The Phantom Menace is still widely considered to be the most anticipated film in history and only The Force Awakens seems to be a contender of taking that title. The Prequel Trilogy however divided audiences in a manner very different from how the Original Trilogy had. I argued that Original Trilogy had been a defining cultural moment for a new generation due to its strong resonance with the world events as well as the daily lives of young people between ’77 and ’83. For the Prequel Trilogy this is even more true. However by ’99 the world had changed dramatically since ’83 and was on the verge of further dramatic change. This not only shaped the reception of the films, it shaped the divide that ensued.
1999: A world struggling to maintain peace
The year ’99 was the End of a Millennium and the press and media bombarded us unrelentingly with ‘Y2K’ horror stories. Not only were we supposed to worry about cash-machines not being able to cope and global power failures, but also about Brittney’s next hit and who was the cutest of the ‘Backstreet Boys’ or ‘N Sync’. Where the Eighties had been an age of recession yet diversity, the second half of the Nineties was hallmarked not just by the death of Grunge and Cobain as ‘a last remnant of that sad devotion to real music’ but a wave of Clintonian optimism had taken hold and spurned us onwards to the Nineties boom. The ‘Fall of the Wall’ seemed to have vindicated the powers-that-be, ‘proving’ that the ‘End of History’, as Fukuyama coined it a few years before, was real and near.
The End of the Cold War had come as sudden and unexpected for us Earthlings as the End of the Emperor must have come for the imperial citizens in the Star Wars Galaxy. Within a few years the mood had changed from deeply pessimistic about our future prospects to ecstatically optimistic about all that was possible now that this frosty wind had gone. Global institutions like the UN, but also regional ones like NATO, were refurbished to assume global roles as peace-keepers. Globalization became a household word bringing with it large flows of money, people and jobs across the world. The emerging Word Wide Web was connecting different people from different regions all across the globe and cell phone technology started making anyone accessible at any time. The introduction of the Euro in Europe in 1999 created a single-currency for the largest economy on the planet involving 500 million people.
By the end of the Nineties the world was like a global Republic, looking away from the dark places in the Outer Rim, and purposefully blind to two creepy menaces that lay in the shadows biding their time. Separatism became an acute theme during the late Nineties.
The Yugoslav Civil wars had raged on for most of the Nineties. The year ’99 was a crucial one when it became evident that UN peace-keeping forces would not be able to restore Peace and Justice to the ‘old continent’ and n ’99 NATO intervened militarily. The small scale separatism that had fuelled and ignited that Civil War was, however, a growing and far more global trend. Whether it was the separatism of Chechen rebels against an oppressive Russian regime, the separatism of Pashtun & Waziri tribesmen better known under their Afghan names as Taliban, the small scale separatism of people increasingly becoming uncomfortable about Washington or Brussels or the ‘separatism’ of school kids who believe themselves so different from the others that they derive a right to kill from it as in Columbine. Globalization was re-balancing the distribution of power and seemingly much of that into corporate hands and towards leaders and rulers that seemed increasingly disconnected from their populations.
The Phantom Menace landed in our world in the middle of all of this turmoil as the first instalment of the Prequel Trilogy. The Republic is immediately recognizable in its aspiration of being the rational political centre of the ‘world’ and yet blind to its own corruption. The Outer Rim is a dark place where the ‘more fortunate’ of the Galaxy are astonished to find all the vices of old, such as slavery, still very much alive. The Jedi Order is comprised of idealistic people full of good intentions. Yet the real idealists in the organization, such as Qui Gon Jin, are among its rogue-elements, not among its governing bodies. In a visually detailed way this film paints a context that is eerily similar to the world of 1999 and still distinct enough for it either to be taken as entertainment or as mere reflection of the timeless tales of the Rise and Fall of Empire. Caught in the middle of all of this are two defining characters: Anakin and Jar Jar.
Anakin & Jar Jar encapsulate the core of the story of the Phantom Menace, the discovery of an unexpected and innocent helper. Despite their vast differences they must have been intuitively recognizable to many children in the late ’90’s when ‘being discovered’ was all the rage on a dozen or more of TV shows that still haunt us today. Both must ‘perform their uses’ in pod-race or Gungan-scouting, before being picked. Both must leave their old lives behind for an uncertain new one. But in stark contrast to the ‘Idol’s’ like TV shows, neither Anakin nor Jar Jar expect fame or fortune or glamour. Neither are discovered in a talent-show but both are found by accident or, within the realm of Star Wars, because such is the will of the Force. It is the kind of selection every X-Factor candidate dreams of but none of them get.
The difference with Luke & Leia’s story could not be greater. Luke & Leia were watched over from birth by other characters who were fully aware of the potential role the twins might be required to play. Many of the Gen X’ers that identified so strongly with them yearned for that mentored growth that many of them were missing out on in their own lives. Some of them had grown up by ’99 to become ‘mentors’ of younger people themselves. Whether you are a parent, a teacher or someone coaching a young kid on a sports club, if you mentor someone in increasingly difficult and confusing times then the Prequel Trilogy rings a very realistic bell. The world of 1999 was soon to become a lot scarier and more uncertain
2002: A World Sliding to War
It was a stunning realization for many when, less than a year after the 9-11 attacks, Attack of the Clones opens with a terror-attack on Padme Amidala. What had been phantom menaces in the very first film, now reared their heads openly. Separatism and terror were the threats to an ever more sclerotic Republic under the guidance of people who were more and more inclined to put their own interest before that of the Galaxy. The Jedi Order thrown into confusion by the discovery that it itself had been a key instrument in bringing about the darkness that was about to fall. Attack of the Clones was painting a picture of the Republic that strongly resonated with the events and developments in the real world surrounding the youngsters entering the theatres. In 2002 the world was sliding into a war, following the 9-11 attacks, and that slide was every bit as confusing, muddled and as tricksy as the Republic’s slide toward the Clone Wars. Attack of the Clones’s relatively few but well chosen political scenes could have been taken from any TV show discussing actual political events in the world. As the world was discussing stem cells and cloning, Attack of the Clones brought that whole discussion unto a very pointed dilemma for the Jedi Order. The film tells a story of corruption and the loss of innocence that was intuitively recognizable for many viewers. Just like the Original Trilogy had done in the ’77-’83 period, the Prequel Trilogy was delivering a narrative that assists its viewers in making sense of the real world around them, that highlights how things rarely are as they seem. There is always something more subtle that needs understanding before the picture becomes clear. The corporate powers in the Star Wars galaxy set the world on fire by jumping unto the funding train for separatism and by putting their profits over the common good. The powers that are supposed to guarantee and protect peace and justice are however the ones who light the fuse and supply the gunpowder and it is the innocence of those who simply want to help that gets corrupted into facilitating the final steps into the down fall.
2005: Love, Fear and Death
By 2005 the Iraq war had descended into a bloody sectarian civil war and insurgency against foreign troops. Anakin Skywalker’s lines just before the grand duel with Obi Wan echo George W Bush’s of just a few years earlier. Attack of the Clones had shown us an adolescent love-story that some considered painful to watch. Personally the only thing painful is the realization that this is actually pretty much how awkward love is, at that stage of life. Anakin’s fall to the dark side had already begun in that film with his massacre at the Tuskens. From the outset of Revenge of the Sith we are made visually clear that this tale will no longer really allow us to identify with Anakin, Padme or Obi Wan. The three will be going through a hell that we hopefully never have to visit in our lifetimes.
But of course in part we do. Whether we lose a loved one to disease, or to a terrorist attack, it leaves us with many conflicting emotions of anger, abandonment, despair and pain beautifully expressed in ballet-form during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics in memory of the victims of the 07/07 bombings that occurred the day after London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics in 2005. A tale of Love, Fear and Death painted and dressed in the same black, red and orange colours as the forbidding lavascape of Mustafar.
The Prequel trilogy is not a tale of redemption, quite the opposite it is a story of decline, corruption and death. Set in the midst of all of that is a love story that can only survive within a ‘secret-base of innocence’. But in the Prequel Trilogy there is no salvation and corruption contaminates all, even the deepest feelings of love. Lucas is courageous enough to let Anakin commit crimes that force his audience to let go of him as a hero. At the end of the film he is completely abandoned and he has chased away anyone and anything that would still hold to him. Even Sidious laughs at his pain after Vader’s suit has completed his isolation.
Yet Lucas grants us one look into the helmet before it closes so that we may spot that Anakin’s eyes have lost their Sith nature. Just before that moment Padme has told Obi Wan that there still is some good in Anakin. She has not given up on him, although he may never have known. But her words are lost on Obi Wan whose heart is mortally wounded by the loss of his ‘brother’. It is a reminder for us living in the real world, that the ‘splinter of good’, that is necessary to revive a world that is broken and corrupted, sometimes survives not in the words and deeds of the surviving hero but in the encased and lonely heart of the desperate villain. Revenge of the Sith makes it undeniably clear why for Anakin there is no return to a normal life possible after his redemption in Return of the Jedi. His fall was so deep that there is no happy end in his generation. But there is hope for the generation after and that hope may very well draw inspiration from the ‘some good’ that was still in him.
The years from 1999 through 2005 and onwards contained much that touched upon exactly those same questions addressed in the Prequel Trilogy. For children growing up in that period as youngsters between 5 and 12, the Millennials, Star Wars may have provided an anchor-point. My oldest daughter’s 8th birthday on 09-12-2001 fell flat with everyone still in shock about the events of the day before. I think that many of the geo-political troubles and social unrest that she has witnessed ever since has been significantly easier for her to digest spiced by the narrative and storyline from the Prequel Trilogy.
Now we are more than 10 years later and much of the events that rocked the Prequel years in our world are still making their impact felt across the world and across all our lives. The military interventions in the Middle East have helped to give birth to the monster of IS, the recession has made divisions, conflict and separatism in all societies all the more visible. The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy tells a timeless tale of how innocence is broken and corrupted and how democracy and freedom can be perverted and lost. But it also reminds us that, in a true sense, the new hope for delivery from evil can sometimes found in the heart of the problem.
A divided Community
The Prequel Trilogy has divided the fan community, but in my view not because of the reasons that are usually spelled out by the prequel-bashers. Each of the things they list usually apply either just as well or even more so to other movie-franchises and/or also to the Original Trilogy. Fortunately there are many, and increasingly so, fans who despite their likes and dislikes realise how relevant each individual piece of the Star Wars Saga has become.
The Original Trilogy tells us a story of the darkness that can sit in the shadow of hope. The Prequel Trilogy tells us a tale of how a glimmer of hope can survive within the core of the deepest darkness. The Original Trilogy tells us how an intimate circle of friends can change the world, the Prequel Trilogy tells us how the world can destroy an intimate circle of friends. What sets the Star Wars Saga apart is that it tells us both, but with such a high degree of subtlety that it far transcends the limitations of a black & white story about good and evil.
The Saga needs the whole package in order to work, but it is being received in a world dominated by divisions, boundaries and separatism. As a whole the Star Wars Saga stands out as a visually stunning and compelling document of the last 30 years of our time, resonating with the second world war, with the fall of the Roman Empire and so many other great stories. But Star Wars, as Lord of the Rings, is our story of our time. And it is not over yet.