I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, when the brain — and the heart — doesn’t believe what the eyes are saying.
As 1998 drew to a close, it was hard not to be swept up in the excitement over The Phantom Menace. We’d gotten past the initial “Huh?” of the title reveal and made our peace with it as a bit of pulp perfectly in keeping with the Flash Gordon origins of the whole saga. There were rumblings about someone named Jar-Jar, but this was a guy who’d pulled off a puppet as a main character, so we had faith he knew what he was doing. We were finally going to see the run-up to the Clone Wars, the seminal event of fictional Star Wars history, and that November, the first trailer for Episode I was going to hit theaters. All we had to do was buy a ticket for a movie we probably didn’t want to see.
Oh, it was online too. But it took less time to drive to the theater and watch the trailer than it did to wait for the thing to download. This was before YouTube, before real high-speed internet, and a two minute trailer was really pushing the envelope. Still, some ten million people had the patience to wait for the tiny compressed video to run its course. The rest of us made our way out to Meet Joe Black or The Waterboy or The Siege to basically watch a commercial. Some of us were even nice enough to sit through the movie afterward.
Watching that trailer today, we should have know. Jar-Jar is the veritable sore thumb. Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman are sleepwalking. The Yoda puppet looks terrible. The tin dialogue lands with a clang. But back then, we didn’t notice. All we saw was new Star Wars, with new spaceships and HOLY CRAP WHO’S THAT DEVIL DUDE WITH THE DOUBLE LIGHTSABER? It was no accident that Darth Maul was slapped on every piece of merchandise for the film; he was the coolest thing in the picture, and the unofficial mascot of the Episode I hype. So starved were we for something new that we latched on to him and overlooked a lot things we shouldn’t have. Made sense, him being a Sith and all.
The May 1999 release date neared, and we had ourselves convinced we were going to see something amazing. I had friends who wanted to come with me on opening day, not so much to see the movie, but to see my reaction to it. People had been camping out in front of theaters for months, days off had been carefully planned, and a lot of people came down with strange, sudden maladies on May 18th. One friend, who had promised to see the first show with me, took that to mean he only had to be there for my first time, not his, and sneaked away to a midnight show. Proving the universe is not a rules lawyer, the film broke, and the poor theater employee who had to let the packed house know they couldn’t continue rightfully feared for his life. And then, finally, at 9:30 AM on the morning of May 19th, sixteen years of waiting came to an end, and George Lucas’ vision for the future of Star Wars was revealed.
And most of us drank the Kool-Aid. I walked out with this nagging bit of doubt in the back of my mind that I promptly stomped on because how DARE it ruin this day! I got interviewed for local TV and gushed that it was great and the best one and I was going to see it again and again because I had no life, and only two of those things were correct.
I wasn’t the only one though. There was some deep denial going on. We came up with all kinds of things — some which were nowhere to be found on-screen — that justified this masterpiece that Lucas had given us. This was a movie about the death of innocence, both for Anakin and for the galaxy! Jar-Jar was the Luke character, the simple man who becomes involved in great events; he might seem dumb now, but just you wait! He’ll be important! It’s so brilliant because we’re being asked to root for who will eventually become the bad guys! Get it? That’s the phantom menace! Oh it’s amazing we didn’t hurt ourselves bending over backwards so hard to justify this thing. But we had to convince ourselves that we’d seen greatness; otherwise, what had we spent the last few years getting excited over?
It didn’t get better with Attack of the Clones. This time around, I was at the midnight show, and it was electric. There were people in costume, everyone was amped up and cheering, and when Yoda turned into Ninja Frog — which, let’s be honest, is kinda ridiculous in hindsight — we lost our collective minds. The final montage, with the birth of the Empire transposed with the doomed marriage of Anakin and Padme, worked like gangbusters, and when the credits irised to “Written and Directed by George Lucas,” we burst into enthusiastic applause. I was so deep in the Kool-Aid, that in the immediate afterglow of seeing Clones, I called it better than The Empire Strikes Back. Because I desperately wanted to believe that. Sure, there were some clunky patches, and parts of the story weren’t quite working, but it was the second film! Surely Lucas was setting up the pieces for the grand finale. We had to look at it as a three-part movie, and we really couldn’t judge it until we’d seen the ending. It would all snap into place.
So there I was three years later, wandering around Downtown Disney waiting for the midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith. This was it. The big finish. The Anakin vs. Obi-Wan duel on which so much of what was to come would hinge. But by this time, the high was wearing off. And as Sith unspooled, and the timeline moved closer to that of the original films, what I was feeling wasn’t a sense of conclusion, but a sense of completion. It looked epic, and once again, the ending managed to evoke some emotion, but rather than a grand finale, it felt like just getting it over with. Something it shared with Return of the Jedi. As the final credits ended, I said, “Great, now what do I do with my life?” I was only partly joking.
Because there was no small amount of sadness here. I was coming to the realization that there was now a huge chunk of the franchise I really didn’t want anything to do with. Rather than being a sweeping prologue to the original trilogy, it felt like we were being shown a history lesson, and not the good parts. The Clone Wars happened almost completely off-screen, consigned to an animated series. The character of Obi-Wan, all noble and wise in Star Wars, turned out to be, if not a liar, then at the very least shady in the extreme. The great friendship that made him so sad when talking about it to Luke never once came across. And what should have been the entire saga’s most heart-wrenching moment — Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side and the fall of the Jedi — started off with cartoony melodrama and ended with a bunch of characters we barely knew being killed by CGI troopers, the only emotion coming from John Williams doing yeoman work. The whole thing just didn’t work.
I knew it was over when I realized I owned all three films on DVD, and hadn’t watched the last two at all. They were just taking up space on a shelf. Because they were Star Wars, and I had to have them. Right?
No, I didn’t. Just like I didn’t need to own every piece of merchandise, there was no reason for me to have to embrace the prequels. My love of the original trilogy didn’t depend on loving these three new ones, and their stature wasn’t diminished because Lucas had been unable to recapture twenty-year old magic. There were some who still loved the prequels, and that was fine; I was just under no compulsion to feel the same. I traded my prequel DVDs in on Amazon without a twinge of regret. My story, my Star Wars, still existed without them. Who cared how it started? Or, for that matter, how it would have ended?
Yeah, about that…
The Twelve Days of Star Wars