The kid in everyone has to give at least a little squeal of excitement now that “Star Wars” is back in theaters. Unfortunately, it’s not a new sci-fi opus that’s hitting the multiplex, and even more unfortunately, it is not one of the classic films of the original trilogy. However, even cynics have to admit that it’s pretty cool to see “Star Wars” on the big screen again.
Yahoo!Movies contributor Timothy Sexton released an article last Friday entitled, “Why the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels Are Better Than the Original Trilogy.” He himself admits that “it verges on cinematic treason to suggest that the ‘Star War’ prequel trilogy is in any way superior to the original trilogy.” Well, that might be one of his few true statements in the article. He goes on to champion the political aspirations of the prequels, claiming they present a far more complex picture of contemporary political issues than the original trilogy did for its Cold War-era audience.
It’s possible that that is the case, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the original three films are just better movies, political intentions aside. I would also take issue with his claim that “A New Hope” and its successors present a simplified good vs. evil story that cannot fully capture the nuances of 20th century politics.
But that is for another time and another blog post.
For now, it suits me to address the return of a cultural behemoth to theaters in a galaxy near you.
“Star Wars Episove IV: A New Hope” is the first movie I have any vivid memory of seeing. I was young – likely between the ages of 3 and 5 – and the Rebel Alliance’s quest to save the galaxy from the evil helmeted asthmatic enthralled me in a way no episode of “Sesame Street” ever had.
I was hooked. I spent most of my youthful days collecting that epically awesome new line of “Star Wars” action figures that ejected anatomical accuracy into space in favor of a Luke Skywalker with bulging pectorals while I watched the movies religiously.
“Star Wars” taught me literacy, both literally – as I devoured a myriad of Expanded Universe novels about my favorite “Star Wars” characters long before I should have been reading anything beyond “See Spot Run” – and culturally – as I learned how to interact with adults in conversations about the merits of the underappreciated A-wing and the badassness of the Emperor’s Royal Guards.
“Star Wars” inspired a fervent passion in me the likes of which I have never seen in another child who could barely handle the intricacies of Monopoly. While other passions and hobbies would come to eclipse my love of “Star Wars” – first “Harry Potter,” then “Lord of the Rings,” the novels of Virginia Woolf by the 8th grade and now the sickeningly engrossing “Downton Abbey” – “Star Wars” is likely the single greatest contributor to who I am today, both in my love for pop culture and in the type of person I’ve become.
“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came out in May of 1999, when I was a wee nine years old. I may have been a culturally astute nine-year-old, but it was “Star Wars,” so I thought “Phantom Menace” was awesome. The movie itself had cool things like pod races and a freakish, tattooed villain. What’s more, this new entry into the “Star Wars” universe gave me more toys, a computer game that I think I would enjoy even if I played it today and a new series of Young Adult novels about an adolescent Obi-Wan ripe for the eyes of a voracious “Star Wars” reader.
I still have those books lying around somewhere, and I am proud even to this day of the hack-job I did on one of my action figures – while the “Star Wars” toys were always cool, there were never any good female figures for me to use as my central character during playtime. So I took my Queen Amidala in purple Padme garb, cut off her weird coat-tail thing, took an exacto-knife to her drapey sleeves and made my first real female action heroine.
Even with all the mixed media possibilities of the prequel trilogy, the best part about the release of “Phantom Menace” was that I got to see “Star Wars” on a big screen. No matter the context, lightsabers and dogfights in space always look better on a big screen.
With time, I’ve developed the cynical anti-prequel attitude that my cultural astuteness requires. As a film fan (and film student), I obviously know now that some of Joseph Campbell’s monomythic storytelling traits were lost in the prequel films. I also know that Hayden Christensen can’t act and should never be responsible for carrying a movie. And while the special effects of the prequel films are pretty cool to look at, they seem to be there in lieu of the rich narrative and character development of “Star Wars” Episodes IV-VI.
I should also admit that I’ve only ever seen two films that did 3D well – “Avatar,” thanks to James Cameron’s devotion to and embrace of the new technology to provoke real artistry; and “Hugo,” where 3D adds a depth of storytelling and a richness of world-building to a stunning film. I have no interest in paying a fee on top of the already exorbitant price of a movie just to see 3D done badly.
All that being said, I trekked to my local multiplex at midnight last Thursday and shelled out $11 to see “Star Wars” on the big screen again. The little “Star Wars” freak in me couldn’t resist seeing that galaxy far, far away on a giant screen, and maybe time and my own maturation had been good to “The Phantom Menace.”
When the now-famous crawl started, my theater was cheering, and I joined in – all joy, no embarrassment. That yellow text does something to the soul that makes one giddy with excitement.
But let’s not beat around the bush here – “The Phantom Menace” is still something of a jumbled mess of politics and Gungans that lacks the heart of George Lucas’ original sci-fi opus. I didn’t like it any better than I remembered, though I will say that the special effects have held up remarkably well over time.
“The Phantom Menace” isn’t the original “Star Wars,” and it certainly isn’t “The Empire Strikes Back.” But I had one hell of a time returning to my childhood and watching Anakin beat the odds to win his pod race and Obi-Wan slash Darth Maul into smithereens to avenge his fallen master.
“The Phantom Menace” is fun. It may lack some of the beautiful storytelling traits of its predecessors, but it is one joyous ride to go on, particularly on a big screen.
Expectations were high for the film when it came out, and while it may have disappointed long-time fans of the series, it enchanted kids like me around the world and reinvigorated the epic franchise with some new blood that has spawned fantastic collections of books, some of the best video games of recent years and an animated TV series which I hear is actually quite good.
“Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is no masterpiece of filmmaking, but it sucks you into a world too fantastical to believe all the same. Sure, there are flaws that could have easily been fixed the first time around. But the movie is what it is, and at nine or at 22, it is still one of the most entertaining movies you’re likely to see in theaters this year – well, maybe not this year with its spate of sci-fi, fantasy and comic book adaptations, but most years.
And in defense of George Lucas, his special effects were clearly ahead of their time and his 3D conversion is precisely of the non-headache-inducing kind. I’d just as soon see the film in normal 2D, but if you can only make it to a 3D showing, the extra few dollars are worth it just to see “Star Wars” back on the big screen.
The original trilogy will always be better to me, but you can count this “Star Wars” fan in for the next two 3D releases. And I wait with eager anticipation for the return of Luke, Vader, Han and Co. to the big screen.
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