The situation here is not what it seems. There is something else behind all this...
The Phantom Menace
I think I've already shot down the accusation that The Phantom Menace has a shallow and juvenile story, but now I'm about to take it one step further. I'm going to pull out my English-major analytical skills and perform an intensive, hardcore examination into the many layers of subtext, symbolism and subtlety that are deeply woven into the movie. Warning: if you have no patience for the methods of close textual analysis, and tend to grumble about people "reading too much into" a work of fictional entertainment, then you might as well stop now and proceed to Part IV. But if you've got an open mind and you're interested in an interpretation of the true meanings and implications of Episode I, then I'm about to break it down.
Duality and Symbiosis
"Duality is one of the main themes of the film," George Lucas notes in Laurent Bouzereau's book The Making of Episode I. Duality is the quality of having two parts, or two sides. It's pretty clear that duality is actually a prominent theme in the subtext of the entire Star Wars saga: you can see it in the good side and the dark side of the Force, and in the conflict of the giant Empire versus the tiny Rebel Alliance, and in the relationship shown between technology and humanity. But I think The Phantom Menace explores duality more thoroughly and explicitly than any other the previous episodes.
There can be internal duality within a single person, as well as external duality between two people, two groups, or two concepts that form a whole. Symbiosis is another name for a state of duality between two people or groups, especially when the two parties are dependent on each other for help and mutual advantage. There's a huge variety of duality and symbiosis evident in characters and plot elements throughout The Phantom Menace.
The Three Dualities
The most important instance of duality in the movie is that of Anakin Skywalker. What's interesting is that only one of Anakin's two sides is actually manifested in Episode I, but his eventual duality is intensely palpable nonetheless. The viewer who knows that Anakin will become Darth Vader can't help but think about his future self while watching this innocent little boy. The audience's knowledge casts a sinister and tragic overtone upon the entire movie. Imagine how different everything would seem if you saw The Phantom Menace without any prior knowledge of Star Wars -- completely as the first episode that it is. You'd still have the Jedi Council's misgivings and a few other little clues that Anakin might go bad, but the movie would certainly seem much more breezy and lightweight if you watched it without the foreboding image of Darth Vader looming in your thoughts.
Anakin represents the extreme side of good and the extreme side of evil, both bound together in one. On one level he stands for the innocence of youth that everyone possesses as a child, even criminals, murderers and dictators. Anakin embodies the potential for good and for bad that all of us possess, potentials whose fulfillment depends on the choices we make in life. But Anakin is more complex than just being an "everyman" figure -- after all, he's the chosen one who will bring balance to the Force, so there's a lot about his duality that's unique. His midi-chlorian count, his upbringing on Tatooine and his status as a freed slave influence his relationships with the world around him in many ways, which I'll explore later.
As counterpoints to Anakin's duality, the movie presents other important cases of duality within a person. Appropriately enough, there are two of them. Both of them are people with whom Anakin will be very close in the future: one will be his wife, and the other will be his master.
The duality of Queen Amidala is readily apparent: she is both the cold-mannered monarch and the compassionate handmaiden Padmé. Whereas Anakin represents the duality of good and evil, Amidala demonstrates the inner self versus the external self, and emotion versus social protocol.
Amidala depends on her office as queen to solve the problems she faces when the Trade Federation invades Naboo. She has willingly surrendered her individuality to the pomp and circumstance and the aloof demeanor prescribed by Naboo tradition, confident that her adherence to custom will make her a stronger leader. But when her plea for help from the Senate proves ineffective, Amidala is forced to confront the limitations of her position. It's not enough just to be the Queen -- to find a solution, she has to look within herself, and be herself.
Her Padmé persona is ostensibly a disguise that Amidala adopts for security reasons. But we come to discover (possibly at the same time Amidala does) that the opposite is true: the painted face and the ever-changing ceremonial raiments are the real disguise -- the real "security" measure -- and it's Padmé that represents her true self.
After she makes the decision to go back to Naboo, the two sides of Amidala's personality are melded into one. She now combines her compassion and rebelliousness as Padmé with her authority as the Queen. At the meeting with Boss Nass and the Gungans, Amidala dispenses with the face paint and the secret identity, ready to act as queen on her own terms. Sickened by the politics and duplicity of the Republic, Amidala no longer has any use for decoys and pompous affectations -- her own tricks of deception. Her trip to Coruscant has taught the Queen the value of being true to her personal convictions and being honest to those around her. She's seen that the Republic "no longer functions," and she's determined to be a better leader than those slimy politicians, such as her own senator.
Which brings us to Palpatine, the other important duality-counterpoint figure. The senator from Naboo is also a Dark Lord of the Sith who goes by the name Darth Sidious. The audience knows him by a third name, which is his future title: the Emperor. And you could also rightly call him the phantom menace. Whatever his true name may be, Palpatine is one evil bastard, and Episode I shows us the roots of his corrupt rise to power.
Palpatine is a master of conniving and duplicity. His goal is for the Sith to destroy the Jedi and take control of the galaxy. He knows he couldn't hope to accomplish this takeover openly and by sheer force (especially since there can only be two Sith Lords at time), but he believes he can do it through deception. Palpatine has chosen to play the game of politics to achieve his dark purposes. He has cultivated a persona as a credible and powerful senator, a position he can ultimately use as a springboard to the Supreme Chancellorship. From there, he'll be able to gradually subvert the Republic into his own fascist empire. We already know he will.
In the tradition of many great crimelords and tyrants, Palpatine apparently has a vast network of agents and underlings doing his dirty work for him, so that the Sith remain invisible and Palpatine keeps his hands clean. When he has to interact directly with his hired associates, they know him as Lord Darth Sidious. Ironically, this "disguise" that conceals his identity as the Coruscant politician is actually his true self.
Sidious forms an alliance with moronic representatives from the Trade Federation who think their aggression against Naboo will bring them a huge profit. But Sidious is actually using them as a pawn in an elaborate scheme to get himself elected as Chancellor. He has orchestrated the blockade against Naboo, while at the same time, he has manufactured the Senate's bureaucratic resistance to taking action against the Trade Federation. He is playing both sides against each other, and sacrificing the welfare of the Naboo people, just to provoke outrage at the innocent Chancellor Valorum and stir up sympathy for Naboo, which increases Palpatine's popularity.
When the Trade Federation is defeated and there's a big celebration of peace on Naboo, it looks like the bad guys have lost. But the real bad guy has actually won, and now he's Chancellor Palpatine. True, he's suffered the loss of his apprentice, but he can find another one. Again, we already know he will.
Always Two There Are...
I'll come back to the relationship between Anakin, Amidala and Palpatine later, but now let's look at some of the cases of duality between two people in The Phantom Menace. First, there's Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. We see that the relationship between the master and his apprentice is an intimate one, built on mutual trust and respect. Obi-Wan is a loyal and obedient Padawan on the whole, but there are times when he and Qui-Gon don't see eye to eye.
The main source of friction between them is Qui-Gon's rebellious and independent nature, which often puts him at odds with the Jedi Council. Obi-Wan believes in adhering to orthodox Jedi strictures and he's not afraid to scold his master for his liberal deviations. Qui-Gon is more in tune with the "living Force" of the here and now than most Jedi, which makes him more impulsive and more likely to do his own thing. Their quarrels show us that there is some dissension among the ranks of the Jedi, and introduces the possibility that conventional Jedi thinking on some matters may be questionable, or wrong.
At the conclusion of The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan has lost Qui-Gon and has become a full Jedi Knight in his own right. But more than that, Lucas says, "by the end of the film, he has become Qui-Gon by taking on his rebellious personality and his responsibilities." We'll have to wait until Episode II to discover just how much Obi-Wan has resolved the duality that previously existed between him and his master.
The next most important duality duo in the movie is the evil counterparts to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan: Darth Sidious and Darth Maul, the Dark Lords of the Sith. They too are a master and an apprentice. But unlike the ranks of thousands of Jedi, these two Sith Lords are all there are in their order. (For a look at the reason why there can only be two Sith, see Part V.)
We don't get to learn much about the relationship between Sidious and Maul, but we can see that they complement each other to form a yin-and-yang whole. Maul is the savage id, always poised for action and attack, whereas Sidious is the cool-headed ego, plotting and scheming in the shadows. The apprentice does the dirty work for the master who stays hidden elsewhere. This may be a necessary tactic to ensure the survival of the Sith, sort of the same way the president and vice-president try to stay separated, so they don't both get killed at the same time.
Maul's death leaves a gaping vacuum, unavoidably making us think of how Anakin will eventually fill the vacated position of Sith apprentice. Anakin won't be Maul's immediate successor, because Lucas has revealed that one of the recurring themes of the new trilogy will be how Sidious keeps running out of apprentices. But the foreshadowing of Vader is already there in Maul's absence, and we know that Palpatine may already have his eye on young Skywalker as a potential apprentice candidate.
Anakin initiates relationships of duality with three key people in The Phantom Menace: Obi-Wan, his new Jedi master; Amidala, his future love; and Palpatine, his future Sith master. Anakin has only just met all of these people at the end of Episode I, but his connections with each of them will develop to form the crux of the next two movies.
Symbiosis between two groups is a frequently recurring motif throughout The Phantom Menace. Twice the word "symbiont" is actually spoken in the dialogue: Obi-Wan points out the symbiont circle between the Naboo and the Gungans, and Qui-Gon explains that the midi-chlorians are symbionts with all lifeforms.
Additionally, there is symbiosis between the Jedi and the Republic, between the Sith and the Trade Federation, and between the Senate and its constituent systems. In all of these cases, each party relies on the other for help that's needed if they are to prosper and achieve their goals. The cooperation found in these symbioses isn't always harmonious.
The Naboo and the Gungans are two intelligent races sharing the planet Naboo, but they've built a wall of prejudice and separatism between themselves. Each group hardly ever bothers to think about the other's existence, not even when a threat from outside endangers their entire planet. It's only by realizing their dependence on each other and joining forces that the Naboo and the Gungans are able to win back their freedom.
The Jedi and the Republic have worked together for over a thousand generations to preserve peace and justice in the galaxy. Their symbiosis represents a balance between the laws of politics (as ruled by the democratic Senate) and the laws of nature (as related via the Force). These two sets of laws aren't always going to agree, and one will have to overrule the other. The Jedi seem to have become complacent and subservient to the will of the Republic, requiring the approval of the Senate before they take will serious action of any kind. Palpatine seizes upon this imbalance as the vulnerability that will bring about the Jedi's undoing.
The Sith and the Trade Federation have a deceitful and petty symbiotic relationship, with Palpatine relying on the nimwitted Neimoidians to be the public entity that helps him execute his secret aims. The greedy Federation is apparently under the impression that they will profit fabulously from their deal with the Sith, but it's clear that Palpatine never has any intention of rewarding them for their help. Nute Gunray and his goons are getting sent off to trial, while nearby, Chancellor Palpatine is beaming with pride over his new elected office. He has used the Trade Federation for his own ends and then thrown them to the dogs. Palpatine's betrayal of his "partners" is a foreshadowing of how he's later going to stab the Republic and the Jedi in the back.
The symbiosis between the Republic and its member systems is one of the most far-reaching themes in The Phantom Menace. There is a dichotomy established between the Republic worlds and the non-member worlds of the outer rim territories. Republic systems are guaranteed the rights of peace and freedom and the protection of the Jedi, whereas the outer rim worlds are not. The Jedi are well aware of slavery and other injustice that's perpetrated in the outer fringes of the galaxy, but it's not their jurisdiction. The Jedi supposedly follow the ways of the Force, but the Force has no regard for political boundaries -- only for the universal good. Qui-Gon's respect for the will of the Force over the will of the Republic is what brands him as reckless and defiant. These tendencies will be even stronger in former slave Anakin when he becomes a Jedi, and that conflict in Jedi principles could be a large part of what turns him to the dark side.
Naboo is actually a world caught in the middle, halfway a member of the Republic and halfway not. It's near Tatooine, so we know it must be right on the far edge of the Republic's reach. Only the Naboo people of Queen Amidala are represented in the Senate -- the Gungans have no connection to the Republic, and Senator Palpatine certainly does not speak for them. On Coruscant, Amidala learns that Naboo's membership in the Republic is meaningless to her, since the Senate won't aid her invaded planet. The Republic is an empty illusion, devoid of the noble virtues it appears to possess on the surface -- just like her senator.
To underscore all the symbiont circles represented in The Phantom Menace, the movie is filled with symbolic imagery of circles. At all the major gathering places where appeals for help are made, the members of the group sit in a circle: Amidala's court at Theed, Boss Nass's court at Otah Gunga, the Jedi Council chamber, the huge dome of the Republic Senate, and even the humble dinner table at Anakin's slave hovel. The Trade Federation battleships are circular in shape. The podrace follows a circular course. Even the entire plot action of the movie is a giant circle: we begin at Naboo, take a tour of both the lowliest and the grandest systems of the galaxy, and end up back at Naboo again.
The Situation Has Become More Complicated
Okay. Now that we're outlined all of these different dualities and symbiotic relationships, let's take a closer look at how they fit together and intermingle throughout the course of the movie. Remember that Anakin, Amidala and Palpatine as the three primary figures of duality in The Phantom Menace, and consider the relationships that develop between the three of them. It's useful to think about Amidala and Palpatine as polar opposites, with Anakin balanced in the middle between them.
Early in the movie, Palpatine is communicating with Amidala via hologram. The two leaders are both from Naboo, but they are very far apart, both in physical distance and in philosophy. Palpatine's hologram calls to mind the hologram of Darth Sidious that just appeared in the previous scene, hinting that the two are the same person (and the ghostly holograms also symbolize that Palpatine/Sidious is the "phantom" menace). Fittingly, Palpatine's first words are lies he is telling Amidala. His transmission breaks up, garbling his speech, as if to illustrate his phoniness.
After the Jedi rescue Amidala and her entourage from being taken to prisoner camps, she accepts their offer (while in her Padmé disguise, by giving her decoy a signal of consent) to accompany them to Coruscant. Thus does Amidala's journey toward Palpatine become a driving thrust of the movie. Palpatine doesn't want her to come -- he wants her to sign the treaty and stay put on Naboo, where she can't interfere with his schemes.
You might interpret the movie as saying that the Force doesn't want Amidala to go to Coruscant, either. If we trust the Jedi philosophy that nothing happens by accident, then there's a reason why the royal starship had to make a stopover on Tatooine. It's as if the Force knew there was some bad stuff brewing between Amidala and Palpatine that needed to be taken care of, so it stepped in and threw Anakin Skywalker into the mix.
Qui-Gon is responsible for bringing Anakin to the Jedi, but Amidala has to get the credit for making first contact with young Skywalker. Anakin and Amidala seem to form an instant bond -- yes, it's good old-fashioned love at first sight, even if the two don't exactly realize it. ("Are you an angel?" Man, what a smooth operator!) Qui-Gon ignores Anakin on the first pass through Watto's shop, and it's only because Anakin goes scampering after Padmé that the Jedi Master takes note of the boy.
Anakin is symbolically connected to the suns of Tatooine. Hardcore Star Wars fans are familiar with Lucas's early drafts of Star Wars, which cited a prophecy from the apocryphal Journal of the Whills: "...And in the time of greatest despair there shall come a savior, and he shall be known as: THE SON OF THE SUNS." This may or may not be the same as the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force. (Incidentally, in the celebration on Coruscant at the end of the Return of the Jedi Special Edition, as well as the celebration on Naboo at the end of The Phantom Menace, you can hear a faint voice yelling, "The Son of the Suns! The Son of the Suns!" Make of that what you will.) Not only is he the Son of the Suns, Anakin is also like a sun himself, in the way his potential with the Force shines out with unbridled power.
When the repaired royal starship resumes its voyage to Coruscant, Anakin feels cold as he leaves behind the Tatooine suns -- possibly in part having a premonition that he has begun the path to his dark destiny. Padmé comforts Anakin and shares a bittersweet moment with him. "Many things will change when we reach the capital, Ani," she says. She realizes that her true identity is going to impede her continued friendship with Anakin, and you can sense her regret that her duality forces her to make choices between her personal life and her public role as queen.
When the royal starship finally arrives on Coruscant, note that it's afternoon with the sun shining brightly. This signifies the arrival of Anakin Skywalker. The low-angle camera shots during the reception with Valorum and Palpatine also tell us to consider the scene from Anakin's point of view. Anakin will ultimately prove to be the most important person unboarding the ship (to Palpatine, in particular), but he gets almost completely ignored. Padmé gives him a smile and Qui-Gon embraces him by the shoulders, demonstrating that they are the only two people who recognize Ani's worth. He is the chosen one, the Son of the Suns, but to the political establishment of the Republic, he's an inconsequential little child from a poor, worthless outer rim system -- he's nobody that matters.
It's significant that Jar Jar Binks gets blown off at the reception, as well. Palpatine surely knows who the Gungans are and realizes how unusual it is to see one on Coruscant, and the proper diplomatic act would be to greet this fellow native of Naboo and welcome him to the capital. But Palpatine doesn't even give Jar Jar a second glance. Anakin and Jar Jar both represent the disenfranchised peoples who are beneath the Republic's concern.
Now let's turn to the important relationship that's unfolding in the foreground: Amidala coming face to face with Palpatine. It's really intriguing how they need each other for help. Amidala needs her senator to convince the Republic to help Naboo, while Palpatine needs her to sign the treaty and acquiesce to the Trade Federation invasion. Neither one is successful in getting these favors from the other. So both of them arrive an alternative solutions.
Palpatine realizes that Amidala is much more strong-willed than he estimated, and she's not going to surrender to the Trade Federation without a fight. So instead of depending on her to sign the treaty and passively keep out of the political process in the Senate, he manipulates her into calling for a vote of no confidence in Chancellor Valorum. This was Palpatine's real objective, anyway: he just wants to clear the way for him to take over the Republic, by whatever means necessary.
Amidala is oblivious to the machinations that Palpatine uses her to accomplish, but she definitely realizes that the Senate is overrun with bullshit. Her faith in the Republic has been shattered, and she no longer unquestioningly trusts her senator. But she hasn't yet figured out what she should do next.
Meanwhile, Anakin is facing his own struggle with rejection that parallels Amidala's. He is tested by the Jedi Council at sunset, with Coruscant's sun forming a giant fireball behind him that glares directly in the eyes of Yoda and Mace Windu. Clearly, that symbolizes how Anakin's immense power is blinding to the Jedi Council. After the testing scene, we see the sun sink below the horizon, and twilight descends on Coruscant. This is a foreshadowing of the Council's ruling on Anakin, but it represents more than that. We are watching the sun set on the Old Republic, figuratively as well as literally. Its glorious days have ended, and darkness is about to fall.
In the very next scene, we get the news that Palpatine has been nominated to succeed Chancellor Valorum. He is now just one step away from his goal, and the Republic is just one step away from collapse. But Amidala smells a rat. The notion of Palpatine as Chancellor is no encouragement to her whatsoever. From the look on her face, it actually seems to disgust her. The Republic is irrelevant to her now, no matter who's in charge. With some inspiration from Jar Jar, she decides to return to Naboo and deal with the invasion crisis strictly on her own terms.
Then we cut back to the Jedi Council chamber, where the skies outside the windows are now dark with evening. The Council rules that Anakin will not be trained, on the grounds that he is too old, and there is too much anger and fear in him. But the Council appears to be suffering from some fears of its own. Anakin personifies all the greatest threats the Jedi Council dreads most: the unknown, the untamed, the world outside their control.
He comes from a minor outer-rim system outside the Republic, and beyond the Jedi's realm of concern. As a slave, Anakin represents the Jedi's shame at leaving the people in lawless non-Republic systems to rot. As the lifeform with the highest midi-chlorian count ever measured, raised in an emotional environment of personal hardship, Anakin represents the overlooked potential of those uncontrolled systems to become more powerful than the Republic and the Jedi. Anakin forces the Council to face the reality that the Jedi do not have a monopoly over the Force. He is everything that the Jedi would prefer to ignore and lock away and forget about. Considering all this, it really comes as no surprise that the Council initially refuses to accept the boy into their order.
Anakin's fate is put on hold while Amidala and the Jedi return to Naboo. In the process of forming an alliance with the Gungans, Amidala disposes of her dual identity and lets her true self emerge to handle the situation. Just as Palpatine devised a "Plan B" that worked when he couldn't get Amidala to sign the treaty, Amidala also find success in taking back Naboo from the Trade Federation. Of course, her victory is not such a long-term victory as Palpatine's is. And needless to say, the triumph on Naboo owes much to the unexpected assistance of Anakin. Here again, the Force is intervening in the Amidala-Palpatine conflict by putting the chosen one into the equation.
Note the different ways that Amidala and Palpatine find solutions when they each are confronted with difficult problems. Amidala succeeds by discarding her duality -- her pretenses and disguises -- and choosing to be herself. Palpatine, on the other hand, accomplishes his goal by embracing his duality -- by delving further into his bag of double-dealing tricks and lies. Both of them require outside help and cooperation, but where Amidala has the honest friendship of the Jedi, the Gungans and Anakin, Palpatine uses and betrays Amidala and the Trade Federation, neither of whom realize what they are doing to benefit him.
Amidala's duality is resolved and unified by the end of the movie, but Palpatine's is left intact. We know that will change when he later becomes Emperor, and the two halves of Palpatine and Sidious will merge together, just as the two halves of Amidala and Padmé have done. And Anakin's duality has yet to even emerge -- his fate as Darth Vader will eventually unfold, and in the end, after Luke saves him, Anakin will return to his original state of oneness again.
To finish things up, now I'm going to reveal the single coolest bit of symbolism in the whole movie. The greatest tragedy that occurs in The Phantom Menace is the collapse of the Republic. It does happen in the movie, but you can very easily miss it -- because it takes place offscreen. That event is the election of Chancellor Palpatine. We don't get to see it happen, but we get to see it symbolically represented during the battle on Naboo.
Anakin's destruction of the Trade Federation droid control ship symbolizes Palpatine's takeover of the Republic. That may sound crazy, but hear me out.
Both events take place at roughly the same time. Anakin innocently uses the good side of the Force to infiltrate his enemy's stronghold, without even trying. Palpatine uses deceitful conspiracy and the dark side of Force to assume supreme authority over the Republic by working his way up from within. Anakin accidentally destroys the battleship by torpedoing into its main reactor. Palpatine intentionally destroys the Republic by torpedoing Chancellor Valorum and setting himself up as the most appealing successor. With their command hub demolished, the directionless battle droids collapse in lifeless heaps. It's a jubilant victory for the good guys on the surface, but on a deeper level, those broken-down droids represent all the free worlds of the Republic, which have just fallen into tyranny as a result of an election far away on Coruscant. No one but Palpatine knows it yet, but the Republic is already dead.
That should do it for my analysis of symbolism, duality and symbiosis in The Phantom Menace. I'm sure some of the meanings I've identified are pure imaginings that George Lucas never intended, and I'm sure I've missed a lot of things that are really there. But I hope at least I've given you a fresh perspective on the depth and complexity of Episode I. I don't ever want to hear any smart-ass tell me again that this movie has a simple-minded plot, dammit.
And that will be enough of me preaching on and on about how good The Phantom Menace is. I understand there are those who think the movie sucks. Now it's time for me to deal with them.
Let's get ready to rumble.
IV. Crush Us, Grind Us into Little Pieces, and Blast Us into Oblivion
Bad plot, bad characters, bad acting, bad everything?