Sunday, February 12, 2012

On The Phantom Menace Re-Release: Now, If They Could Only 3D the Plot...

Note: With Star Wars: The Phantom Menace getting the 3D upgrade, I thought I would re-post this piece, about the disappointment I felt when I first saw the film back in 1999. It's really a loss of innocence piece-- or, more accurately, a "Jar-Jar-Binks-abruptly-and-single-handedly-assassinated-my-protracted-childhood" piece. Enjoy, and may the Force be with you... except for you, Mr. Binks! You can rot in Mustafar for all I care!

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I was twenty-eight going on ten.

Thirteen years ago, in May 1999, I was caught up in the same cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the nation, but for me, it was something more.

You have to understand: when I was a boy, the Star Wars Saga was my life. I bought the figures, play sets, cards, books, comics, soundtracks, puppets, posters, candy—you name it, except for maybe the Underoos.

As a ten-year-old boy, I considered The Empire Strikes Back the single greatest movie I had ever seen. (And, thirty-one years later, I may not have wavered in that opinion.) The summer Empire came out, I must have seen it in the theater seven times. Same with Return of the Jedi, three years later. We didn’t have VCR’s back then, so I would actually sneak a tape recorder into the movies, so I could at least listen to them. In the end, I knew all three movies by heart-- line by line, Jawa-grunt by Jawa-grunt.

In my young and oh-so-innocent estimation, George Lucas, the lord of all things Star Wars, was an unqualified genius—and a kind and generous one at that: after the saga seemed to conclude with the death of Darth Vader in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, George promised “prequels”—three more movies, three more adventures filled with great stuff like the Ice Planet of Hoth, the Millennium Falcon, and (my personal favorite) Boba Fett the bounty hunter.

So a year went by, then five, then ten. Finally, in May 1999, sixteen years after the last Star Wars movie, George Lucas offered his legions of fans the dream come true: Star Wars—Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I bought my tickets a week before and took the day off from work on opening day. And when the lights went out, and those familiar trumpets blared John Williams’ iconic score, and the words Star Wars, in big, yellow letters, filled the screen, it didn’t matter that I was twenty-eight, married, and remarkably charged with teaching the nation’s youth. No, at that point, I was a ten-year-old kid again, feeling the Force flowing through him.

Then a terrible thing happened: I actually watched the movie.

Was it the worst movie I ever saw? No. But it was nothing I had expected or even could have settled for. It seemed George Lucas and Co. were so wrapped up in their new-fangled, computer-generated special effects that they forgot to, you know, write an interesting story.

Instead, they reduced the once and future Dark Lord of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker, to an annoying kid.

They offered up a mind-numbingly elongated desert chase sequence, complete with a goofy, two-headed sports announcer.

They created a potentially cool new bad-guy, Darth Maul, and then they (literally) took the legs out from under him.

Worst of all, they subjected fans to… I can hardly bring myself to say it… the loathsome, unforgivable Jar Jar Binks.

A computer generated idiot-alien, Jar Jar almost single-handedly brought down the entire franchise. (And considering this franchise also includes the Ewoks, that’s saying something.)

Jar Jar talked like a four-year-old, which I guess was supposed to be cute. It wasn’t. He was kind of clumsy, too, and I guess watching him trip all over the place when fighting bad guys was supposed to make us laugh. It didn’t. In fact, it was all I could to keep from crying.

I waited sixteen years for the movie event of a lifetime… and I got Jar Jar Binks?

I suppose it was my own fault. Because I had built it up and built it up to such a degree, the movie could never have exceeded my expectations. But how was it possible that it wasn’t even in the same galaxy as my expectations?

I’ve actually come to appreciate, over the past ten years, the irony associated with Phantom Menace and the other two prequels. At their core, the first three episodes— the plot-challenged Phantom Menace, the inconsequential Attack of the Clones, and the overstuffed Revenge of the Sith—warn against the danger of unchecked power. And, in a bizarre way, that’s the story of George Lucas as well; he became such a powerful force in Hollywood, no one had the guts to tell him that his ideas were getting increasingly lamer. As a result, the all-powerful Emperor Lucas, much like his fallen angel Anakin Skywalker, was seduced by the dark side of his own hype and the power of his technology.

"Don't be too proud of this technological terror you constructed," Darth Vader warns an associate in the first Star Wars. I wonder what would have happened if any of George's underlings, seeing how enchanted he had become with his computer-generated effects, had the guts to say that to him.

Looking back thirteen years later, I can see that Phantom Menace truly marked the abrupt end of my rather prolonged childhood. It was the day I realized that maybe the people you once thought were geniuses were just schmucks who got lucky. Few experiences could have topped the high I felt sitting in that theater on the opening day of Phantom Menace back in May 1999. And few could match the disappointment I felt, two hours later, when the movie was over, and my childhood, I realize, was too—irretrievably lost, in that galaxy far, far away.

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