformed rebels, a Star Trek away team, going off on a heroic adventure because that is what film characters do. It is clear that, after the opening 'rescue' of Han Solo—a good action scene, but ultimately only a pastiche of imagery from the first movie—that the entire focus of the film is on the Luke-Darth Vader-Emperor confrontation; dramatic and powerful, certainly, but very grim, heavy and pretentiously. Han and Leia are little more than distractions to this great Oedipal drama.

There have, I am told, been novels: sub-licensed works taking the now established Star Wars 'setting' and creating new stories about it. The fact that you can countenance doing this—that Star Wars now exists as a setting which can be taken out of the movies and licensed to more-or-less worthwhile writers, shows the extent to which the abstract mindscape of the classic movie has been tied to into its supposed world. Its passage to the dark side is complete.

Phantom Menace stands in the same relationship to the first trilogy as Empire Strikes Back did to Star Wars itself. Star Wars pointed outside itself to a non-existent Universe; and Empire Strikes Back tried to show you that universe. The first trilogy refers back to a non existent past; Phantom Menace tries to show you that past.

The invention of a Star Wars universe necessarily conditions subsequent viewings of Star Wars. When we go back to Ben's cave and hear him talk about Vader and the Dark Side, we overlay onto it what we have subsequently learned about Yoda; our view of Darth Vader when he walks into Leia's spaceship is affected by the role we know he will subsequently play in the trilogy. When Uncle Own says "He has too much of his father in him; that's what I'm afraid of" the line acquires a significance which it never had in the original script. We can't help imagining that Star Wars is happening in the Empire Strikes Back universe.

Phantom Menace makes matters worse. When in Star Wars, Ben Kenobi tells us about the past, he calls up vague images of Jedi and Republic and Peace and Justice, and this imagery rattles around our head as we watch the film. Phantom Menace crystallises those images. From now on, when Moff Tarkin says 'the senate has been dissolved' we will think of the big millennium dome structure with the floating booths and the ETs. When the Emperor talks about Luke becoming 'his apprentice' we will automatically see it in terms of the order of the Sith, of whom there are only ever two, one master, one apprentice. When Leia talks about her forgotten mother, kind, beautiful but sad, we will always see Amidala's face.

I think Empire Strikes Back was a better movie than Star Wars: I may or may not have liked Phantom Menace. But they are only films, and Star Wars was something bigger and more wonderful than that. Star Wars is a marvellous creation; the Star Wars universe isn't. My fear is that, in Phantom Menace, our focus has turned away from the film, and towards this not-particularly interesting universe. I think that the second two instalments of the 'trilogy' and the new sequel, to say nothing of the after-the-fact writings about 'the Star Wars universe' has so much overlaid the original movie that it has become almost impossible to watch Lucas's classic film as what it originally was.

And I think that is a bit of shame.

If You Don't Tell Me What You Thought of The Phantom Menace in a Minute, I am Going to Get Very, Very Cross.