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Rules of the Game: The Malevolent Heart of The Phantom Menace

As The Phantom Menace turns twenty it has encouragingly ushered forth open reappraisal, new discussions, and even admiration for much of the creative work that went into one of the most accidentally incendiary films of the modern era. As someone who loved it as an impressionable, Anakin-aged nine-year-old in 1999 this is music to my ears. I have for much of its lifetime found it to be a curiously easy watch, rather than the repellent slugfest many of its loudest critics label it. As I’ve grown older I’ve appreciated more and more some of George Lucas’s flourishes that were imperceptible or just “part of the furniture” to my younger, less-developed critical faculty. I am also more than aware of the film’s many transgressions and faults. I understand completely why the film doesn’t work for so many, and why it was upsetting or frustrating.

In an odd way though, many of The Phantom Menace’s mistakes form part of its appeal now for me as an adult. While on the surface it is a children’s storybook of a film and is (relatively) less mature than what is to come, this belies a story that is steeped in some of the noir traditions that would become more obvious in Attack of the Clones, and as mentioned in Sarah Dempster’s excellent anniversary piece, is the beginning of the end of the galaxy far, far away’s Belle Epoque. Beyond that, with respect to what may be in store for us with The Rise of Skywalker, it is also the best showcase for one of the silver screen’s most diabolical and terrifying villains: Sheev Palpatine. Read More

Yoda’s Story: The True Burden of All Masters

Of the Star Wars characters who have been fortunate enough to appear in all three trilogies of the Skywalker saga, Yoda’s is perhaps one of the most patchwork – largely a supporting role, an invention to fill the void after Obi-Wan Kenobi’s not-entirely-planned demise in the original Star Wars. Yoda briefly took center stage as a major character in the operatic, apocalyptic Revenge of the Sith, and made a somewhat unexpected return to the series as a ghost in The Last Jedi. He may return yet again for The Rise of Skywalker, but even without that final installment Yoda’s story has perhaps by accident become one of the most poignant and illuminating that the cornucopia of Star Wars has to offer. It sees him on both ends of the spectrum of galactic power, but beyond that it tells a story of an individual’s battle with dogma and orthodoxy, and ultimately the selflessness to be surpassed by his greatest pupil.

Enter the bureaucrat

Contrary perhaps to expectations prior to the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, when Yoda’s backstory during the time of Anakin Skywalker was unveiled he was shown to be in a drastically different milieu to that of his humble existence of Dagobah. We see that he was in fact a member of the Jedi High Council, residing on Coruscant, the capital of the Republic, in a gleaming, imposing temple with his fellow masters. He is, quite notably, not a very fun character in this environment – a naysayer in The Phantom Menace, like his colleague Mace Windu he urges caution against training Anakin.

This is not the limit of Yoda’s influence in his first chronological appearance, however – he is involved in the politics that underpin the film. This, ultimately, is of more relevance to Yoda’s story in the prequel trilogy, which escalates in the second film, Attack of the Clones. Perhaps one of the most pivotal scenes of the trilogy occurs when Obi-Wan Kenobi contacts Yoda and Mace to inform them of his discovery on Kamino of a clone army for the Republic. Processing this information, Yoda despairs that the ascendancy of the dark side has effectively rendered the Jedi blind, if they could have been so easily and completely deceived for a decade. Mace suggests that they inform the Senate that they are unable to operate to the best of their ability, but Yoda vetoes this decision. It is perhaps a throwaway hypothetical, but one can imagine that Yoda does not trust the system within which he works enough to be transparent. This plays into the hands of the Sith, creating a hermetic culture of secrets and ignored incompetence. There is a vital arrogance too: the Jedi do not humor the idea that Count Dooku has fallen to the dark side until it is far too late. Read More

Second Look: Nobody’s Perfect: In Defense of Rey From Nowhere

reycave

As Episode IX steadily approaches, a year and a few months away from release, debate around the parentage of Rey has continued almost unabated, arguably intensified by The Last Jedi’s “surprise” revelation. Some fans still seem to want an easy way to connect the dots from Rey to the core family of Star Wars, even indirectly, as if the term “Skywalker saga” was a mission statement rather than a convenient identifier.

Part of this stems from how the information is revealed in The Last Jedi: a terrific anticlimax, prompted by Kylo Ren. Prompted…but not issued. The text of Rian Johnson’s film builds this up and suggests it through Rey’s tendency to look for parental figures wherever possible, even when those whom she latches onto are inadequate in some way. The “reveal” isn’t some fake-out gotcha, it’s a natural progression from what we’ve already been given, albeit couched in Abrams’s typically coy storytelling tendencies in The Force Awakens. We’ve been conditioned to expect reversal, so much so that a greater surprise comes from straightforward progression.

In a way, The Last Jedi fleshes out the thread that can make the sequel trilogy a truly essential addition to the epic of Anakin and Luke Skywalker: a story of individuals within the galaxy far far away interpreting and reconciling the tales that have come before to carve out their own path. And perhaps the best torchbearer for this journey of interpretation, emulation and discovery is someone who is a nobody from nowhere, someone without the baggage that weighs so heavily on the new arch-villain Kylo Ren. Rey, as it turns out, operates very differently from her predecessors, the Skywalker boys. She is grappling with entirely different types of problems – no more or less difficult, but complex in a different way. To that end, the scenarios in which we find each of Star Wars’ three core protagonists when first introduced to them (chronologically) hugely inform their stories to follow, both in nature and resolution. In some ways, Rey is far ahead of the Skywalker boys when we first meet her. In other ways, she isn’t. It is this contrast that helps drive this new generation forward, and helps reshape what it means to be a Jedi with “the most serious mind”, and the appeal of a nobody in the galaxy far, far away.

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The Ultimate Rebel: Kylo Ren and the Truth That is His Family

kylo-elevator

“You have too much of your father’s heart in you, young Solo” snarls Supreme Leader Snoke at his apprentice, Kylo Ren, in the wake of the younger man having just murdered Han Solo. It is a clear taunt, part of a broader litany fired at the troubled Knight of Ren by the Supreme Leader – a dressing down that informs the character’s behavior for the rest of The Last Jedi. As part of that same passage, Kylo Ren is compared yet again to his grandfather, Darth Vader. It is a comparison invited and encouraged by Kylo, and the idea that he might not measure up to “the most hated man in the galaxy” is an easy way to wound him, as we have seen on multiple occasions.

Kylo Ren, the former Ben Solo, does not only draw his inspiration from the iconic Darth Vader however. Whether he likes it or not, the influence of his parents is indeed apparent in his behavior and his choices, as suggested by Lor San Tekka when we first met the character in The Force Awakens. It is these alternate influences that make Kylo Ren such a dynamic, exciting, and perhaps more terrifying villain than anything that has come before in Star Wars. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in many respects, and as the character channels his resilient mother and particularly his unpredictable father, we see the emergence of a new kind of challenge for this new generation of heroes to overcome in Episode IX. Read More

Nobody’s Perfect: In Defense of Rey From Nowhere

reycave

As Episode IX steadily approaches, a year and a few months away from release, debate around the parentage of Rey has continued almost unabated, arguably intensified by The Last Jedi’s “surprise” revelation. Some fans still seem to want an easy way to connect the dots from Rey to the core family of Star Wars, even indirectly, as if the term “Skywalker saga” was a mission statement rather than a convenient identifier.

Part of this stems from how the information is revealed in The Last Jedi: a terrific anticlimax, prompted by Kylo Ren. Prompted…but not issued. The text of Rian Johnson’s film builds this up and suggests it through Rey’s tendency to look for parental figures wherever possible, even when those whom she latches onto are inadequate in some way. The “reveal” isn’t some fake-out gotcha, it’s a natural progression from what we’ve already been given, albeit couched in Abrams’s typically coy storytelling tendencies in The Force Awakens. We’ve been conditioned to expect reversal, so much so that a greater surprise comes from straightforward progression.

In a way, The Last Jedi fleshes out the thread that can make the sequel trilogy a truly essential addition to the epic of Anakin and Luke Skywalker: a story of individuals within the galaxy far far away interpreting and reconciling the tales that have come before to carve out their own path. And perhaps the best torchbearer for this journey of interpretation, emulation and discovery is someone who is a nobody from nowhere, someone without the baggage that weighs so heavily on the new arch-villain Kylo Ren. Rey, as it turns out, operates very differently from her predecessors, the Skywalker boys. She is grappling with entirely different types of problems – no more or less difficult, but complex in a different way. To that end, the scenarios in which we find each of Star Wars’ three core protagonists when first introduced to them (chronologically) hugely inform their stories to follow, both in nature and resolution. In some ways, Rey is far ahead of the Skywalker boys when we first meet her. In other ways, she isn’t. It is this contrast that helps drive this new generation forward, and helps reshape what it means to be a Jedi with “the most serious mind”, and the appeal of a nobody in the galaxy far, far away. Read More