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

Second Look is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s biannual tradition of highlighting some of our most interesting pieces from recent months. Every day this week you’ll find a different older piece back on our front page for another moment in the spotlight. – Mike, EIC

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.

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Second Look: The March of the First Order – How Star Wars Resistance Reveals a New Form of Evil

Second Look is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s biannual tradition of highlighting some of our most interesting pieces from recent months. Every day this week you’ll find a different older piece back on our front page for another moment in the spotlight. – Mike, EIC

The First Order invasion of the Star Wars galaxy has been characterized on the big screen as efficient, effective, and merciless. The Force Awakens opens with a brutal First Order attack on a settlement on Jakku. While the movie goes on to depict the destruction of the Galactic Senate on Hosnian Prime by Starkiller Base, the details of the brutal methods utilized by the First Order to exert authority over individual planets are not fully explored on the big screen. The first season of Star Wars Resistance reveals the shocking truth behind the ongoing march of the First Order.

Home, Home on the Colossus

On the edge of Wild Space lies Castilon, the oceanic planet that serves as the setting for the first season of Star Wars Resistance. While the surface of the planet is covered in water, no land is necessary for the Colossus, an old supertanker depot that serves as a final refueling point before the Unknown Regions and also as a hangout for speed-junkie ace pilots. Far from the cosmopolitan Core systems – where planets which serve as the seat of the galaxy’s political and cultural power (like Coruscant and Hosnian Prime) are located – Castilon is, by the admission of Flix the acquisitions clerk, what most people mean when they say “the other side of the galaxy”.

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Second Look: Humansplaining: Star Wars From the Aliens’ Perspective

Second Look is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s biannual tradition of highlighting some of our most interesting pieces from recent months. Every day this week you’ll find a different older piece back on our front page for another moment in the spotlight. – Mike, EIC

Human diversity in the Galaxy Far, Far Away has been a major focus of this site, and myself personally, over the years, but there’s been a parallel conversation running alongside that all along in the representation of droids and aliens: how many, which kinds, what are they doing? While real people seeing themselves directly and fulsomely represented in these stories—in the films especially—is certainly a higher priority, Star Wars is arguably not very well equipped to address things like racism and sexism in a direct fashion, and instead normally chooses to do so through subtext and metaphor.

The Mos Eisley cantina is notable for being not just the first major showcase of the galaxy’s alien demographics, but for the first instance of “metaphorical prejudice” in the form of Wuher banning the droids from his establishment. That moment coupled with an Imperial officer describing Chewbacca as a “thing” not long after makes George Lucas’s view of prejudice quite clear—even if the overall whiteness and maleness of the film’s protagonists does him no favors.

Droids and aliens, then, have never been there just for texture, but for metaphor as well—a way for the story to comment on real human biases without overtly importing them into its universe. While Solo‘s recent efforts to engage with droid prejudice were, well, inconsistent at best, the fact is that the films have never even attempted to put nonhuman prejudice on the front burner.

Lack of foregrounding, however, doesn’t equate to silence: if you choose to take the demographics seriously and not just as texture you’ll find that the films have been saying quite a bit. The goal of this piece, then, is to do just that—assume every human role and every nonhuman role is one hundred percent deliberate, and extrapolate accordingly. To be clear, this is very much a thought experiment, and not a suggestion of intentional messaging on the part of the creators.1 ILM and Lucasfilm’s creature shop (whew, just calling it that in this context is awkward) have done a lot of amazing work over the years, but how that work is distributed throughout the story tells a story of its own. What messages do we come away with when we treat that subtext as text?

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  1. Though it does seem to be in some cases, as I’ll discuss later. []

Second Look: The Phantom Menace is Innocent: We’re to Blame for Modern Cinema Culture

Second Look is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s biannual tradition of highlighting some of our most interesting pieces from recent months. Every day this week you’ll find a different older piece back on our front page for another moment in the spotlight. – Mike, EIC

Ah, clickbait. “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is To Blame For Modern Cinema Culture” is a wonderfully clickbaity headline, and I was baited to click. Now I’m going to add my voice to the silliness. The article, by Hannah Jenkins, caused a bit of a stir in the digital gazebo known as Star Wars Twitter, arguing as it did that TPM was responsible for many of the trends in current popular cinema, the good and the bad. Most of these arguments were not particularly convincing. The true legacy of TPM, and the lessons we can take from it, can be found when we look not at the industry or at the movie itself, but at ourselves.

Jenkins argues that TPM’s trailer was a defining moment in the marketing of movies, and there’s truth in this. Suddenly the advert was an event in and of itself, and following the “illegal” sharing of it across the internet, studios quickly had to catch up with this new digital way of consuming these things. I remember spending anxious hours downloading each Attack of the Clones trailer via dial-up on QuickTime (an ironic name if ever there was one), and being irritated by Warner Bros.’ attempts to force us into the cinema to watch Scooby Doo by releasing only a thirty-second trailer for the trailer of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets online. Maybe TPM did lead the way to the era of big simultaneous Super Bowl/Twitter trailer reveals. And Jar Jar Binks was certainly a leap forward when it came to motion capture, though this can be overstated: he was hardly the first fully CGI leading character in a movie, with Casper, Dragonheart and Mars Attacks all preceding him.

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Luke looking out on the two suns before he dies on Ahch-To

Second Look: Eye of the Beholder – In Celebration of Star Wars Fans

Second Look is Eleven-ThirtyEight’s biannual tradition of highlighting some of our most interesting pieces from recent months. Every day this week you’ll find a different older piece back on our front page for another moment in the spotlight. – Mike, EIC

There was one element of Star Wars Rebels‘ “Twin Suns” that eluded interpretation. Over the course of my multi-part close read, with every ridiculous theory I crafted for the episode’s name, I could not place it. Why were there so many shots of eyes that looked like the suns?

Maul’s eyes were the right color. Obi-Wan’s were similar to the blue of the twin moons, which served as a stand-in for the suns at night. There was a close-up of Ezra’s eye that made the pupil and the dot reflection look like the suns across the blue “sky” of his iris. Even Chopper had a moment where he was cropped by the frame so that only two of his optics were visible. “Twin Suns” did use eye close-ups and point-of-view shots to establish whose perspective the audience was to engage with, so these decisions were not wholly without reason. And yet I still could not make the connection to why these eyes resemble the suns, almost deliberately so.

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