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“Can You Help Him?” The Millennial Malaise of “The Phantom Menace”…

It is almost a cliché to say it, but 1999 was an amazing year for movies.

No, really.

Of course, everything is subjective and different people have very different tastes, but there was something special about that year. There were traditional crowd-pleasers like The Green Mile and The Cider House Rules. There were young poppy disruptors like Go! or Run Lola Run. There were formative films from era-defining directors like The Sixth Sense, Magnolia or Election. There were epoch-defining hits like The Matrix or Fight Club. There was a wave of teen movies serving an underserved audience like Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You or The Virgin Suicides.

And there was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. It was comfortably the most anticipated movie of the year, to the point that its teaser trailer became a cinematic event that arguably inflated the box office of Meet Joe Black. It seemed perfectly timed. The generation of fans who had grown up with Star Wars were now old enough to have their own families, with which they might share the experience. The public’s appetite had been whetted by theatrical re-releases of the original films to prove that there was still a hunger out there for the franchise.

Not quite a duel in the franchise crown.

However, The Phantom Menace is very rarely discussed in the context of the cinematic marvel of 1999, despite being crowned the year’s box office champion. There are plenty of reasons for that, of course. Most obviously, it wasn’t very good. Perhaps more importantly, it aggressively upset the established fanbase who promptly made very silly statements about how George Lucas had “raped their childhood” by continuing to make films that weren’t to their specifications. As such, The Phantom Menace is primarily notably as a failure and disappointment, which it undoubtedly is.

That said, there is something very interesting happening beneath the surface of The Phantom Menace, and something that perhaps merits discussion in the specific context of its original release. The Phantom Menace was the only Star Wars film to be released in the nineties, serving as both the cornerstone and the capstone of what Star Wars looked like during the decade. The films that would follow were shaped by the concerns of their own era, warped and informed by the War on Terror. However, in hindsight, The Phantom Menace is very much a 1999 movie, through and through.

Anakin, not Anakin’t.

Of course, all Star Wars movies are a product of their times. The original spoke to the anxieties of a disillusioned generation emerging from the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back could reasonably be considered the first blockbuster of the eighties, with its reworking of the Empire to make it more anonymous and corporate, its fascination with Lando’s attempts to resist imperial regulation, and Luke’s codification of Generation X anxieties.

Similarly, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi was a story about how Luke didn’t care if the Rebellion was endangered so long as he got to reconcile with his father, and to accept that his father was a good man despite being complicit in horrific atrocities. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith both allowed Lucas to play out his anxieties about the direction of American politics in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre. Sure, the saga’s themes are timeless, but every film is a product of its time.

Hot pod.

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Phantom Menace. It would be disingenous to describe The Phantom Menace as the only piece of Star Wars produced during the nineties. Indeed, the decade saw a massive expansion of the so-called “expanded universe” of tie-in novels and video games. There was even a clever (if unsatisfying) attempt at a multimedia crossover event with Shadows of the Empire in 1996, a project which spanned books, comics, toys, video games and even a soundtrack album.

However, all of this paled in comparison to the release of The Phantom Menace. It was an event. After all, it was the first Star Wars film in fifteen years. It was also tasked with setting in motion a story that many fans had been anticipating for years – the story of the collapse of the Republic and the moral descent of Anakin Skywalker. The Phantom Menace was arguably one of the biggest pop culture events of the decade, which meant that fans felt particularly betrayed when they got a movie about trade negotiations, tax regulations and Jar-Jar Binks.

A clash of ideologies.

These complaints are all perfectly valid. The Phantom Menace is a deeply flawed movie. Lucas seems more interested in his pet themes and his production design than he does in the processes of actually writing and directing. The film assumes an unearned level of interest and investment in things like the politics of the shared universe and the mechanics of the Force. It is also populated with frankly horrific racist stereotypes that – while most likely a result of Lucas homaging racist stereotypes in the films that he is drawing from – are deeply unsettling.

However, in spite of these very serious problems, there are a lot of interesting ideas at play in The Phantom Menace. This is a film that tries to answer the question of what “Star Wars in the nineties” actually looks like. It is the only film in the series that can make that claim, as both pop culture and global politics had irrevocably shifted by the time that Attack of the Clones entered production. The Phantom Menace is the only Star Wars film between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, and that makes it a unique and distinctive cultural artifact.

One above Maul.

Most obviously, “Star Wars in the nineties” could not be the same as “Star Wars in the seventies and eighties”, no matter how much fans might have wanted that to be the case. To be fair, there are plenty of cultural similarities between the two decades. Many observers credit the cinematic boom of the late nineties to a generation of film-makers who “had grown up with the rebellious New Hollywood filmmakers of the ’70s as their artistic lodestars.” The film-makers of 1999 were able to work ambitious films through the studio system as they had during the seventies.

Even in front of the camera, that seventies influence was felt on the paranoia that permeated nineties productions like The X-Files or JFK or Enemy of the State, which tapped into the same anxieties that had informed classics like Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View. At points, it tipped into outright nostalgia, with That ’70s Show launching in August 1998. John Travolta enjoyed a nineties revival with films like Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Face/Off and Broken Arrow. Richard Linklater arguably kickstarted the trend with Dazed and Confused.

Much Naboo about nothing.

However, the world was a radically different place than it had been during the seventies. The seventies were defined by instability and uncertainty; the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the oil crisis, a massive global recession. This uncertainty informed the mood and aesthetic of Star Wars, with its tarnished future and apocalyptic stakes. George Lucas had originally conceived as Star Wars as a metaphor for Vietnam, with the Empire as a stand-in for the worst impulses of the United States.

Naturally, the nineties were a very different era. While Bill Clinton was subjected to an impeachment inquiry, he weathered the storm. The economy was strong and robust. Although the United States occasionally engaged in international conflicts, they remained relatively small scale. As such, Lucas could not simply repeat himself. Making Star Wars in 1999 was a radically different proposition than making Star Wars in 1977. It is to Lucas’ credit that he seems to acknowledge as much.

The Art of Darthness.

The Phantom Menace unfolds at a time of relative stability. The Republic appears to be secure. The Jedi Knights are regarded as “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy.” By all accounts, the Sith have been defeated. “The Sith have been extinct for a millennium,” asserts Ki-Adi-Mundi. Mace Windu concurs, “I do not believe the Sith could have returned without us sensing it.” At the start of The Phantom Menace, the most pressing matter in the galaxy appears to be a trade dispute on “the small planet Naboo”, which appears to be close to the outer rim of the Republic’s influence.

This speaks to the general mood at the end of the end of the millennium. After all, the Cold War was over. The Soviet Union had been defeated. The United States towered over “the unipolar moment.” Francis Fukuyami declared it “the end of history”, the assertion of a liberal and democratic order that stood triumphant as the culmination of the human experience. Even when devastating and horrific conflicts waged in countries like Kosovo, they seemed far removed from the sort of existential struggles that had defined so much of the mid-to-late-twentieth century.

Republic interest.

The Phantom Menace positions the Republic and the Jedi as obvious analogues to the American experience at the end of the millennium. After all, America was comfortably stepping into its role as “the world’s policeman”, a function that Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi seem to fulfill early in The Phantom Menace. Whereas there is an acknowledgement that suffering does exist, that suffering exists far from the heart of the Republic. Coruscant is prosperous and rich, whereas there’s little sense that the Jedi care much for what happens on Naboo or Tatooine.

This is a recurring motif in American science-fiction during the late nineties. The two Star Trek shows to exist in the space between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attack on the World Trade Centre both play with these sorts of ideas. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine opens with Commander Benjamin Sisko assigned what amounts to nation-building, helping Bajor recover from a brutal occupation. Star Trek: Voyager opened by throwing its characters from the developed Alpha Quadrant into the less developed Delta Quadrant, populated by minor powers and feuding tribes.

It all comes apart.

Voyager is particularly interesting, because it provides a fascinating contract with The Phantom Menace. Both stories are often about characters from a highly advanced and powerful society that find themselves forced to navigate through less advanced cultures. On Voyager, Janeway is confronted with seemingly primitive and decentralised antagonists like the Kazon or the Vidiians or the Hirogen. In The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon both find themselves fleeing first to the surface of Naboo and then to the back water planet of Tatooine.

New worlds…

It is notable that, although developed in parallel, the iconography is quite similar. An extended stretch of The Phantom Menace unfolds on Tatooine, the desert world from the original Star Wars. The film presents a fundamentally broken society built on inequality and exploitation, ruled by the criminal Hutt family and where slave-trading is the norm. This is a world that is largely untouched by modernity. Anakin lives in poverty, his skill and his potential largely ignored by a society that has treated him as a commodity to be traded.

Lightening the mood.

This is very similar to how Voyager presents the Delta Quadrant. The Delta Quadrant is more inherently hostile than the Alpha Quadrant, from the very first planet that the crew visit in Caretaker. The societies inhabiting the region are often presented as backwards or primitive, most obviously in episodes like False Profits or Muse. Fascist governments are quite common, as in episodes like Resistance or Counterpoint. Private actors operate with impunity, as in Concerning Flight or Think Tank. The Delta Quadrant is often home to the wandering or dispossessed, as in Darkling or Day of Honour.

Voyager and The Phantom Menace repeatedly broach the topic of moral responsibility, the question of what individuals from more advanced societies owe to those who live in less fortunate circumstances. The two films explore the question from similar angles, but reach markedly different conclusions. Voyager repeatedly argues that the crew are being exploited by residents of the Delta Quadrant, who cannot be trusted; this through-line informs episodes like Alliances, Displaced and Favourite Son.

Wall-to-wall action.

More than that, Voyager argues that it is the moral responsibility of the crew to prevent the unnatural or accelerated evolution of the region. In State of Flux, Janeway is confronted with the sort of horrific measures that the Kazon have taken to emulate Starfleet technology, and refuses to consider anything that might ease their suffering or pain. In The Omega Directive, Janeway operates as a one-woman non-proliferation team, actively sabotaging a more primitive society’s experiments with an analogue to nuclear power.

The hunt is on.

Whereas other Star Trek series celebrated the potential for exploration and communication, Voyager often seemed more cynical. Friendship One argued that exploration was not worth with the risks involved. Natural Law suggested that the best thing that societies could do would be erect walls to keep them separate. There was a wariness to Voyager, a sense of fatigue. It often felt like Janeway and her crew did not want to be burdened with the troubles of other people, anxious at the weight that their technological advances placed upon their shoulders.

It is notable that Voyager was strangely anxious about the possibility of a slave revolt, about the dispossessed rising up and overthrowing those responsible for their suffering. These fears bookended the series. The first two seasons fretted over the liberation of the Kazon from the Trabe, presenting the freed slave as a menace to the region. The final season returned repeatedly to the idea of holographic revolution in episodes like Body and Soul, Flesh and Blood, Part I and Flesh and Blood, Part II, and Author, Author. Janeway never truly sided with the oppressed in these cases.

Jarring transition.

Interestingly, The Phantom Menace subjects both Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to the same moral crucible. The pair are initially dispatched to deal with a trade dispute on the prosperous Naboo. However, when they flee to Tatooine, they discover a planet that is falling apart. It has been neglected by the Jedi and the Republic. For all that the Jedi claim to be “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy”, the social ills on Tatooine have been allowed to fester.

Padme is horrified to discover that slavery still exists on Tatooine. “I can’t believe there’s still slavery in the galaxy,” she protests. Having grown up the prosperous Naboo, which enough influence in the Republic that two Jedi are dispatched to resolve a tax dispute, Padme is oblivious to the very real suffering in the universe. She begins, “The Republic’s antislavery laws…” Shmi cuts her off, telling the Queen that “the Republic doesn’t exist out here.” It is clear that Tatooine is far removed from the ideals of Coruscant.

A sharp retort.

This isn’t necessarily a problem of itself. The real question is how Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon choose to react when confronted with that injustice. After all, two Jedi could very easily dismantle a corrupt system like that run by the Hutts. The Trade Federation quake with fear when Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon arrive on their ship. In Return of the Jedi, Luke returns to Tatooine and dismantles Jabba the Hutt’s entire operation with a little help from his friends. He brings the criminal enterprise literally crashing down.

Even allowing for Luke’s training with Yoda following The Empire Strikes Back, it seems fair to suggest Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon would have been just as adept at destroying the Hutts’ regime. After all, Return of the Jedi treated Luke’s return to Tatooine as a prologue to a larger story, a teaser designed to build anticipation to the defeat of the Empire. More than that, Return of the Jedi treated the defeat of Jabba the Hutt as a comedic farce, with Bobba Feet accidentally defeated by a blinded Han Solo swinging wildly. There is no doubt that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon could depose the Hutts.

Battling on.

However, Qui-Gon responds the plight of the slaves on Tatooine with apathy and disinterest. “Can you help him?” Shmi asks Qui-Gon of her son. Qui-Gon equivocates, “I don’t know. I didn’t actually come here to free slaves.” However, Qui-Gon isn’t just unwilling to end slavery. He is willing to employ it to suit his own ends. He wagers on Anakin’s life with Watto, treating it as a commodity to be bartered. When Qui-Gon wins, he separates Anakin from his family and takes him to Coruscant, removing Anakin from the life and people that he has always known.

Qui-Gon’s attitude to slavery is very similar to that of the Voyager crew, an indifference that borders on callousness. However, what distinguishes The Phantom Menace from Voyager is the understanding that Qui-Gon is wrong. After all, the Star Wars saga is perhaps best seen as a saga of generational failure, of the idea that every generation inevitably fails their successors. Qui-Gon was once a great Jedi, just like Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones. However, it is very clear from the start of The Phantom Menace that his best days are behind him.

Just deserts.

Qui-Gon has found himself relegated to minor assignments on the galactic fringe. After all, the Trade Federation seems surprised that they should be receiving a Jedi at all, and Qui-Gon assures Obi-Wan that “the negotiations will be short.” Qui-Gon consistently and blatantly misreads the situation, and it is even suggested that his senses are failing him. Wading into the situation that will gradually escalate into the Clone Wars and the rise of the Empire, Obi-Wan muses, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Qui-Gon responds, blindly, “I don’t sense anything.”

More than that, ignoring the sizable issues with the execution, the central arc of the prequel trilogy is that Anakin could never have been the “Chosen One” that Qui-Gon wanted him to be. Anakin was abducted from his home, taken from his mother, and thrown into a belief system to which he was singularly well-adjusted. Anybody with any real empathy could understand that Anakin was not the messiah, he was a lost child in desperate need of actual help. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith suggest that Anakin’s background shapes a lot of what he will become.

Obi-Wan for Maul, and Maul for Obi-Wan.

The Republic and Qui-Gon failed Anakin. “He deserves better than a slave’s life,” Shmi remarks of her son. Qui-Gon replies, “Had he been born in the Republic, we would have identified him early.” Because Anakin wasn’t born in the right place, he does not matter. If not for a quirk of fate, he would be lost. Had Anakin been born on Naboo, he would likely have been identified at an early age, properly trained and guided. Unfortunately, he was born into slavery instead. The Republic is so tied up in their own affairs that they cannot feel trouble fermenting on the edge of their vision.

All of this taps into the anxieties simmering away in the American subconscious at the end of the nineties, on the cusp of the new millennium. These fears found expression in contemporaneous films like Three Kings, in which three American soldiers find themselves confronted with the consequences of the Gulf War. It arguably even plays out in the terrorism thrillers of the nineties, like The Siege or The Peacemaker or Air Force One, all of which seemed to suggest that the United States might be blindsided by the emergence of threats from outside its field of view.

Cutting through the issues.

More broadly, The Phantom Menace suggests the story of a power that was once dominant falling into decline. Even the use of the descriptor “Republic” invites this reading; ignoring the obvious invocation of the romantic descriptor of the United States as a “Republic”, it also harks back to the idea of the Roman Republic. The United State has long been compared to Rome, especially in science-fiction. The original Star Trek was particularly fond of the analogy, as demonstrated by episodes like Balance of Terror and Bread and Circuses.

Broadly speaking, the cinema of 1999 was preoccupied with the question of what was next for the United States, what the new millennium would hold. The films of the era were permeated with a rich and layoured existential anxiety; films like Fight Club and The Matrix wondered what it meant to be an American at the end of the twentieth century, while The Sixth Sense tapped into a growing sense of anomie and social erosion.

Darth Sidious is so transparent…

The Phantom Menace deserves to be considered as part of that movement, to be evaluated in that context. It is a deeply flawed film, but one which understands the moment to which it belongs. It is very much a 1999 movie, even if it has been largely overlooked in discussions of the era.

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