04 July 2021 438 Views

Happy July 4th! How The Phantom Menace is actually all about that very idea..

by James Murphy

STAR WARS AND AMERICA: They are fused in symbolism. 

Think about it! George Lucas built a brand, an empire (!) from the ground up, through innovation, collaboration, inspiration and a dogged determination to execute his vision. A tapestry of cultures, stories, imagery, mythology, motif and an ode to facing every kind of villainy possible from blue collar mob to militarist fascism.

That IS the American Dream. Mergers of ideals into one. Tributes to the past in a forging of futures, grabbed in the pressing present. The sense that disparate groups can be reconciled in service of an ideal, with micro communities, collaborating, against the odds, inspired by the bravest of individuals who dare to improve themselves and take control of their own destinies.

That corporate synergy is the primary reason, among many possibilities, for STAR WARS‘ success as a leading symbol of American pop culture and philosophy, on a global stage. It’s why, despite occasional misfire, the legacies endure and coexist into one gigantic tapestry.

 

It is no secret that Lucas tapped many an historical precedent in crafting his stories. Storm Troopers = Nazis. Smugglers = Cowboys. X Wings = spitfires. And so on. If you take that template too far and too literally, then you compromise the fantasy and imagination.

That is why having ‘bombers’ and ‘fuel’ etc in THE LAST JEDI is such a big mistake (much as I defend that experimental movie, especially its Arthurian treatment of Luke Skywalker and the fun of a space casino set-piece).

By contrast: MANDALORIAN and BAD BATCH pitch things just perfectly: taking a wartime / post war landscape (space scape?) and weaving inter-connected yet self contained serial fiction into that pattern.

The closest companion to the actual narratives on the independence of America, in this Star Wars toy box is, for me, THE PHANTOM MENACE. It’s by no means perfect, of course, as cinema. Much maligned, albeit largely, unfairly. I can overlook its childish inanities and commercial opportunism as well as the lazy retreading of previous episode’s locations and character beats. Because it maps the independence process.

Trade wars and tariffs led to the creation of America as you know it. A new world, build upon trade, was forged from rebellion against draconian taxation regimes. The British knew they were losing their American prize and realised that, unchecked, America would in effect take their place.

So they placed impossible rates on any non Brit products imported to American territories. Rather than weakening the departing colony however, the British had thereby created the very giant they feared from day one. One empire would displace another. A cycle of power was ending and in its ashes, another was born.

Is it fair to depict America as an ’empire’? Yes. Because it is that. An empire of opportunity and ideas, of commerce, creativity and concentric communities. USA = NEW WORLD. Globalism is the gift and legacy from that. Are there dark sides and misfires? Sure! Is there a sense that even American visions can be displaced by new pretenders in the likes of China? Absolutely. But those darker sides (!) need not define the entire project, either through historical revisionism or current worldview and future legacy.

Back to the Star Wars parallel: The phantom menace of the movie’s title is read a number of ways. It is the re-emergent ‘Sith’ evil and the Emperor in waiting, playing all sides to build what will become a galactic construct at his disposal. The film itself, for all that? Remains an upbeat, optimistic and  fast paced, colourful romp, whose sheer joy in effects innovation and sound and light are childishly infectious. 

The primary villains to be defeated are a trade association in space, pressing the more independent minded planets into an oppressive monopoly. And though their downfall is mastered in part through what transpires as malevolent conspiracy, even that momentary victory can be celebrated at the end.

One empire is weakened and desperately reaches to consolidate power, so spelling its own doom, a cycle repeated by the next antagonist power block in the saga and again, on repeat, indefinitely. The balance between all those competing and conflicting forces is found in the grit, determination, optimism, reconciliation, redemption and diverse talents of the heroes fighting daily battles to survive and endure.

THAT is Star Wars. And THAT is AMERICA: An empire of individuality, between and beyond its counterparts, competitors and opposing antagonists. That’s what they have in common. That and starting in Britain, of course (USA /UK enjoy a special relationship, still; Star Wars is filmed largely in English studio spaces..the force is still strong). 

Happy July 4th.



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