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A Rebellion Betrayed from Within?

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
Reviewed by James Kelley

Somehow, I get the impression Jim Kelley didn't like this movie much. For more of Jim's no-nonsense writings, check Kelley's Planet. Also, if you differ with Jim's review, you might also want to check out his followup comments, here

Well, I've seen it. You know what "it" is - Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace (abbrev. hence TPM). I must admit I was pretty eager: Star Wars came out when I was 10 years old, the same age as Jake Lloyd, the kid who plays Anakin, is now, and I was enthralled. Not only was it the kind of slam-bang adventure kids are bored by nowadays but, to my precocious 10-year old mind, it was a moral picture; it showed Good not only triumphing over Evil, but deserving to. The next two Star Wars movies did the same, and I gave them the same approval. For one as indignant at his own Evil Empire as I was, the Star Wars universe was an affirmation.

That is why I am so pissed about TPM. It seems George Lucas has turned traitor.

(WARNING: plot spoilers follow. I hope you read on anyway, as I want to spoil it enough that you don't go to see it.)

To start with, the Jedi are working for the Bad Guys. Our "heroes," Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan MacGregor) are, in fact, interstellar revenooers. You see, the Galactic Republic has imposed taxes on all trade routes to the planet Naboo - you know, kinda like the bully who won't let you walk down his street unless you pay him some "protection." The Trade Federation is, of course, opposed to this, i.e. they are tax protesters. So far, not good.

The two Jedi are there to "negotiate" with the Trade Federation reps - that is, to intimidate them. They behave just like any other powerful bureaucrats dealing with "rebel scum" in that they expect to walk all over an opponent they condescendingly believe cannot resist them. In this they are not much different than Louis Freeh, the FBI criminal who presided over the murder of the Branch Davidians, except they do it with lightsabers.

To make his tax collectors look good, Lucas has the TF reps being secretly advised and motivated by Darth Sidious, an "evil" Lord of the Sith, which is supposedly a religion based on power alone. If you ask me, all governments are recruiting organizations for the Sith, and the two Jedi are at least acolytes if not priests. Anyway, it's telling that Lucas equates tax rebellion with evil. Makes you wonder what the Jedi would have done in 1776.

So they fight. There's an invasion. Somehow the tax protesters have now become militarist conquerors, though that doesn't make much sense. Still, it works great for anyone wanting to equate tax resistance with evil, as Lucas seems to. Evidently making a case for the legitimacy of tax resistance would make the film too cerebral for Lucas' intended 10-year old audience. Or maybe he wants to avoid getting sued by parents for putting "anti-social" ideas in their childrens' heads.

Lots more happens, all prettymuch action and adventure based on the previous set-up, until we get to Tatooine. Tatooine is controlled by the Hutts, who are assumed to be rotten scum, maybe because they have successfully resisted the Republic's taxes. On Tatooine are Anakin Skywalker and his mother, Shmi, who are both slaves. It turns out that they have implants, apparently part of a Tatooinian Global Positioning System, which not only report their location to their "masters" but also can be used to kill them if they escape.

Nevermind that no slaver in his right mind would kill a valuable slave; that's nonsensical enough. What's really nonsensical though, as well as morally reprehensible, is that our Heroes condone slavery.

Oh, they pay lip service to how bad it is alright. Yeah, slavery's real bad. Well, if it's so bad, why don't they do something about it? All they need do is kill the Skywalkers' master, surely a morally acceptable act. After all, in Star Wars Obi-Wan hacked an alien's arm off in the cantina just for shoving Luke Skywalker. But that's supposed to happen about 50 years after this movie; maybe he's had a change of heart in between.

This time Qui-Gon, who is Obi-Wan's master, at least in an academic sense, offers to buy Anakin and his mom. He gets Anakin only, and when Anakin asks "aren't you going to free my mom?" he replies, "I can't."

I can't!!? This sounds more like the bureaucratic "I can't" than anything else. The irresponsible "I can't." The "I can't" you get when you want someone behind a desk to bend a stupid rule, or when you ask a friend for a small amount of cash.

It is not "I can't" as in "This is physically impossible for me to accomplish."

It is "I can't" as in "This is distasteful or inconvenient to me, and I don't care about you, really."

Qui-Gon evidently wants to get the boy under his influence because he is "The Chosen One" yet refuses to help the boy's only relative, and his mother at that. Well, it makes perfect sense for a power-mongering bureaucrat: he wants control. The mother would interfere with that. No doubt if he had been able to buy her, he would have found some way to eliminate her later anyway. This is just convenient, that's all.

And what's all this about a "Chosen One" anyway? I don't like the sound of that; I never do. I've seen a lot of movies in which a character who is "The Chosen One" is essentially forced into service by people he doesn't even know, for reasons he may not even be told (the ostensible reasons given being only nominally believable) and he's expected to like it. Because of the script, of course, the Chosen One does like it. Well, I don't like it.

There is no reason why someone should be pressed into servitude, which is always of a lethal nature in these stories, just because he is "The Chosen One." Chosen by whom? And since when did their choice count for squat when it's not their life that's on the line?? What kind of "wholesome" values is Lucas (or any other filmmaker) trying to impart with such altruism?

Maybe that's exactly it: altruism. Self-sacrifice. Taking your own life for the benefit of others. Or, as Mr. Spock would put it, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

Jesus H. Kirk -- has Star Wars become Star Trek?

It would seem so. This Star Wars movie appears to be in a whole different moral universe than the first three. In those films everyone was out for his own benefit, and there was nothing wrong with that. After all, the rebels weren't rebelling for anyone else's sake, but for their own. Now it would appear this is some kind of sin, and the supposed Good Guys are all a bunch of fake altruists.

I say fake just to remind you of how redundant that is. All altruism is fake, because altruism is supposed to be "selfless," and nobody does anything "selflessly." We can't. We are, after all, self-directed creatures, and everything we do can only be done because we want to. Thus, everything we do is by our own choice, and so we are fulfilling our own wishes. Every act is selfish, no matter what it is. It cannot be otherwise.

Those who pretend to be "selfless" or, more commonly, encourage you to be, are just trying to con you into acting for their benefit, and usually against yours. Nobody ever benefitted from being an altruist; they only benefit from getting others to be altruists. Remember that the next time you hear someone talking about "sacrifice" and "public service."

Or, as William S. Burroughs put it so eloquently, "Whenever some sonofabitch tells you to look to the stars, it's because he's got his hand in your pocket." Maybe that's especially appropriate in the case of a movie about life among the stars.

I had to ask myself, is there ANY redeeming value in this movie at all?

Well, maybe some. Senator Palpatine (Ian MacDiarmid) is supposed to be the Big Bad Dude himself - Palpatine will later be the Emperor of the first 3 films, and here he is also revealed as Darth Sidious - but he appears to be a sincere political reformer who is disgusted at the Republic's being run by bureaucrats. In this he is much like critics of our own republic, in particular Newt Gingrich or Trent Loot - sorry, Lott - who rail against the power of entrenched office-holders while being exactly that. I'm not saying they're sincere, just that they appear sincere to some.

And we know where Palpatine will take us. From the Republic, he makes an Empire, finally an honest despotism where there is no longer even any lip service to "representation." His argument for this, expressed to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) is something about "efficiency." Sound familiar?

Add to this the Jedi Council, a bunch of self-important snots who consider themselves the "guardians of the galaxy." They sit in their own council chamber and act as a kind of super-Senate. The Jedi are the enforcers of the Republic's laws, but see themselves as protectors of What's Right, "Right" evidently being whatever the Senate wants. They are in fact the very bureaucrats Palpatine complains about, though Lucas tries to make them appear noble.

In this I cannot help but see our own thugocrats - the FBI, ATF, Navy SEALs, State Highway Patrol etc. Like them, the Jedi think they're on some kind of holy mission. Like them, the Jedi think nobody can live without them. Also like them, the Jedi do what they're told in support of their tyrant masters.

If you know your Star Wars FAQ, you know that the "rebellion" is actually a war by one government against another, that is, between the Empire and the so-called New Republic. That's right, Princess Leia Organa - originally Senator Organa if you recall - is a politician. That means Luke and Han, supposedly two strong and independent freedom-fighters, are not only servants of the New Boss but, ah, "pussy-whipped" as well (and poor Luke isn't even Getting Any!).

All this makes Tatooine seem like an offshore haven in a galaxy of warmongers. Sure it's controlled by the Hutts, but would you prefer the Empire or the New Republic? At least the Hutts are small-timers; they only control one planet, and anyway, all they want is loot. Pay them off and they'll leave you alone. That's a lot better than interstellar extortionists from the Empire or, worse, moralizing goody-goodies from the New Republic. And with the Hutts, take off from Tatooine and you leave them behind. Can't say that about interstellar gub'mint.

Hmmm ... maybe Lucas isn't such a traitor after all. Could it be that he's put more subtlety in these movies than most of us will ever perceive? Could he posibly want us to see how rotten the supposed "guardians of the galaxy" really are? Making his "heroes" tax collectors and tyrants would seem to be the work of a rebel gone statist, but maybe he's just gotten even more subversive with the passing years.

You know, I wrote the conclusion to this article before I finished it, so sure was I of TPM's repugnance. It went:

In conclusion, friends, I am disgusted by the latest Star Wars picture. I thought I would like it; I expected to love it. I feel now that George Lucas might as well be named Benedict Arnold, after another traitor who thought he stood on the moral high ground.

Now, though, I must write it differently, like this:

In conclusion, friends, I am intrigued by the latest Star Wars picture. At first I thought it was atrocious, a terrible thing to direct at children, but now I'm not so sure. Maybe Lucas gives the kids more credit than I did. I feel now that George Lucas might as well be named Bill Clinton, after another apparent statist pig who has actually done more to destroy people's faith in government than Ayn Rand could ever hope to.

Friends, this may be the most subversive anarchist movie of all.

And don't forget, it's for the children.

James Kelley, May 21, 1999

1999 James Kelley

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05 June, 1999