[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]It’s Star Wars Week here at Christ and Pop Culture! To celebrate we are posting early reprints of each feature from the recently published “Star Wars Special Tribute Edition” of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine! You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Over the years, it was very easy to grow jaded toward the Star Wars prequels, very easy to see their flaws and to remind myself of the cringe-worthy sand monologues and the overbearing antics of Jar Jar Binks. So before rewatching The Phantom Menace after many years, I made a deliberate effort to set aside my preconceived notions and enter with no expectations to enjoy the film, no expectations to hate the film, and no expectations to flinch.
I actually did flinch.
It’s not an uncommon experience for children: Littlefoot’s mother, Stoick the Vast, and probably the most famous example, Mufasa. It’s that one parental figure that you, as a child, look up to and adore, and then the movie cruelly ends them. Growing up, The Phantom Menace was my Mufasa moment.
As a kid, I knew that last fight sequence to the point of memorization. I knew the exact moment to look away. Qui-Gon takes Maul’s hilt to the chin, staggers, and . . . then black. My eyes were shut until I heard Obi-Wan scream, and I knew the deed was done.The main thing that I noticed upon my rewatch was that I was having fun. There was a certain emotional pulse to the movie, a type of joy and optimism that kept pace from one scene to the next.
At 24 years of age, I did not shut my eyes.
For the briefest of moments, I was 8 again.
And I flinched.
It hasn’t been a full 16 years since I last watched The Phantom Menace, but those moments in the theater are the most ingrained in my memory, and the difference in age changes a great deal of the viewing experience. For instance, I now understand that the Federation was not desperately clinging to their trade “French fries” on Naboo, a detail that had me wondering what place our fast food had in the Star Wars universe.
My view of Jar Jar also changed upon this revisit, and no, it had nothing to do with the Darth Darth Binks theory. With the rise of motion capture use, alongside well-deserved accolades for the artists performing in such roles, I was able to appreciate what Ahmed Best brought to the character. Be it idle background movements or the readying of a punch toward Qui-Gon Jinn, it really seemed like Best had fun with Jar Jar and that helped me enjoy him all the more.
The most obvious change was the amount of the plot that I understood. At 8 years old, I had no understanding of bureaucracy or franchises. I didn’t know what an embargo was, and I didn’t understand how this blockade in space would be causing the Naboo people to starve. The only economy that I understood was how much of my allowance I needed to save after tithe to purchase the Jar Jar action figure.
However, I didn’t need to know the intricacies of the plot or to know what was meant by a trade dispute. What I understood was that people were being hurt, they needed to go to the government to help them, the government didn’t give it, and so they returned to fight for themselves; I understood who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. At 8 years old, that’s all I needed to understand.
When Padmé and Shmi discussed the existence and effects of slavery in the galaxy, back then I simply understood that slavery was wrong, and it was good when Anakin was freed. In contrast is today, where researching the effects of human trafficking has become a passion of mine. I have interned at an anti-trafficking organization and written extensively on human trafficking for another science fiction franchise. So now, as Shmi informs Padmé about the reality of slavery, I have a far deeper understanding now of how much weight those two lines carry, but that’s not a weight I would want 8-year-old me to bear.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul famously speaks to the notion of spiritual milk and solid food. Give a babe the second before they are ready, and they will choke. Give a child the details of the world’s horrors, and confusion and trauma may likely follow. Yet as the child grows, we cannot force them to consume only milk and remain ignorant of the world’s complexity; that would be just as unhealthy. One of the best tools we have for this transition, especially when it comes to understanding moral and ethical truths, is exploration: What does that mean? How does it affect people? Why does it happen?
Jesus Himself rewarded exploration through parables. To those who came to Him and asked after their meanings, He explained in-depth, revealing more truth about the Kingdom of God. In fact, every story worth its salt encourages exploration, and in 1999, nothing encouraged more exploration from the kids in our neighborhood than The Phantom Menace.
We had arguments about the durability of droids and if a lightsaber could pierce a droideka’s shields. We discussed battle strategies, with things getting particularly heated in regard to the duel against Darth Maul. One kid read through the movie novelization and returned to us with details on the Naboo culture. Another began stacking up information on jet turbines in the hope of building a podracer. My own brothers explained to me what they understood about the politics of Palpatine and used the Force both as a metaphor to discuss God and to explain their yo-yo tricks. For me personally, the movie was also an exploration of emotions. This was not the first movie to elicit strong reactions from me—I was already crying at Air Bud two years earlier and hiding under my covers from the Rodents of Unusual Size—but The Phantom Menace did bring me through a small exploration of isolation and grief, though I hardly realized it at the time.
Jar Jar Binks was my favorite as a kid for a reason, and it was not tied to his humor. I related to him. What child does not feel awkwardly out of place in an adult’s world? What child does not feel like an outcast among their peers? To watch Jar Jar become a key player toward the end of the film, to watch him contribute to Naboo’s freedom while still being the most awkward member of the cast, was a sort of victory for young me. After all, if Jar Jar was so out of place as to be banished from his home and yet still caused a positive change, what then was possible for me? It was a small idea that I internalized without fully conceptualizing it, and it became a staple theme in my hours of playing make-believe.
The other point of emotional exploration was with Qui-Gon Jinn’s death. My recent rewatch may have been only the second or third time that I actually watched the fatal blow happen. All other times, my eyes were closed, my face hidden beneath a blanket, or I simply left the room. Once, when my brothers and I were watching it at a friend’s house, I fled behind the kitchen counter, pulling the family’s collie along with me. As I heard lightsabers clash from the next room, I made the dog sit, and I kept him there through generous petting as I talked it out. I explained why I wasn’t watching the movie anymore and why that scene was sad for me. Qui-Gon’s death is the earliest memory that I have of actually processing grief.
Unexpected nostalgia aside, the main thing that I noticed upon my rewatch was that I was having fun. There was a certain emotional pulse to the movie, a type of joy and optimism that kept pace from one scene to the next. The Phantom Menace is not without its flaws, but at the very least, it is an innocent diversion, a chance to be 8 years old and wonderstruck once more. At the very best, it is a playground, a safe place for a child’s exploration. Because of that safe place, The Phantom Menace has the thanks of one 8-year-old girl who flinched in the theater.