So “The Phantom Menace” was made after George Lucas had taken a break for oh, about 16 years, and the rust shows. There’s a kind of awkwardness, especially in the decisions to make the main character a small child and one of the side characters a clumsy, annoying, computer-enhanced buffoon with barely discernible speech patterns.
But there’s a lot to like, too, with the Oscar-nominated special effects, and the imagination-catching worldview of a democratic interplanetary federation struggling not to descend into its “dark side,” a fascism of absolute power corrupting absolutely. But for the Christian, there are some strong faith echoes here as well: The whole concept of The Dark Side resonates with the temptation to succumb to evil and sin, as well as being in concert with the idea that evil itself is a kind of force in the universe: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
The apparent virgin birth of “the Chosen One,” the one predicted by the prophecy, who would bring balance to the Force, certainly sounds like a messianic expectation. But Anakin Skywalker, whose mother says has no father, was born a slave and works for a shyster merchant, and though certainly talented, may already be too old to train in the ways of the Jedi: knights who maintain order, take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (to its own council) and continually practice discipline, self-control, and the ancient art of sword-fighting (with a light saber). The taciturn elders in the Council are understandably nervous about trying to train this boy, who seems to have been spontaneously generated by the midichlorian “Force,” because he’s already too worldly, and already governed by fear, which leads to anger, which leads to hate, which leads to the Dark Side. Interesting that this monastic kind of order strives to suppress emotion.
The Jedi knight (Liam Neeson) explains to the boy (Jake Lloyd) that the Force governs the whole universe and is part of every living thing, which sounds like Deism without a prayer life. The Sith apprentice, Darth Maul, looks like a medieval devil, with horns no less, and he’s only there to disrupt anybody working for peace or order: evil as chaos and violence. The Emperor, of course, is continually deceitful: “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44)
The Queen of the Naboo (Natalie Portman) kneels before the king of the Gungans to plead for his help with the clone war, and, sure enough, the one who humbles herself will be exalted (Matthew 23:12). Her clever disguise to preserve herself is reminiscent of David among the Philistines (I Samuel 21-31).
Yes, it’s supposed to be “a long time ago, in a galaxy far away,” but “Star Wars” continues to resonate because of the way the cosmic and the personal are intertwined, and in the end, it is all about which Way we shall choose, isn’t it? (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.