Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Retro Review Repost (By Popular Demand): Star Wars Episode One - The Phantom Menace

 While everybody is not talking about Red Tails or the impending re-release of one of the most hated sequels of all time (along with Batman and Robin, Blues Brothers 2000, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), it occurred to me that like many movies I hold near and dear I've never given them the fourth - or first, if you're REALLY a stickler - Star Wars film a proper write-up. This still won't really be a proper write-up for The Phantom Menace, but I do want to continue the thread I began in the triple feature review of Rush Hour 2, The Siege, and Star Trek: Insurrection. In that I laid out the pattern of an obsessive Star Wars fan (one who'd gone batty at seeing the Special Editions but was old enough to have seen at least one film the first time around) and this is the payoff. This was what it all boiled down to: no more teasers, trailers, leaked audio from ADR sessions or pictures or crazy rumors / script reviews*; it was time for the real thing, at midnight.

  May 18th, 1999 came too soon - I didn't have tickets for the midnight showing because I'd just returned from school an hour-and-a-half away and hadn't been able to procure any. Even working for a local theatre proved futile in getting to see The Phantom Menace on opening day. I was convinced it would be sold out by the day before (and I say the 18th because most of this takes place before midnight, May 19th, 1999) and was scrambling to find anybody who had an extra ticked. A friend of my brother's had one at the appropriately named Imperial Cinemas (now it's the Galaxy), and I got there around... 9:30?

 Young, delusional, and buying into the hype, I was convinced that the massive line would already be happening in short order, so two-and-a-half hours early seemed like a good idea**. I was probably the seventh or eighth person in line, which gives you some idea of the level of fandom for The Phantom Menace and the futility of my fears. By the time 11:45 rolled around (when they opened the doors), there was a line wrapped around the front and side of the building, although it was nothing compared to the one I was in for Revenge of the Sith, where we were in a parking lot for the grocery store next to the theatre two hours before the film started.

 We all piled in, got our popcorn and drinks, had a seat (third row) and waited for new Star Wars. Holy shit, can you believe it? NEW Star Wars! The sensory overload, the crowd's adrenaline, and the glow of lightsabers sustained two hours of wooden, stilted line delivery, personality-less characters, dumb jokes, and soulless fight scenes. We were too overwhelmed by the event to care that the movie didn't live up to its tremendous hype, let alone to the minimum expectations of a competently made film. For days, I would continue to delude myself into thinking that The Phantom Menace was a film that needed to be, one that I was better for having seen.

 The fundamental flaw of Episode One isn't any of the litany of illogical plot developments or the "kiddie" tone (for that, I direct you to the notorious Mr. Plinkett reviews of the prequels, which are hilarious, brutal, and often illuminating). The problem is one inherent in any prequel: you already know where the story is going. New characters introduced are going to be killed off or shoved to the margins in order for the characters the audience already knows ARE in the original films to step forward. So unless you really want to know HOW Obi-Wan Kenobi came to train Anakin Skywalker or WHY Yoda decided to go into exile on Dagobah, there's not a lot for you in these films. But we were willfully ignorant of this, and I did ruin at least one person's experience by casually mentioning that Qui-Gon Jinn was going to die before the movie ended.

 I watched The Phantom Menace in its entirety four times that summer: the midnight screening, twice with friends, and once with my Dad, who was unimpressed. I kept trying to convince myself that it wasn't the disappointment that everyone said it was (and that I knew deep down was true) by sneaking off during breaks at the movie theatre I worked at to watch the Obi-Wan / Darth Maul lightsaber fight. I'd time breaks so I could walk in just in time to see it. All this time, this interest, invested for naught? It couldn't be. Twenty year old Cap'n Howdy couldn't believe that. It can't be true; it's impossible.

 But search my feelings I did, and I knew it was true. You could hear it drop like the proverbial turd when The Phantom Menace dropped on VHS. Already Lucas had made changes - extending the Pod Race and including a longer sequence where our heroes fly through Coruscant. Why? Because he felt they "improved" the experience. The really just made the film longer, and without the big screen and crowd enthusiasm, The Phantom Menace was as bad as I knew it was. I just couldn't pretend otherwise.

 I tend to think of that experience as the point at which I became more cynical about the hype surrounding films - I'd been burned, and so had many other geeks my age. Sure, we went to see Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (sometimes at midnight), but more out of a grudging sense of completion, a "let's get this over with." The excitement turned to caution, then dread, then relief. The scratch had been itched, and I was no longer outraged by Lucas' incessant tinkering with his films on DVD (and now Blu-Ray); this was the man who brought us the Prequels, his undiluted vision of the Star Wars universe, and they were not good. They were barely watchable, and I don't own them any more. It grouses me a bit knowing that if I want to see the bounty of extra material Lucasfilm has been ferreting away for decades that I'll have to own them again. I tried watching the end of Revenge of the Sith on TV yesterday and howled with laughter at how bad the writing was.

 At this point, I don't really feel like it's worth piling on to George Lucas for his rotten prequels, but they are the reason that I have to temper expectations for movies I really like. Last year's Attack the Block review is a great example - I really enjoyed the movie, but don't want the film to get bogged down by people who think it's going to fix their car or something. Somehow we got on this kick that any movie that's better than "pretty good" has to be elevated to transcendent levels, and a lot of that has to do with the built-in cynicism that came for geeks in a post-The Phantom Menace world. Half of the geeks automatically assume something is going to suck because "they" will "mess it up," so the other half pushes too hard to counter that attitude and movies suddenly have to be the second coming to be worth seeing. I remember going to see just about everything pre-Godzilla and The Phantom Menace with a blissful ignorance of whether it would be good or not - The Big Hit? Lost in Space? Suicide Kings? The Faculty? We were there. Hate it, love it, going was fun. I think that The Phantom Menace took some of that away, or at least changed the way I looked forward to movies.

 And now it's been converted to 3-D gimmickry, because instead of being the "future" of movie-going as James "Yes, I'm converting Titanic to 3-D!" Cameron keeps claiming it is, we're going to continue to see movies that weren't conceived, composed, or shot for the third dimension getting an extra price-hike. Why? Because running it into the ground in the 1950s and 1980s wasn't enough; it's time for one more go-round of "everything old is new again" as long as there's a penny to be made in the meantime. And because we haven't seen the sequel-remake-3D-IMAX-"experience" yet. Once that happens, and heads explode, we can wait for The Phantom Menace to be beamed into our dreams. Jar Jar while you sleep! Until then, take your kids to see the movie that ruined Star Wars for your budding geek twenties.

* Like this one, for example. I can't find the one on Ain't It Cool that goes over-the-top about a SPOILER that can't be revealed - and I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out what people coming into this movie could have been "spoiled" by. On the other hand, I don't think Jeffrey Wells feels too bad about his column now, or even six months after the release of The Phantom Menace.
** True story: on a whim, two friends drove by Mission Valley and Park Place 16 to look at the lines for The Phantom Menace only to find empty parking lots.

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