A Saga Out of Balance

It’s a wrap! After 42 years and nine movies, the generation-spanning Skywalker Saga has come to an end. Is The Rise of Skywalker a fitting finale? To quote Obi-Wan one last time, it all depends on a certain point of view.

In a nutshell, fans of The Last Jedi will loathe it, while haters of Rian Johnson’s fandom splitting Episode 8 will love it.

And therein lies the problem – we were given three different films written and directed by two vastly different filmmakers.

Sadly both The Rise of Skywalker and the sequel trilogy suffer because of it.

Rebel Briefing will probably receive a one-way ticket to the Spice Mines of Kessel for saying this, but the trilogy missed the influence of George Lucas or someone of his stature.

With no creative deity overseeing production, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker are a mishmash of story ideas. It’s clear Disney did not have a game plan for the trilogy.

Blasters to Stun

Before you set your blasters to stun (or worse), the original trilogy (OT) gets a pass.

Yes, you can argue Lucas did not have the OT mapped out from the beginning, but he did have a vision. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were based on stories by him – Luke Skywalker learning to become a Jedi to defeat the Empire and redeem his father.

It doesn’t matter that Empire and Jedi were made by different directors, Lucas, The Maker, was in charge. He was the constant. Because of this, the trilogy felt cohesive.

It’s the same with the prequels.

Like the Emperor, Lucas exercised total control over his universe. In true auteur style, he handled every creative aspect of production.

Again he knew the story he wanted to tell: how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, and how the Empire rose to power.

Love or loathe them, there’s no denying the prequel trilogy had a coherent and cohesive story arc.

The films gave fans new stories that expanded the Star Wars galaxy.

In contrast, the sequel trilogy feels thrown together and not uniquely original.

The Force Awakens borrows heavily from A New Hope, and The Last Jedi is The Empire Strikes Back.

The Rise of Skywalker takes us on a lightspeed journey of story and plot corrections that bring us back to the same place in Return of the Jedi, with our heroes killing Palpatine at the end.

No Jedi Master

With no visionary Jedi Master overseeing production on the sequels, JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson had the freedom to write what they wanted.

As a result, the trilogy never seems to know where it’s going.

Abrams may have had a plan for what came after The Force Awakens, but he surrendered it when he handed the baton to Johnson on The Last Jedi.

Johnson even admits there was no story map given to him beyond the first instalment and that he was allowed to take the story in a new direction. As a consequence, his brave efforts to write and direct a different kind of Star Wars film subverted what Abrams established in The Force Awakens.

For many, he changed the story too dramatically…

Perhaps Abrams (or someone else) should have mapped the trilogy from beginning to end before handing it to other filmmakers.

We know George Lucas had an outline for the new trilogy before he sold it to Disney. It’s intriguing to wonder where he would have taken the story.

Return of the Sith

In The Force Awakens, Abrams treated us to his mystery box of puzzles – who are Rey’s parents, and who is Snoke?

These mysteries were answered by Johnson in The Last Jedi, leaving Abrams nowhere to go in the final film. He was painted into a corner.

As a consequence, and to possibly appease to fan anger, he walked back much of Johnson’s work.

The best example is the question of Rey’s parentage, which was laid to rest in The Last Jedi.

Instead of being a nobody from nowhere, we are told Rey is the granddaughter of the Emperor. This is despite there being no allusion to the presence of Palpatine in the previous films.

Admitting he was hamstrung by the killing of Snoke, Abrams says he had no better choice but to bring Palpatine back.

Why not make Kylo Ren the supreme villain of the trilogy? So much for a coherent plan from the beginning.

This is a shame because, at the end of The Last Jedi, we are told bloodline didn’t matter. It implied that the Force isn’t just the domain of a few notable and noble families, but a power able to manifest itself within anyone, from the lowest stable boy to a lonely desert scavenger.

What’s more, Palpatine’s return reduces the sacrifice Anakin Skywalker made at the end of Return of the Jedi.

After all, the previous two trilogies were about the rise and fall of Anakin.

Most annoying of all, his contribution was reduced to a single (off-screen) ethereal line.

The Safe Zone

For many, The Rise of Skywalker was a welcome relief after the shocks and revelations of Episode 8.

But by returning to the safe zone established in The Force Awakens (coupled with the return of Palpatine), the trilogy takes a step backwards rather than a giant leap forward. It goes back to a place of thematic and emotional safety. There’s a frustrating lack of imagination – The Rise of Skywalker feels like an attempt to correct what went before.

What we are left with is a trilogy that does not connect with the previous two. Because of this, the Skywalker Saga feels out of balance.

The Phantom Menace at 20

WARNING: If you hate The Phantom Menace with the fury of a supernova, this is not the article you are looking for.

It’s hard to believe The Phantom Menace turns 20 today. The years have flown by like a quick lap of the Boonta Eve podrace.

Two decades on, it still remains divisive. But, with The Last Jedi now the punching bag of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s no longer the most hated film of the franchise.

So, on its 20th anniversary, maybe today’s the day to talk about its legacy.

Yes, it has flaws. It can be argued the movie is the product of a ring rusty filmmaker who hadn’t written and directed for 22 years.

You can, of course, find plenty of criticism and vitriol online if that’s your thing – enough to fill the hold of a certain Corellian freighter in fact – but I’d rather focus on what the movie gave us rather than what it didn’t.

A Different Beast

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was 16 years in the making. Crushed under a tidal wave of hype and expectation, its fall was inevitable.

For many, it was a different beast to the one they expected. Fans were angered by the slow and deliberate story. Instead of civil war, we got trade disputes and dry politics instead of balls to the wall action.

Controversially, George Lucas started the prequel trilogy with the story of a nine-year-old boy.

And Midi-chlorians? Let’s not go there.

The thing is, we were given the singular vision of an independent filmmaker famous for preserving his creative freedom to tell the stories he wants. Remember, it was Lucas’ dogged determination that got Episode IV: A New Hope made way back in 1977.

The Phantom Menace was a similar vision – a movie free of meddling studio execs insisting on something safe and familiar (probably a carbon copy of A New Hope). Lucas gave viewers his personal vision for Episode 1, made the way he wanted it. In modern Hollywood, this should be applauded.

World Building

Lucas’ vision, imagination and world building in The Phantom Menace are magnificent. It’s still a bold, innovative and visually stunning movie.

Stylistically and tonally, it’s deliberately different to the original trilogy (OT). Design director, Doug Chiang, describes it as being “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope.”

Unlike the straight-forward narrative and military/industrial style of the OT, the film gave us a somewhat wider, complex and nuanced story.

Design wise, the renaissance architecture of Naboo is rich and glorious – you can almost feel the Mediterranean-like sunshine and vibrant culture.

The art nouveau-inspired Gungan underwater city is beautiful and alien, in contrast to Coruscant, with its cosmopolitan skyscrapers and urban crawl.

We shouldn’t forget the sleek aesthetics of the Naboo starfighters or the Nubian royal starship, either.

We visited Tatooine again – led down the backstreets of Mos Espa and invited into the homes and workplaces of its denizens.

Nor should we forget the exhilarating and reverberating visuals and sounds of the pod race as it screamed across the desert landscape.

Then there’s the movie’s rich costume design, suggesting a society more sophisticated than the one seen in the OT. Queen Amidala, her Orient inspired outfits and makeup, coming to life on the screen.

Darth Maul, also, with his gothic black robes, devil horns and red and black tattoos, evokes images of Japanese demons, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan’s Jedi remind us of Samurai.

Importantly, the production design and set pieces (the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle) are visually stunning – they serve the story, not the other way round.

Duel of the Fates

Gluing it all together is John Williams’ epic score.

The ominous, choral-led Duel of the Fates theme underpinning what is by far the saga’s best lightsaber battle; The fight between Maul, Kenobi and Jinn.

It’s a spiritual movie, too. Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one – prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Episode 1 foreshadows his fall from grace when he later betrays his loved ones and brothers in arms.

Carrying out the devil’s work is Darth Maul, his demon-like appearance again referencing the movie’s spiritual subtext. Even the title, The Phantom Menace, suggest higher powers at play.

Which brings us to Senator Palpatine – the real Phantom Menace.

The two-faced, calculating and Machiavellian politician is a different kind of antagonist. He’s a master manipulator and conspirator. Yes we suspect (know) his secret Sith identity, and we enjoy this knowledge at the expense of the Jedi Counsel and Galactic Senate. Despite his appearance, Palpatine is the movie’s strongest villain.

A Second Chance

The battle for the heart and soul of The Phantom Menace has been fought along two demographic fractures – Generation X and The Millennials.

Fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will probably always hate the movie. Their disappointment is real and ubiquitous – they are not for turning.

But, the ill-will towards Episode 1 has mellowed over time with a shift in how it is viewed.

For older fanboys, arguments about the film’s evils are now said and done. They have moved on, with many choosing to forget and ignore the movie (and prequels) entirely.

The others grew up.

Rightly or wrongly, George Lucas made The Phantom Menace for children – a new generation superseding those of the 70s and 80s.

When released, Episode 1 was probably the first experience of Star Wars these millennial kids had. Like the older fans of the OT, their childhood was shaped by the saga, but this time with heroes like Anakin and Padme (and dare I say it, Jar Jar Binks), not Luke, Leia or Han.

These younglings would eventually have access to six era-jumping movies and a new plethora of toys, comics and video games. Now in their 20s and 30s (some now with children of their own) these girls and boys can nostalgically look back and celebrate a childhood enriched by Star Wars, starting with The Phantom Menace.

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

Thinking back to the early summer of 1999 brings back happy memories. The world was saturated with Episode 1. From posters to Pepsi cans – the hype and excitement was unreal.

Fan fever was stoked with the release of the first trailer in November ‘98 when it burst on to the net. There were news reports of fans buying cinema tickets to see Meet Joe Black, just so they could watch the trailer then leaving the theatre before the film began.

Many fans were still buzzing after the re-release of the original trilogy in their special edition formats. The promise of a new adventure was overwhelming – The Phantom Menace could not come soon enough.

The best memories were seeing the trailer for the first time. It was recorded on VHS; every image and word dissected by me and my friends.

The soundtrack never left the CD player.

Who could forget also the awesome teaser poster of Anakin on Tatooine casting an ominous shadow of Darth Vader?

Variety magazine boasted Annie Leibovitz’s on set photos plus George Lucas’ first Episode 1 interview.

My family – mum, dad and brother – enjoyed an evening out on premiere day. It was a special occasion for everyone.

It didn’t matter that The Phantom Menace didn’t entirely meet expectations, it was Star Wars. The Force was back on the big screen.

Despite having issues with the movie (I still hate those battles droids), I get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling every time I think back to the summer of 1999.

Nostalgia plays a big part of why people love Star Wars – the happy memories. They go together like Chewie and Han.

A Certain Point of View

With the release of The Force Awakens, some fans (me included) have revisited Episode 1.

Watching it again with fresh eyes, it’s possible to rethink the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

This is helped by much in-depth analysis of the prequels online, specifically its defences. For those interested, you can unpack near academic levels of pro arguments. One of these is Ring Theory.

Put simply, it postulates the idea of George Lucas likening the saga to poetry. As he said in the excellent ‘The Beginning’ documentary “it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza should rhyme with the last one.”

Going further, Ring Theory argues the prequels echo their corresponding original trilogy counterparts – in the case of The Phantom Menace, Anakin destroys the droid control ship the same way Luke does with the Death Star. The key difference with the prequels being that the Dark Side wins.

You can find many intelligent and passionate defences of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at your fingertips. All offer a fresh and thought-provoking rethink of the films.

Best of these is The Prequels Strike Back documentary, should you be open to watching it. Remember; it all depends on a certain point of view.

The Clone Wars animated series can also take credit for breathing new life into Episode 1. It brilliantly fleshes out the prequel era, helping fans old and new in their acceptance of a story controversially told by George Lucas 20 years ago.

Acceptance

One of the most famous prequel bashers to rethink The Phantom Menace movie is Simon Pegg.

Calling the movie “a boring, turgid, confused mess,” he recently made a big u-turn in his acceptance of Episode 1 and George Lucas.

“For all the complaining that I’d done,” he says, “there was something amazing about his imagination. I do feel like his voice is missing from the current ones.”

Pegg’s contrition highlights the retro tone of The Force Awakens under Disney, and how different it is to the first prequel movie.

Love or hate The Phantom Menace, Mr Lucas reinforces a point made above: “My previous Star Wars films involved constant innovation. I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – to make it new.”

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace gave new depth to the Star Wars universe. It looked and felt different. It passed the torch to a new generation of fans, without whom there’d probably be no new movies to make and stories to tell.

The cycle will start again with young fans of the sequel trilogy.

At the very least, its legacy gives fans a great excuse to debate, discuss and dissect our favourite galaxy far, far away.

Happy anniversary.

Anthony Murphy – Editor, Rebel Briefing

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