By Lehrer, Eli
Insight on the News , Vol. 15, No. 21
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace succeeds dramatically and gives new background to George Lucas' unfolding vision, which is much indebted to Christianity.
It's here. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opened around the country on May 17 and, although the film couldn't possibly have lived up to the hype surrounding it, a combination of visual artistry, enthralling storytelling and solid Judeo-Christian morality will draw fans back to see it again and again. It isn't a perfect film and, like the previous Star Wars films, many critics won't like it. Indeed, The Phantom Menace's script could use some work: Several of the characters are underdeveloped and one lead actor turns in a subpar performance. Even so, director George Lucas has succeeded in his effort to create a mythology for modern America.
The film begins with a trade dispute on the peaceful backwater planet of Naboo. The evil Trade Federation has set up a blockade while the planetary Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) refuses to negotiate. On this news, the chancellor of the Galactic Republic dispatches two powerful Jedi knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), to end the dispute. The Trade Federation believes that the Republic won't dare respond to whatever outrage it might wish to initiate, and its leader orders the execution of the two Jedi and a planetary invasion.
The Jedi escape, meet a strange-talking, computer-generated, frog-like creature named Jar Jar Binks (voice of Ahmed Best) and rescue Amidala. Fleeing on the royal transport, the group makes an emergency landing on the planet Tatooine where they meet young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), a slave working in a junk shop. After speaking with the boy, Qui-Gon Jinn realizes that Skywalker is the Chosen One, the messianic figure who will bring balance to the mystical energy field called The Force, from which Jedi draw their power. Escaping an evil Jedi sent to destroy them, the group heads off to the capital planet of Coruscant so the queen can plead her case before the galactic Senate. Meanwhile, Amidala and Skywalker begin to develop a friendship. From here, things get even more complex, but it's not giving away much to say that a baffle ensues and Anakin emerges as a great hero.
Like the three films before it, The Phantom Menace has an epic scope. While the film's heavy use of digital imagery may signal the beginning of a new era in the way that directors create settings, it seems unlikely that the movie could have the revolutionary effect of the previous three films. The initial series was so successful because it managed to fit the tastes of an American public looking for moral solutions and epic storytelling during an era of defeat in Vietnam and economic malaise. During the 1970s, the entertainment industry had shifted to making films like Patton and Deer Hunter that were studies in character, mood and place rather than storytelling. The original Star Wars productions borrowed from dozens of other motion pictures, including Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, 1954's The Dambusters and Leni Riefenstahl's visually spectacular Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. The Phantom Menace also borrows from these but introduces new sources, including Isaac Assimov's Foundation series, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and even David Lynch's much-under-rated Dune.
The Phantom Menace firmly sits at the center of a rich science-fiction universe and, by paying respect to science-fiction history, weaves itself into a rich tapestry. The Phantom Menace's storytelling values are equal to those of the other Star Wars films but, as post-Star Wars films ranging from Reds to Saving Private Ryan have come to emphasize the value of storytelling, The Phantom Menace's long-term influence probably will fall on the technical side of American cinema.
For religiously observant Christians and Jews in particular, this may come as something of a disappointment. …