It can be a very good exercise to look at a movie based solely on what it is trying to say, rather than how well plotted it is, if it has good mise en scène, or if Jar Jar Binks is annoying for 132 consecutive minutes (he is). Because I found that when watching Star Wars: The Phantom Menace through this specific lens, I perhaps got more out of it than I ever had before.
Judging this movie based solely on its thematic elements, it is clear that it is trying to say some very specific things. It also does a lot of world building, has legitimately fun action sequences (the Duel of the Fates and yes, the pod race), and contains some objective trash, but this thematic lens through which to watch the movie does bring about some ideas that may not be extremely apparent on the surface.
Through the course of the film, I identified five major themes. Some of these are contained within this specific movie, others plant the seeds of what will come down the road in Star Wars, and some have a mixture of both. Again, this is not an exploration of the quality of the film, but rather its philosophical ideas.
The biggest theme or idea that TPM seems to be obviously exploring is change. Each major character has a big change coming in their lives that alters the way that they see and interact with the world around them.
Qui-Gon has recently discovered a child who he wholeheartedly believes is the Chosen One to bring balance to the Force. This causes him to significantly alter the way he thinks and acts. Previously, he was a Jedi who would do the will of the Council because it was his duty. But everything changes when he meets Anakin. His worldview shifts, and therefore so does his main personal mission. Anakin is a character who comes to act as a Christ-like figure in this movie (more on that soon), and for Qui-Gon, finding Anakin is like a person finding Christ. He finds a new purpose, and in the end, he gives his life to make sure Anakin stays alive for the balance that he will bring.
Obi-Wan’s arc is similar to Qui-Gon’s in that he comes to believe in a cause bigger than himself. Starting out as a Padawan, Obi-Wan is still being taught the ways of the Force. But when Anakin enters the picture, Obi-Wan is being prepared to be thrust into a new position that he was not expecting to be in so soon. Life comes at you fast, and you have to be prepared for it to take you anywhere. At the completion of his arc in this film, Obi-Wan has accepted this change and is ready to train Anakin himself.
Padmè, Jar Jar, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Palpatine each find themselves in a very different position at the end of this film than they were in at the beginning. But it is definitely Anakin who has the most to learn and grow due to the new facets of life that are thrown his way in TPM.
As a 9 year-old slave, Anakin didn’t know any life other than the one he lived on Tatooine. He’s such a young kid who has never experienced a different planet, let alone leaving his mother and home planet for good to learn to become a Jedi. This of course begets uncertainty, which all change tends to do. He doesn’t know if or when he will ever see his mother again and in the most emotionally touching scene in the entire film, he promises to return one day to free her. What makes this especially powerful is the strength that Shmi Skywalker shows when she tells Anakin to leave and not look back. As a grown adult, she knows well the feeling that Anakin has at this time. She’s learned that when faced with a moment of huge change, it is best to move forward. As Qui-Gon says when Obi-Wan notes that Yoda had told him to be mindful of the future, “But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, young Padawan.” All you can control is the moment that you are in – it is best to focus on that.
The idea of change also works on a meta level. This was the first Star Wars movie to come out in over a decade. Fans expected it to be a certain way based on the Original Trilogy. But when it finally arrived, there was something almost completely different. They would have to learn to accept this change going forward.
The Value of Life
Perhaps the most intriguing theme to me personally is how much Anakin values other lives. Almost as soon as he is introduced, we see his kindness and desire to help those who are in need. He laments how he is not looked at as a person because he is a slave, which holds him back from helping. Even the fact that he says he can fix anything shows his propensity towards helping. Whether it is a pod racer or a group of strangers he just met, he wants to help put it back together. He says the biggest problem in the world is that no one helps each other, and that becomes the embodiment of what he stands for as a character.
Qui-Gon and Shmi discuss how unusual it is for Anakin to be so completely unselfish. He gives without a thought of reward, as his mother puts it. Anakin just does these things because helping is the right thing to do. His kindness does not discriminate.
This makes for an interesting contrast, then, with the way Qui-Gon values lives. When given the choice between freeing either Anakin or Shmi, he without hesitation chooses Anakin. In reality, it is probably the same choice that most people would make. Shmi even would have likely made the same choice herself. But it is still a choice that proves costly in the long run. Shmi’s condition only gets worse, which in turn acts as a catalyst for Anakin’s eventual turn to the Dark Side. This all goes to show how blurred the lines can be. Anakin seemed like the perfect savior, but circumstances larger than himself seem to cause him to become a monster… but more on that when we get there.
The Force as Religious Metaphor
This is definitely the most well-known theme in all of Star Wars. Though TPM throws a specific wrinkle into the “Force is God” idea. Midi-chlorians being inside all of those who are strong with the Force is a very religiously-based idea. They act as God living inside his followers.
To compare it to Christian theology, the Force itself is the Father, which has its own will and guides people in their lives. Anakin is positioned as the Son, or the Christ-like figure – the savior of the oppressed and those in need. And the midi-chlorians represent the Spirit, which lives inside all those who ascribe to the Jedi religion. This becomes even more fascinating in The Last Jedi, and I’m super excited to dive into that.
In this film, the Force already plays a major role in the story, but it is rather small compared to others in the franchise. Even so, it is a great introduction to the many spiritual and religious ideas that will be brought up and explored throughout the entirety of this series.
Uncertainty / A Growing Evil Threat
Once the gang arrives on Coruscant it is made clear how much darkness and uncertainty there is surrounding Anakin. Yes, he seems like an exceptional kid whose only dream is to help those around him, but he still just went through a huge life change. This change puts much uncertainty into his heart as he is unsure of what will happen to him, or his mom back home.
In a better situation, he would have just been uncertain of the future, since it is mysterious and unknowable. But Anakin is young and in a strange new place, so he feels lots of fear. And as Master Yoda says, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.” This is a very obvious foreshadowing to the anger, hate, and suffering that will affect Anakin and those he loves.
Even though we don’t see Anakin’s full character arc in this movie, that prescient line from Yoda is still incredibly powerful. It would be easy to break down one section of the sentence at a time and apply it in real life circumstances.
The final major theme of this film is the much-maligned political intrigue. But now in 2019, 20 years after this film was originally released, its politics are eerily relevant. The two largest political ideas this movie shares are how the Gungans start out by being very wary of outsiders. It isn’t until the end where they are helped by outsiders that everyone is able to unite together towards a specific cause.
Secondly, senator Palpatine using nefarious methods to rise to the top of the political world draws real world parallels. It shows that with some cunning, or with good people behind you, corruptly obtaining power is entirely within reach.
So even though TPM is almost definitely the worst Star Wars film, it is still a worthy entry into the prestigious canon. If you look just one layer beneath the surface, there is plenty to think about and sink your teeth into.