star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

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Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”

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The Originals: A Boring Swamp
PrequelsAreBetter
The Prequels: A Gorgeous City

We are under a month away from the much-ballyhooed release of “Star Wars VII: Will This Sith Never End?”.

Ok, so that isn’t the real title. But swapping a few letters  in that title neatly summarizes my reaction to it. I’m suffering from Star Wars fatigue.

Still, in honor of the upcoming premiere, I decided to re-watch the entire six movie saga. I came away from it with one overriding conclusion–one that won’t surprise my long-time readers, but will shock all others:

The Prequels are better than the Originals.

To this I add another sub-conclusion:

The Phantom Menace is the best of all of them.

And finally, the most controversial point:

The Empire Strikes Back is the worst of all of them.

Yes, that flies in the face of every review you ever read. But reviewers are subject to fads and fashions, and it was fashionable to bash the prequels largely because critics at the time were nostalgic for the originals.

I’ve always thought the prequels were good. But now I’ve realized they are way better than the dreary original trilogy, with its dull characters and repetitive plots.

Start at the beginning, with The Phantom Menace. Yes, Jake Lloyd was weak, but no worse than Mark Hamill. Moreover, everyone else did quite a good job. Liam Neeson portrays Qui-Gon as an arrogant rebel, and Ewan McGregor is great as his put-upon, trying-to-be-respectful-but-also-follow-the-rules apprentice. I also love the constant sniping between Padme and Qui-Gon. I’m going to come back to this movie later, but for now, we’re on to Attack of the Clones.

It was not as good as I remembered. The plot is an incoherent mess, and the romance is a disaster. But, one thing that was pleasantly surprising was how well Natalie Portman did at playing the romance. She couldn’t do well enough to actually create chemistry (alchemy would have been required to get any sparks from Christensen), but her acting in the love scenes is actually quite good.

The big question, other than why Padme marries Anakin, is how did the planet Kamino apparently keep churning out clone armies without anyone noticing? The Kaminoan Prime minister tells Obi-Wan it is “one of the finest” clone armies they’ve ever made, implying there are others.  No one follows up on this.

Revenge of the Sith starts out impressively with the massive space battle, drags a bit with the tiresome General Grievous subplot, but builds to a powerful emotional climax in the scene where Padme and Obi-Wan confront Anakin on Mustafar. It’s the best scene in all of Star Wars, with Portman and McGregor both doing a magnificent job, and Christensen (for once) showing some terrifying, insane charisma.

My biggest problem with the prequels was the sexism: the treatment of Shmi, who has no dramatic purpose other than to die, was bad enough; but when Padme (who is a very strong, well-written female lead in Phantom Menace) inexplicably falls in love with the loutish Anakin, it seemed like Lucas was saying “Oh, her and her lady brain! That’s just what chicks do.”

The reason the love story in Attack of the Clones is so bad is because Anakin has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A former Queen turned Senator and successful military strategist would not fall for somebody who was failing at being a monk and pouting about it.

The plot of Clones makes no sense–the Padme/Anakin romance is about as unromantic as it gets, even if you believe that opposites attract. The mystery of why Count Dooku hired a bounty hunter to sub-contract out the task of assassinating a Senator who was going to vote against the creation of an army to oppose forces Count Dooku himself was leading makes no sense either. Hell, I got confused just writing that.

Revenge of the Sith is better at making some sort of sense, but at the end we are still left wondering what Padme, or the Jedi, or even the Emperor himself, ever saw in Anakin. He is basically worthless to everyone; even the Sith.

But as weak as that is, it was still a more compelling story arc than: idiot blows up a space station–>idiot meets talking frog in swamp–>idiot’s friends blow up second, larger space station. Also, sword fights.

A New Hope looks downright silly. None of what Obi-Wan says to Luke is remotely accurate, and the special effects are horrible. The only likable character in it is Han Solo, and he is only likable because he wants to get out of this mess as fast as possible.

The story of A New Hope makes about as much sense as that of Clones; which is to say, very little. What is the use of a space station that blows up planets? It is perhaps the most worthless weapon imaginable–something the simply exterminated all life, leaving the other stuff intact, would be way more valuable. Moreover, why it had to orbit the planet before firing made no sense, nor did the rebels’ elaborate ceremony at the end.

Then comes The Empire Strikes Back, which is nothing less than a total drag. After a hilariously bad battle on Hoth, we are treated to a half hour of Luke sitting in a dark, dreary swamp, intercut with another half hour of Han and Leia sitting in a dark, dreary ship. It’s the dullest hour in the series. Jar Jar Binks addressing the Senate was more interesting.

So, then eventually there is a lightsaber duel in which Luke’s expression never changes until the end, at which point he sobs like a baby at the revelation that Vader is his father. (Note: great heroes do not break down crying like babies. Though I suppose Vader is to blame for that, too.)

In all the gushing over how great Empire allegedly is, critics lose sight of the fact that it goes absolutely nowhere.  It reminds me of Mark Twain’s “rules governing literary art”, stating “that a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” Like Twain said of Fenimore Cooper’s work, Empire “accomplishes nothing and arrives in air”.

The only developments in Empire are these:

  1. The Rebel Alliance loses Han Solo, who had been trying to leave ever since he got there.
  2. Luke finds out that Vader is his father, which raises more questions than it answers, and sets us up for the big payoff in Return of the Jedi, when…

…the alliance has to waste time getting Han Solo back, for no apparent reason. The Jedi may preach letting go of attachment, but in practice, their motto is clearly “no man left behind”. (And I do mean “man”, since the misogynist pigs were all too glad to leave Padme in the sand on Geonosis.).

Anyway, the whole Jabba’s palace / rescue Solo sequence had nothing to do with the rest of the story. It served no dramatic or thematic purpose for Han to ever be put in carbonite.

Just remember that: the first third of that movie is dedicated to an irrelevant subplot.

Meanwhile, the Empire has inexplicably tried to replicate their biggest failure: another giant, useless battle station that does nothing except destroy the planets that probably belong to the Empire anyway. Then we have the obligatory lightsaber duel and space battle–a sequence completely upstaged by the similar one in The Phantom Menace.

It all gets blown up, at no cost to anyone, except one Ewok, a couple rebel pilots, and Anakin, who frankly deserved to die ever since he sexually harassed the Senator he was supposedly guarding.

What struck me about the original trilogy was how damn dull it was. Next to the sophistication of the prequels, it was like watching a movie a ten year old might make.

Overall, the prequels were decent, but not as good as I remembered. The originals were almost unwatchable. The people who tell you the original trilogy is better are just wrong. It’s horrible.

Most of the Star Wars movies make no sense. Clones is incoherent, Sith introduces new elements that weren’t foreshadowed in Clones, A New Hope doesn’t match up with anything that comes before or after, Empire is boring and pointless, and Jedi is spent resolving plot problems that Empire caused.

But remember: there is one more movie in the saga, and it actually has a *gasp* coherent plot!

Lucas pretty obviously spent those 15 years between Jedi and Menace writing one story, and it was Menace. After that, he realized he needed two more movies and just made it up as he went along.

In Phantom Menace, for once the plot makes sense: Federation blockades a planet; Queen escapes from planet, Queen returns with plan to liberate planet. This concept of a ruler returning to claim their throne is actually somewhat plausible, and sounds vaguely like something that might possibly happen in a universe that makes sense. (Queen Amidala’s appeal to the Gungans is pretty much a “Napoleon at Grenoble” moment.)

The twist with Padme the handmaiden being the Queen is the subtlest, cleverest piece of writing in the Star Wars movies. And it’s right in front of our eyes the whole time, but cleverly disguised by the Queen’s elaborate costumes. This is better than the “I am your father” twist, because that was only a twist due to Obi-Wan blatantly lying to Luke for absolutely no reason. That’s a cheat on the storyteller’s part. The twist in Menace has foreshadowing, buildup and payoff.

The other standout thing about Menace is how Padme completely outwits both the Jedi–especially the condescending, arrogant Qui-Gon–and the Sith. It’s the only time in all the movies someone actually tricks Palpatine. (Granted, Palpatine also maneuvered Amidala into voting for him, so he still got what he wanted out of it.)

It’s the only time in the movies when a character triumphs not due to ham-handed luck in order to further the plot, but rather due to a character actually crafting and executing a sensible plan.  It’s infinitely more satisfying than Luke destroying the Death Star by “trusting his instincts”

Menace is a good movie, hamstrung by bad acting from Jake Lloyd, and an overabundance of Jar Jar Binks antics. And even these aren’t as bad as the subsequent comic relief with C-3PO and R2-D2 in later installments.

I think the only Star Wars movies that work as standalone movies are New Hope and Menace. They have complete story arcs, whereas the others really don’t. Empire doesn’t even have any plot development at all.

My final verdict: The last hour of Menace and the last hour of Sith are the best parts of the entire saga. Ironically, while these are the highlights of the series, there is no logical way to get from one to the other. You would never guess they were from the same series if you watched them in isolation. That’s why a bunch of ridiculous stuff had to happen in Clones as Lucas tried to mash it all together.

Given that, which film is more satisfying?  Sith gets a more emotional response, but it also needed more clumsy writer manipulation to do it.  So the edge goes to Menace, whose upbeat tone feels more true to the old serials Star Wars allegedly imitates. (Very few old serials ended with the heroine dying in childbirth after being choked by the hero.)

In spite of what old-timers viewing the originals through rose-colored glasses will tell you, The Phantom Menace is the best Star Wars movie. We can only hope and pray that the new movies imitate Menace, and discard the baggage of The Empire Strikes Back and the dated, boring original trilogy.

[Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and as always, spoilers!]

The last of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, is not hated quite so much as its two predecessors. No doubt it is hated by many, but there are those who admit it has its good qualities.

I, of course, go even further. It’s not only my favorite Star Wars film,  it’s one of my favorite films ever. The first shot of a Republic battleship crawling along against a background sound of big guns, then swooping down into a frantic battle scene, is one of the most memorable intros I have ever seen.

And the beginning is the film’s weak point.

There are so many things I like about this film, from the clever echoing and foreshadowing in the opening sequence, to the brilliant performances of Ewan McGregor and Samuel L. Jackson,(Jackson’s sarcastically addressing Palpatine as “My Lord” is but one example) to the subtle but effective political commentary spread throughout the film.

Of course, the best performance is that of Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine/Darth Sidious. He dominates Revenge with a subtle, charming temptation in the first half, and with an insanely malevolent ecstasy in the second. It is awesome to behold, and here I must say that while Darth Vader gets the headlines, Darth Sidious is a far more terrifying–and, in some ways, plausible–villain. The scene in which he tells the tragedy of Darth Plagueis is the deepest scene in the saga, and McDiarmid carries it off masterfully. “Not from a Jedi” is a simple line, but the delivery lends it tremendous power.

It is fitting that the catalyst for the rise of Darth Vader is so splendidly handled.  Because in the end, it is all the story of Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Revenge is the absolute blackest hour for Anakin, it is his destruction and spiritual annihilation. And this forms the core of the story.

The depths of this fall, the darkness into which he is plunged, cannot be overstated. When critics nowadays say “darkness”, they mean “violence” or “suspense” or “the macabre”. That is not “darkness”. “Darkness” is the idea of flawed men and of Destiny. “Darkness” is good intentions gone awry. “Darkness” is a philosophical concept–a state of mind.

The entire saga culminates in the unutterably grim scene upon the landing pad on Mustafar. Anakin’s betrayal is completed in this scene, and his descent into depravity is laid bare to the horror of his wife and his friend. It is a scene of immense power, and one with a power quite foreign to the typical action/adventure viewer.

Surely, most audiences would be shocked at such an ending unless first primed for it by the knowledge that better days were ahead in the fictional universe. If you watched Revenge of the Sith without knowing what happens next in the series, it is almost as dark as Chinatown. It is about as much bleak tragedy as one could imagine in a summer blockbuster.

The essence of the classic tragedies is that the Hero has a fatal flaw which destroys him. You could interpret Revenge this way; that Anakin’s arrogance destroyed him.

But I look at it another way: Anakin’s flaws did not destroy him.

His virtues did.

This is why the original trilogy had to come first. Vader needed to be built up as the iconic villain before it could revealed that this most terrible of galactic evildoers became such because he loved his family. He loved his wife. He loved his friends. And it destroyed them all. “The road to Hell…”

That is “darkness.”

I could go on. I could say that I think the “Order 66” sequence is excellent. Critics rightly compare it to a similar scene in The Godfather, but neglect to note that it is carried out more successfully by Lucas than by Coppola. I could add that I think the music for Revenge is some of the best ever in cinema. Or I could explore my belief that the entire series can be interpreted differently from the mainstream approach, in that the Jedi order can be seen as a failed institution that the Sith are right to eradicate.

But after all, it’s up to you to decide. These posts have been my own opinion, and if yours, and all the world’s, are different then that is simply the case. It changes nothing for me or you. But I thought it might be interesting even to those who hate the films to hear the rationale of one who likes them.

(Part 1 is here. As before, spoilers ahead.)

The thing that I admire most about Attack of the Clones is its focus on Palpatine’s machinations. It, more than Phantom Menace or Revenge of the Sith, shows Palpatine carefully manipulating the Jedi Council, Amidala, Anakin and finally the Senate into giving him power.

Such a subtle character is quite absent from the original trilogy; either among the heroes or the villains. It’s also not the sort of thing that appears in most action/adventure epics. Ian McDiarmid does a splendid job not only subtly showing the Emperor-to-be’s devious side, but also at showcasing his charisma. He seems like a a fine fellow, as when he says to Senator Amidala “The thought of losing you… is unbearable.” But even so, we simultaneously see a glimpse of Darth Sidious, just for a moment, in the pause.

But McDiarmid’s performance is one of the few aspects of the film which has in fact drawn widespread praise, so I shan’t dwell upon it here. The major theme of Attack is mysterious goings-on and subtle things, as emphasized by Obi-Wan’s search for Zam Wessell’s killer in the first half-hour. This part of the story was rather overshadowed by the concurrent romance between Skywalker and Amidala, but I feel that it merits more attention than it gets. Obi-Wan is shown to be genuinely puzzled, as are all the Jedi. This is rather important, as it shows the Jedi are losing their grip on Galactic Affairs.

This bafflement is shown in the scene in which Obi-Wan, Mace Windu and Yoda converse in the Jedi temple. Yoda agrees with Obi-Wan that Anakin is “arrogant”, and notes the flaw is growing “more common” among Jedi. And indeed it is, but it may be that Yoda doesn’t realize just how high up it goes…

When Obi-Wan eventually does track down Jango Fett, the ensuing scene is a very tense dialogue–the sort of scene audiences tend to think of as “boring”, but in my opinion the polite veneer over Jango subtly evading Obi-Wan’s interrogation is one of the best scenes George Lucas ever wrote. “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the Universe” strikes me as the sort of evasive, yet oddly prideful phrase a politician might  use when questioned about a scandal. I can imagine Nixon saying that after “I am not a crook!” But I digress.

If the romance scenes in Attack of the Clones are an example of poor writing–and even I concede that they are–I maintain that the dialogue scenes between Obi-Wan and Fett and later between Obi-Wan and Count Dooku are examples of unusually good writing, at least for this sort of flick. I especially like Dooku’s dry remark before leaving the captured but resolute Obi-Wan: “It may be difficult to secure your release.” The whole scene is quite good, with Dooku amusingly feigning innocence throughout–he seems almost offended at Obi-Wan’s implication he is involved with holding him prisoner.

Count Dooku is worthy of more attention; he’s one of the better villains in the six films. I don’t know how obvious this is, but he’s always seemed to me a little bit like Gen. Robert E. Lee. Lee was an older, aristocratic gentleman who had been in the U.S. Army, and then agreed to lead a rebellious Confederacy of States. Dooku is an older, aristocratic gentleman who had been a Jedi, and then agreed to lead a rebellious Confederacy of Star Systems. I like little touches like this.

And now, a few words in praise of the love scenes. The dialogue, as I have said, is poor. They are far from excellent scenes, no doubt. But there is one way in which the love story is better than most in popular entertainment: it does not begin with the lovers-to-be squabbling constantly. This is a technique used far too often, including in the original trilogy, and it’s grating in the extreme, as I’ve noted before. So, even of the film’s weakest point something good may be said.

And again, as with The Phantom Menace, the action scenes around which the film is based and which are essential to a film of this kind all seem to me to be perfectly enjoyable. So, given all this, I again do not understand the overwhelming dislike of the film.

[I have yet to see the new blu-ray versions of the Star Wars saga, but in honor of its release I thought I’d post some thoughts on the prequel films which I’ve been mulling over for years. Spoilers follow, of course.]

The almost universal hatred for the Star Wars prequels amazes me. Not just because I think the films are rather good, but simply because such a uniformity of opinion is quite rare nowadays. If the situation were reversed, I would think it equally amazing that so many people could agree to like something.

However, it is my belief that the prequels are underrated films, and that the hostility towards them is unjustified. I will address why the hostility arose later, but for now, I shall content myself with presenting the films’ merits, beginning with The Phantom Menace.

One of the complaints often leveled at Menace is that its politically-focused plot is boring. A trade dispute serves as the original issue from which the Sith will launch their plot to take control of the galaxy. Most people find this concept, as well as Senator Palpatine’s machinations, to be boring. I rather like the idea, however. How much evil is wrought because people do not pay attention to “boring” issues? As the Roman orator Cicero said: “The beginnings of all things are small”. It’s a subtle thing, but also quite believable.

I thought that Episode 1’s plot was rather clever, giving you a much more realistic feel for the situation, as opposed to simply saying “There are bad people. We must fight them” as most adventure films, including the original Star Wars seem to do. After all, though it’s little noted by critics, Queen Amidala’s major action in the film is to aid Palpatine’s rise to power. She’s the heroine of the prequel trilogy, and yet even she has been conned into unwittingly helping the Sith, and it sets the tone for all three films. Even when the protagonists think they’re winning, they lose.

This may not seem terribly impressive, and I’ll grant that it is by no means an intricate plot, but by the standards of adventure movies, it is complex and subtle.

Another too-little praised element is the acting. While Jake Lloyd’s performance is rather poor, most of the other actors do quite well. In particular, I think Liam Neeson is excellent as Qui-Gon, who is one of the most interesting characters in the Star Wars movies.

What I like about Qui-Gon is that he’s kind of a jerk. Again, it’s not played up in the movie, but the animosity between him and Obi-Wan and between him and the Council is referenced a couple of times. Qui-Gon is clearly a bit of a rebel Jedi, who makes decisions without regard for the Council. He also can be a little bit cold at times.

Again, it’s a subtle thing, but it would’ve been easy to make Qui-Gon a Perfectly Wise Old Man, like Obi-Wan in A New Hope. But Lucas chose not to do that; instead, he made him a more complex character than the kind we are used to from the original trilogy. And again, Qui-Gon’s rebelliousness ultimately leads to disastrous consequences for the galaxy and the Jedi. The heroes’ best intentions are working against them.

There are flaws in Menace, to be sure. Jar-Jar, while I don’t utterly despise him like most people do, definitely did not merit such a big role. Darth Maul is pretty much squandered. The podrace is rather tedious, although no more so, in my opinion, than the race in Ben-Hur which inspired it. But taken altogether, I think The Phantom Menace is almost as good as The Empire Strikes Back.

The qualities I’ve listed above are not in themselves enough to make a good film, I admit. But when we recall that it is an action-adventure movie, it seems to that it enough uncommon subtleties of plot and characterization mixed in with plenty of enjoyable feats of martial arts (who doesn’t like the duel scene?) and futuristic gun-battles that it deserves to be considered a very well-made film, and more intelligent than most of its kind.