Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised

Star Wars Phantom Menace Darth MaulSee also:

Yippee. I committed myself to finishing off a series of posts “randomising” the whole Star Wars saga. (See here if you’re not sure what “randomising” refers to on this blog.) Which means I have to reopen the wound of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks and all.

On a ratio of intensity of anticipation to quality of end product, The Phantom Menace must surely rank as one of the biggest anti-climaxes in cinema history. And it produced long-lasting unsettlement in franchise fans. Did its deep crapness mean that we had entered a cynical age that could no longer countenance jaunty battles, rubbery creatures and accident prone sidekicks (all of which were present in the “Original Trilogy”, as it came to be known, perhaps to protect it from contamination by association with its prequels)? Had Star Wars been rubbish all along and the world just hadn’t noticed? Why had we openly expressed excitement at the imminent release of a new film from the producer of Howard the Duck? I can’t answer these questions, but I can hope that the randomisation process will throw out some interesting observations on this film, whether you regard it as an underrated minor entry in a classic film series, or as the punishment beating of the collective human childhood, a joyless and perfunctory marquee for action figures, lunchboxes and Jar Jar Binks beachtowels.

The randomiser has given me the numbers 2, 49, 76 and 114. So, here we go…
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 2nd minuteThe number 2 corresponds to the 2-minute mark, so that’s the frame I’m stuck with. I thought 2 minutes would put me right in the middle of the expository text scroll that begins all of the Star Wars film, pretending to be catching you up on the backstory for a serial that spanned a bigger story either side of the one you were watching. As a kid (sorry to keep framing these films in terms of how I remembered them, but I guess that’s when I was most affected by them), the text seemed to be interminable, teasingly delaying the action. Now it’s gone in 60 seconds, and we’re straight into some scene-setting. Two Jedi Knights are being sent to investigate a trade dispute that has led the Trade Federation to blockade the peaceful planet of Naboo, a kind of pastel-coloured paradise of Renaissance palaces and Atlantean underwater cities (that actually like crystalline versions of those Habitrail things that people keep hamsters in). The Jedi’s shroud casts a shadow on most of the right-hand portion of this frame. It’s notable how often George Lucas plays on the monkish, forbidding appearance of the Jedi; does he want to draw attention to how they police the galaxy with this iconography of fearsome mystique, or the way the hoods make them look just like their ultimate nemesis, Darth Sidious (later the Emperor). We are never supposed to be troubled by the self-regulated, masonically sheltered Jedi order; we just have to accept that they are benign. At least all of their superstitious beliefs about the universe turn out to be true. But aside from trying to prevent a galactic slide into imperialism, and ensuring the preservation of their Order and all of its traditions, what are their political and ideological leanings, their worldview or their model for government. Well, aside from some quasi-Buddhist (The Phantom Menace even includes a shot of some Buddha proclamations about the interconnectedness of all things, we don’t really get a sense of the broader system of the Jedi system. Without actually ruling, they operate like a protective, interventionist priesthood, and their wider activities are subordinated to the easier, and more visually pleasing heroics of swordplay, escape and rescue. Anyway, back to this shot. The looming presence of the Jedi knight (that hood is a tantalising cover, setting up anticipation for a reveal) behind the pilot seems threatening, though it doesn’t block out the view through the screen of the blockade of starships around the green planet. There’s a striking stacking up of scales here, from the cloaked body in medium close-up through the windscreen to the distant planet whose inhabitants are abstracted subjects of the metallic ringfence that has them tightly monitored from orbit. As I’m sure I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, that shuttling between individual actions and planetary generalities is the template for the saga as a whole.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 46th minuteA nice red hue distinguishes this shot of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, communicating remotely with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gon has taken a cell sample from Anakin Skywalker, believing him to be uniquely strong with the Force. Or something. This was the moment that made Star Wars fans the world over stop and say “WTF?” or some other culturally-specific expression of dismayed disbelief. If the Force was a mystical, spiritual essence that binds everything together, yet only a few believed in it enough to be able to feel its effects, how come we can suddenly measure the midi-chlorians and see a Force-o-meter on a little screen like the one in this frame? Many were not amused. A noble belief was reduced to a bit of pseudo-scientific genetics. Was Lucas trying to scientise the franchise? If so, he could’ve gone the whole hog and had different gravity levels on different planets or something like that. Either way, the tension between Obi-Wan’s monastic outfit and the computer equipment he’s peering into (it’s almost composed like a two-shot, as if McGregor is in conversation with the screen) articulates something of the Jedi’s relationship to technology. They have great facility with it, but it sits uncomfortably with their sense of self-denial and their emphasis on the body’s oneness with spirit, as opposed to the body’s augmentation with electronic assistants.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 76th minuteJar Jar Binks received an unprecedented level of hatred at the time of the film’s release. It was as if disgruntled fans were channelling all of their disaffection into the lightning rod of the amphibious Gungan slapstick sidekick, who they suspected of being a thinly-veiled appeal to kids and the toy market. You can see his feet on the table, to the left of this frame. I wrote a paper about the Jar Jar hate campaign, arguing that it might reasonably be seen as a projection of distaste at the overuse of CGI creatures, an abject response to the coming of the virtual actor. In this shot, Jar Jar sleeps deeply, snoring and tongue-lolling in a slovenly manner that pegs him as a creature of appetites, a folksy bystander to the political machinations of the plot. Lucas may have intended him to be an oblivious guide for the viewer through the earnestness of the other narrative pathways, as if he could make you feel OK not to have a clue what was happening or why it mattered. In contrast to Jar Jar’s clueless peace, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cowers and scowls in the corner, diminished in the frame by those big dumb feet. One of the promotional posters for the film showed Anakin casting the shadow of Darth Vader on the wall, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that his head appears to cast the shadow of a helmet in this shot. Both the poster and this shot play on the dramatic irony of the incongruence between the jackbooted Dark Lord of the Original Trilogy and this sullen mummy’s boy. An abnormally sensitive composition leaves him forlorn and feeble, out of step with the new space he finds himself in. It also echoes/prefigures a similar scene of Luke Skywalker, saddened and defeated by the death of Obi-Wan as the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star in Star Wars.

Now, it’s become a feature of these Star Wars Randomised posts that one frame will be thrown open to the readers for their comments. Take a look at the following frame and see what meanings, interpretations, pedantries and observations you can apply to it. Any and all contributions are welcome:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 114th minute