Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ten Years Ago in a Movie Theatre Not Too Far Away....

Believe it or not, it was 10 years ago today that many of us lined up at movie theatres for hours, some dressed up in costumes, some wielding lightsabers, others just giddy with 16 years' worth of excitement, for a film that was, is, and likely will always be the most anticipated movie of all time.....


After RETURN OF THE JEDI concluded the story of Luke Skywalker in 1983 -- I was not even 6 years old, but can vividly remember watching it in the theatre with a sense of pure awe -- the STAR WARS saga entered a long dormant period in the consciousness of the general public. But for us die-hards, our fervor never abated. We watched the Holy Trilogy countless hundreds of times, consuming it, embedding every detail into our very lifeblood.

Then, in 1991, the first post-JEDI novel, HEIR TO THE EMPIRE by Timothy Zahn, was released, launching the "Expanded Universe" that generated a new level of interest. In 1997, Lucas released the STAR WARS TRILOGY: SPECIAL EDITION, utilizing new technologies that allowed him to tinker with the films and "fulfill his original vision." Reviews were mixed especially by die-hards (myself included) who took issue with many of Lucas' alterations -- but there can be no denying that the thrill of seeing the Holy Trilogy back on the big screen was an overwhelming religious experience. Finally, in the late '90s, the announcement was made that a trilogy of prequels -- the missing Episodes I thru III -- would, in fact, be coming soon, chronicling the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker.

This announcement was followed by many months loaded with speculation, spoilers, photos, teaser trailers, posters, casting announcements, action figures, Pepsi can promotions and more. I will never forget cutting class to see the horrible Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins film, MEET JOE BLACK, specifically to see the debut of the first Episode I teaser before the movie. I then sat through the 3+ hour movie, because the theatre promised to show the trailer AGAIN! It ruled. And finally, on May 19th, 1999 -- one week after I graduated college -- the moment we thought we may never see was finally upon us.....

Two hours later, when the lights came back on and the crowds filed out of the theatres, the reaction was... well... mixed. By my estimation, there were two types of people: Those who hated the movie outright and were bitterly disappointed... and those who were blinded by excitement and unconditional Star Wars love, and enjoyed the movie in spite of everything. As you might expect, I fell into that latter category. Sure, I realized and even acknowledged its flaws, and spent that summer dissecting and discussing them with my friends at great length. I knew that Jar-Jar Binks was a terrible character, and Jake Lloyd was probably one of the worst child actors in history, and the concept of midi-chlorians was pretty stupid, and it certainly didn't match up with ANY preconceptions I may have developed over the previous 16 years. Still... it was a NEW STAR WARS MOVIE, and I couldn't get enough. I saw the movie a total of NINE times on the big screen (including three times that opening weekend) -- the most I have ever seen a single movie in the theatre.

As the years ticked by, my stance on THE PHANTOM MENACE went through a rollercoaster of emotions. It wasn't long before I went through a period of backlash in which I ripped the movie for its flaws and came perilously close to joining the anti-prequel geek battle cry, "George Lucas raped my childhood!" -- a sentiment not helped by the release of the truly awful ATTACK OF THE CLONES in '02, the one STAR WARS movie I actively dislike. Then one day, I watched Episode I again, and had an epiphany: Yes, there are some things wrong with the movie, and yes, it is a far cry from the original trilogy. But you know what? There's a lot of stuff to like, too. All things considered, it's really not half bad, and much better than it is given credit for. Over the past 10 years, so much has been said about what's wrong with Episode I... but let's take a look at some of the GOOD things:

• Jar-Jar sucks, yes. But you know the scene where he's talking to Padme about "da brisky mornin' munchin'?" That shit cracks up me to this day. I won't try to defend Jar-Jar overall (though he does provide interesting proof that poop and fart jokes exist in the Star Wars galaxy -- they're not so different from us after all!), but even he has his moments. I also maintain that if Lucas had only shown some chutzpah and, say, had Jar-Jar die in EPISODE III while trying to protect Padme or something, thus giving him a complete & tragic character arc, we'd probably look at him in a very different light!

• Casting Liam Neeson as a Jedi Master in his prime may have been one of the great decisions of the entire production. As Qui-Gon Jinn, Neeson brings a sense of nobility to the Jedi order that we had never seen before. Sure, we had Obi-Wan and Yoda in the original trilogy, but they were old and past their prime -- Qui-Gon represents what the Jedi meant to the galaxy and how they were viewed for the past 10,000 years. Plus he just kicks serious ass. (God, if only they could've gotten Neeson to come back for that one scene at the end of Episode III!)

• Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi was equally ingenious. Ewan actually provides by far the best acting and arguably the most interesting character development throughout the trilogy. He invokes Alec Guiness with almost eerie precision. He's a mere Padawan in Episode I, but it's clear that he is going to be awesome when the shit hits the fan later. Plus, the "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi" moment should be pretty spine-chilling for even the most cynical Star Wars fan!

• One of Episode I's biggest crimes was that it grossly underused one of the best Star Wars villains ever: Darth Maul. With his scary painted face, startlingly suave voice, and now-iconic double-bladed lightsaber (goddamn, I'll never forget the moment we first saw him extend that second blade in the first teaser), Maul is as cool as he is evil. He didn't appear on screen much, but when he did, he was a commanding presence. Of course, his three-way duel with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is one of the best in the entire saga. (Unfortunate that he died like a punk... but then again, Obi-Wan was pretty badass himself!)

• The plot, as a whole, is far more interesting and complex than people give it credit for. Yes, there's a lot of seemingly-boring talk of politics and tax policies and trade routes and stuff, which on the surface doesn't seem very Star Wars-y -- but shit, these are all seeds sown by Palpatine to reach his ultimate goal! It's genius, really. The Padme/Amidala/decoy stuff is handled poorly with the deeper voice and whatnot, but at least it makes sense. (Besides, it's clear that Qui-Gon knows who she really is from the beginning, so it's like, who does she think she's fooling?) The fact is that, story-wise, Lucas did a masterful job of setting the stage for Palpatine's eventual takeover -- if only those intricacies weren't overshadowed by bad acting and dialogue!

• The concept of Anakin as "the chosen one" adds a sense of religion to the Jedi order that had never really been explored, outside of a couple of throwaway references in A NEW HOPE. Along those lines, finally getting to see the Vatican-like Jedi Council in action is awesome. Sam Jackson may have been a bit miscast as Mace Windu, but you could tell he was having fun. And Yoda gave us some new, classic wisdom with his "Fear leads to anger... anger leads to hate... hate leads to suffering" speech.

• Pod racing may have been a marketing ploy for toys and video games, but what a ploy! The race was fun as hell, and the Pod Racer game for the Nintendo 64 was awesome!

• Though George Lucas proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has become completely detatched from humanity with his wooden dialogue, borderline racist characters (Watto as a Jewish used car salesman, anyone?), and complete inability to properly direct his human actors... there can be no doubt that he remains a visionary filmmaker and a pioneer when it comes to technology and special effects. THE PHANTOM MENACE was the first film to be projected digitally, as well as the first film with 100% digital characters. I'd go as far as to say that TPM was as important to the progress of movie technology over the past decade as the original STAR WARS was to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general.

• Lastly (but certainly not least -- I've just written more than enough already), one of the most spectacular things about the movie has to be John Williams' soundtrack. "Duel of the Fates" is one of the best themes in the entire saga. Anakin's theme is clever with its subtle nod to "The Imperial March." Memorable cues are scattered throughout the soundtrack -- my personal favorites are when the Trade Federation deploys its droid army against the Gungans, and the fanfare at the beginning of the Pod Race. It is easily the best and most memorable of the prequel soundtracks.

In the decade that followed, plenty of other big movies and franchises have come and gone. Everyone was psyched for THE LORD OF THE RINGS and SPIDER-MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT. We'll all be buzzing for HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS when it comes out in 2010. Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT will generate tons of excitement if & when it ever comes to fruition. But regardless of how you feel about it, in terms of sheer, rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth anticipation, STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE will always be king... and I, for one, believe that May 19, 1999, is a day worth recognizing. In the immortal words of young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and scourge of the Jedi order........ "YIPPEEE!"

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