There are times when it feels like my love for the Star Wars prequel trilogy is tantamount to treason. I anticipate the day when the door to my home gets kicked in and a policing gestapo not unlike the Emperor’s legion of stormtroopers trots me in front of a House Un-American Affairs Committee to be judged for my unholy allegiances.
At this point, I’m used to disagreeing with other people regarding matters of pop culture, entertainment and art, but on most things (and with most people), we can agree to disagree. A shrug and a skeptical “Really?” are the worst I suffer for my affection of Roger Moore era James Bond films, my indifference with the majority of the Marvel film franchise, or my insistence that The X-File’s alien conspiracy mythology actually makes perfect sense (at least until this recent renewal).
But professing love for not only Episodes II and III, but that most indefensible of all films past, present and future, The Phantom Menace?! I’m either insane, an idiot, or both. Nearly seventeen years after its release, people are still foaming at the mouth with hatred for Episode I while a growing contingent of minority opinions rush tirelessly to the film’s defense.
My intention isn’t to start a fight. I have no interest in changing your opinion or speaking to every sin the film purportedly commits in its 2 hours and 16 minutes running time. I just want to share the single thing that I love most about the film, because I feel like it’s the one thing that doesn’t typically get recognized or mentioned whether someone is praising it or tearing it down.
That thing is this: an idea. A really simple idea, but incredibly well-executed, it serves as the spine of not only this particular film, but thematic material for the larger franchise of Lucas’ six films. The idea is this: symbiosis.
Obi-Wan first introduces the concept in the underwater Gungan city, when he says to its leader, Boss Nass. “You and the Naboo form a symbiote circle,” he says. “What happens to one of you will affect the other.”
Symbiosis is the idea that different, individual systems must work together for mutual benefit. Internally, our bodies function with this theory in practice. Without blood pumping in oxygen and nutrients, the brain will die; without a brain, the circulatory system can’t function.
Externally, symbiotic relationships exist in nature. A shark will abstain from eating a pilot fish, because it helps the shark by consuming parasites that would harm it. You and your pet operate with a similar unspoken contract in place. You give it food and a place to sleep and defecate, it gives you affection (and promises not to eat you when you’re sleeping).
In the world of the film, the metaphor of symbiosis is not just applied to the Gungan race and the Human Naboo who both inhabit the same planet. It also carries over to the political “body” of the Senate, the internal workings of The Force, and the motley crew of Jedi, royalty, droids, alien and slave that must join forces to combat the greater threat of the Sith.
Symbiosis is not just unnecessary flavoring to an action adventure fantasy story; rather, it is the ENTIRE point of the film.
Lincoln’s famous quote, “A house divided against itself can’t stand” is essentially a call for symbiosis, for mutual benefit, for peace and compromise instead of selfishness, greed, and conflict. In the world of The Phantom Menace, we see the opposite of that ideal in the bickering Senate chamber–more than a little familiar seventeen years later–where greedy corporations work at cross purposes against the best interests of the galaxy purely to line their own pockets.
(Incidentally, my second favorite thing about the film is the mind-blowing idea that mega-corporations needn’t bother with lobbyists as middle-men; they already have direct political representation!)
Similarly, The Force, that mystical energy field that exists between all living things, receives a purpose in The Phantom Menace beyond merely plot convenience and cool special effect opportunity. One thing that is so often lost in the hand-wringing about how Episode I demystifies the Force by introducing midi-chlorians is that midi-chlorians are never identified AS The Force, but merely as THE MEANS by which a Force-sensitive individual can COMMUNE with it.
As Qui-Gon explains, “Midi-chlorians are microscopic lifeforms that exist within all living cells… we are symbiotes with them… lifeforms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians life could not exist and we would have no knowledge of The Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force.”
A Jedi listens to the Force through the presence of these microscopic lifeforms in his or her bloodstream, calling upon the powers manifested by The Force only in the interests of serving its direction. By contrast, the Sith as represented by Darths Maul and Sidious bend the Force to their will, they use its powers not in pursuit of the greater good but rather for their own self-interest.
And thus, the symbiote metaphor receives its necessary other half: the parasite.
“The Phantom Menace” referred to in the film’s title is the parasite in an unhealthy body that can’t heal itself. Without a government that operates with symbiotic efficiency, it is the equivalent of a human body that is stressed, dehydrated and operating on too little sleep… and maybe a little drunk too. It is vulnerable to attack from infection.
The parasite of the film, flitting in and out from behind the scenes and in front of them, setting off a domino effect of destruction in his wake, is Senator Palpatine, eventually revealed to be the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. The Sith, in the grander sense, are a parasite on the Force and the reason why the Jedi refer to the Force as being out of “balance,” but it is Palpatine in particular who is sickening the vulnerable Republic and poisoning the well of the Jedi’s powers.
The antibodies the Force distributes as a counterattack are in unlikely form: the Gungan Jar Jar Binks and the Tatooine boy Anakin Skywalker. Qui-Gon’s adoption of the Gungan and the slave elicit an exasperated response from his protege, Obi-Wan: “Why do I sense we’ve picked up another pathetic lifeform?”
Haters have long wondered the same. Why introduce the eventual badass Darth Vader as a precocious child? What’s with that goofy rabbit-eared frog tripping over everything?
The film argues that even the most insignificant, obnoxious being in the galaxy is sometimes necessary to resolve a greater problem. Jar Jar Binks is far from an unnecessary character in the film and I’m always mystified by fan edits that attempt to excise him. He is the glue between the Naboo and the Gungans, the only way to create a symbiotic relationship on the planet and chase off the parasitic threat of the Sith-manipulated Trade Federation. Leaving him out of your viewing experience is really missing the point.
The fact that he’s usually obnoxious and ridiculous and groan-worthy only strengthens the lesson here: figuring out how to get along with people who annoy the living shit out of you is the greatest single trick you can learn in life. I posit that if we could all find peace with the character of Jar Jar Binks, the world would probably be a far calmer and more empathetic place.
Symbiosis does not happen without sacrifice. Whether that’s a shark resisting the urge to gobble up that tasty morsel flitting around him all day long or it’s you cleaning up a mess your pet left under your bed, the mechanics of a successful relationship require a fair amount of teeth-grinding behind a grimace disguised as a smile.
Most of the characters in the film don’t particularly like each other, but that doesn’t stop them from figuring out how to get along long enough to arrive at a solution. It’s ultimately Queen Amidala who comes to her senses first when exposure to other cultures and characters of lower status forces her to acknowledge her higher status and perceived power as illusions. Her worth as royalty is entirely dependent on her ability to unite rather than divide, and ultimately she must sacrifice her ego and join forces with individuals she once thought beneath her.
The beauty of The Phantom Menace is that central idea of symbiosis and how it carries through on every possible level of the film’s framework, as good a literary metaphor lurking beneath a fun, mainstream adventure story as any I’ve seen before or since the film’s release. And the best part is that I don’t feel like Lucas beats you over the head with the idea; it’s definitely there and I don’t think you can avoid seeing it after being exposed to it, but it actually took me awhile to discover that heart and conscience reverberating beneath all the podracing, blaster battles, and lightsaber duels.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re welcome to return to your regularly scheduled hatred of The Phantom Menace. But minor quibbles aside, I can’t feel anything but respect and admiration for it or any other piece of entertainment that aspires to provoke and inspire thought and conversation about those larger ideas and concepts that affect us all.
So yes, I love The Phantom Menace, and if that simple opinion makes me insane and/or idiotic, at least I’ll have my defense prepared when they kick in my door.