The Phantom Menace, or, It’s the Economy Stupid

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story heading into theaters this Thursday evening I may never have a better excuse to write about one the Star Wars prequel films. Not one to let such an enthralling opportunity pass me by, I’m going for it! I’m not a hater. I’m not an apologist. I’m just a chill AF bro chatting about some stuff I found interesting in Episodes I-III. Does that make me a hero? I’ll leave that to history to blog about.

phantom-menace

YOU KNOW YOU’RE A 90s KID WHEN…

From a macro-view of the entire Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace (chronologically) introduces viewers to a galaxy far, far away by looking in its wallet.

Almost immediately we see what money is worth in the Galactic Republic and it’s startling. This isn’t the utopia of Star Trek. This is a galaxy in which planets are blockaded and invaded over taxes. It’s a galaxy so secular that economic entities have legislative representation and Jedi, warrior monks whose ethos is supposedly one of enlightenment and a heightened sense of the connections between all living things, find themselves involved in monetary squabbles.This is a galaxy in which cultural pillars (economics, politics, spirituality) that had perhaps once, even longer ago, been developed in the interest of advancing civilization have been allowed to stagnate unquestioned into a collection of hollow gestures and half-held truths with the power to disrupt and destroy lives on a massive scale.

But the entire galaxy isn’t weighed down by the rusted machinations of the Republic. From the bloated bureaucracy of the film’s first act we’re whisked away to the Outer Rim and an economy outside of the Republic that operates on the other end of the spectrum with a sort of brutal practicality, but still manages to crush the masses beneath its weight. On Tatooine might is right and wealth is controlled by powers that have a very real ability to immediately impact the day to day lives of those below them on the economic totem pole.

Whether under Republic rule or not, the economic status quo of the galaxy is a sentiment best expressed through one of the film’s signature set pieces – the Podrace.

Anakin Skywalker, the Podracer, is a slave. He’s the lowest of the lower class. For him, for his mother, the Boonta Eve Podrace is literally a matter of life and death. His very existence is on the line.

Qui-Gon Jinn and Padme function as a sort of middle class, at once by no means powerless and by no means in power. The Podrace to them carries strictly economic stakes – the outcome of the race dictates whether or not they will be able to fix their ship, but ultimately doesn’t threaten to directly harm them in any way. They’re shielded and propped up by the lower class, while still being subjected to the rules and regulations of the truly powerful.

Jabba the Hutt is the king of the mountain. The top one percent of the top once percent. For him, it all amounts to entertainment he can’t even manage to stay awake for.

The Phantom Menace introduces us to a galaxy of lives dictated by economic forces beyond their control. In the throes of economic bloat even our heroes, the Jedi, are growing arrogant and cumbersome. What should be the voice of reason and unification grounding the economic flights of fancy of those in power is instead a corrupted institution perpetuating the same kind of economic distinctions that are rotting the Republic from the inside out, for what are our beloved Midichlorians if not spiritual, biological currency?

By the end of The Phantom Menace Anakin Skywalker’s fate is sealed. Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi knight least swayed by the tides of bureaucracy and economics in the Republic, is dead. Had he lived Anakin may have had a more worldly, understanding guide through the tumult of his future. Obi-Wan Kenobi has promised to train the boy. Had he not perhaps Anakin would have been denied entrance into the Jedi order and gone on to lead an unremarkable life amongst the systems of the Republic. Darth Maul is dead (sp?) and a new Sith apprentice must be found. Had Maul remained in the picture the sights of the Sith may never have fallen on Anakin.

The Phantom Menace plays like a sort of Shakespearean prologue to the story of Anakin Skywalker, but for better or worse, tasked with exploring how a Jedi knight becomes Darth Vader, The Phantom Menace and the other prequel films don’t rely on plot points alone. The prequel trilogy isn’t exclusively the story of Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side. Anakin is one man, but the eventual triumph of the Sith requires the failure of good on a galactic level. The Phantom Menace shows us the kind of galaxy capable of that failure, and it isn’t a horrifying lawless hellscape. In fact, it’s horrifyingly boring in the most sinister way.

The Phantom Menace rummages through the garbage of the Star Wars galaxy, poring over old bills and credit card statements to show us that the writing is on the wall, and it’s written in numbers.

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