A critique of Star Wars the Phantom Menace
Star Wars The Phantom Menace is a movie that’s arguably more interesting for the conversation around it than the film itself. Much like the other two prequel movies, this film is infamous not only for how bad it is but for how it tarnishes the legacy of the Star Wars franchise. Not that it gets nearly as much hate these days. I get the feeling that most Star Wars hate is directed towards…other movies these days.
But we’re not here to talk about that.
The Phantom Menace is a bad movie. I doubt many people will disagree when I say that. What might surprise you is that while I agree that this movie is bad, I actually disagree with a lot of the reasons other people use to say it’s bad, making this simultaneously a movie that deserves a lot of the criticisms it’s gotten over the years, and a movie that is widely misunderstood.
That might be a bold claim, but it’s one that I will make all the same. I, of course, don’t expect you just to take my word for it. In this series, I will go over the plot of the Phantom Menace, analyzing its writing and comparing it to the common arguments against it. Welcome to this critique of Star Wars the Phantom Menace.
Oh, and if it isn’t obvious, there will be spoilers from here on out.
Part one: A Question of Politics.
The most common argument I hear used against these movies, especially the phantom menace, is that they’re all about politics, and politics is boring. The original trilogy was about a rebellion fighting an evil empire. This movie opens with the taxation of trade routes. They’ll say it’s contradictory for George to say he made this movie for children while including a plot about tax policy and senate meetings. I’ve even heard people say that the opening crawl itself is boring, again comparing a planet-destroying superweapon to taxes.
I think this criticism completely misses the mark. It would be one thing if the criticism were how those politics were executed, but so often, people will say nothing more than, “The movies are all about politics, and that’s boring.” Never mind that boring, by itself, is an entirely subjective measurement. One Man’s boring is another man’s fascinating, after all. If you were to say that the vast majority of people won’t find politics interesting in a movie, that you can’t tell an interesting story using taxes as a basis, I’d say, “Challenge accepted.”
Consider these scenarios. A poor man working hard to provide for his family finds his taxes have been raised, thus making it harder to make a living. You could tell a story about him making the sacrifices necessary to feed his family, trying to cut expenses out of his life only to watch his money dwindle, making it harder to put food on the table. Does that sound boring? You could also tell a story about a man running a small business forced to fire employees because he can’t afford to pay them. You can have the man conflicted about this decision even as he struggles to keep his business going. You could also tell a story about the ex-employees struggling to get new work. Perhaps those employees blame their former boss, or they blame the government that raised the taxes. Based on that decision, they can take action against whom they blame, either reasonable or drastic. Again, does any of that sound boring? Maybe it does to you, but I’m sure plenty of people would find much to appreciate in such stories.
Finally, I feel I have to point out that one of the biggest catalysts of war is politics. Whether it’s rivalries between two nations or corrupt forces starting wars for their own power or profit, politics can absolutely start wars. Is war boring? I’d assume not since the franchise that has touched the hearts and souls of people worldwide is called Star Wars.
The strangest thing about this argument is that people only seem to bring it out when the Star Wars prequels are involved. I can think of plenty of movies or tv shows with political undertones, and no one ever calls those stories boring.
Things that I’ve seen with political themes include:
Amazing Grace, Which is about William Wilberforce navigating the necessary politics to abolish slavery. A large chunk of this movie takes place during political talks.
The Manchurian Candidate: The 1960’s movie, specifically, which heavily concerned the Cold War tensions at the time, and the lengths corrupt politicians would go to for power.
Though it’s not a personal favorite of mine, Star Trek often involves negotiations with other nations.
If you want something more lighthearted than Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 also had to navigate negotiations and deals with extraterrestrial nations. I’d even say that the tone of Stargate is probably closer to Star Wars than Star Trek.
And though I’ve never personally seen them, movies like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Citizen Kane are considered some of the greatest movies of all time. Also, how many movies have been made about various U.S. Presidents or other world leaders?
Politics is boring? Then why are so many movies about politics? There’s even an entire genre called the political thriller. As I said before, it would be one thing if people argued that the execution of its politics was boring, but no. So many people I’ve heard bring this up say it’s boring because of politics and leave it at that.
Now you may argue that the Star Wars Prequels are boring because it’s Star Wars, and Star Wars is a simple tale of good vs. evil. Politics would just distract from that simple theme. I would respond to this by pointing out two things. First, the original Star Wars wasn’t free of political undertones. Do you remember the Empire’s roundtable discussion from A New Hope? It’s all about dissolving the Senate and giving regional governors direct control so that the Empire has fewer obstacles to enacting its agenda, choosing to use fear of the Death Star to keep people in line. It’s definitely political, and it gives us an understanding of the Empire that we wouldn’t have without it.
But that’s just one scene, you might say. It’s still a simple good vs. evil story outside of that. To which I say, “is it?” I can agree Star Wars started that way, but a certain element of the original trilogy, one that’s been highly praised, turns the Original Trilogy from a simple good vs. evil storyline into something far more complex.
Darth Vader: “No, I am your father.”
That changes everything. You see, in a simple good vs. evil storyline, the solution to the conflict will almost always involve defeating the villain. If the villain is pure evil, then the only solution is to defeat them. Simple, right? In Star Wars, the Empire Strikes Back, however, the Darth Vader reveal makes the situation more complicated. Not only does Luke have to come to terms with the fact that he’s the son of this villain, but he’s also confronted with the reality that his father still wants a connection to his son and still has some good in him.
In this situation, one can do what Luke Skywalker does and try to turn this father from a dark path despite the risk. However, there are other things a character could choose to do, and they would all be understandable. One character could shut down and become uncertain of what they should do. Another could commit to killing the villain anyway, either acknowledging that the new facts bother them or pretending they don’t. A character could even flat out refuse to believe it, even if all the evidence suggests that it’s true.
With this revelation, Star Wars went from a simple conflict with a clear answer to a more complicated conflict where the answers wouldn’t necessarily be clear. Leia tells Luke to run away since Vader can sense Luke’s presence. Given what they know, it’s not an unreasonable thing to advocate for, given that Leia just wants Luke to be safe. What a character in that situation chooses to do in a complicated situation says a lot about that character. What Luke chooses to do certainly says a lot about him.
Luke dealing with temptation to the Dark Side and trying to convince his father to turn from it are the best scenes in Return of the Jedi, in my opinion. We wouldn’t have them if Star Wars had stuck to simple good vs. evil conflicts. Star Wars shifted to a more complicated story once, so why isn’t it allowed to do so again? I mean, what? Do you just want the exact same movie all over again?
We’re not talking about that. Let’s just move on.
The final counterargument someone might have is that Star Wars has always been intended for children. Children want action, adventure, excitement. Surely, no children’s story can be based on something as dull as taxes. Right?
Allow me to answer that question with another question. Have you ever heard of Robin Hood? This is a figure from English folklore that’s existed for hundreds of years. The character has been adapted into stories many times, including an animated movie from Disney, thus adapted for children. The very concept surrounds taxes, so would you call the idea of Robin Hood boring?
But hold on, I hear you say, Robin Hood isn’t really about taxes. It’s about a small group of men fighting against a tyrannical prince and his minions. Taxes are just the method used to oppress people. To that, I say the Phantom Menace isn’t really about taxes either. It’s about a young queen doing her best to save her people from an invasion and about a Jedi going against his order for what he believes is right. Taxes are just the catalyst that starts these conflicts.
Furthermore, when you really break it down, politics is only relevant to one of the characters. Some of the characters stories don’t’ involve politics. It doesn’t apply to Qui-Gon’s conflict with the Jedi council at all. Nor does it apply to Obi-Wans relationship with Qui-gon, or Anakin’s desire to help people, break free of his slavery, and one day free his mother as well. Even if I accepted that politics equals boring, that would only make parts of the movie boring. There’s a lot more going on than that in this movie.
What makes this comparison most interesting to me is that Robin Hood stories are similar in many ways to the Original Star Wars. A group of charming and likable characters going up against an evil authority. A rebellion against tyranny, if you will, and it all revolves around taxes. So why did many children, myself included, enjoy Robin Hood stories growing up? I may not have understood the nuances of tax policy as a child, but I understood an evil authority taking money from people just trying to make a living. As for The Phantom Menace, I have a confession to make. I enjoyed them as a child, even though I’ve grown to accept that they are massively flawed. That being said, I never found them boring because of politics. I may not have understood taxes, but I understood a young woman trying to save her people from an invading force.
So to those who say that the Prequels are bad because they revolve around politics? I say you can absolutely tell an interesting story involving politics. Many stories already have. You can also tell an exciting story for children that has political elements. Again, it’s been done before.
For many of us who grew up with the prequels, we enjoyed the prequels precisely because of the politics, even if we acknowledged flaws as we got older. These movies show how Palpatine rose to power through the manipulation of political systems and playing both sides. Palpatine in these movies, including The Phantom Menace, is one of the few things people agree is good in these movies. Politics are absolutely vital to that. You can’t separate them from Palpatine, so if you’re going to say the prequels are bad, then you’ll have to go a lot deeper than just saying, “They have politics.”
So, am I saying that there are no problems with the politics in this movie? No, not at all. I can admire the prequels for attempting to go for more complex ideas, but once again, you still have to execute those ideas well. This movie, unfortunately, does not.
First and foremost, this movie fails to answer a vital question concerning taxes. Who is taxing who? The movie mentions that the taxation of trade routes is in dispute a couple of times, but it never explains those disputes. Why is this a problem? Context. This movie lacks it. Different scenarios would mean different things for both the world and the characters in it.
I see three possible scenarios. The first is that the Trade Federation controls all trade and taxes the outlying star systems, and their policy of high taxes compromises the economies of these systems. Naboo then refuses to pay taxes so its citizens can conduct business, and the Federation blockades the planet, stopping trade altogether until they start paying. The Federation seems to have a lot of power in the Republic, so this wouldn’t be out of the question. This would make it essentially a Robin Hood scenario with a powerful government entity is picking on a small planet that can’t effectively defend itself. The biggest problem with interpretation is that I’m pretty sure the Trade Federation was intended as a greedy business rather than a government organization, if only because of this line.
Captain Panaka: “I think you can kiss your trade franchise goodbye.”
A franchise is defined as the right or license granted to an individual or group to market a company’s goods or services in a particular territory.
The use of that word suggests a corporation, so if that’s the case, it wouldn’t be taxing anyone, which brings me to the second scenario.
It could be that the Republic has high taxes, which is affecting the Trade Federation’s bottom line, making it harder to turn a profit and pay their employees. The blockade around Naboo to stop all trade would be their protest of this, or at least that’s how they’d justify it. This scenario, however, would beg the question of why they’re targeting Naboo specifically. Why not any other planet in the outlying star systems? Shutting down trade in more places would probably make a bigger impact in the Senate, so it raises the question of why they are targeting just one.
Or, perhaps, in one more scenario, it’s Naboo that’s taxing the Trade Federation, and they are stopping trade because that hurts their bottom line. In this scenario, Naboo’s policy of high taxes would likely cause resentment even within her own population. Some, whether the taxes affect them or not, might even blame her for the situation on Tatooine. They’d accuse her of being greedy, and that’s why the Federation turned on her. Not everyone would agree, I’m sure, but it does make the situation more complicated than presented in the film.
That’s three different scenarios with three different implications for the world and its stakes. Out of all scenarios, the Trade Federation as a corrupt government entity, I think, makes the most sense. It would explain why they have the authority to blockade a planet. I mean, can you imagine a corporation in the United States blocking off all travel to a particular state? Still, I suppose that’s meant to represent how much power this particular corporation has managed to amass. I think you could make any three of these scenarios work, but you’d have to pick one and do the work to present it. Based on the information in this movie, it could be any three of these.
I mean, just look at the senate chamber scene. I know it’s about politics, and that’s the worst, apparently, but really pay attention to that scene. They mention taxes once right at the start and then don’t discuss how it relates to anyone. That, in my opinion, is why the talk of taxes fell flat for so many people. We don’t know how it impacts the world. Go back to the example of Robin Hood. Those stories usually show us exactly how the policy of high taxes affects people. We see the Sheriff collecting taxes from struggling peasants, thus giving us context for Robin Hood’s motivation to help those peasants. This movie just says taxes are in dispute, thus invasion. That’s a very vague through-line. If we don’t understand how the Republic’s policies impact the world, why should we care about them?
The original Star Wars could get away without going into too much detail because a tyrannical empire oppressing people is such a simple setup. If you’re going to go into a more complicated subject, you really need to do the work to explain it, and this movie didn’t, leaving a gaping hole in the film’s worldbuilding.
The second problem I have with the politics in this movie is with the character Chancellor Valorem. This character sends the Jedi to Naboo and does everything he can to help Padme’s situation, but Padme ends up stabbing him in the back because she doesn’t see another way to help her people. All of this is very significant to the story, but Valorem’s presence in this movie is almost nonexistent. He has exactly two scenes. One where he greets Amadala when she arrives on Coruscant, and one in the senate chamber. In the first scene, all he does is greet Amadala and say he’d glad she’s alright. That’s it. We don’t learn anything about him or get any character from him, and his screentime is over as soon as it begins. In the senate chamber, most of what he does is just going through the legal process, and then he looks sad when Padme moves for the vote of no confidence. The moment he slumps down after Padme turns on him is the most character we get from him, but it’s not much.
Going back to that roundtable discussion in A New Hope, that was also a discussion of politics, and yet everyone involved felt like a real person. Both Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin show us insight into how they do this, but even the minor characters in that scene have personalities. You had the arrogant one who was proud of his superweapon, as well as the doubter with legitimate concerns. They both had different priorities and perspectives on the situation. This made them feel like real people with an investment in the world, albeit for different reasons, and they were, again, minor characters.
Chancellor Valorem, again, has so little presence or personality that he comes off more as a plot device than a character. Unlike the two characters from A New Hope, he’s vital to the story, and yet when the senate scene is over, Chancellor Valorem pretty much disappears from the movie. Has anyone ever noticed that? We never learn what happens to him after he’s ejected as chancellor. Does he run for office somewhere else? Is he faced with enough backlash for mishandling Naboo that his political career is effectively over? Does Palpatine announce a “tragic accident?” once he becomes chancellor? What happens?
To address the issues with Valorem, I’d add a new scene before the senate chamber meeting. Here, Padme would talk with Valorem, who would recommend working in the system as it is. This would contrast with Palpatine’s suggestion of breaking the system to get results. We’d get a sense of how he wants to help but is constrained by certain limitations, limitations that Padme cannot afford.
I would also add a short scene to find out what happens to Valorem after he’s removed from office, showing the consequences of that decision. Padme, despite her victory, could feel conflicted about what she did.
That’s how you tell a compelling story about politics. You have to show how political decisions affect the people in your story. You can tell a story about an ordinary person trying to deal with the consequences of such decisions. Alternatively, you can tell one about those in power trying to do the right thing in the face of a complicated situation, knowing they’ll be held accountable for the consequences of their actions. I’d sum this up as the importance of worldbuilding and how that can immerse people in your story. If the world doesn’t make sense or adequately set the stage for the stakes of your story, it can easily pull people out of it.
And worldbuilding is, I think, a good subject to Segway into. Join me in part two, where I discuss The Phantom Menace’s worldbuilding in more detail.