Happy Anniversary, Star Wars! Here's how we repay you.
Nick on Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace:
Yes, it's the biggest disappointment in film history when it comes to hype, expectations, and the singular film franchise of all time. I'm one of the folks who now have a different view about this film due to the subsequent efforts, thinking it's the best of the three prequels. That's not to say it's a very good film by any stretch. It's the same cold, digital, and uncomfortable movie it always was. But it has the best duel, the best music, and the best performance in the prequel trilogy and finding the strong points in such a sad array of films is easier and more Zen than simply detailing all the faults.
Then again, the idea of prequels only works if the material supports it and though the Star Wars Universe has lent itself to heaping amounts of rich storytelling fodder for comics, video games, and literature [I just called Star Wars books literature] the prequel films seem to have the bulk of the effort having gone into the technology and design rather than storytelling and plotting. It seems forced, revisionist thinking. Were these always supposed to be the stories of Anakin Skywalker and his rise and descent? It's ripe stuff, Shakespearean even. As handled it's more Sleestakian. Ideas are jury-rigged and ducktaped to the armature of the Star Wars world, rules are bent, and the circle of characters is tightened to insanely convinient levels. Forget the obvious things like Jar Jar, the Jake Lloyd performance, and the presence of slapstick CGI monsters and fart jokes. What about the fact the big villain and grand Machiavelli of the prequel trilogy is the most obvious guy in town? Why make it a mystery if everyone who's ever seen a Star Wars film knows who it is? It only makes the characters look dumber. What about the insanely uncool Jedi Knights? Once considered the finest in the galaxy, they come off like Joe Corley yellow belters with lightsabers. Especially considering that a discipline of that order, one influenced by the Eastern arts, should be so much more about meditation and logic than twirling a laser sword. The Jedi are lame. They get ambushed more times than Fred Hembeck's wife and step into enough traps that their extinction by the fourth film isn't a sad fact; it's obvious. They're lemmings. In a robe!
Coming out of that movie theater in 1999, it was easy to be swept up in the grandeur of the moment. I was once of the belief that ANY Star Wars was good Star Wars. Now I wish that more than Han Solo should have been frozen in Carbonite back in the early 80's. Imagine the world of event filmmaking if the Star Wars series still had its groove. I don't know if it'd have meant a few other franchises might have realized that sometimes two films are better than three and one is sometimes better than two unless you have really good ideas, but it'd have been a nice alternative. There is no auteur in filmmaking of this style. You need people to check and balance. People to say no. People to call bluffs. The Phantom Menace is a big bloated chunk of filmmaking autonomy gone bad. Studio intervention sucks, but so does unhecked freedom and though there is plenty to enjoy in this film and its clones, disappointment is the only real emotion I can conjure in relation to a universe which one tenderly made love to my childhood.
Devin on Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace
They say that some people can’t quit drinking or drugging until they’ve hit bottom. They say that destructive addictions will consume you until they’ve brought you to your knees and laid you as low as you can go.
Star Wars Episode I was where I hit bottom.
My generation always held on to the detritus of our youth, but usually in an ironic way. Sure, we could quote Brady Bunch or One Day at a Time episodes to you, but it was part of our detached slacker personas (or so we told ourselves). But Star Wars was a different animal, and while much of the world moved on after Return of the Jedi, my generation held on to the trilogy as a cool signifier, a cultural touchstone. This might be hard for some younger people to believe, since Star Wars has rapidly become dweebier than Star Trek (original crew only), but at one point in the mid to late 90s, Star Wars was actually really hip.
Of course as a nerd I took it farther than was hip, collecting toys and comics and tie in novels set in the expanded Star Wars universe. I was reading short stories that detailed the histories of aliens who appeared in the Cantina scene for one second. I was working in AmeriCorps, making less than 12,000 dollars a year and I still spent 30 bucks on a Rancor Monster toy. My girlfriend – who was essentially supporting me at the time anyway because of my low salary – was reduced to lending me money to buy the new Star Wars playsets hitting shelves after the rerelease of the original trilogy.
And then Episode I.
I’m not going to go into detail about how or why it’s a disappointing movie. You’ve seen it. I will say that I didn’t realize I had hit bottom that night, partially thanks to sites like Aint It Cool News and Coming Soon and CHUD, who had steeled me for things like midichlorians and baby Anakin. My friends and I went to a diner near the Poughkeepsie Galleria, where we had seen the movie, and tried to talk each other into really loving the film.
It was a couple of viewings later, after the movie had come to the local cinema in my small town and I could see it twice a week, that I had my waking-up-next-to-a-corpse moment. I started throwing away all the collectible Pepsi cans and Taco Bell cups. The toys went into storage. The novels were left on the sidewalk in front of my house. Lucas almost suckered me in again with Attack of the Clones, but I resisted. By the time Revenge of the Sith rolled around I was looking at the people waiting in line 24 hours in advance as a reformed junkie looks at all the burn cases in Needle Park.
Episode I cured me of my fanboyism. I’m sad that the prequel trilogy and its ensuing overmarketing and commercialization soured me on the original trilogy, but I’m actually grateful to George Lucas for making these terrible movies that slapped me in the face and forced me to grow the fuck up.
Russ on Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace
Like a lot of other people, I saw Episode One several times in theatres. I was so primed to have that experience again – the one I’d first had at five years old in 1977 – where Williams’ fanfare washed over me and the yellow text crawl drew me into another universe. But I’m not very smart sometimes, and it took a couple viewings of the film for the truth to sink in. With a thick wall of resistant expectation constructed, this nadir of creativity had to break through one element at a time. Jar Jar at the first screening; the trade embassadors' accents the next, and so on.
As my disappointment grew, I realized exactly how much I'd invested in this. With no small amount of horror, I realized that a certain part of me had been on hold since 1985.
At one point I might have said that Star Wars awakened my imagination, but I realized then that it had defined it or, to use a better word, confined it. Like a lot of other kids, my friends and I had bounced ideas back and forth for our own versions of the prequel films, starting years before The Phantom Menace actually hit. We developed content for a guy who would never know, or care. We were pissing into the wind. All that time we were talking about how the Clone Wars really should go down could have been spent making up our own shit, or assembling any number of comics and movies.
I'd allowed myself to be captured by someone else's imagination for decades, and The Phantom Menace was the key I needed to escape. To put it in terms the internet can understand: yeah, George Lucas raped my childhood. But he did it when I was five, and then every few years into my teens. Episode One wasn't a crime; it was the SVU rolling up and Mariska Hargitay planting a kiss on my cheek.
So as high as the disappointment factor was with The Phantom Menace -- the film was also liberating. It hammered home the destructive nature of marketing and manufactured expectations. It let me drop the childish baggage I'd been dragging around for years. And because it freed me from a galaxy I'd been press-ganged into before I had the strength to resist, I finally got to see the original Star Wars movies as exactly that -- movies, not some gateway back to childhood.
Micah on Star Wars Episode One – The Phantom Menace
Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace is, for me, the biggest cinematic disappointment of all time, and I thank God that it is. I don’t say that to be hurtful to George Lucas or fans of the franchise. I don’t say it because I went in with a preconceived notion that the film would fail to meet expectations and actually become hated as time went on. I say it because whatever disappointment and heartbreak I suffered because of that film ultimately did me a world of good. Like the rest of the guys, I saw the film multiple times in the theater. Double-digit multiple times. I immersed myself wholesale in the pre-release hype, and I loved every minute of it. It was such an event, and it was ours. The biggie for my generation who’d grown up with the original films and had loved them both as children and adults. One of the few childhood pleasures to age well with us and hold up even without the benefit of nostalgia. That was Star Wars: The Phenomenon.
Could anyone blame us for transferring all of the goodwill to The Phantom Menace, even if it had yet to earn it? Every pre-release indicator from the trailers to the score CD coming out just before the movie rang so true. The Phantom Menace had to be the genuine article. It looked like Star Wars. Sounded like Star Wars. It felt like Star Wars…until about 10 minutes after the opening crawl on my first screening. As I sat there through scene after middling scene of babble about microscopic creatures, prophecies, and the local politics of a new, suckass planet named Naboo, I knew something was wrong. And I immediately snuffed that voice out in my head and hung on to the hype. Damnit, I was in a theater full of Star Wars freaks. This is what we wanted and we got it, right? Hell, I remember telling Carl Cunningham shortly after that first screening that it might have been my favorite of all four. And we almost immediately went back in to watch it again.
But every time I watched the movie theatrically after that, I was in normal circumstances with the added benefit of time to let the film gnaw at me for a bit. And with each viewing, a little bit more of the quasi-religious fervor chipped away and a little bit more rationality snuck in. Years later, I came to realize that Lucas and his film had given me a gift. They had given me the ability to separate a film experience from the film itself, and that would come in handy over the years as I watched many other mediocre films amidst favorable circumstances that would otherwise have me slobbering in delight. Because The Phantom Menace was the greatest disappointment, there was no other franchise or property that could completely fool me into thinking it had the goods before I could see for myself again. Since then, we’ve had many an epic franchise peter out in disappointing final installments (The Matrix, X-Men, Spider-Man), and while I was genuinely surprised at each trilogy’s respective fumble, I was in a much better place to appreciate and recognize it immediately. It’s not just unique to me. After the Prequels consumed much of fandom’s good will, a new cynicism – with both positive and very negative qualities – crept into our collective consciousness. The Prequels had changed the game and shattered that last bastion of celluloid fantasy perfection. There’ll always be hardcore apologists for virtually any piece of crap, but now we mostly enjoy a healthy skepticism that tempers our love for this medium.
The down side of that is that no franchise, including the Lord of the Rings films, has completely worked for me ever since, and I don’t know if another one ever will. With tentpole pictures so massive and expensive, it’s increasingly rare for good art to fight through the set-in-stone release dates, commercial tie-ins, and studio expectations. And should just one film beat the odds and come out as a genuinely fantastic genre film, you have to pull off the trick again and better yourself like never before, but on an even shorter schedule. And we’re in a much better place for it because that ideal truly separates the men from the boys. George Lucas’ legacy is a rich one filled with triumph and failure in almost equal measure, at least in aesthetic terms if not fiscal ones. But it says something when both the good and the bad he gave us altered the artform, or at the very least, our perception of it.
Jeremy on Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace
Though I believe The Phantom Menace is by far the best of the prequels, there's no question that the experience of watching it represents the biggest disappointment of my life as a moviegoer, which began at the age of three in 1977 at Bowling Green, Ohio's Cinema 1 & 2. The movie? Star Wars, of course. My reaction? I screamed when the lights went out, fell asleep during the first act and roused for the last ten minutes - a routine that's served me well over the last thirty years (much to the annoyance of my fellow critics)!
In all seriousness, the weirdest thing about my relationship with Star Wars is that I don't remember my first full viewing of the movie*. I'm pretty sure I saw it during either the '78 or '79 re-release, but, for whatever reason, the experience of watching, say, The Last Flight of Noah's Ark (Cla-Zel on a double bill with 101 Dalmatians) is more memorable than my first full communion with the movie that has defined my generation's notions of story, cinema and, strangely, faith. All I know for sure is that, by the time Star Wars was released to home video in the early 80s, I was completely familiar with every dramatic beat.
But simply knowing that Star Wars was responsible for introducing me to the magic of movies made the idea of leaving work early on May 18th, 1999 to wait in line for half a day outside of the United Artists Union Square theater in New York City a nice, if insignificant capitulation to nostalgia (by the way, this was the same multiplex where I'd spent an entire November evening running theater to theater with three other dedicated Star Wars geeks just to catch The Phantom Menace teaser as many times as possible). I had a blast, too, owing in no small part to the two bottles of Jägermeister that were getting passed around well into the evening. In other words, I was completely soused when they began admitting my crowd into the 12:30 AM screening of The Phantom Menace (I was also incredibly angry because a co-worker and her ungrateful pals had waited until the last possible minute to join me in line).
I've plenty of experience going to see movies drunk, and here's the problem: unless you've smuggled libations into the theater, your buzz is going to go bye-bye halfway through the film. But great movies are intoxicants in their own right; this explains how I can knock back two margaritas and a couple of beers prior to Grindhouse and, nearly three hours later, still be jumping out of my seat during the finale of Death Proof. And if I was amped to see Grindhouse, you can only imagine how worked up I was over The Phantom Menace.
For all its flaws, it's important to remember that The Phantom Menace gets off to a great start with some kickass Jedi business and R2-D2 saving the day, so I was pretty jazzed as the action moved to Naboo. But then the movie got bogged down with all that bullshit about trade disputes and midichlorians. This was troubling; the Star Wars movies of my youth were never this obsessed with minutiae. As the singularly uninvolving pod race fired up, my buzz died off, and I began to realize that George Lucas's plans for this franchise were at odds with the childlike enchantment that made Star Wars engaging in the first place. In revisiting the universe that turned him into a filmmaking industry unto himself, Lucas was inexplicably trying to broaden the intellectual scope of the series when he should've been keeping it simple.
While I can't fault Lucas for tiring of escapism, he is kind of responsible for the thrill-ride mentality that dominates the summer movie season; so if he wanted to mature as a filmmaker, he should've done it with something that wasn't called Star Wars. That's why The Phantom Menace will forever be the most disappointing movie of our lifetime: we went to relive our youth, and Lucas made it to move his craft forward. We were all wasting our time.
*I do, however, vividly recall my initial viewings of The Empire Strikes Back (Xenia, Ohio with my brother Zach and my cousins Roxanne and Joe), and Return of the Jedi (Naples, Florida with the same crew.)