[The following is the first part in a multi-part series exploring The Phantom Menace. As the 3D version of the film opens next week, film reviewers and hateboys will be out in force throwing feces from their cages in hopes of obscuring the fact that Episode I was positively reviewed upon its release, remains immensely popular and is a far greater film than they want people to believe. This is my pre-rebuttal.]
THE PHANTOM MENACE is a great film.
It’s a film that took risks despite the burden of overwhelming expectations. It’s a film that undeniably broke new cinematic ground. It’s a film that expanded the landscape of a story many people thought they knew by heart. It’s a film that accurately foresaw massive political lies and corruption. It’s a film that blends history, social commentary, pop culture and mythology into an entertaining fantasy for both children and adults.
Most importantly, it’s a film that artfully illustrates the central theme of the Star Wars saga: that evil can lurk in even the purest of hearts.
I love THE PHANTOM MENACE. I usually don’t rank the six Star Wars films in order of preference — I like them all — but if I did, TPM would rank very high. Certainly the highest of the prequel trilogy. That obviously bucks the conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom is as permanent as a Hollywood marriage. In previous posts I’ve explored why I’m cool with Jar-Jar and why I respect George Lucas for including midichlorians in his story, but one of the big reasons I loved this movie is because I went into it in 1999 knowing it was going to be very different from the original trilogy. I expected Lucas to throw nothing but curve balls and to challenge what fans thought they knew about that galaxy far, far away.
I was willing to unlearn what I had learned.
Lucas could’ve played it safe. It’s not like fans weren’t vocal about what they wanted or expected from another Star Wars movie. In the years between 1983 and 1999, the kids of the 70s and 80s had grown up and invested Star Wars with all the overblown expectations of Gen-X angst. They all had their own ideas about what it should and shouldn’t be and the arrival of the Internet gave them a way to broadcast those ideas to the masses. Lucas could’ve made the next episode as dark and pretentiously hip as any other 90s pop art. But he didn’t. Instead, he stayed true to HIS origins. He channeled the same pop culture elements from his youth and interests from his personal life that fueled the creation of the saga in the first place: cheesy movie serials, fast cars, science fiction, Japanese samurai films, current events, anthropology, politics, etc. It’s the same approach he took when he made ANH in the mid-70s. The difference, however, was that TPM would land in a very different time and a very different America.
The 70s were a time of cynicism and national weariness. Vietnam, Watergate, a sluggish economy and the impotence of Washington had created a sense of malaise. The mid-90s, in contrast, was a time of a booming economy and bright prospects. Government was consumed by greedy, squabbling politicians, but who cared since the stock market was going up, up, up. There was money to invest in Internet start-ups, independent films and new ideas. The arty cynicism of the moment was born not out of frustration or weariness with current events, but out of the boredom of affluence. ANH resonated with audiences because it carried the counter-culture message that freedom and happiness comes from rebelling against the status quo. TPM, however, carried a much different message about a once great and prosperous society rotting from within. It arrived at a time of wealth and relative peace (especially compared to the following decade) to suggest that there is danger lurking in the shadows. That’s a harder message to resonate at a time when things are good. When the government is running a surplus and the stock market is breaking records, no one wants to listen to the guy saying, “Warning! Danger ahead.” Whereas the subtext of ANH was about the possibilities of renewal, the subtext of TPM is about the dangers of decay — hope vs. menace. That’s a subtext people weren’t ready to accept — and perhaps still aren’t.
TPM also had to illustrate a backstory that the public thought it knew. In 1977, the ghost-written STAR WARS novelization featured a prologue that lays out the political backstory of the Star Wars galaxy. It describes the fall of the Republic at the hands of ambitious Senator Palpatine, and how treachery and deception led to the extermination of the Jedi Knights.
After the original film’s success, there was talk of plans for “several” Star Wars sequels, including some featuring the adventures of Luke’s father and young Ben Kenobi. Long before the first sequel, The Empire Strikes back, had even been written, the foundation of the prequels had been built. The OT films themselves provided some tantalizing clues about this backstory. There were the mythical “Clone Wars” and how General Kenobi had served Bail Organa of Alderaan. The pivotal event, however, was the seduction of Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side and the creation of his evil persona, Darth Vader. Essentially, the prequels would be an origin story.
A big reason I love TPM is because I love origin stories. I love seeing how great characters evolved into what they are. Origin stories, however, carry an inherent storytelling flaw: we already know the outcome. We know Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda survive the Clone Wars and the Jedi purge. We know Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Among the major characters, we know who lives and who dies. It’s a structural dilemma that immediately puts TPM at a disadvantage it’s predecessors didn’t have to face: we knew what was going to happen. It’s because of this fact that TPM would face an inevitable backlash. Many fans, including myself, spent those long years between 1983 and 1999 contemplating how the backstory would unfold. We imagined, we speculated, we dreamed, we played. People wrote fan fiction while EU authors created backstory adventures for characters like Boba Fett. In a very real way, fans imagined the prequels the same way the blind men in the famous parable try to describe an elephant. Each fan extrapolated an image of the whole beast based on limited information and inaccurate assumptions. Every fan had a dream scenario — and we all knew for certain our ideas would be awesome on-screen.
Of course, George Lucas also had ideas. And his first big idea was to make a very different type of Star Wars film than the ones that had come before. People’s assumptions were going to be upended and their expectations challenged — which is exactly what I wanted to happen.
[To be continued....]