I love Star Wars – perhaps too much. This is no secret, as my previous writings on the subject would attest, and I can make no pretensions to being an objective observer here. The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’ first prequel to his classic trilogy, was met with a decidedly mixed response when it premiered in 1999, but it is a source of fond memories for me. The film’s teaser was the first trailer I ever watched; I remember my parents showing it to me in their bedroom, on their laptop. The first LEGO set I ever had was a plastic rendition of the desert duel between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn. On Christmas Day of 1999, I pored over the Dorling-Kindersley Visual Dictionary for the film, learning the names of the countless aliens and vehicles. In some ways, the films themselves weren’t the focal point of my love; I was enamored with the world Lucas created and the possibilities it promised. It was only later, as a film student, that I began to look at the films closely, as films, and to appreciate their artistry. And while I have derived a great deal of joy from many of the things surrounding Lucas’ six films – the toys, the cartoons, The Force Awakens and Rogue One – I have become firmly convinced that the heart of Star Wars is, and may always be, the six-part epic cycle that began in 1977 and concluded in 2005.
Yes, I am talking about both the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy here. After my passionate defense of The Lone Ranger, perhaps it was only a matter of time till I turned my sights towards rehabilitating the reputations of some of the most intensely divisive blockbusters Hollywood has seen. Nevertheless, I do not harbor much hope of winning new converts here; if you dislike the prequels, you probably do so intensely and viscerally, and won’t get far into this explication of mine. The main focus of these essays will not be defense, except incidentally; their aim is to look closer, not to change minds. If you find the acting and dialogue atrocious, I don’t expect to convince you otherwise, though I’d argue that their stiff quality hardly breaks the saga’s Flash Gordon conceit. Perhaps Lucas’ genius does not lie in dialogue or the direction of actors, but one need not be a genius in every respect to be a genius.
Rather than apology, these essays will focus on explication, exploring the areas in which Lucas’ peculiar genius does lie. In a 2005 interview with Vanity Fair, before the release of the saga’s sixth and final film, Revenge of the Sith, Lucas said, “The interesting thing about Star Wars – and I didn’t ever really push this very far, because it’s not really that important – but there’s a lot going on there that most people haven’t come to grips with yet. But when they do, they will find it’s a much more intricately made clock than most people would imagine.” This kind of rhetoric has struck some critics as the empty hubris of a self-important gasbag, but I believe the films themselves bear out Lucas’ claims, revealing an intricately constructed web of meaning, allusion, and artistry. Moreover, I believe that these qualities – while rarely discussed or even consciously understood – are responsible for the saga’s enduring popularity as possibly the most influential work of art in the last century. Lucas, whose interests seem to center on mythology, psychology, and anthropology, conceived of Star Wars as a fairy tale, meant to aid in the moral formation of young people by engaging with their imaginations, and it is on this primal, childlike level that his films have resonated so deeply with the public’s collective consciousness.
I stated above that these essays will not seek to counter all the common criticisms of the prequel films, but let me get this out of the way first: there is one complaint to which I strenuously object. Detractors often argue that Lucas made these films to make money. They characterize the films as a soulless cash grab, lacking in imagination, content to lean on the goodwill of Star Wars fans while missing what made the original films beloved in the first place. This is ridiculous. If Lucas’ first goal was to please Star Wars fans by playing it safe, he could have. The wildly eccentric, boundary-pushing imagination of the prequels and their disorienting refusal to depend on what came before is, I suspect, precisely why fans of the originals have been so slow to accept them. The prequels may not connect to the original films superficially, but they do so in the ways that count. If Lucas’ primary concern was financial, he took an awful risk making the stubbornly idiosyncratic Phantom Menace – which, incidentally, was financed independently by Lucasfilm. Regardless of the films’ artistic merit, it is undeniable that they are deeply, deeply personal projects with lofty ambitions. If they are failures, they are fascinating ones.
Some fans belittled The Phantom Menace for “ruining their childhoods” by being too childish, as if the original films had always been completely serious business. Star Wars, though, has always been about cloaking the substance of high art in the texture of low art: I believe Lucas’ peculiar genius lies in his ability to interrogate profound subtext through childlike, silly text, to unite modern popular culture with the concerns of classical art and storytelling. With the prequels, Lucas accentuated the gap – the high art became higher, and the low art arguably became lower – and in so doing alienated an audience that was attached to the perfectly balanced median. Yet the prequels themselves are about the need to reconcile head and heart, and the problems that arise when ideals are divorced from action. Somehow, it’s fitting that their thematic ambitions are accompanied by hokey dialogue and goofy alien creatures. To me, coherent and interesting ideas, filtered through a genuine and sincere artistic vision, cover a multitude of sins. Yes, even Jar-Jar Binks.
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Part I: A Symbiont Circle
Early in The Phantom Menace, the first installment in Lucas’ six-film saga, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), two Jedi Knights, descend into a lake and enter a city of water-dwelling aliens known as Gungans. The Jedi are on their way to warn the Naboo, the aliens’ surface-dwelling human counterparts, of an impending attack, but their attempts to procure transportation are hindered because of the poor relations between the two species. “You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle,” Obi-Wan says to the Gungan leader, Boss Nass (Brian Blessed). “What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this.”
In this key line, Lucas presents a thesis that works on three levels. Firstly, in terms of plot, the climax of The Phantom Menace will revolve around the Gungans and Naboo overcoming their differences and uniting to defeat the evil Trade Federation; in true symbiotic fashion, the two seeming opposites will cease their conflict and work together for mutual benefit. Secondly, on a moral or thematic level, Star Wars (as a whole) and The Phantom Menace (in particular) are about dueling opposites moving towards some kind of unity, or at least balance. Later on, Anakin (Jake Lloyd) restates the thesis more bluntly and moralistically: “Mom, you say the biggest problem in this universe is nobody helps each other.” Finally, on a metatextual level, here Lucas is telling us how Star Wars will work from now on. The six films will form a symbiont circle. What happens in one film will affect the others. You must understand this.
In an astonishingly well-researched and well-argued piece, Mike Klimo has expounded at length on the Star Wars films’ chiastic structure, or “ring theory.” It would be tiresome and unnecessary to rehearse Klimo’s conclusions (with which I agree completely) in detail here, and I strongly recommend reading his work in its entirety. Suffice it to say that, when placed together, the two trilogies’ repetitive, self-referential rhythms are not mere fan-service but are meticulously constructed to form a chiastic, ring-like composition – a “symbiont circle,” one might say. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas announces his intentions to elevate Star Wars from a simple fairy tale to a complex mythology, setting up the prequel films as inversions that will complement the original films and prompt viewers to read them in a new way. This first prequel is the beginning of his sweeping attempt to unite all six films into one cohesive magnum opus.
Fittingly, at the start of this process, The Phantom Menace acts as a prologue that contains and reiterates all the core concerns of Star Wars, encapsulating almost every important motif and idea that the saga will revolve around. The film’s distance from its sequels – in the Star Wars galaxy, ten years elapse between Episode I and Episode II – positions it as a more innocent and idyllic adventure, far from the desperate struggle against a fascist regime that the series has been built around. While some have decried this disconnect from the main story as “unnecessary,” this quasi-standalone status allows Episode I to act as a self-contained and rigorously cohesive microcosm. The installments of this series derive much of their complexity from the way they play off each other in a never-ending, self-referential ouroboros, but The Phantom Menace, in a genuinely impressive accomplishment, is one of the richest when viewed as a single unit – a display of careful formalism so dense and intricate as to feel almost endless in the fascination it exerts. Of the six films, it is the most drily intellectual, even abstract. Star Wars primarily communicates ideas through visuals, geography, and action, and while The Phantom Menace hardly foregoes these, it is also wordy, at times alienatingly so – full of heady pronouncements about the “living Force,” “midi-chlorians,” and trade negotiations. Yet while all this might sound needlessly pretentious, a closer look reveals that The Phantom Menace’s ornate construction is justified, even mandated, by the complexity of its themes and symbolism.
If all this talk about the nature of the Force feels, at first glance, like unnecessarily highfalutin mumbo-jumbo that’s been unnaturally overlaid onto Star Wars’ mythically simple conceit, note that the themes are expressed not only through words: they are foundational to the construction of the film’s imagery and its story. Throughout, circles permeate the design and architecture in ways both prominent and subtle. Consider the spherical Trade Federation control ships enclosed in rings, the disc-like senate platforms, the round bubbles that comprise the underwater Gungan city, and the circular layout of the Jedi Council chamber. The film’s geography is also cyclical, its movement characterized by leaving and returning. Its centerpiece, the podrace sequence, is not a linear race from point A to point B but a circular race with three laps around a circuit, watched from a disc-shaped viewing platform. More broadly still, the film’s heroes move in a circular fashion, starting on Naboo and ending with a return to Naboo, where many similar events are repeated with new variations – culminating in a cry of “Peace!” while a purple globe (another circle!) is lifted up.
Yet for all its emphasis on symbiont circles – what shape is more united than a circle, which has no beginning and no end? – The Phantom Menace is also marked, ominously, by duality, separation, and division. It is rife with doubles and doppelgängers.
“Always two there are,” Yoda says gravely, near the film’s end. “A master and an apprentice.” The film opens following two Jedi Knights who, with their hooded cloaks, are visually reminiscent of their evil doubles, the two Sith Lords. Even in the delivery of dialogue, the word “two” is often emphasized. “Now there are two of them!” Viceroy Gunray says when Sidious introduces Maul. (Incidentally, Gunray is always paired onscreen with one other Trade Federation leader.) Later, the junk dealer Watto, making a bargain with Qui-Gon, angrily proclaims: “No pod is worth two slaves, not by a long shot.” The announcer of the podrace has two heads, and the racers have two engines apiece, which must be balanced by a beam of purple energy. (More on that later.) Darth Maul’s lightsaber has two blades. In the film’s closing moments, Lucas can’t resist giving us another pair: at the (notably symmetrical) victory ceremony, which explicitly recalls the closing image of the original film, Yoda is flanked by another Jedi who looks very much like him, albeit fleshy and scarred.
In addition to this proliferation of pairs, The Phantom Menace is also marked by individual characters who are double-sided or two-faced. Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) poses as the handmaiden Padmé while a member of her escort acts as a decoy queen. Critically, only when this ruse is done away with can the Naboo and Gungans ally to take back their planet. Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) appears to be a benevolent ally, but is secretly the evil Darth Sidious. Jar-Jar (Ahmed Best) seems like a mere clumsy clown, placed for comic relief, but has his own secret side: he proves to be inexplicably useful in battle and instrumental in bringing about the union of the Gungans and the Naboo.
The action of The Phantom Menace also reveals this interest in unification. As noted, the climax is set in motion by an act of reconciliation: the long-awaited alliance between the Gungan and the Naboo. Lucas directs and choreographs this four-part battle impeccably, a virtuoso display of skill and imagination feeding directly into the film’s thesis that everything is connected. He orchestrates the sequence in such a way that the events in each of the four subplots relates to the others – if not on a literal level, then on an emotional or symbolic one. For instance, to achieve victory, the good guys must appear to be defeated, at which point they are welcomed into the places they have been attempting to access. Amidala and her escort are captured and taken into the throne room, while Anakin’s spaceship is hit by a laser and spins into the droid control ship. Obi-Wan is hurled down a pit, while the Gungans are surrounded by battle droids. The process then reverses in a kind of chain reaction: Amidala’s decoy draws the guards out of the throne room, allowing her to capture the Viceroy. Anakin destroys the control ship, deactivating the droids that have surrounded the Gungans. Obi-Wan leaps out of the pit and uses Qui-Gon’s lightsaber to defeat Darth Maul.
On the other hand, the action is also fraught with instances of separation, often characterized by an ominous splitting – especially when it results in victory for the good guys. At the end of the podrace, for instance, Anakin Skywalker’s podracer becomes entangled with Sebulba’s, and he wins the race by a violent separation that also severs the connection between Sebulba’s two pods. Similarly, the Gungans achieve their ultimate victory when the connection between the Battle Droids and their Trade Federation masters is undone, rendering them harmless.
In the opening set piece, the Trade Federation leaders try to block the Jedi with a series of blast doors – a harmful separation that Qui-Gon tries to break through. This beat foreshadows two key moments in the film’s climax. First, a reversal: when the Naboo corner the Federation leaders in the throne room (note that the climax of Return of the Jedi also takes place in a throne room), Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) shouts, “Jam the doors!” Even more strikingly, a repetition: during the climactic lightsaber duel, a series of red laser doors separate the three combatants, ultimately resulting in Qui-Gon’s death at the hands of Darth Maul. Obi-Wan then proceeds to cut Darth Maul’s lightsaber in half before quite literally splitting the Sith himself in two.
More than any of its sequels, The Phantom Menace is suffused with a sense of childlike whimsy and delight. At the same time, it is undergirded by a hidden, profoundly sinister darkness that only comes into focus when placed in the context of the whole mythic picture. At the film’s end, Senator Palpatine smilingly pats Anakin’s shoulder and intones, “We will watch your career with great interest.” This innocuous line takes on a deeply chilling affect because we all know what it leads to: Palpatine will become the evil Emperor, while Anakin will grow up to become his servant Darth Vader.
Or consider this: the following scene, Qui-Gon’s cremation, mirrors Vader’s cremation five films later, at the end of Return of the Jedi. Watching this prefiguring of his ultimate fate, the young Anakin asks Obi-Wan, “What will happen to me now?” This scene is accompanied by the same choral piece that accompanies Anakin’s transformation into Vader two films later, at the end of Revenge of the Sith – both of which occur at exactly the same time, 2 hours and 7 minutes into their respective movies. (As it turns out, those “All 6 Star Wars movies play simultaneously” videos on YouTube are good for something after all.)
The splitting actions so prevalent in the film’s climax play into this ominous foreshadowing, dramatizing the beginnings of a schism that will grow wider and wider until it is ultimately resolved at the end of Return of the Jedi. The geography communicates this motif of separation between extremes: The Phantom Menace takes place in high places (Coruscant, the Naboo city) and low places (Tatooine, the Gungan city), with brief ascents and descents bridging the gap between them. For a film that’s arguably the lightest of the saga, there’s something breathtakingly cynical about the emptiness of its final victory. Lucas undercuts the sense of triumph in ways both subtle and significant. A look at the larger picture shows that Palpatine, the true threat, has not been identified; the heroes have only won a proxy war against machines while remaining ignorant of the real problem. Everything is tinged by the loss of ideals: “I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war,” Padmé says early on, but two hours later she does exactly that. Forced into a situation where she must betray her deepest principles, she gives into aggression, going from a pacifist queen to a military leader. The Jedi Council, for its part, is made up of ineffectual hypocrites, who treat Qui-Gon with skepticism and disinterest. In The Phantom Menace, the galaxy far, far away is a false utopia that is secretly split in two because of a widespread refusal to acknowledge the problems festering beneath the surface. Everyone is controlled by the dark side because they refuse to acknowledge it and master it; the film ends not with a successful reunification but with a separation that fails to address the real problem. But what is the real problem, after all?
Part II: A Phantom Menace
In his Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Sigmund Freud explains his concept of repression thus:
“All these experiences had involved the emergence of a wishful impulse which was in sharp contrast to the subject’s other wishes and which proved incompatible with the ethical and aesthetic standards of his personality. There had been a short conflict, and the end of this internal struggle was that the idea which had appeared before consciousness as the vehicle of this irreconcilable wish fell a victim to repression, was pushed out of consciousness with all its attached memories, and was forgotten. Thus the incompatibility of the wish in question with the patient’s ego was the motive for the repression; the subject’s ethical and other standards were the repressing forces.”
According to Freud, individuals are governed by a set of conscious desires, which conform to their ethical and aesthetic standards. When desires arise that contradict these, the mind rejects them by banishing them to the unconscious – repressing them. Freud gives an example that might help us see this idea’s relation to The Phantom Menace. He invites his audience to imagine a heckler in the audience acting disruptively. He then invites them to imagine that the heckler is taken outside the auditorium by guards, where he continues to bang on the doors, demanding to be let back in. In this case, the auditorium is the conscious mind, and the outside is the unconscious. According to Freud, repression of an unwanted wish is far from an ideal outcome. The problem is that the unwanted impulse continues to exist, no matter how much the mind might wish to deny it, and is in fact much harder to guard against when unacknowledged. The repressed wish is “on the look-out for an opportunity of being activated, and when that happens it succeeds in sending into consciousness a disguised and unrecognizable substitute for what had been repressed.” Freud also describes cases of “double conscience” – extreme cases in which a single individual’s mind is split into multiple mental groupings. “If, where a splitting of the personality such as this has occurred, consciousness remains attached regularly to one of the two states, we call it the conscious mental state and the other, which is detached from it, the unconscious one.”
Is this starting to sound familiar now?
Much criticism has been directed at the title of The Phantom Menace, but I will ardently defend it as both fitting Star Wars naming conventions and aptly conveying the substance of the film. It is a great, pulpy, fun title, and a deeply meaningful one, inviting a multitude of interpretations. It is deliberately ambiguous, a product not of confused intentions but of precise design.
Similarly, many balked when Episode I’s opening crawl – in marked contrast to the immediately accessible simplicity of Episode IV’s – began to describe the taxation of trade routes, among other disorienting and boring things. Yet the yellow text here, while heavy on jargon, is full of crucial information, effectively setting the stage for what is about to transpire. The dispute over trade routes to outlying star systems potently recalls Freud’s analogy of the heckler: the outlying Naboo finds itself repressed, unacknowledged by the center (or ego) of the galaxy, the “endlessly debating” congress of the Republic – which takes place, incidentally, in a massive auditorium. The central governing mechanism of the galaxy is ineffective because it has become too centralized and isolated, cut off from its outlying constituents. This separation is enforced not by moral standards but by the greed of the Trade Federation, suggesting that the moral paradigm of the galaxy is markedly out of balance. Before the initial negotiations commence, there is a sense that something unnatural is afoot: Obi-Wan asks of the Neimoidians, “Is it in their nature to make us wait this long?” Qui-Gon replies that it is not: “I sense an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.” Throughout The Phantom Menace, we will see governing authorities driven by fear and greed – and these problematic motivations will go unnoticed and unchecked. Of all the Star Wars films, this is the one that most speaks to something like class warfare, a divide simmering between two parts of the galaxy: one (Coruscant) characterized by opulence, the other (Tatooine) by poverty. “Outlanders,” Watto scoffs when he first comes into contact with the fleeing heroes. “They think we know nothing.”
Since Lucas decided to frame the original Star Wars from their perspective, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) have been crucial signifiers of what is going on subtextually in the films. When we meet C-3PO in The Phantom Menace, he is, suggestively, missing one eye and an outer covering. Like just about everyone else in the film, he is half-blind, naked, and therefore unprotected. (The subjective POV shot from his perspective, the only shot of its kind in Star Wars, is harder to explain.) Because the Republic does not acknowledge its own greed, the malevolent impulse is projected onto a Freudian substitute: the droid armies of the Trade Federation. Throughout the Star Wars prequels, droids (and later clones) will act as external representatives onto which internal problems are projected. “There’s no logic in the Federation’s move here,” Qui-Gon says of the blockade. The logical part of the galaxy is acting illogically, unknowingly influenced by a malevolent and unconscious force. That force, the phantom menace of the title, is the Jungian shadow or “dark side” of the galaxy. More specifically, it is Darth Sidious, the dark alter ego of Palpatine, who – crucially – is a member of the Republic Senate, and by the film’s end, becomes its Chancellor. Because the Republic projects its internal problems of fear and greed onto the external force of the Trade Federation, it is unaware that it is itself being taken over by the very same puppetmaster. Sidious spends most of his time onscreen as a hologram – a transparent, glowing, flickering blue hooded figure who recalls the classic cinematic appearance of a ghost (or a phantom, one might say). The holograms often act as phantom menaces, as when the Trade Federation leaders appear by hologram to direct their mechanical troops, or when an advisor, embodying Padmé’s fear for her people, urges her to send a transmission, revealing her location and jeopardizing her safety. “It’s a trick,” Obi-Wan says of the latter instance – foreshadowing Admiral Ackbar’s iconic declaration, “It’s a trap!”
A similar principle is at work in the animosity between the Gungans and the Naboo. The Naboo are cultured and pacifistic, driven by reason; “They think their brains so big,” complains Boss Nass. The Gungans are primitive and warlike, and their natural world risks destruction by the machines created by a more technologically advanced culture. “Gungans no dyin’ without a fight,” Jar-Jar says. “Wesa warriors. Wesa got a grand army. That’s why you no likin’ us, mesa thinks.” Jar-Jar suggests that the Naboo dislike the Gungans because of their warlike nature. Motivated by this speech, Padmé decides to fight against the Trade Federation, declaring that the Senate “no longer functions” and contradicting her own stated refusal to participate in a war. The inference seems to be that the Naboo project their own repressed aggression onto the Gungans, just as the Senate projects its unacknowledged fear and greed onto the Trade Federation. Amidala’s return to Naboo and alliance with the Gungans is a victory on one level, but a failure on another. She is motivated by fear – which, as Yoda says, is a path to the dark side. Lucas cues us into the subtle corruption of Amidala’s motives by having her, in conversation with Qui-Gon, repeat a line Gunray said to her earlier: “You assume too much.”
Elsewhere, describing the Gungan army, Viceroy Gunray says, “It appears to be made up of primitives.” In his essay “Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious,” Carl Jung writes about the primitive: “his psyche is essentially collective and therefore for the most part unconscious.” The association of the primitive Gungans with the unconscious is borne out through imagery. As they assemble for battle, they emerge out of the fog – an early foreshadowing of the way Attack of the Clones will fixate on clouds and smoke as symbols of the unconscious. Lucas employs this symbolism once more, early in The Phantom Menace: the Trade Federation leaders try to kill the Jedi with a cloud of toxic gas.
The Gungans’ amphibious nature also suggests this connection, as does their underwater dwelling place. The design of the Gungan city, with its cluster of circular structures connected by walkways, recalls other Star Wars cities: notably, Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back and Kamino from Attack of the Clones. However, while those structures are artificial and technological, the Gungan city is more intimately connected to the nature around it, with its porous surfaces and flowing, organic-looking architecture. In this respect, it more closely resembles the village of the Ewoks (another tribe of primitives) from Return of the Jedi. (Jar-Jar’s reference to the “hidden city” winkingly references one of Lucas’ key influences, Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, which might share even more similarities with The Phantom Menace than the original Star Wars.) Unlike the other cities, though, the Gungans’ is underwater. In the study “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” Jung writes, “The sea is the symbol of the collective unconscious, because unfathomed depths lie concealed beneath its reflecting surface.” After meeting Jar-Jar, the Jedi descend into these underwater depths, trying to reach the Naboo. In essence, they must enter the unconscious to find what has been repressed. (Descent into the unconscious is another bit of symbolism that will become even more prominent in Episode II.) During their descent, the Jedi – who, notably, must use machines to breathe and move underwater – encounter three monsters. The passage guarded by monsters is a common mythological motif (for instance, the three beasts at the beginning of Dante’s Inferno), but these creatures are self-defeating. “There’s always a bigger fish,” Qui-Gon remarks, unperturbed. The Jedi descend into the unconscious, but do not fear it – in marked contrast to Jar-Jar, who becomes so agitated that Qui-Gon uses the Force to put him to sleep.
The divide between conscious and unconscious also comes out through dialogue, in the repeated discussion of dreams and reality. Freud writes, “Small children always dream of the fulfillment of wishes that were aroused in them the day before but not satisfied.” Small children, like primitives, are more attuned to the unconscious. Unsurprisingly, then, the discussion of dreams revolves primarily around the nine-year-old Anakin and his desire for freedom; after all, when we meet him, he is a slave owned by Watto. “I had a dream I was a Jedi,” he tells Qui-Gon. “I came back here and freed all the slaves.” When Qui-Gon frees Anakin, his mother Shmi (Pernilla August) tells him: “Now you can make your dreams come true, Ani. You are free.” As a child, Anakin is not concerned with making himself free by subjugating others; instead, he wants freedom for all. “He knows nothing of greed,” Shmi tells Qui-Gon. Outside of dreams, however, this innocence cannot last.
Watto and Palpatine – Anakin’s present master and his future one – both equate reality with ownership and control. Bargaining with Qui-Gon, Watto says, “Republic credits are no good out here. I need something more real.” The excursion to Tatooine is symbolically important as a counterpart to Coruscant. The former is materialistic, carnal, and grimy, ruled by greed and passion – though as Obi-Wan remarks, “The Trade Federation has no presence there.” The latter is outwardly civilized and pristine, and ought to be a place where dreams become reality. Instead, it is secretly ruled by the same greed. The difference is that this greed is cloaked and institutionalized. Palpatine, whose blue clothing recalls Watto’s blue skin, tells Amidala: “To be realistic, Your Majesty, I think we will have to accept Federation control for the time being.” Rather than accepting this reality, however, the heroes of The Phantom Menace fight to free themselves. They succeed, superficially, but the bifurcation of their selves and the world around them has not been avoided, only delayed, and their peace is destined to be short-lived.
Part III: Blue for the Boy, Red for his Mother
While Qui-Gon and Watto are haggling over their bet on the podrace, Qui-Gon suggests trading the racer itself for two slaves: Anakin and his mother. Watto refuses, but offers to bet one slave. “We’ll let fate decide,” he says, producing a “chance cube” – a die with red and blue sides. “Blue, it’s the boy. Red… his mother.” Qui-Gon influences the cube with the Force and frees Anakin, but the conflict between the colors has hardly been resolved for good.
The vividly colored beams of lightsabers have been integral to much of Star Wars’ most iconic imagery, so it should come as little surprise that the use of color is something Lucas pays particular attention to. Even in American Graffiti, much was made of John Milner’s (Paul Le Mat) yellow Ford Coupe – a mix of “piss yellow and puke green,” as Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa derisively and memorably described it. In Lucas’ next film, the original Star Wars, Luke wore a bright yellow jacket to the closing victory celebration – a signifier of his victory over the Death Star.
Although yellow does not make substantial appearances in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, it recurs prominently throughout The Phantom Menace. One of the most striking examples is Anakin’s podracer, which is painted blue and yellow – indicating a kinship of sorts with John’s yellow racer in Graffiti. (Ominously, that racer overturned at the end of the film – a semi-autobiographical touch recalling Lucas’ own near-fatal car crash at the age of 19. Luke is 19 years old when we meet him in Episode IV, and Anakin is 19 in Episode II.) In an oft-mocked line, Anakin – piloting a spaceship during the climactic battle – shouts, “Now this is podracing!” In both instances, though, Anakin is piloting a bright yellow ship around a circular structure: the racing circuit in the first, the ring-shaped control ship in the second. Moreover, in both scenes Lucas devotes particular attention to the way Anakin manipulates the vehicles’ control panels – which have similar color schemes of their own.
Yellow, for Lucas, seems to be associated with youth and coming of age. Anakin’s victory in the podrace wins his freedom from slavery and marks the beginning of his path to become a Jedi Knight, while Luke wears his yellow jacket at a key milestone in his own bildungsroman. Yellow signifies a ritual that must be finished in order to reach adulthood, but it can just as often portend a failure to mature properly or an insistence on clinging to childish things. In American Graffiti, Milner spends his nights aimlessly cruising the streets of Modesto in his yellow Coupe, looking for girls to pick up and competitors to race against. Over the course of the film, Milner matures by looking after a young girl who gets into his car, but this maturity comes at the cost of his youth, as the Coupe overturns in a climactic race, a symbol of his encroaching mortality; without fanfare, a sober postscript informs us that he was killed by a drunk driver. The yellow Coupe is something he must give up. The persistence of yellow beyond the podrace in The Phantom Menace carries subtly worrisome connotations, then – as does its reoccurrence in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, always in connection with Anakin. Throughout the prequels, the repeated use of yellow hints that Anakin’s development is stunted, leaving him stuck performing youthful rituals over and over again.
Yellow is also the color of the console screen that controls the Battle Droids in The Phantom Menace. It is, at least in some sense, the color of technology – perhaps as something that must be mastered for a man to come of age. Milner and Anakin are both defined, in many ways, by their ability to control their fast-moving yellow vehicles. Luke receives his yellow jacket after his feat of technological mastery during the attack on the Death Star – but in a crucial difference, Luke refused to become dependent on machinery, instead trusting the Force in a way that Milner and Anakin both seem unable to do. Anakin masters technology, but his continued dependence on it suggests that he is also, in some sense, mastered by technology. In the climactic battle of The Phantom Menace, Anakin – following the droid, R2-D2 – disregards Qui-Gon’s advice to stay safe and allows himself to be taken into danger by the ship’s autopilot. The autopilot is symbolized by a red screen; when it’s disengaged and Anakin takes control of his own actions, it turns blue.
Those colors may sound significant to you, and with good reason: they’re extremely prominent throughout Star Wars. At a first glance, it seems that blue represents the light side of the Force, and red represents the dark side, thus falling along a simple good and evil binary. Darth Vader is evil and wields a red lightsaber, while Obi-Wan and Luke are good and wield blue lightsabers against him. However, the introduction of green lightsabers – as wielded most prominently by Luke in Episode VI and Qui-Gon in Episode I – complicates matters, as does the use of color in The Phantom Menace.
I have found it most fruitful to read blue and red not as good and evil, but delineation of reason and passion, or idealism and materialism. The Senate chamber on Coruscant is blue, characterized as it is by endless debate and ineffective, circular reasoning. The Jedi Council chamber is similarly shaped and colored. The passionless Jedi (excepting Qui-Gon and others in later films) wield blue lightsabers and are detached from the day-to-day affairs of the galaxy, hiding in a temple in the sky and practicing a religion that sounds something like Stoicism. Unsettlingly, Watto the slave owner is also blue, and carries a staff identical to Yoda’s. This color symbolism, combined with Qui-Gon’s inability to free the slaves of Tatooine, suggests that the Jedi are somehow complicit in the injustice of slavery, which they take no action to stop. When Anakin is brought before them, they treat him with suspicion and fear, not love: “See through you, we can,” Yoda says, sounding more menacing than kindly.
Palpatine, pretending to be reasonable, wears blue while he plays on Amidala’s passions to advance his own agenda. His office, tellingly, is very red, foreshadowing the future appearance of his royal guards in Episode VI. Sith are Epicurean counterparts to the Stoic Jedi. Darth Maul’s red skin is accompanied by a passionate rage, and the greedy Neimoidians have red eyes, as if to symbolize their devouring gaze. Interestingly, Maul is never referred to as “he,” but always as “it” – like something animalistic or subhuman. The cockpit of the Naboo cruiser is lit by a vivid red; though they don’t acknowledge it, Amidala and her entourage are secretly being driven by passion. The red cockpit is also where Obi-Wan first exclaims that Anakin’s midi-chlorian count – a more materialistic explanation for sensitivity to the Force – is off the charts. Watto’s declaration, “Blue for the boy and red for his mother,” combined with the way Liam Neeson and Pernilla August play their scenes together (note how often he places his hand on her shoulder!), subtly suggests some kind of passion between Qui-Gon and Shmi, although the selfless Qui-Gon ultimately puts this aside for Anakin’s benefit. During the climactic assault on the palace, Captain Panaka shouts, “Red group! Blue group! Everybody this way!” The good guys are able to claim victory by bringing both their passion and their reason to bear on the droid army.
Passion and reason, as I have been referring to them, could also be mapped onto Jung’s ideas of western and eastern thinking with cogent results. Red, associated as it is here with greed and lust for control, is extraverted; directed towards the physical, material world of the passions and appetites. Lucas’ original films frame evil through specific allusions to Nazism, a specifically western breed of fascism, while positioning the good guys as samurai and giving them dialogue that recalls Buddhist teachings about introversion and separation from the physical world; “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” Jung insists:
“[T]he two standpoints, however contradictory, each have their psychological justification. Both are one-sided in that they fail to see and take account of those factors which do not fit in with their typical attitude. The one underrates the world of consciousness, the other the world of the One Mind. The result is that, in their extremism, both lose one half of the universe; their life is shut off from total reality, and is apt to become artificial and inhuman.”
This certainly seems to aptly characterize the split in Lucas’ galaxy. Yet over the course of the six films, Lucas tries to chart a course that takes both of these attitudes into account; the Star Wars films are neither straightforwardly Eastern nor straightforwardly Western in their philosophy. Jung writes of a “transcendent function” that “arises from the union of conscious and unconscious contents.” This seems to be what Lucas’ galaxy is straining towards.
In The Phantom Menace, the union of passion and reason is represented, fittingly, by the color purple, itself a mixture of red and blue. Returning to her home planet to bring about the union between the rationalistic Naboo and the impassioned Gungans, Padmé wears two outfits. Both are purple.
As the film’s centerpiece, the podrace is perhaps its most striking and rigorously cohesive display of color symbolism. It is, after all, a sport in which one harnesses the power of two engines (there’s that number again) linked by a beam of purple “energy binders” or “power couplings” – a union into which Jar-Jar promptly blunders and is rendered unable to speak. When the connection is severed, the podracer explodes in an ominous foreshadowing of the entire arc of the Star Wars saga. (And let’s not forget the alien race announcer with two heads: one red and one green.)
The colors of the podracer’s control console also reward a closer look. At a key moment, Anakin’s pod – sabotaged previously by Sebulba – starts to malfunction. (1) Lucas focuses on flashing red lights, along with the yellow technical readout of the pod. Alarm (or fear, a passion the Jedi strenuously avoid) threatens to undo Anakin, who is focused on his yellow machine. He flips a switch to see what’s wrong. (2) On the display, one pod fills with blue light, while another is empty, outlined by red; reason and passion have been unbalanced. (3) Anakin manipulates the controls and, on the screen, some blue transfers over to the other pod, resulting in equilibrium and eliminating the red outline. (4) Finally, both pods turn green and begin to function again, allowing Anakin to go on and win the race.
This isn’t the only instance where displays and computers are color-coded to tie into deeper meaning. Lucas constantly and coherently uses red, blue, and green to convey ideas amidst action. When the Naboo cruiser first attempts to escape the blockade, the shield generator is hit. On the computer screen, the generator is characterized by green – something that is necessary for protection. When it is hit, it turns red. A flashing blue light sounds the alarm.
If red is passion, the appetitive part of the soul, and blue is reason, the logical part, what is green? Considering that red and blue map onto two parts of Plato’s tripartite soul, perhaps it’s fair to locate green in the third, the spirited part – or, as Lewis described it, the properly sentimented chest that properly unites the head and the stomach. Indeed, Lucas’ dialogue reflects this kind of anatomical symbolism. Decrying the ineffectual leadership of galactic Chancellor Valorum, Padmé (spurred on by Palpatine) declares, “If this body is not capable of action, new leadership is needed.” At times, the dialogue seems downright preoccupied with questions of the head and brain. “Are you brain dead?” one Neimoidian asks another. “Are you brainless?” Qui-Gon demands of Jar-Jar in a subsequent scene, clarifying, “The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.” Qui-Gon, unlike many others, is able to recognize where true intelligence lies. One of the most vocally arrogant members of the Jedi Council, Ki-Adi-Mundi, has an elongated head, corresponding with the enlarged ego of the Council as a whole; another has an elongated neck, so that his head seems to hover above his body. “It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions,” Amidala says to the newly-elected Chancellor Palpatine before leaving to take matters into her own hands. “I pray you will restore sanity and compassion to the Senate.” Sanity is a particular virtue of the head, the seat of reason – but compassion seems to belong more to the chest or spirited part.
Idyllic Naboo, of course, is predominantly a green planet, and thus it is fitting that the film revolves around this location and the union that must take place between its two people groups. That union is brought about, in many ways, by the actions of Qui-Gon, who wields a green lightsaber. Indeed, though blue and red seem like opposites, the conflict in Episode I (as in its counterpart, Episode VI) is primarily between green and red. Obi-Wan fails to defeat Darth Maul with his blue lightsaber, but succeeds after using the Force to grab Qui-Gon’s green one. This accords with Lewis’ assertion in “Abolition of Man” that reason, without the assistance of the sentiments, is unable to maintain control over the passions.
Lucas ties this spirited part to a kind of religion and spirituality that would likely please Friedrich Schleiermacher. Religious feeling is distinct from mere praxis, or action, and thus is not simply a matter of the appetites acting morally. Nor does it consist solely in holding right beliefs, and thus it does not belong exclusively to the province of reason. Qui-Gon does not hold with all the dogma of the Jedi Council; the film suggests that he is not among their number because he has defied them in the past. Nor does he practice the primitive religion of the Gungans, though he is perfectly willing to appeal to its rules. Arguing for Jar-Jar’s freedom, Qui-Gon waves his hand in the classic gesture of a Jedi mind trick and says, “Your gods demand that his life belongs to me now.” Perhaps one can infer from this a daring suggestion: that the compassion and spirituality embodied in Qui-Gon are, or ought to be, the driving force behind organized religion. The ultimate union of the Gungans and Naboo takes place, significantly, in a “sacred place,” where reason and passion humble themselves to work together towards a larger goal.
Part IV: The Living Force
When placed in the larger picture, The Phantom Menace portends a great deal of sorrow and suffering, setting Anakin on a journey we know will result in his transformation into one of cinema’s most iconic villains. However, it also foreshadows ultimate hope and reconciliation – and it does so primarily through the figure of Qui-Gon Jinn.
“Jar-Jar is the key to all this,” George Lucas infamously proclaimed, and while my respect for the man is virtually without bounds, allow me to suggest that Qui-Gon, in fact, is the key that unlocks Star Wars, or at least clues us in to its core concerns. With his green lightsaber, he acts as an analogue to the mature Luke we see in Return of the Jedi: these two are the ideal, properly balanced Jedi, bookending a saga full of imperfect ones. Foreshadowing Luke’s unconditional love of his father, Qui-Gon is characterized by a deep compassion towards those he comes in contact with. This even extends to Jar-Jar, as contrasted by Obi-Wan’s willingness (shared by most audience members) to leave him behind.
Much criticism of the prequels has revolved around its supposedly lacking portrayal of the Jedi. Viewers wanted to see the Jedi in their prime, but Lucas gave them a religious order on its last legs, strangled by complacency, as much to blame for its downfall as any external force. The very first scene with the Jedi Council immediately establishes them as unreliable, blind – “I do not believe the Sith could have returned without us knowing,” Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) says arrogantly – and lacking in the compassion that Qui-Gon embodies. Problematically, the Jedi are so insistent on avoiding the temptation of fear that they eschew attachment entirely. Their withdrawal from the physical and repression of the appetites leaves them susceptible to Sidious’ influence.
Qui-Gon, in contrast, is a paragon of healthy balance, embodying a kind of spirituality that properly reconciles the physical with the ideal, passion with reason, extraversion with introversion, the Apollonian with the Dionysian. Qui-Gon focuses on the present moment, while Obi-Wan is anxious about the future and the members of the Jedi Council are fixated on the past. “Your focus determines your reality,” he tells Anakin at one point, recalling Jung’s observation that Eastern thought “bases itself upon psychic reality, that is, upon the psyche as the main and unique condition of existence.” Yet Qui-Gon is no Gnostic, as his controversial discourse on midi-chlorians shows. When The Phantom Menace was released, fans bemoaned the introduction of this concept, claiming that it was reductive and robbed the Force of its mystery. More seriously, some critics have argued that the idea of midi-chlorians is too materialistic, undercutting the numinous and spiritual nature of the Force. When questioned by Anakin, this is the explanation Qui-Gon offers:
“Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells… we are symbionts with them… life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.”
It is important to note that Qui-Gon does not say midi-chlorians are the Force. They merely tell us its will. Qui-Gon offers a physical explanation for the Force without explaining it away; this need not rob it of its spiritual significance. The Sith are preoccupied with the body, and the Jedi with the mind, but Qui-Gon presents a vision of the Force that is intimately concerned with the life of both.
Telling the Council about Anakin for the first time, Qui-Gon says that a “vergence in the Force” is located around the boy. “Vergence” is an obscure bit of physiological terminology referring to the movement of two eyes, either away from each other (divergence) or towards each other (convergence), in order to maintain a unified and singular binocular vision. This fits neatly into the rest of The Phantom Menace’s themes, with their emphasis on duality and unity. To Qui-Gon, this vergence indicates Anakin’s status as the chosen one. “You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force,” Mace Windu clarifies, though the specifics of this prophecy, and what it means to bring balance to the Force, are left maddeningly unclear. Even with his dying breath, though, Qui-Gon stays true to his belief: “He is the chosen one. He will bring balance.” Despite the council’s objections and disinterest, Qui-Gon maintains, “Finding [Anakin] was the will of the Force… I have no doubt of that.”
Qui-Gon is the only Jedi in all six films to speak about “the will of the Force.” In fact, throughout The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon talks about the Force differently than the other Jedi. When Obi-Wan says Yoda exhorted him to be mindful of the future, Qui-Gon counters: “But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the Living Force, young Padawan.” The Living Force and the will of the Force come up repeatedly in Qui-Gon’s dialogue, lending his belief in the Force a decidedly more theistic air than the other Jedi. Tellingly, Qui-Gon never uses Obi-Wan’s famous exhortation, “Use the Force,” instead relying on the religious statement, “May the Force be with you.”
Perhaps this idea of a more active Force – something with agency, not something to be used like a tool – is what allows Qui-Gon to be open to the possibility of Anakin’s virgin birth. “There was no father,” Shmi says. “I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him… I can’t explain what happened.” Although Shmi, quite unlike the Virgin Mary, is unable to account for the origin of her child, Qui-Gon accepts her version of the narrative, and offers his own tentative interpretation to the Jedi Council: “It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.”
Anakin’s virgin birth is fraught with Messianic implications, so it’s fitting that the film’s central podrace sequence explicitly references the iconic chariot race from William Wyler’s 1959 Biblical epic Ben-Hur, subtitled (like another great film) “A Tale of the Christ,” which opened with its own rendition of the Nativity. Anakin’s blue and yellow podracer is reminiscent of Judah Ben-Hur’s blue and gold chariot, while Sebulba’s orange and black racer is analogous to Messala’s red and black one. Both sequences open with an extended procession and introduction of the racers, even though in both cases, only two of the contestants really matter to the narrative. Here, Lucas’ love of racing vehicles comes out in the lovingly indulgent buildup to the race itself. The podracers, though fictional machines, are even accompanied by the sound effects of American V8 automobile engines, recalling American Graffiti’s final race scene. In both The Phantom Menace and Ben-Hur, the racer sits in a chariot and must work to maintain control over the engines that pull them along; horses in one instance, turbines in the other. (Notably, the podracer with four engines fails to start; the blue energy must be distributed evenly, or one might say balanced, between exactly two engines.) Sebulba and Messala force Anakin and Ben-Hur, respectively, onto side ramps, which they must leap over. Both races end with the “good guy” and “bad guy” racers becoming entangled and then violently separated in an action that proves catastrophic for the “bad guy.”
(An observation: why does Anakin have a plastic jai alai cesta in his room? Is it a reference to TRON, with its groundbreaking visual effects and allegory of religious persecution in the Roman Empire? Or is it because jai alai is the fastest sport in the world, just as podracing is the fastest sport in the galaxy?)
In any case, the central Ben-Hur reference is illuminating in more ways than one. Ben-Hur participated in the chariot race seeking vengeance for the supposed imprisonment and death of his mother – an elusive foreshadowing of Anakin’s reasons for returning to Tatooine in the next film, Episode II. He was also enraged by the fate of his sister – foreshadowing the reasons for Luke’s rage at the end of Episode VI. Like Ben-Hur, Anakin is taken from his desert homeland and adopted as a surrogate son by a member of the ruling government. Yet Ben-Hur also prefigures the ultimate conclusion to Star Wars, as its main character puts away vengeance and embraces Christlike love of the enemy.
In light of all this, the stereotypically Middle Eastern nature of Watto’s character may appear more defensible. In Star Wars’ version of the virgin birth, Tatooine functions as a kind of Bethlehem or Judea. Moreover, Watto seems like a kind of analogue to Hugh Griffith’s Sheik in Ben-Hur, right down to his animated reactions in the stands at the race.
“[The Phantom Menace] is about letting go,” Lucas said in a 1999 interview with Bill Moyers. “You have this young boy, who’s 10 years old, who has to leave his mother and go off on his own and the mother has to let him go because otherwise he would be a slave the rest of his life… At some point you do have to become an independent person. And it’s about learning to let go of your – your needs, so to speak, and – and think of the needs of others.”
“It is time for you to let go,” Shmi tells Anakin as he prepares to leave Tatooine with Qui-Gon. “I don’t want things to change,” Anakin replies, but Shmi is adamant: “You can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” (Recalling the binary sunset, one of Star Wars’ most iconic images.)
While the original trilogy was centered on the relationship between a father and a son, the prequel trilogy finds one of its central threads in the relationship between that father and his mother. The Phantom Menace centers on the mother letting go of her son, and the son letting go of his mother (though with dubious success). Jung argues that the breaking away from the mother is a key stage in the development of a heroic narrative, and (aptly enough) claims that there are several examples from the Gospel accounts of the life of the young Christ. Freud, meanwhile, writes that the “detachment of the child from his parents is thus a task that cannot be evaded if the young individual’s social fitness is not to be endangered.”
After the turning point of the podrace, much of the film’s second half is attuned to the anxiety that accompanies Anakin’s separation from his mother. At the departure from the slaves’ hovel, Lucas frames Anakin as caught between his surrogate father, Qui-Gon, and his mother, Shmi. He chooses her and runs to her, promising to come back and free her. (This is a promise he will be unable to keep.) “Now, be brave,” she says, “And don’t look back… Don’t look back.” Following this, Darth Maul attacks Qui-Gon and Anakin. It might not be too much to suggest that, symbolically, Darth Maul here is an external manifestation of Anakin’s internal desire to remain on Tatooine, lashing out at his surrogate father and trying to prevent their escape.
Soon after, on Coruscant, Lucas stages another scene where Anakin is caught between surrogate father and mother – the mother, in this case, being Padmé, who wears red, the color of desire. This time, it is Padmé who calls Anakin to herself, and Qui-Gon who encourages him to go. During his time on Coruscant, Anakin spends time in Padmé’s chambers, which are red and decorated with statues of abstract female forms. This is also where Anakin first sees Padmé’s alter ego as Queen Amidala, experiencing another separation of sorts. “I care for you,” Anakin tells her, “Only I…” “Miss your mother,” she completes his sentence.
Writing about stunted development, Jung describes a man who “[lives] regressively, seeking his childhood and his mother, fleeing from a cold cruel world which denies him understanding.” As the Naboo cruiser leaves Tatooine, Padmé asks Anakin if he is all right. He replies quietly, “It’s very cold.” Later, Yoda asks a similar question: “How feel you?” Anakin replies with a similar answer: “Cold, sir.”
“Your thoughts dwell on your mother,” Ki-Adi-Mundi observes. “I miss her,” Anakin replies. Yoda interjects: “Afraid to lose her, I think, hmm?” Anakin’s unwillingness to let go is a source of fear, and fear leads to anger, to hate, to suffering. “I sense much fear in you,” Yoda concludes. Anakin’s fear of losing those he loves will ultimately be what leads him to the Dark Side, because the Jedi will encourage him to get rid of his attachments and repress his feelings, banishing them to the unconscious where they can do the most harm. At the film’s end, Anakin looks exactly like a smaller Obi-Wan, with the same haircut and garments. He will try to become Obi-Wan, but he will fail.
Yet even as Lucas sows the tragic seeds of Darth Vader, he presents an important counterpoint in Qui-Gon, who loves self-sacrificially, without giving in to fear. During the duel of the fates, when the combatants are separated by force fields, the headstrong Obi-Wan waits impatiently, rocking back and forth, while Darth Maul seethes with rage, even striking the doors with his lightsaber. Qui-Gon, however, puts his trust completely in the will of the Force. He deactivates his lightsaber, sinks into a lotus position, closes his eyes, and lets go.