Episode I--The Phantom Menace
Not only now but every week, I am reminded at two-minute intervals of the influence of Star Wars. It's enough for me to pause in my writing; the computer goes black, and dots of light begin streaking toward me from the machine's illusory depths. If you were to seek the origin of this common screensaver, you'd probably go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the plunge through deep space made its appearance as a novelty. It took the popularity of Star Wars nine years later to transform such imagery into a visual cliché, so that the star-field animation is today the unconscious of my writing machine.
In 1977 Star Wars was all about that crossover between novelty and cliché. I joined in one of the many opening-day audiences and can testify to the viewers' reaction when the long-winded opening text finished scrolling into the distance and the shining underbelly of a spaceship slid onto the screen. For the first few seconds the crowd remained quiet, having seen this sort of thing before. But when the ship kept coming, stretching beyond all expectation, a murmur grew with it, and kept growing until more spaceships--fighters--zoomed into view, at which point the rumble opened out to a full-throated cheer. This was a picture we felt we'd carried in our minds, even though we'd never seen it before. Now George Lucas had realized it more fully than we could have hoped, joining familiarity with surprise.
At that moment, some of us were also giddy enough to feel we'd triumphed over the past. Lucas was young. He lived in Northern California, not Hollywood. He'd previously made only small, personal films (THX 1138 and American Graffiti) and was allied with Francis Coppola, who seemed at the time to be a rebel shaking the film industry from within. If Lucas's rebellion in Star Wars involved the summing up to perfection of a century's worth of sci-fi illustrations, that merely proved the vitality of his project. Too many older directors had abandoned the virtues of visual storytelling--so said the conventional wisdom. But Lucas, like others from the film school generation, had returned to earlier and better models. In Star Wars he carried you along for minutes on end with sequences that were virtually wordless.
The feeling that the past had been redeemed was made visible in Star Wars. Its most conspicuous sign was the use of the old-fashioned scene-changing device of the wipe: An image would roll up like a window shade or a fan to reveal another, as in a serial from the thirties or forties. There was no sense of nostalgia about these throwbacks. They hinted instead at an awakening to innocence, as if the "simpler time" that Americans see in the past could now be achieved, thanks to the vigor of the young.
In 1977 it was easy for Americans to think in such terms. Only two years before, ill-equipped rebels in a faraway place had in fact defeated the empire, whose citizens, never comfortable with seeing themselves at the controls of the Death Star, now wanted to join the winning side, if only in fantasy, if only for a laugh. And laughter was easy, now that Richard Nixon had relieved us of his burden. That stiff, cold-eyed figure with the booming voice, our national Darth Vader, had fled the world's stage--permanently, we thought--taking with him a load of schemes and slaughters. Star Wars played upon this recent history, sometimes with insouciance, sometimes with a sap-headed religiosity--which was pretty much how Americans in 1977 mythologized their country, lauding what they saw as its fundamental goodness, mocking the lone madman who had betrayed it to the dark side.
Now the President we mock is of the same generation as Lucas. "Star Wars" has become the tag for our empire's space-based missile defense system. Images of deep space, unrenewed by wit, gape from every desktop. After twenty-two years, as we contemplate the "beginning" of the Star Wars series with Episode I--The Phantom Menace, perhaps the least interesting question we could ask would be, "Is this a good movie?"
If "good" denotes a combination of technical polish and narrative drive, then I suppose the trivial answer would be yes. The settings are impressive and beautiful: an underwater city made of glowing bubbles; a palace complex that might have been built by Shah Jahan after a visit to St. Peter's; a Metropolis the size of a planet, where you never see the subterranean levels but only the sections that float in the sky. You go from the core of a world to the clouds, from lush forest to desert to the chill of space; and just as Lucas takes care to vary his terrain, so too does he skillfully change pace and mood. Big, noisy set pieces, such as a race in Ben-Hur style, make way for intimate moments such as a boy's leave-taking from his mother. Even the climax is varied: In a sequence of extended virtuosity, Lucas cuts among battles in four different locations, involving as many sets of characters. Whatever you may think of the substance of Episode I--The Phantom Menace, you can't deny that Lucas has repeated his feat from the opening shot of the original Star Wars. He gives the audience more than they'd expected of exactly what they'd expect.
But if we ask "Is this a good movie?" in a nontrivial sense, the nature of the expectation must come into question. Here we run up against the curious fact that Episode I is really number four. The beginning of the story is its continuation; instead of calling up the wonder of someone else's old-time movies, Lucas now recapitulates his own.
You watch The Phantom Menace ticking off the Star Wars tropes and note how they've been amplified--the robes and hairdo of the young queen made more outlandish than in the past, the demeanor of the villain more explicitly diabolical. Everything seems to have been doubled. The plot follows not one but two Jedi knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor), drawn into an ambush in the galaxy's far reaches. The queen who comes under their protection--Natalie Portman, with a beauty mark dabbed onto each cheek--has a clever trick of replicating herself. (She's also good at quick costume changes. When alien forces storm her palace, she makes time, before being arrested, to put on something black, with feathers.) The Evil One who shadows these characters--Ray Park, as a spook with horns and a red-and-black jack-o'-lantern face--wields a late-model, two-beam light saber. Even the galaxy's black population has increased by a factor of two. It now consists of Samuel L. Jackson and another guy.
Then there are the doublings of events from other films. Once again you see the massing of goofy, "primitive" creatures for war; a light-saber duel conducted over a mechanical precipice; an attack by a small, outgunned fleet on an orbiting warship; the introduction of a young, towheaded Skywalker to the Force. But Lucas no longer makes this "more" seem like "new." Never once does the too-muchness of The Phantom Menace foster an illusion, however false, of innocence awakened. In keeping with the spirit of 1999, the story funnels itself toward a foregone conclusion, with each exploit of the Skywalker boy--the future Darth Vader--reminding you that his talents will yield misery.
If the Skywalker of twenty-two years ago was a self-portrait of Lucas as self-styled young rebel, bringing hope to the world of film, then perhaps this new Skywalker shows us a sadder Lucas, who now sees that his misused gifts led only toward the exhaustion of Clintonism. Assuming that reading to be correct, you might expect to sense some moral unease in The Phantom Menace; and yet the atmosphere seems guilt-free, despite the weight of an unredeemed past.
Can a believer in the Force even admit the possibility of guilt? A brief spiritual digression, courtesy of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: Commenting to an interviewer on the definition of God as "the ground of being," Heschel said, "Why not? Ground of being causes me no harm. Let there be a ground of being. Doesn't cause me any harm and I'm ready to accept it. It's meaningless. Isn't there a God who is above the ground? Maybe God is the source of qualms and of disturbing my conscience. Maybe God is a God of demands." Only not in Star Wars.
If you, unlike Lucas, are the qualms-feeling, disturbed type, you will feel the pull of an unredeemed past every time you encounter the comic-relief creatures: double-dealing, fish-faced traders who conform to Fu Manchu models; a guttural-voiced Middle Eastern merchant in the form of a huge bluebottle fly; an endlessly irritating sidekick for the heroes, who looks like a gangly reptile and acts like Mr. Bones. This is racism without the races--a characteristic dodge of Americans, starting with the President, in the era of the Dim Nineties.
Once upon a time, George Lucas proposed that renewal might be achieved without a struggle for the new. Today, he gives us more of the same and collects the money. His insouciance gone, he now blows hard about myth and evil and the Force, to the encouragement of Bill Moyers in Time; while you, the moviegoer, search for a reason to cheer but see only hairstyles. Liam Neeson wears his loose and long; Ewan McGregor has a little ponytail and a long braid. And Lucas is magnificently blow-dried--just like the more-of-the-same President who won't slink away.