I love The Phantom Menace. There. My secret’s out.
Saying that feels like saying I love Al-Qaeda. On the Internet, you might think hate for George Lucas has surpassed hatred for Osama Bin-Laden, particularly after his recent decision to yet again alter the Star Wars Saga for the upcoming Blu-Ray release. The controversy between what some call Lucas “apologists” and Star Wars “purists” brings to mind Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu, Scientist and Creationist. The same deep seated convictions stir the hearts and minds of both groups of fans. Never mind the global economic crisis, the revolutions taking place throughout the Islamic world or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is STAR WARS! That anyone should care so deeply about a movie is unquestionably absurd, but I find myself inexplicably drawn to this controversy. I can’t help but feel angry by this hatred for a filmmaker who has given us so much. Imagine you get a special gift, something that changes your life, and then, decades later, you are given another by that same person, only you do not like the gift as much, maybe you even loathe it. Should you now hate this person? When it comes to Lucas bashing, it’s a virtual lynch mob, which makes me wonder, did these people learn nothing from Return of the Jedi? Don’t they know hatred leads to the Dark Side?
For die hard fans, no thinking person can enjoy The Phantom Menace. Not a year goes by that I don’t come across some comic or article taking pot shots at the prequel trilogy. The article doesn’t even have to be about Star Wars, yet somehow the reference is thrown out, as though we must never forget our raped childhoods. The epic failure of Episodes I, II and III has become legendary, repeated in the media like a mantra, as certain a fact as gravity. There is even a “fan” film depicting an 80’s George Lucas being kidnapped and replaced by an evil clone, as if the “real” Lucas could never have made something so terrible. Suggesting that the movies might not be that bad is to be suffering from Lucas Stockholm Syndrome. But wait. Something isn’t quite right here. How can a movie, any movie, spawn such hatred?
In 1999, before The Phantom Menace hit theaters, I was not a huge fan. I owned the movies on VHS, and watched them once or twice, but had none of the toys or books or posters. But when the trailer for Episode I was released, it brought me back to Thanksgiving Day, 1980, when I rode on the back of my uncle’s dirt bike to see The Empire Strikes Back; to the afternoon in 1983 when my sister and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater for Return of the Jedi. This wasn’t just a movie, it was a cultural event. One week before release, I waited hours with a hundred or so people pining for the lost wonder of childhood. We listened to John Williams’ blasted from parked cars and relished talking about things too geeky for everyday society. I was 24 years old.
The Phantom Menace made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t look for clever dialogue or Oscar worthy performances here. I wanted spaceships and aliens and cool looking planets, and things that went KABOOM! and Lucas delivered in spades. Mature Sci-Fi, like District 9 and Minority Report, are far too gloomy for such guilty pleasures. Where else can you find aliens racing plane engines on a desert planet? Or that three way lightsaber fight, still the best in the saga? Keep in mind, this was long before the age of Marvel films, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Consequently, without The Phantom Menace and the much maligned Jar-Jar Binks, we might never have CGI characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot. After seeing the film, I remember my friends and I loving it, and my four year old nephew going nuts over it. A fellow coworker and Marine later told me, “Now I want to be a Jedi.” Even Rotten Tomatoes gave it a certified 61% fresh rating. So, at the time, there was no inkling of the hatred the movie would later spawn.
More than a decade later, Mr. Plinkett of Red Letter Media would say that Lucas’ script for The Phantom Menace was written by an eight year old. But it’s precisely this unchecked imagination that made me fall for George. It’s every kid’s dream come true: a billion dollars in toys! How can you not enjoy watching him play? In 2005, after the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith, something changed in me. I knew I had become more cynical, jaded. Having a mortgage and two kids will do that to you. I knew that I would never again wait with such anticipation for a movie. It’s one thing to enjoy a film and quite another to count the days on your calendar, wishing time could move faster. Perhaps if I had been a little older in 1999, 34 instead of 24, I might have understood the disappointment.
I have always insisted that the hatred for the prequel trilogy has more to do with aging and less to do with the actual films. Let’s be honest here: Star Wars meant more to the people growing up in the 70’s than any other decade. My father, who is 78, never goes to the theater because “they don’t make good movies like The Sound of Music or Casablanca.” I know a guy in his fifties who loves The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, but never cared for Star Wars. I know teenagers who have never seen, or even care to watch, Star Wars. And I also know kids who adore the prequels. So is it really Lucas that’s changed so much, or is it us? Is our hatred for him really a hatred for growing up? No prequel could have delivered the experience of watching the original as a child. In the re-release, critics found flaws with nearly every change, but the first cut of the films, we are led to believe, is flawless. It forces me to wonder, how did Lucas manage to create the most beloved film of all time, if he is so incompetent? But if we were to scrutinize the original with the same critical eye as the prequels, we could find much to gripe about.
The story of A New Hope, originally called Star Wars, revolves around retrieving the Death Star plans, but why does nobody consider that the rebels might have made a copy? Consider Leia’s on-again/off-again British accent, or her ho-hum attitude to having her ENTIRE planet destroyed. She acts like they forgot her ketchup at McDonalds. “Hey, I didn’t order all the people I’ve ever known killed!” It also never made sense to me, how the Death Star is supposed to move. Is it a space station or a spaceship? Somehow, it makes it to Yavin IV, but just can’t fly the extra few miles around its moon to blow it up. And how could the Empire be so dumb to create an exhaust port leading all the way down to the main reactor? Or for that matter, why doesn’t anyone consider, I dunno, landing a ship over the damn port and just dropping a bomb in there? I wonder what Mr. Plinkett would have to say about all this? Doubtless, nostalgia gives the first film a free pass. Empire Strikes Back, heralded the best in the saga, is also the most flawed. Does it really seem credible, to anyone, that Luke was Leia’s brother all along? Or Vader their father? What about Yoda, who continuously contradicts himself when he describes the limitless power of the Force. Size matters not, unless it’s something REALLY big, like the Death Star. Not to mention, turning 900 years old makes you useless. Seen through the rosy tint of childhood, however, the original trilogy is without flaw. As for me, I love all the films, warts and all, not because of what they don’t do wrong, but because of what they do right. With expectations bordering on religious ecstasy, the prequels were doomed from the start, just as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest filmmaker in history. In contrast, casual fans love the prequels, as DVD and Blu-Ray sales have proved time and again.
The Phantom Menace is far from a perfect movie, but then again, I have never seen a perfect movie. I have never accepted the notion that art should be perfect. Should writers and painters and directors think like mathematicians? Should they never consider their most unorthodox ideas lest people think them inane? I love The Phantom Menace not despite its flaws but because of them. I love that we become passionate about art, one way or another; that we find ourselves hotly debating changes to a film decades after its inception; I love that we wonder whether words like YIPEE are cringe-worthy or just a sign of the times; I love that we consider racial stereotyping about an alien species; I love that we debate the physical aspect (midichlorians) of a spiritual belief system, something long debated by philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza. What other movie comes close to rousing such passions? None. By a long shot.
This post was last updated on 11/12/2015
For more, download this excellent 108 page defense of The Phantom Menace at RED-LETTER-MEDIA-EPISODE-I-REVIEW-A-STUDY-IN-FANBOY-STUPIDITY.