Part I. Introductory Section: The Phantom Menace
According to the seven conventions of ring composition laid out by Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles, a ring generally includes an introductory section that introduces the characters and provides important context for the following sections. The introductory section also states the major themes of the work. After all, a ring, says Douglas, is a “construction of parallelisms that must open a theme, develop it, and round it off by bringing the conclusion back to the beginning.” 1
As most everyone knows, the Star Wars saga consists of six feature films, divided into two trilogies (the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy). And as the first film in the saga, The Phantom Menace has the unenviable task of pulling triple duty. As the initial installment of the prequel trilogy, Menace has to stand on its own as a self-contained story and set up the next two episodes, much like A New Hope in the original trilogy. But Menace also has the added responsibility of laying the groundwork for the three original films, and thus the saga as a whole—no small feat to say the least.
“Everything had to be laid out in [Menace’s] script so that the next two scripts would follow as they should,” says Lucas. “I also had to play this script against the three movies that had already been made, making sure everything was consistent and that I hadn’t forgotten anything. There was a tremendous amount of minutiae in these movies that I had to consider.” 2
Now, if we look at the six films the way Lucas intended, as one book, or “one 12-hour movie in six parts,” 3 then Menace essentially functions as a prologue—a sort of separate section that tells of events that precede the main story and that gives important background, setting, and character information.
From this perspective, then, Menace:
- Provides introductions to many of the 12-hour movie’s major players, including the protagonist (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader) and antagonist (Palpatine/Darth Sidious).
- Establishes the saga’s primary setting, the galactic capital world of Coruscant, and explains the politics of the galaxy (offering a glimpse into the inner workings of the Republic, including the Senate and the Jedi Council).
- Builds the foundation for the 12-hour movie’s two main story arcs: the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker and the rise and fall of an oppressive military dictatorship, the Galactic Empire. (The film adroitly parallels Anakin’s rise from obscurity to future Jedi with Palpatine’s rise to Supreme Chancellor—the single event that sets the stage for the political turmoil and eventual war in the following films.)
- Sets up one of the central ideas of the saga (the eternal struggle between the Jedi/light side and the Sith/dark side), the main problem that needs to be solved (restoring balance to the Force), along with the character who will solve it.
Menace also gives off the impression of being a prologue in other interesting ways. One way is that unlike the other five films, Episode I takes place during a period of “relative” peace in the galaxy, providing a kind of narrative baseline for the tumultuous events to follow. Another way is that some of the events in the film, particularly the invasion of Naboo, appear inconsequential and somewhat disconnected from the saga’s main storylines that will kick in 10 years later in Attack of the Clones (of course, nothing could be further from the truth).
The tone of Episode I also helps distinguish the film from the others. It’s the most light-hearted and childlike of all the films, designed, in part, to reflect Anakin’s innocence and contrast his descent into darkness that follows. Episode I is also the only Star Wars film to feature a child at the center of the story. In fact, in the prequels we see Anakin at ages 9 (Menace), 19 (Clones) and 22 (Sith). And in the original trilogy, we see Luke at ages 19 (New Hope), 22 (Empire), and 23 (Jedi). So, portraying Anakin at such a young age clearly helps set Menace off from the rest of the pack.
It should also probably be noted that in terms of character arc, Menace provides necessary background on Anakin, establishing him as a wide-eyed, innocent young boy who likes to help others and, significantly, “knows nothing of greed,” according to his mother. As Lucas correctly points out, in what appears to be a response to fans who were disappointed to see Darth Vader, one of cinema’s most iconic villains, portrayed as a cutesy, yippee!-squealing tyke in Menace: “[Anakin] has to start good and turn evil. You can’t have a monster turning into a monster. That’s not a story.” 4
Interestingly, some of Menace’s most vocal critics actually lend further support to the idea of the film serving as a prologue. For instance, blogger Rod Hilton’s “Machete Order” (a suggested viewing order for the films) dispenses with Episode I entirely, not for simply disliking the film (although he does call it “a failure on every possible level” 5) but also for the same reason a reader may skip a book’s prologue: Hilton thinks it’s just useless information.
Luckily, George Lucas has done everyone a favor by making the content of Episode I completely irrelevant to the rest of the series. Seriously, think about it for a minute. Name as many things as you can that happen in Episode I and actually help flesh out the story in any subsequent episode…Search your feelings, you know it to be true! Episode I doesn’t matter at all. You can start the prequels with Episode II and miss absolutely nothing. The opening crawl of Episode II establishes everything you need to know about the prequels: a bunch of systems want to leave the Republic, they are led by Count Dooku, and Senator Amidala is a senator who is going to vote on whether the Republic is going to create an army. 6
While Hilton and others may view Menace as skippable, this essay will, hopefully, prove otherwise—by showing that Episode I is an essential, indispensable component of the larger design of the series, the ring structure. It brings to mind something Lucas once told Entertainment Weekly while defending the film: “There’s actually a lot of stuff going on in [Menace], and it has to be there in order to make the story work.” 7
Another important aspect of an introductory section is that it must acquaint the reader with the major themes of the ring composition. Knowing the themes helps to better understand what follows in the main body of the work. And without them, it becomes next to impossible to fully understand and interpret the completed ring.
That said, Menace offers a surprisingly rich thematic experience, setting up many of the themes that are developed throughout the saga (and as we’ll see later, correspond directly to the end of the ring). For example, Lucas reveals in the film’s making-of book that “duality is one of the main themes of Menace.” 8 And, as film scholar Anne Lancashire observes in her essay on Episode I, duality pervades the film:
The large ensemble cast of characters features different kinds of doubles who metaphorically indicate opposing sides of human nature and/or the potential of any one individual to move in either direction. There are two good, largely non-aggressive Jedi (Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan) and two evil, aggressive Sith (Darth Sidious and Darth Maul) [further emphasized in the “Rule of Two”]…There are two Amidalas, the “masked” public queen (also represented by a decoy, fooling even the film’s audiences) and the natural private Padme …There are two Chancellors, the seemingly weak Valorum and the aggressive Palpatine …There are two “mothers,” Anakin’s self-sacrificing birth mother and the maternal, sometimes aggressive Queen Amidala. There are also two peoples on Naboo, the peace-loving inhabitants ruled by Amidala and the warrior Gungans associated with a primal water world. 9
Symbiosis, or life forms living together for mutual advantage, is another theme in Menace. And it’s expressed in a couple of different ways. First, through the concept of midi-chlorians, which are microscopic life forms that reside within all living cells and communicate with the mystical Force. Lucas explains:
Midi-chlorians are a loose depiction of mitochondria, which are necessary components for cells to divide. They probably had something—which will come out someday—to do with the beginnings of life and how one cell decided to become two cells with a little help from this other little creature who came in, without whom life couldn’t exist. And it’s really a way of saying we have hundreds of little creatures who live on us, and without them, we all would die. There wouldn’t be any life. They are necessary for us; we are necessary for them. Using them in the metaphor, saying society is the same way, says we all must get along with each other. 10
The second way Lucas establishes the theme of symbiosis is through the relationship between the surface-dwelling Naboo and the water-dwelling Gungans:
One of the thematic devices … is that these two cultures come together and join forces and become friends and are treated as equals. Where at in the beginning of the film, they basically don’t want to talk to each other. They don’t want anything to do with each other. Each one is sort of an insular society. 11
Another theme carefully woven throughout Episode I is greed. For example, the film’s opening crawl describes a “greedy Trade Federation,” a fact that Darth Sidious exploits over the course of the film to get his alter ego, Senator Palpatine, elected Supreme Chancellor. Qui-Gon uses the junk dealer Watto’s greed to his advantage (“Greed can be a powerful ally,” he says), to get the parts to repair the Queen’s ship and to free Anakin (again, who “knows nothing of greed,” says his mother). Also, Senator Palpatine says that the Senate is full of “greedy” delegates. And Yoda’s observation that Anakin is afraid to lose his mother foreshadows the emotional greed at the heart of Anakin’s fall from grace.
Finally, balance emerges as a prominent theme in the film, when the Jedi suspect Anakin may be the “chosen one” of ancient prophecy who will bring balance to the Force. The theme is also expressed through the Naboo and the Gungans, whose uneasy relationship reaches a balance at the film’s conclusion, as the two cultures became joined in peace after a battle with the Trade Federation. In fact, as Lucas points out, the balance between good and evil is “the overriding philosophy in Episode 1—and in all the Star Wars movies, for that matter.” 12 (And over the course of this essay, it’ll become clear that many of the themes in Star Wars tie directly into this overarching theme of balance.)
At this point, I think it’s relatively safe to say that The Phantom Menace meets the requirements of a ring composition’s introductory section. So, now let’s see how Lucas arranged the films in parallel, one pair at a time.
Continued on next page
- Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Terry Lecture Series, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), preface, x. ↩
- Laurent Bouzereau and Jody Duncan, The Making of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” (New York: Ballantine Publ. Group, 1999), 4. ↩
- Jeff Jensen, “Plan of ‘Attack.’” Entertainment Weekly, May 17, 2002, 30. ↩
- Jeff Jensen, “Star Wars Completes its Long Journey.” Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2005, http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1060829_3,00.html. ↩
- Rod Hilton, “The Star Wars Saga: Introducing Machete Order,” Absolutely No Machete Juggling (blog), November 11, 2011, http://www.nomachetejuggling.com/2011/11/11/the-star-wars-saga-suggested-viewing-order/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jensen, “Plan of ‘Attack,’” 30. ↩
- Bouzereau, Making of “Episode I,” 8. ↩
- Anne Lancashire, “The Phantom Menace: Repetition, Variation, Integration,” Film Criticism 24, no. 3 (March 2000): 33-34. ↩
- Evan Narcisse, “20,000 Per Cell: Why Midi-chlorians Suck,” Time, August 10, 2010, http://techland.time.com/2010/08/10/20000-per-cell-why-midi-chlorians-suck/. ↩
- George Lucas, “Audio Commentary,” Disc 1, The Phantom Menace, DVD, directed by George Lucas (Beverly Hills, CA: Twentieth Century Fox, 2001). ↩
- Bouzereau, Making of “Episode I,” 8. ↩