It's tough doing Star Wars for this column, because I don't know what to write. Literal volumes have been written on those films, and I'm pretty sure I have nothing more to add to the conversation. Yeah, i did the first one a long time ago, but since I've started this, I must have seen the Empire Strikes Back two or three times, but have yet to put pen to paper on it. But I'm going to attempt a Star Wars film once again, because I've had the strangest urge for a while now to re-watch The Phantom Menace.
Hell, I personally have written my fair share on my thoughts on the first prequel. Here's my blog from this past Star Wars day, where I recount the tale of standing in line. Here's my blog from the film's 10th anniversary, where I reflect on how it came along at a very weird time in my life. And, when I rebuilt my website back in the spring, I found and re-posted my original review from when I first saw it all those years ago. I'm almost embarrassed at how much I loved it.
And that's the thing. I don't hate it as much as other Star Wars fans. There are still some really good parts of that movie. That's a complaint I've made here about other films. There are parts of a good movie in there, but they don't coalesce into a whole good movie.
Yeah, I get a lot of the complaints. Is the acting kind of still and wooden? Yes. Is Jar Jar annoying? Yes. Is there too much CGI? Yes.
But do I still love it? Yes.
Going back to the CGI, I get the complaints. But for all the love of practical effects, a lot of folks kind of forget that a lot of Phantom Menace was still done practically. Mythbuster Adam Savage, who was a model maker on the film, has said that it was pretty much ILM's last big model-heavy film. When it was first released in 1999, Yoda was still a puppet. Only for the Blu-Ray release, did Lucas start Special-Editioning and replace the puppet with CGI, which was his intent all along.
(And that's what annoys me about the Blu-Ray edition. The computer animation to make digital Yoda was just a smidge more advanced than the rest of the CGI in the film, and it makes the newer CGI Yoda stick out.)
Maybe all the CGI made Episode I look too clean. That was one of the compliments that people always put on the original trilogy: the future looked lived in. As the legend goes, when the actors got their props and they were all shiny and new, Lucas ordered them to rub the props in the dirt, so they'd get a well-used look to them. Well, there's none of that in Episode I. Everything is shiny and clean.
I've finally seen the classic samurai film The Hidden Fortress that Lucas called his main inspiration for Star Wars, and in Episode I, I see he borrowed another big plot point from the Hidden Fortress: smuggling the ruling royalty of a defeated kingdom through hostile territory and into a safe one so she can begin rebuilding her land. It's a nice little touch.
As I've blogged before, when it comes to Phantom Menace, I always remember the times more than the film itself. When the casting came down, I remember my friends being excited that they were mostly getting well-known, established actors. Liam Neeson! Ewan McGregor! That girl from The Professional! Every new tidbit added to the excitement. When that first trailer came down in November of 1998, we thanked God that they had wired all the dorm rooms for high-speed Internet that year, and we were all the first to download it and watch it over and over and over. Unable to see it in the theatre, I sweet-talked one of my professors into letting us use a projector in the biggest lecture hall after class one day. It was a grand time.
We speculated how these new characters would match with the original trilogy. Who's the new Luke? Is that Jar Jar the new Chewbacca? How do all these guys match up? I remember one fellow who always referred to Qui-Gon Jinn as "Squeegee John," saying, "I may as well pronounce it wrong, until I see the film and learn how to pronounce it right."
The hype! The merchandise! I ate at KFC to get my Jar Jar frisbee. I still have a couple of the collectable Pepsi cans. Doritos gave away miniature Episode I trading cards, and they framed my monitor. I didn't participate in the midnight openings of toy stores to get the new action figures. My clever idea was to buy them online at the official Star Wars online shop. I wasn't the only one who thought of that, as the website kept crashing on me. Oh, well. There were still plenty in stock when I finally made it to the toy stores 2 weeks later.
And all the hype made me blind to it. The first time I saw it in the theatre was opening day. Me and all my friends had just graduated from college, and standing in line for the film was pretty much our grad party. I was ecstatic coming out of the theatre. My friends...had a look of shock on most of their faces. George Lucas had done them wrong. The second time I saw it was for my birthday that year. My Dad hated it so much he walked out. Third time I saw it in the theatre was at the dollar theatre, just me and my Star Wars obsessed best friend.
Watching it again tonight, and there are still things I love about it. Don't get me wrong, it's not aging that well. Some of the CGI doesn't hold up, and I'm noticing that Jar Jar's antics drag on way too long. But the podrace is still a great action sequence. The lightsaber duels are fantastic. Darth Maul is still so enigmatic that you can't help but wonder what his deal is.
Not gonna lie, I'm a bit of an apologist for Phantom Menace. People hated that the big battle was over a trade dispute. I'm sorry, but as Obi-Wan pointed out, this was a more civilized time. What else are you going to fight about in a more civilized time? And it's fun when you finally realize that the whole thing is one massive Machiavellian scheme for Palpatine to come to power.
And you can't deny they designed the shit out of that movie. Everything looks so lush and detailed. My God, all these years later, I notice something new in the details. It was my seventh or eighth time watching it when I finally noticed Qui-Gon negotiating with Boss Nass for a transport. It took me a while to notice Qui-Gon's hands and realize that Qui-Gon is Jedi mind-tricking the shit out of Boss Nass to get what he wants.
And let's not forget the music. John Williams giving us new Star Wars music was a treat. I still think Duel of the Fates is one of the best Star Wars themes. You hear that music, and you know shit's about to go down.
I'm dangerously close to proclaiming The Phantom Menace as my favourite of the prequels. And I'm sure that most of it has to do with nostalgia for that hazy, crazy summer of 1999. I was reading an article not too long ago, analyzing Star Wars's growth from obscure nerd brand to beloved cultural touchstone, and they realized that it had to do with Generation X -- the silly kids the original trilogy was made for -- are now grown up and in charge.
I'm looking forward to when the Millennials take charge, and we might get a whole new appreciation for the prequels. But until then, it's just me.
Oh, well. At least I got some great music to listen to while I bide my time.