So here we are at last: the Prequel Trilogy. This is the moment when older STAR WARS fans became disillusioned by their franchise taking on an unfamiliar identity, while an entirely new generation of fanboys embraced this latest incarnation with breathless enthusiasm. There’s a line in the sand here, folks -- pick your spot and start throwing stones.
I’m going to go out on a limb and make a statement that most people will disagree with. There will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, but I’ll say it anyway: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the best film in the Prequel Trilogy. It sucks, and it sucks with teeth, but it’s still the best. Being a stubborn asshole with no friends, I refuse to watch these three films -- without irony, anyway -- and in fact make a point of erasing them from my mind when viewing STAR WARS, EMPIRE and JEDI*. But, with all that said, I’d classify THE PHANTOM MENACE as being the least offensive of the three, and I’m willing to grudgingly defend it insofar as much of the hatred directed toward it stems more from impossible audience expectation than from what it did or didn’t do (much the same way that THE FORCE AWAKENS benefitted from not being like the three films that preceded it). It’s STAR WARS, guys; this shit has baggage.
Now, I know that declaring it “the best” is damning it with faint praise, but for my money, this is the only one of the Prequels that feels in any way like “classic” STAR WARS. Maybe it’s the preference for shooting on location; the abundance of practical FX and models that made it past the CGI Police; or the fact that the film had some form of momentum that the other two did not. Like it or loathe it, it’s clearly the film George Lucas wanted to make. It has its own identity, unlike ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, both of which felt like desperate fan service rather than a filmmaker’s specific vision. So I guess what I’m saying is that if you put a gun to my head and insisted I choose a “favorite” among this festering bowel movement of a threesome, I’d eat the first turd more heartily than the others. At least it’s crispier.
There’s a laundry list of complaints about this film: Jar-Jar Binks, the politics, the acting, etc. That way, all rabbit holes lead. Instead, there’s one thing in particular I want to talk about; one thing that hit me in the face on that morning in May of 1999, and it’s the component of the entire saga that this film fucked up the most: the concept of the Jedi.
One of the wonderful things about the STAR WARS Trilogy was its impression of depth. Of history. A throwaway line here, a reference there, all of which added up to a sense of legend and mystique. “You fought in the Clone Wars?” Luke asks Obi-Wan. What were the Clone Wars? we all wondered for decades. We weren’t told. That’s what made them so tantalizing. We were denied the details of Vader’s (literal) fall, knowing only that he’d been so damaged during his penultimate confrontation with Kenobi that he couldn’t breathe without his containment suit, and was at this point “more machine now than man.” The novelizations, written from early script drafts, filled in a few blanks, but for the most part, we weren’t told the finer points because we didn’t need to know.
Of course, that didn’t stop us from fantasizing about the adventures of young Ben Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, and what terrible events led to the fall of the Republic and rise of Darth Vader; if anything, it made us hungrier for the information. We pondered Luke’s flirtation with the Dark Side in EMPIRE and JEDI, and how close he came to walking the same path as his father. We analyzed Yoda’s cryptic statements and obvious concerns over training Luke in the first place. Nerdy? Yup. When you give us a series that builds so rich a mythology and then leave us with fifteen years to ponder what all those vague clues really meant, you’re never going to be able to live up to the movie in our heads. It just isn’t possible. SEE: THE SILMARILLION.
That brings us around to who the Jedi were, how they were trained, and what happened to Anakin Skywalker that turned him into Darth Vader. So here are my two cents on the boring, asexual Jedi Order as presented by the Prequel Trilogy, and the confused telescoping of events between THE PHANTOM MENACE and STAR WARS (remember: no calling it “A NEW HOPE,” please).
When Han Solo and Admiral Motti (aka Mouth-Twisting Imperial Douchehammer) both mock the concept of The Force, referring to it and the Jedi as some sort of childish fairy tale, it clearly implies that either 1) the Jedi Order has been extinct for several centuries (which, based on Luke being about nineteen and having a Jedi father, simply isn't possible); or 2) the Jedi were never the flesh and blood public figureheads we meet in the Prequels. We’re left with the latter as the only plausible option.
As such, it was always my impression that the Jedi were essentially errant space knights, scattered throughout the galaxy and lurking on the borders: watching from the shadows, appearing (and disappearing) as needed. Knights of the Round Table, constantly moving -- the rangers from LORD OF THE RINGS, for lack of a better comparison. They were living legends spoken of but little-seen. Their council (if any) was secret and removed from the public eye; and for the most part, they kept on the move. In fact, they probably rarely met or encountered one another, keeping to their own territory and resolving conflict quietly. In this way, their very existence could remain questionable, furthered by the fact that prior to the rise of Palpatine, they were likely in the final days of a slow decline -- hence the ability of the new Empire to seize control of all the star systems in the Old Republic.
It seemed logical that the Clone Wars were an event that drew all the Jedi out of the periphery to join forces and battle this threat; hence Leia’s statement that “General Kenobi” served her father during the conflict. So you have this already-legendary group of space knights uniting for a cause (that may, in part, have been designed to draw them out of hiding in the first place), then slaughtered by a corrupt member of their very own ranks. Once the Jedi were systematically hunted down by Vader, the fact that they ever existed could be in dispute. Makes sense, right? It sort of writes itself.
In THE PHANTOM MENACE, we meet Jedi Knights who are public figures. Their temple is based at the heart of the Republic capital of Coruscant, and they openly recruit Force-sensitive children for training (conditioning?). Eventually, the Jedi -- who are also actively involved in the Senate -- end up leading armies of Clones into battle, and are subsequently branded traitors to the Republic by the newly self-appointed Emperor, who calls for their arrest. All of this occurs thirty-two years before STAR WARS.
So how are the Jedi and The Force considered an “ancient religion”…? That’s like doubting the existence of Elvis Presley. Ponder that last sentence for a moment.
The Force is further demystified along with the Jedi themselves as we consider the training process. Apparently, everyone has midichlorians in their bloodstream: microscopic life forms that determine one’s Force-using capabilities. To rate your Jedi potential, you get blood drawn. It’s considerably less elegant than Yoda and Obi-Wan’s description of The Force, and a major red flag for the clumsy execution and disregard for tone throughout each of the following films. So along the way, we’re told that kids with a high midichlorian count are sent to the temple and trained in classrooms before being paired with an older, experienced Jedi Master...one of whom is Yoda, later depicted teaching lightsaber skills to pre-K students.
Interesting. Based on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the impression I always had was that, yes, Yoda was living on Dagobah because it kept him out of sight from Vader and The Emperor, but more to the point, Yoda was living on Dagobah because he'd always been there. It was either his home planet, or selected because of its seclusion and training-friendly environment. Maybe time even moves differently there: Luke notes the planet’s surreal nature and compares it to “something out of a dream” prior to his training, which is depicted as lasting only a few days while covering months’ worth of education. Either way, Dagobah is the perfect location for secret, one-on-one Jedi instruction, removed from all distraction. And let’s face it -- did anyone ever doubt for a moment that Yoda was born in a swamp…?
Thus, it made perfect sense that when a Jedi cowboy, out and about and having exciting, covert adventures, discovered a potential recruit, they sent said recruit alone to Dagobah, just as the shade of Obi-Wan sent Luke. Each new student would have to face their fear and enter the dark, gloomy, dangerous bog environment; then they’d have their patience tested by Yoda's crazy imp schtick; down the line they’d confront their inner darkness and experience prophetic visions in the Dark Side Cave, etc. In the end, Yoda would give him or her the seal of approval, and they’d be sent on their way, swearing an oath to keep Dagobah a secret until meeting a Force-sensitive individual to whom the location would be given. This was how a Jedi was trained.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that about half of what I’ve espoused is conjecture, but I’d also argue that the films supportthese sorts of connections. Again, the STAR WARS series has always been more about the broad strokes rather than the precise details, which raises the question of why the Prequels were made in the first place. But if the story’s going to be told, then it needs to align with the films that follow, and lay groundwork that will support rather than contradict. So hey: let’s just roll with the movies, and agree that maybe Yoda teaching kids in a formal Jedi academy makes sense, rather than the notion that Dagobah had always been his secret habitat.
But taking the classroom education scenario into consideration, we’re now faced with another troublesome question (in addition to the previously-discussed issue of the compressed timeline, and incompatible mythologizing of public figures and their religion). The problem is: what happened to the implication that Obi-Wan failed Anakin by acting outside of the established Jedi rules?
It always seemed very clear to me that Anakin became Vader because Obi-Wan attempted to bypass Yoda in the training process. Even at seven years old, this was pretty cut and dry. Watch Alec Guinness in JEDI: he says more in his delivery than he does with the dialogue given. I thought I could train him just as well as Yoda. I was wrong. Further backstory (ultimately cut from the film) reinforced the notion that Kenobi’s hubris, his arrogance, and a desire to skip Dagobah and instruct Anakin himself, had doomed the entire galaxy. This was why he was hiding on Tatooine; he was doing penance, and waiting until the proper time to right the wrongs he’d inflicted. When Vader tells Luke (first in EMPIRE and again in JEDI) that “Obi-Wan has taught you well,” he isn’t mentioning Yoda because he didn’t know Yoda existed. That part of his education was removed, and ultimately led to his fall.
In THE PHANTOM MENACE, Obi-Wan is granted permission to train Anakin, and does so over the course of the trilogy. We’re presented with scenes in subsequent installments where Padawan Learners (ugh) are taught in classrooms, implying ancillary instruction beyond their appointed Master. They confer with other Jedi, live with other Jedi, and experience a day-to-day routine of Jedi business. It’s a weird, cult-like environment with kids who are recruited and living together on a compound, required to sever all ties with friends and family. These points become in fact the cause of Anakin’s onscreen fall from grace, and they are all beyond Obi-Wan’s ability to control or change. As depicted in the prequels, Kenobi didn’t fail Anakin; the system did.
Lucas apparently gave the previous films very little thought when embarking on the Prequel Trilogy. This became further apparent with later SPECIAL EDITION retcons to conform STAR WARS, EMPIRE and JEDI to the newer films, instead of the other way around. In the end, while THE PHANTOM MENACE has the most in common with its predecessors in terms of look, feel, and music, it establishes a disregard for internal mythology that will ultimately doom the installments to follow.
In this case, a Master truly did fail in his guidance.
*Yes, we’ll be discussing “personal continuity” at some point down the road, a subject sure to fan the flames of post-Prequel butthurt.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)