Looked at 20 years later, The Phantom Menace reads as a story about rampant inequality spurring the rise of fascism. Hmm …
The Star Wars prequels are bad. They’re stilted and strange, with bland stories that get stuck in first gear, performances that can’t escape director George Lucas’s apparent desire to create an emotionless universe, and gratuitous visual effects that at times seem to be the movies’ main reason to exist. Also, Jar Jar Binks, a whole host of racist caricature aliens, and the moment where Jake Lloyd yells “Yippee!” as li’l Anakin Skywalker, the once and future Darth Vader.
But I recently rewatched the prequels, mostly to write this piece, but also because a vague sense that these movies are really interesting if not wholly successful has started to permeate online film culture. And when I did my rewatch, I was struck by how timely these movies feel in 2019.
Some of that timeliness stems from something Emily Yoshida wrote about at Vulture, which is the extreme confluence of commerce and art they represented when they were made, and which has since taken over Hollywood. It’s a little stomach-churning to watch the prequels and realize that you’re seeing the mega-blockbuster glut that’s currently running rampant over Hollywood begin its mutation into its current form.
But look past all of that — and it’s a lot to look past — and you’ll find three films that are weirdly concerned with political questions, with ideas about how best to divvy up power, and which tell a strangely prescient story about how inequality can breed fascism. If the first Star Wars trilogy was a rousing adventure tale about a boy who becomes the promised leader, the prequels are a dark meditation on how chosen ones can be evil, too.
In some bizarre way, The Phantom Menace — the first Star Wars prequel, released 20 years ago on May 19, 1999 — anticipates every major sociopolitical and cultural movement of the 21st century, something that only becomes more obvious with the two movies that follow it (2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith). I’m not a fan of any of these three movies, but they just might help us understand the present.
And they just might help us understand — sorry for the very 2017 headline I’m about to drop on you — the rise of Donald Trump.
The world of the Star Wars prequels is about the rise of fascistic evil amid democratic complacency
Mapping the Star Wars universe onto our own via any one-to-one comparisons is essentially impossible. In the prequels, there is some sort of galactic governmental organization called the “Republic.” However, individual planets have their own local governments, many of which are monarchies, hence Princess Leia, etc. (Queen Amidala actually holds elected office. Also, she’s a teenager. Try not to think about it too hard.)
And there’s a democratically elected Senate, which Jar Jar Binks ends up on in the later films, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯. (Also, the plot of the first movie hinges on trade disputes, which remains hilarious 20 years later.)
The trilogy makes a few somewhat clunky attempts to equate itself to then-contemporary politics, especially in the later films. In 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, Amidala’s line, “So this is how liberty dies… to thunderous applause,” was explicitly spoken of by Lucas as commentary on the George W. Bush administration’s wars in the Middle East, and its bungling of them. (Lucas clearly thought of the Star Wars series as a chance to comment on the aspects of US foreign policy he didn’t like. When working on the original Star Wars, he thought of the overbearing Empire as his analog for America.)
But the Star Wars prequels are most fascinating when their political commentary enters through the side door. In The Phantom Menace, that occurs thanks to the Jedi Council, an ossified collection of warriors whose staid certainty of their own righteousness largely renders them oblivious to a massive threat growing right under their noses. The Sith are rising, and the Jedi either don’t know or don’t care.
One of the more radical things about these films is the way they suggest that the rise of the Sith Lords (here represented by Palpatine, a figure whose unlikely political success is one of the spines of the trilogy) is a necessary correction to the pompous self-regard of the Jedi Council.
Anakin, after all, is supposed to bring balance to the Force — which effectively means that the prophecy of him doing so very well might imply that the rise of the Sith was necessary to counterbalance the Jedi. Sometimes, the dark side has to win for the world to move forward.
You don’t have to look too hard to find a story of 21st century America in the the Star Wars prequels. Anakin is from a backwater planet where he’s a literal slave to more powerful business interests. Once his Jedi potential is discovered, he’s warped out of that world and taken into the rich and comfortable life of the Jedi, who live in the planet-sized city of Coruscant. But he never entirely forgets his childhood, and it marks him with an anger that leads to his eventual turn toward becoming Darth Vader.
And throughout all three films — but particularly in The Phantom Menace — Lucas carefully establishes a universe brimming with economic inequality and political instability. Those in power have more than enough, and they feel secure in their affluent status because everybody else has just enough, right? But “just enough” gets harder and harder to come by, and the top of the economic ladder gets shakier and shakier.
Then, slowly but surely, Lucas starts telling a story where fear of the unknown leads to the build-up of a massive army: those clones of the second film. They end up answering to Palpatine, who is, of course, the Sith Lord Darth Sidious in secret. As Yoda says in The Phantom Menace, fear eventually leads to the Dark Side. And the Jedi, so preoccupied with their own affairs, failed to keep an eye on the fear burbling in the populace they lived among.
Lucas isn’t exactly doing anything unprecedented — the Empire is basically a bunch of space Nazis, and Lucas parallels the Empire’s rise in the prequels with the Nazi Party’s rise in Germany. But for as stilted and affectless as the films can be, they’re tapped into something raw and real about how often seemingly stable societies collapse into fascism, into revolution, into political upheaval.
I probably don’t have to connect too many dots between what’s happened in the US in the wake of 9/11, the economic collapse of 2008, and the presidential election of 2016 before you can see that, yeah, the Star Wars prequels eerily illustrate how tyranny can rise when good men do nothing, because “do nothing” too often means “ignore the people suffering right under your nose, because it implicates you in some way.” I’d stop short of calling the films some sort of communist or socialist manifesto, but Lucas, an old lefty, surely wouldn’t mind a Marxist reading of them.
But, at the same time, I enjoy thinking about the prequels more than I enjoy actually watching them. They’re still a slog, but I keep coming back to them all the same, because they seem to have something to say about what it means to live in a world where the gap between the haves and have-nots grows a little wider with every second, and where the ruthless exploit that gap to drum up fear and seize power for themselves.
In 1999, at the tail-end of the American Century, that sort of scenario felt like a far-off horror, a reminder of a past we had thankfully escaped. Twenty years later… well, whatever might bring balance to our world feels very far, far away indeed.
Correction: Queen Amidala is technically elected and, thus, not the leader of a monarchy. If you research why the people of Naboo elected a teenage girl to their highest office, it leads to some weird places, so maybe don’t try that.