In 1977, we met a stargazing farm boy longing to fulfill his destiny. Luke Skywalker’s epic struggle against Darth Vader and his evil Galactic Empire captivated audiences when Star Wars arrived with culture-shifting impact. So much impact, in fact, that things would never quite be the same at the movies. Through the course of two sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, the original Star Wars trilogy cemented its place as a pop-culture, ahem, force with few—if any—equals.
Fast-forward to 1999, and Star Wars creator George Lucas is back to complete unfinished business. Namely, to fill in the origin story behind Luke and Leia and Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, a story that took place 40 years or so before a Laurel-and-Hardy pair of droids crash-landed unceremoniously on the backwater planet of Tatooine.
As the curtain rises on Phantom Menace, a much younger Obi-Wan and Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn are speeding toward an orbital blockade of the small planet of Naboo that’s been established by the devious Trade Federation. Sent by the Galactic Republic’s Supreme Chancellor, the Jedi believe they’re going to put an end to the standoff. In reality, their arrival on Viceroy Nute Gunray’s ship—the leader of the Trade Federation—will light the fuse of a galaxy-wide conflagration.
It’s all they can do to rescue the planet’s young queen, Amidala—and pick up an amphibious outcast Gungan named Jar Jar Binks. And then it’s off to (where else?) Tatooine to repair Amidala’s damaged ship. Naturally, nothing on Tatooine goes as planned—in ways far beyond what any of them could have imagined. Seeking parts for their ship, Qui-Gon and Co. soon meet a greedy, winged, wheeler-dealer named Watto … as well as his two slaves, a woman named Shmi Skywalker and her young son, Anakin.
Anakin is as guileless as the merciless Tatooine suns are blistering, and he’s determined to help his new friends in any way he can. They’ll need his help, too, if they’re to escape Tatooine and evade another hunter who’s hot on their trail, the ominously cloaked, lightsaber-wielding menace Darth Maul.
Is there more—possibly much more—to the remarkable little boy than meets the eye?
All of the heroes in Phantom Menace put their lives on the line to save others. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon deliver Amidala from the clutches of the Trade Federation, ferrying her off her planet through a maze of laser fire. Even Jar Jar Binks, for all his comedic clumsiness, demonstrates moments of bravery.
On Tatooine, Anakin unselfishly suggests that if he wins an upcoming pod race, they can use the prize money to buy the part needed to repair the ship. Qui-Gon doesn’t want to accept Anakin’s help, because it exposes him to so much risk. But the boy’s mother suggests that it’s likely the only way to secure the resources they need. Grudgingly, they agree to the plan. Qui-Gon tells her, “You should be proud of your son. He gives with no thought of reward.” She concurs, adding, “He knows nothing of greed.” Anakin lives up to her praise, vowing to free her from slavery just as Qui-Gon has freed him.
Amidala is a fierce champion for her people. Naboo is a peaceful planet, and Amidala is initially committed to pacifism. “I will not condone a course of action that will lead us to war,” she says. But when her planet’s population is directly threatened, she rises to the occasion and announces in the Galactic Senate, “I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this invasion in a committee!” With that, she courageously returns to Naboo to fight for its freedom, saying, “I will sign no treaty. My fate will be that of my people.”
Further, Amidala’s resourcefulness and humility are evident as she forges a pact with Jar Jar’s race, the Gungans, in order to make common cause against the Trade Federation. The two peoples have long been at uneasy odds with each other, but Amidala mends that rift with her courage and initiative. The Gungans know that many of them will likely die in process (and some do), but it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make to protect their planet.
Mind control, premonitions and telekinesis are only the beginning in this first prequel that unpacks a number of particulars related to the “Force.” In Star Wars, an aging Obi-Wan begins to teach Luke about it by saying, “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” That description has an impersonal, pantheistic quality to it. And Phantom Menace confirms that perception—while adding an echo of Christian themes to the mix:
We learn here that the Force radiates from microscopic beings in every living cell called midi-chlorians. Qui-Gon takes a blood sample from Anakin and discovers that the little boy has the highest midi-chlorian count he’s ever seen—even higher than Master Yoda. That causes him to speculate that Anakin might be the prophesied Chosen One who’s destined to “bring balance to the Force” (a concept that’s mentioned but not explained). Adding to the messianic feel, when Qui-Gon questions Shmi regarding the boy’s father, she confesses that there was none, hinting that Anakin was the product of an immaculate conception, apparently initiated by midi-chlorians.
Qui-Gon says of discovering Anakin, “Finding him was the will of the Force, I have no doubt of that.” And the Force also provides guidance on a moment-by-moment basis. As Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar are trying to find a submerged passage to another part of Naboo, for instance, Qui-Gon tells the very worried Gungan, “Don’t worry. The Force will guide us.”
Indeed, the Force seems to enable those guided by it to live free from fear or crippling anxiety. And it aids in focusing on the present moment. “Don’t center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs,” Qui-Gon says. “Be mindful of the living Force.”
Yet the Force can never be seen as a perfect allegory for God. And one big reason for that is its dual nature: It encompasses both good and evil. In a conversation with Anakin about the fate of the boy’s mother, Yoda identifies fear as the catalyst for turning away from the Light Side and to the Dark Side of the Force. And as in the original trilogy, one’s own feelings and intuition are key to tapping into and channeling the Force. Before the pod race, Qui-Gon tells Anakin, “Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.”
Other moments briefly hint at a more polytheistic universe. After twice saving Jar Jar’s life, Qui-Gon says that the Gungan owes a life debt to his gods. Later, fleeing Gungans gather at a sacred place that boasts statue heads very closely resembling the Buddha. Anakin asks Amidala if she’s an angel, saying, “I’ve heard the deep space pilots talk about them. They live on the moons of Iego, I think. They’re the most beautiful creatures in the universe.”
Two women wearing clingy tops paw and fawn over the pod racer Sebulba.
Phantom Menace’s violence is mostly bloodless, and a great deal of it involves machines instead of men (or aliens). Trade Federation droids by the score get reduced to scrap metal in various battles. One clash between the Gungans and advancing droid armies features pyrotechnics and a few fallen Gungans.
More intense is a climactic and dazzling lightsaber duel that ends with one combatant skewered and the other cut in half. The camera shows us the horrified expression on his face of the latter, then we see him tumble and split into two as he falls down a shaft.
Pods crash and explode during the race. A Naboo starfighter gets shot down and crashes just after takeoff. There are multiple casualties when Naboo pilots engage the Trade Federation’s droid control ship in a spectacular, laser-filled space battle. A lengthy scene involving Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar in a submarine that is twice attacked by enormous undersea creatures. Each time, a bigger predator inadvertently comes to their rescue by attacking the original assailant, in one instance tearing the beastie in two.
We’re told that the slaves on Tatooine have chips embedded in them that will explode if they try to escape. Jabba the Hutt initiates the pod race by biting the head off of a frog-like creature and spitting it at a gong.
Next to none. Jar Jar says “egads” once. On Tatooine, someone calls droppings of the Bantha (creatures that split the difference between Chinese dragons and wooly mammoths) “poodoo,” a term that’s subsequently used as an expression of disgust and an epithet. Other name-calling includes “slave scum” and “slimeball.”
Jar Jar steps in some of that “poodoo” and has to shake it off his foot. A horse-like alien loudly passes gas near him. An “embarrassed” C-3PO comments on being “naked” and having his “parts showing.” Jar Jar impulsively tries to steal food from a market with his long tongue (but gets caught). Virtually everyone gambles on the pod races (but Qui-Gon wisely understands that those who gamble will eventually lose).
George Lucas’ return to the Star Wars universe after nearly two decades away has arguably been one of the most anticipated events in the history of pop culture. And, for many fans, one of the most disappointing.
After seeing the film, critics and fanboys alike quickly trumpeted their shattered expectations, citing wooden storytelling, a Byzantine plot involving trade disputes and government committees, and a haphazard vibe that ultimately fails to re-bottle the same magic Lucas and his fellow filmmakers somehow captured in the original trilogy.
Aesthetic and narrative complaints notwithstanding, however, Phantom Menace still delivers a rollicking, old-fashioned story chock-full of heroes and action and mechanical calamity—mostly devoid of content concerns that might dissuade families of a new generation of young fans from seeing it.
And what about the spiritual side of the Force? Lucas’ universe isn’t, obviously, a Christian one. But it does proffer parallels: a virgin birth, a prophecy about a Chosen One and fuzzy mentions about the “will of the Force.” Some will see that appropriation as bad form, maybe even sacrilegious, especially because of the whole dark-side-light-side problem the Force suffers from. For others it will offer a metaphorical opportunity to wade into significant human and supernatural issues.
What do we do with that tension? In three words, learn from it. Star Wars has become something of a modern myth in our culture, a touchstone referred to by everyone from kids on the grade school playground to professors in the college lecture hall. Novelists employ its themes. Moviemakers pilfer its punchlines. Songwriters channel its grand mood swings. It’s become nearly unavoidable, and because of that I’m grateful it doesn’t try too hard to crash the gates of decorum.
That relative restraint allows parents looking to reinforce Christian concepts to do so, while still talking through the real limits (and even dangers) of relying on our natural feelings and intuition—as we’re instructed to do in Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace—when it comes to making our decisions and trusting the one and true God.
A 3-D UPDATE: In 2012, Lucas rereleased Phantom Menace to theaters with a 3-D update. Yet he himself described the extra dimensional treatment as subtle. And indeed it is—either a good or a bad thing, depending on what you think about 3-D. For my part, I’ll leave it at this: A bit of visual depth is added to the story, but never in a jarring way—no more jarring than Jar Jar Binks still is, anyway.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.