If only I get my hands on a big, rolling intro the way Lucas did! Man, would THAT come in handy here! Weren’t they just so great? I can remember watching them as a kid, pre-teen, post-teen, and young adult. Those inros and the music that preceded them, they always had a way of getting me into the mood for another Star Wars movie marathon. And weren’t they just the thing for a movie party? Yes, the Star Wars franchise was a masterpiece of pop-culture gold, something we who saw it when we were children could still enjoy years later. Hell, people of my parents generation found them equally appealing, both when they first hit theaters and years after their release. During the 80’s and early 90’s, there was scarcely anyone who wasn’t affected by the Star Wars phenomena. And today, those who haven’t seen the originals tend to get funny looks when they make that admission. I myself have been known to say “Didn’t you grow up in this country” whenever someone admitted it to me!
Sounds a little crass when I hear myself say it now, but you have to admit, I had a point! In fact, Star Wars has been so influential that pop culture experts, cultural historians and media gurus have been pouring over it for decades, trying to ascertain exactly why this ought to be. I mean think about it: a franchise that had a limited budget, an inexperienced director, weak writing/dialogue, newby actors and actresses (with the exception of Sir Alec Guinness), and production problems from day one somehow became a rip-roaring success at the box office and spawned two sequels that did even better. In fact, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was one of those rare sequels that was considered better than the first, right up there with the Godfather Part II, Mad Max, and T2.
Now why is that? Why is the Star Wars franchise so enduringly influential and popular? There is no single answer, but the general consensus seems to be that they were just good at capturing a certain Zeitgeist. In addition to its accessible theme of the hero’s journey and the idealist fighters battling against an evil empire, there was also the classical themes of The Fall, the Redemption, dynastic struggle between father and son, the ties that bind, the hero’s fate, and countless elements borrowed from other popular genres, such as gun-slinging spaghetti westerns and swashbuckling samurai movies. All this came together to create something that some thought was brilliant, others thought was a guilty pleasure. But that all could agree, it worked! People liked it and wanted more!
So it begs the question, how and where did things go wrong? I’ve say how and where at the expense of why because I feel that one is obvious: right around the summer of 1999, when Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace was released. That’s pretty much when things went wrong! From then on, things got steadily worse, with an even-worse sequel and a salvageable third. Fans of the franchise were left sore and dumbfounded, having spent their money to see them, but generally feeling betrayed and confused. From a critical and a popular standpoint, the Star Wars prequels did not hold a candle to the originals, leaving many people to wonder what could have happened.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Naturally, when it was announced that prequels were coming out – movies that would cover the Clone Wars, show the origins of the Empire, and the fall of Anakin Skywalker/rise of Darth Vader – fans were excited. I know I was! Like most men my age, I had grown up on the franchise and lived in a world saturated by Star Wars toys, books, magazines, lunchboxes, figurines, and even novels. So it goes without saying that I wanted to see how Lucas would fill in the back-story. But like most fans, I left the movie theater a little daunted. It was only a few minutes in when I first came to realize who the target audience was, and like most people my age, I wasn’t too happy about it. Sure, the lightsaber fight scene and podrace were both worth the price of admission, but something needed to be done about the rest of it. There were just too many weaknesses that were glaringly obvious. Let me see if I can break them down succinctly:
Weak Plot: It’s a rare thing when a movie can be both technocratic and childish at the same time, but this movie pulled it off! First, we have a plot where the “greedy Trade Federation” is blockading a planet because they’re unhappy about taxes. And we get a big earful about how the Republic is deadlocked and ineffective due to the stumbling blocks of parliamentary procedure. Really? This is how the big, huge saga begins? I know were supposed to be getting a preview of how the Republic became a tyranny due to corruption and inefficiency, but it could have been done in a way that wasn’t so heavy-handed and dull. In fact, nothing about this plot seems realistic or even interesting. A great big civil war and slide into despotism began with taxes on trade routes??? Let’s not forget how the Trade Federation has all these ships and battle droids. When was the last time a Merchant Marine was ever allowed to do that, stockpile weapons and blockade planets? Who the hell is running the Republic that this sort of thing was allowed to take place? And if they really wanted to stir things up, why blockade some backwater place like Naboo (kiddy name if ever I heard one!)? Why not a hub, like Coruscant or Alderaan or something like that? Oh, and Palpatine, the evil Sith Master who will overthrow the Republic and become Emperor, he’s actually FROM there? I’d think a master of the dark side would be better suited coming from somewhere a little less remote, don’t you? I know, I know! Sarah Palin wasn’t exactly from a major hub either. But she’s aint President… yet (gulp!)
Racial Caricatures: Let’s not forget the borderline racist junk that made it into this movie. First, the “greedy” Trade Federation representatives, whom Qui Gon Jinn referred to as “cowards”, clearly a bunch of Japanese businessmen. Why is the Trade Federation run by this one race, for that matter? Aren’t they supposed to be like a guild or something? The fact that they all look and sound the same only deepens this racist impression. Then there’s Jar Jar, a creature so annoying he made most of us want to hurl a whiskey bottle at the screen! He has big flappy ears, is clumsy as hell, has a ridiculous accent and speaks pinyin. Put on a big fro and you got Buckwheat, racist without the folksy! Next, there’s Watto, who might as well be called Shylock for all the obviousness of his character. One, he’s greedy and cares only about money; two, he wears a yamaka-type headpiece; and three, he’s an obvious scam artist. So in essence, Lucas caricatured Black people, Asians and Jews in one fell swoop with this movie. I know he likes to draw parallels to the past, but Victorian-era bigotry is not something any smart man should want to associate with.
Virgin Birth: The original Star Wars movies made obvious use of Judea-Christian mythology, but this movie went above and beyond. Having Anakin be the result of an immaculate conception, where the Force (or midi-chlorians as they call them in this movie) willed him into being, was just plain pushing it! I mean, I know Anakin was supposed to be special, but this whole “Chosen One” thing was too much. The fact that there was a prophecy associated with his existence had potential, and I kind of liked where they went with it in later movies, but in this particular one, it made me want to gag.
Midi-Chlorians: Didn’t you just know I was going to bring them up next? Yes, as someone who grew up with The Force, I can tell you that one of its greatest selling points was its mystery. The way Obi Wan explained it to Luke, the Force sounded very much like an allegory for destiny, history, or the unfolding of a divine plan. No one quite understood it, no one knew with any certainty what course it would take. But in the end it seemed to unfold in such a way that balance was restored and those who tried to control it ended up being screwed. What better allegory is there for Karma, the Divine, or universal justice? You can’t get more mythological and Judea-Christian than that! And how and why some people are more sensitive to it than others was something that was also a mystery. So you can imagine how it might seem disappointing or dumb when Lucas decided to reduce it to microscopic bacteria that exist in your bloodstream! Why not just say there’s a F gene or something? With one stroke of the pen, we went from deep mythology to pulp sci-fi!
Re-use of Characters: Prequels are supposed to use many of the same characters, but that doesn’t mean that EVERY SINGLE ONE needs to be accounted for, or that they have to be part of the same plot. For starters, Anakin build C3PO? And R2D2 knew him as a kid? What they didn’t have other service droids in the past, you gotta re-use the same ones for over thirty years? And if so, why the hell didn’t this come up in the originals? Sure, Lucas did a last minute explanation for that in the third movie, but that didn’t change the fact that this was just weak. And it happened again and again in the second and third movie, as if Lucas was getting a bonus every time he managed to write a character from the original movies into the new ones. You know, the universe is a big place. People’s paths may cross, but not all the freaking time!
Forget your mom, kid: One of the things I heard people complain about a lot with this movie was the way Anakin was being pressured to cut all ties to his mother. In essence, he’s pulled away from her, told that his fear of losing her is a bad thing, and how this could lead him to the dark side. “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering…” as Yoda put it. So what then? He’s just supposed to turn his back on her and become an emotional ascetic? He’s freaking ten! And with lessons as pedantic and cold as this one, its no wonder the boy turned to the dark side! And really, one can draw a straight line like that through anything! Watch! “Fun leads to enjoyment. Enjoyment leads to fondness. Fondness leads to obsession. Obsession leads to destruction. Destruction leads to suffering…” Or how about discipline? Jedis love discipline. Watch me connect to it the dark side! “Discipline leads to perfection. Perfection leads to arrogance. Arrogance leads to foolishness. Foolishness leads to error. Error leads to anger…” and so on. See? Not hard! It’s like playing “Six degrees of Dark Side”. And the prequels are full of this kind of needlessly harsh reasoning, stuff you’d never expect to hear out of a Jedi. I mean, I know they’re supposed to be disciplined, but isn’t compassion also supposed to be their thing? More on that later…
The Kid: As if Jar Jar wasn’t annoying enough, we got to suffer through all the bad one-liners and atrocious acting of that kid who played Anakin. Another obvious ploy to court the kiddy vote, as was all the podracing and dog-fighting he did, stuff no ten year old would ever do! The former was bad enough, but did Lucas really have to include that horrid dogfight scene at the end where he basically saved the day through sheer luck? I already checked my brain at the door, but I still felt my intelligence being insulted with that scene! Speaking of which, where is that kid now? I don’t recall seeing him in anything after this movie came out. But given the sheer exploitation, odds are good he either turned to drugs or became a petty criminal in order to channel his outrage of being in such a film! Hell, if I were him I’d be suing the bastard for raping my youth!
Okay, so it was a bad movie. However, I remember being soothed by rumors that this first installment was just a first salvo that was meant to get the kids hooked and that the later movies would be aimed more at the adults. Lucas was even rumored to have reported that his second installment would be darker, and since the subject matter was supposed to be how the Clone Wars began, I figured it had to be true. Lord knew, we who were now adults, who had grown up enjoying Star Wars as kids, expecting something from the man. But I learned a lesson from all this, check your sources, and don’t expect nothing from men like Lucas! Sometimes, the fan community makes up stories and puts them in place of real fact. And Lucas, it seemed, had no intention from deviating from the course he set. In fact, he even went on the record as saying that Star Wars was always meant to be a “Saturday Morning serial for kids”. Translation: screw you grown-up fans! I don’t need you anymore!
And it was about that time that I discovered why Lucas was going down this road in the first place. Contrary to what some people had said, he had not gone crazy, or mad with power. In truth, Lucas was never a very good writer or director. The only difference now was that he seemed to think he had overcome these limitations. A few years into the release of the prequels, critics had formed a chorus that could be heard chanting the seminal words of Harrison Ford: “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it!” These words, which were just a heartfelt complaint at the time, have come to be synonymous with everything Lucas did wrong. Apparently, when he was making the first Star Wars, he had a lot of trouble adapting his script to the screen. More than one cast member, aside from Ford, had asked themselves “Who talks like this?” when reading it. But, knowing his limits at the time, Lucas sought the help of others during the making A New Hope and had full-time writing and directorial assistance when making Empire and Return of the Jedi. But after years of success and adulation, Lucas appeared to think that he knew best and didn’t require any help from anyone anymore. In fact, it was rumored that he now did all his writing on the Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who told him what he wanted to hear and kept the negative reviews from his ears. It was not until the second installment got panned that he seemed to sit up and take notice. But more on that in my next installment…
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Entertainment Value: 7/10