What's wrong (and right) with "The Phantom Menace"

A science-fiction author scours the new "Star Wars" film for signs of intelligent life.

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

First off, let me say that I think the film looks gorgeous. George Lucas was able to hire the best. He took advantage of advances in computer graphics to portray many old sci-fi favorites in vivid ways. The costumes are just spiffy, the sword fight scenes zesty. Great aliens, too (except for Yoda, who's still a rubber oven mitt with two facial expressions: patronizing and condescending).

I actually quite enjoyed the first part of the film -- Jedis running around
on the Trade Federation mother ship, jumping and slashing, leaping and
blasting. My hopes started to rise. But then -- well, let me list just a few


Underwater cities? A city that covers a whole planet? Where've we seen
those before? Well, they may be clichis, but Lucas stole them fair and
square, and served them back with loads of panache, so he's forgiven. On
the other hand, there are other clichis that make you moan aloud. For

  • "Hey, you guys, don't you mess with me because my mom is the
    Virgin Mary! (At least that's what she told her folks when she
    came home pregnant one day.) I guess you know what that
    makes ME, so everybody drop down and give me 20!"

  • "I think maybe he is the CHOSEN ONE ..." Oh, really? As in
    "Dune"? Or in "The Matrix"? Or in "Lord of the Rings"? Or "A
    New Hope" (the original 1977 "Star Wars" movie)? Or ... make your own list. It will stretch for light

  • "He is too old to train to be a Jedi." -- Uh, Yoda? You say 6 is
    too old, but Luke Skywalker will be a doable fixer-upper at
    20? When do you recruit novices -- ripping them from the
    breast, like the Psi Corps in "Babylon 5"? Does the Jedi Way
    require complete denial of normal childhood? An odd message
    for a kid flick!

  • "Oh no! There's an unstoppable robot army! Of course all we
    have to do is pull a master switch and they'll all shut off!"

    This recalls blowing up the shield projector in "Return of the Jedi"
    (which is achieved entirely thanks to the wookie -- neither Luke nor Leia
    makes any real difference in achieving the Rebel victory. Think about it!).
    Or a computer virus shutting down all alien shields in "Independence Day."
    Or Obi-Wan dialing down the tractor beam. Or the hero in "Logan's Run"
    shooting one computer console and blowing up a city. And so on. Yeesh! Are
    villain equipment-designers really that bad in every off-Earth empire? In
    fairness, this clichi is endemic. Ever notice how, in "Star Trek," Kirk
    talked five different super-computers into self-destructing? If the
    universe really is like this, we Earthlings are gonna kick butt when we get
    out there!

  • A good machine is one that has to be hammered into turning on
    for you (e.g. Anakin's speed-pod, his space fighter, the
    Millennium Falcon, C-3PO and so on). If it starts right up, it
    must be evil.

  • Some might view the pod race as a rip-off copy of the speeder
    bike scene in "Return of the Jedi." Actually, I found the
    charioteer imagery charming. Hey, a swooping chase scene past
    scary obstacles is always a good thing to throw into a
    whiz-bang sci-fi flick! Nevertheless, having a 6-year-old
    slave toss together a better pod than all the galaxy's
    technicians can create? (Those Tatooine slave schools must
    have a great curriculum!) Couldn't he have had help from an old
    but great engineer who retired to Tatooine for his health? That
    clichi would have lent plausibility.

  • Big animals try to eat whole spaceships, yum. Where've we
    seen that before?

  • An apprentice Jedi -- watching helplessly as his beloved
    master is slain in a sword fight by a Sith Lord -- screams, "No!"
    Where've we seen that before? (Incidentally, the angry
    apprentice succeeds where his calm master failed -- just as
    Luke Skywalker does better angry than when he was composed,
    in "Return of the Jedi." So much for Yoda's sage advice!)

But enough wallowing in small stuff. Let's get down to the Grand
Champion clichi of all:

  • "Gee whillikers, R2, the folks out there sure are in a pickle.
    What's that, girl? Solve the whole plot by diving my tiny ship
    into the center of a big bad-ass one, and set off a chain reaction
    to blow it up from the inside while we run away real fast?
    What an idea! Gee, I'll bet THAT'S never been done before!"

Note that the only "Star Wars" movie without this dreadfully clichid trick is "The Empire Strikes Back," again showing how that movie towers over
the others. Actually, I guess "Phantom Menace" is logically the first time
the stunt gets used, since it's the "earliest" of the movies, so let's be
forgiving. But then, if Anakin did this as a boy, don't you figure he'd
remember the nasty little design flaw, 40 years later, when he helps
and the Emperor build the Death Star? (This may be Clue No. 1 to a
great underlying plot secret, one potentially capable of transforming the
whole series! A fantastic surprise that'd actually make sense of the whole
saga! Care to guess?)


I confess there was one really original thing in "The Phantom Menace,"
something I have truly never seen before. I could not believe my eyes when
I read the yellow prologue letters flowing across the screen at the very
beginning of the film: A sci-fi action movie whose premise is based on
taxation of trade routes and negotiations over tariff treaties? Now
that ... (yawn) ... is something ... I've ... never ... (snore) ...


It happens time and again. You create a beloved universe -- then spend most
of the sequels wallowing in emotional reunions, or worse, spend most of
prequel introducing characters to each other, dwelling on each moment for
long stretches laden with emotional music. R2, meet Threepio! (For the
very first time!) Obi-Wan, meet Anakin! Anakin grew up with Greedo!
Naturally, there are cameos by Tuskan Raiders and Jabba the Hut and every
other old friend, for nostalgia's sake. Anyone notice the delegation of
Spielberg's "ET" aliens in the Senate chamber, uncharacteristically willing
to associate with humans for a change?

And there's more! Anyone notice the names of the other candidates
for Chancellor? Minister Antilles of Alderan? Maybe the dad of
Captain Antilles, the first dude Vader crushes to death in the first movie?
Cousin of Luke's wingman, Wedge Antilles? Could it be a coincidence?
Destiny? (Or maybe Clue No. 2?)

Again, to be fair, the nostalgia thing has been done even worse by others.
Remember "Star Trek, The Motion Picture"? Wasted half an hour
the Enterprise from the outside before we even got aboard. Get on with it!


  • "We won't train young Skywalker 'cause he might turn
    dangerous." So instead of assigning the most experienced
    teachers to keep an eye on him, and train him to be a good guy,
    you'd just toss him and his mega-force talent out on the
    street? Or else, under duress, you'll finally agree to let a
    recent novice (Obi-Wan) deal naively with the menace on his
    own? Great idea! Of course this terrible decision leads to
    catastrophe, so it's all Yoda's fault from the very beginning.
    (Or is it another clue?)

    According to Stefan Jones, "In the first film, the Force was a kind of
    martial art/Zen archery kind of thing. Rather egalitarian: Obi-Wan even
    offers to teach scoffer Han Solo the ropes. Goofy comic-book mysticism,
    kind of charming and innocent in a Hong Kong kung-fu movie sort of way."

    But as the \bermensch effect took over, the Force grew elitist. You had to
    be born with it! In a progressive universe, Yoda & Co. would set up
    Jedi-arts studios in every mini-mall on Coruscant -- the way karate has
    saturated suburban America -- giving millions of kids exposure to a little
    discipline and fun, plus a chance to better themselves through hard work,
    and maybe outperform what cynical grownups expected of them. But Yoda
    thinks he can diagnose at age 6 who's got it, who hasn't, and who is
    pre-destined to fail before they try. Only demigods need apply ... and only
    those demigods Yoda likes. (Maybe this really is Clue No. 3?)

  • Too bad we had to leave the Virgin Mary -- I mean Mom -- on
    Tatooine (presumably to give birth to Uncle Owen). But once
    the queen and Obi-Wan get away to Coruscant, can't they
    access their Galactic Express accounts and buy mom's freedom
    out of petty cash? I guess they forgot. Some heroes.

  • We Jedi protect the innocent! So let's take a 6-year-old along
    on a raid into the enemy's heavily defended HQ! (Then tell him
    to hide in a fighter cockpit "for safety.")

  • Vader grew up on Tatooine, yet he finds the place unremarkable
    40 years later in "A New Hope." In the same film he senses
    nothing unusual about C-3PO, his beloved first-born droid. (Or
    his own daughter, for that matter!) In any event, this
    coincidence makes Tatooine the last place anyone would hide
    Vader's newborn son -- Luke -- 20 years hence!

Naturally, this hustling of babies will wind up being the major subplot of
Episode III -- which ought to be a real bummer of a movie: Coruscant and a
zillion other planets are gonna have to fry as the emperor takes over,
since that would only happen over the dead bodies of every decent citizen
with any spirit. What a lovely way to finish the saga! But we'll still
cheer as Obi-Wan manages to grab the twins, Luke and Leia, saving them
from Dad's evil clutches as billions perish behind them. Hurrah!

Cheats and unexplained plot drivers

  • Hey, I put up with all those underwater fishes chasing a
    blaster-equipped ship because I thought we were gonna get a
    trip "through the planet's core!" Why mention it, if you're not
    gonna show it?

  • Uh ... will anyone please explain why the Sith Lord and Trade
    Federation risk everything to capture a teeny periphery planet?
    Can we have a clue why Naboo was important -- any hint at
    all? Hello?

  • If the queen can drum up so much Senate support that she's
    able to fire the good chancellor, wouldn't someone lend her a
    few fast ships with cameras, to broadcast atrocities going on
    back on Naboo?

  • The Republic has no police force? No news media to verify the
    queen's story? No big planets who are sick of the Trade
    Federation and hankering to pounce on the federation's big
    mistake? No commercial competitors of the Trade Federation,
    eager to do likewise in hopes of getting the franchise? No past
    victims of the Federation Robot-Army, eager for revenge?
    Everybody's a wimp except for two Jedis and some funky
    amphibian rastafarians?

  • Democratic institutions are always foolish or useless in "Star
    Wars." Even the Jedi High Council is blamed by Yoda for voting
    to allow Anakin to be admitted for training, over Yoda's
    "wise" objections. Only impulsive commands by anointed
    leaders have any validity in the Lucasian Universe.

  • Worst of all, Lucas forgets one of the chief lessons of
    filmmaking -- give your villains great lines! Remember "Die
    Hard"? "Blade Runner"? "The Empire Strikes Back"? Hell, even
    the lamentable "Return of the Jedi" featured a marvelously
    awful emperor sneering at the hero seductively (if illogically).

    So what do we see in this movie? Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) gets
    separated from his
    nemesis, Darth Maul, by a force field. The adversaries pause and glare at
    each other before resuming the fight. What a great time for Maul to give
    his side of the story -- his seething need for revenge against the Jedi!
    Maybe some riveting mumbledy-jumble about the Jedi having crushed and
    suppressed one whole side of the Force for a thousand years, thus creating
    awful imbalance in the universe! (Maybe Neeson even half agrees! After all,
    he's the one wanting to restore "balance," which presumably means
    bringing back enough of the Dark Side to make sort of a Zen-twilight gray ...
    or maybe a dramatic layered, two-tone effect. Anyway, a hint about Liam's
    temptation could explain a lot.)

    Hey, Maul's harangue wouldn't even have to make sense, so long as it told
    us something about the cause that little Anakin will later adopt as his
    own. Less than a minute of villainous rant could have packed a lot of juice
    into their vendetta. But no.

Pseudoscience gimmicks

Here's an idea. Let's take the energy symbiote mitochondria inside our
cells and mystify
them into "midichlorians" (apparently swarms of some sort of symbiotic
fairies inside of each of us) to give a pseudo-techno gloss to Lucas' new
religion. To be fair, "Star Trek" does the same damn thing all the time.

Nevertheless it brings us back to the different ways the two traditions --
"sci-fi" and science fiction -- would treat Superman. If these symbionts
empart great powers to people, can't we find a way to give common folk
more of them? A blithe contentment with genetic determinism is one
thread this "Star Wars" universe shares with most ancient tales -- and with
the Nazis.

Still, even from this Campbellian \bermensch-hero premise -- that
only a genetic elite get to share in the Force -- there is a big logical
problem in "The Phantom Menace." Consider: Young Anakin acts with
godlike poise and heroism at every turn, yet Yoda accuses this brave kid
(packed fulla midichlorians) of being too afraid to be a Jedi? Do I sense a
jealous under-plot here? Like maybe old Yoda fears competition? Could he
be the hidden hand? Maybe this is the true reason he'll lie to Luke, 40
years later, about his father! Certainly no other explanation for the lie is
ever given. None. Not one. Ever.

(Now here's a thought. How come we never see Yoda take on an enemy with
a light saber? Come on master, fire it up and battle a Sith Lord! That's a
battle I'd pay to see! His secret advantage? A long time ago, oven mitts
were made of asbestos!)

Could this be Clue No. 4? Maybe Anakin's conversion into Darth has
a reason darker than any hinted at, so far. It sure makes more sense than
Yoda being so flaming incompetent. (He can foresee the future, but can't
sense something as big as "this kid's gonna someday fry planets and kill
every Jedi"? How convenient.)

Forgivable stuff -- and the rest

Perhaps the biggest torrent of Internet complaining over "Episode I"
concerns something that I'm inclined to overlook: the comic relief
character, Jar Jar Binks. It may surprise you to learn that I'm not going to
waste any time disparaging poor Jar Jar, or dwelling on hints at "Yes,
Bwana" racism. I can take at face value Lucas' assurances that he meant
well. Likewise, I found the Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" to be a bit
rankling, but bearable, perhaps even plausible! Hey, what's the harm? I can
dial down my mental age in order to enjoy a good Flash Gordon-style sci-fi
romp. Cute-dumb sidekicks ain't the real problem here, folks.

Even simpleminded heroes can be excused. For all the faults of every other
lying Jedi, Luke Skywalker is a true hero throughout episodes IV-VI -- a
good dude who remembers his friends and keeps his common touch. A
demigod who never lies or forgets a promise. He's not very bright -- and
can't act -- but he's a genuine good guy, all the way. And he gets a lot
done, whenever he forgets Yoda's advice and lets himself get a little mad.

Despite all the clichis, plot inconsistencies and other criticisms I've
levelled in this article, I am not suggesting that movie "sci-fi" tales need
the same level of logic and character and intricacy you find in first rate
science fiction. That would be asking way too much. Anyway, there's a
place in this world for eye candy. Even the tsunami of schlock "Star Wars"
merchandise flooding every store and mall doesn't raise my ire. Go for it,

If those were my sole complaints, I would not have taken the time to
write all this down.

It's when a director relentlessly tries fiddling with our cultural moral
compass that we should sit up and take notice. I'll trust Steven Spielberg
with such power, because he's earned it. He's proved again and again that he
loves this civilization -- an open society of rambunctious citizens -- that
gave him so much. He's one of us, only more so.

George Lucas, on the other hand, should stick to producing simple
action-adventure films -- good clean fun -- and lay off preaching. It's
simply not where his gifts lie.

By David Brin

David Brin is an astrophysicist whose international best-selling novels include "Earth," and recently "Existence." " The Postman" was filmed in 1997. His nonfiction book about the information age - The Transparent Society - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.  (http://www.davidbrin.com)

MORE FROM David Brin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Movies Star Trek Star Wars