Resurrector: The Phantom Menace

a rotating guest column in which writers reexamine critically unacclaimed works of art

Resurrector: The Phantom Menace

Alejandro Varela
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The most well-known resurrection in recorded history has had arguably dubious consequences for humanity, so you’ll understand my initial hesitation about publicly unearthing anything, least of all George Lucas’s millennium-­capping galactic boondoggle, The Phantom Menace. But this long-awaited Star Wars installment, panned by critics and audiences alike, isn’t without merit. In fact, in the quarter century since Phantom’s release, its ambitious story has only grown in my esteem.

First things first: the movie—in 1999, Rita Kempley, in The Washington Post, described it as “joyless, overly reverential and impenetrably plotted”—retains its standing as not particularly good.

I watch it nonetheless. 

Every year, in a traipse through the long-ago, far, far-away timeline, I revisit Phantom, along with the next two endearing clunkers, followed by the halcyon originals and the sleeker but still not great J. J. Abrams–conceived sequels. Usually over the course of two weeks; often with my kids beside me.

It’s little more than comfort viewing, but over time, I’ve come to appreciate the artistic and sociological value of the first chapter in Darth Vader’s origin chronicles.

Possibly because I watched the first Star Wars films as a child, there’s a neurological wire-tripping that occurs as soon as John Williams’s brass section blows, and that intensifies when the opening crawl travels across the screen and galaxy. The Phantom prologue tells us there’s a Trade Federation, disputed tariffs, a blockade, a Supreme Chancellor, two Jedi knights, and, for some reason, an attack on Naboo, but how and why these pieces fit together remain a mystery to me.

It doesn’t matter, because the film’s political wonkiness is primarily a backdrop for introducing Vader prime, a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker—Ani, if you’re nasty—a little blond engineering savant, who, along with his mother, lives on Tatooine, a planet with more moons than paved roads. Qui-Gon, played by high-end yoga-retreat concierge Liam Neeson, senses that Anakin is the One, not unlike Jesus and Keanu before him, and so commences the journey of a human destined to bring balance to the Force. And we begin to understand Vader.

Ironically, it was the easy moralism of good versus evil in Star Wars (and a low-key crush on Mark Hamill) that first captured my youthful imagination. The Phantom Menace disappointed because it veered away from that simplicity; the most recent trilogy veered back, resulting in fun, unambitious stories. Twenty-five years ago, it didn’t occur to me that Lucas was taking a risk with Phantom by exploring how one of cinema’s most iconic villains became a monster, in the process complicating our sympathies and giving us something that’s often missing from art (and life, and most military conflicts): a reckoning with the past that doubles as a primer for the present.

George Lucas shot his shot and sorta missed, but kudos to him. Not for the rampant Tolkien-like racism in his gimmicky characters—Jar Jar, Sebulba, Watto, I see you—but for his willingness to upend a facile narrative and contextualize the motivations of a severely damaged protagonist. Yes, Darth Vader was a planet-incinerating tyrant, but he was first a floppy-­haired child mechanic who had a fine-enough life on a beige-colored desert planet, until a well-meaning, albeit impulsive, Jedi used the Force to cheat at dice and take little Anakin away from all he’d ever known, leaving his mother to suffer a terrible fate, and instilling in him a fear that led to anger that led to suffering. Oh, you get the point.

Frankly, it’s a shame J. J. Abrams didn’t go further with the more recent films, instead spotlighting another megalomaniacal cosplayer whose motivations are without roots, trauma, or plausible explanations. I say: bring Lucas back for another trilogy that explores Palpatine’s rise, or the midi-chlorians and whether their concentration was elevated in Anakin because he was reared in a high-stress household on a planet whose denizens had been dispossessed of culture, land, and dignity, where wealth inequities and social hierarchies abounded, facilitating his seduction by the dark side.

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