…I Actually Enjoyed ‘The Phantom Menace’? Here’s Why.
“If there was a Toys R Us closer than Etobicoke, we’d all have light sabers right now.”
-Alex Kerr, on our enjoyment of The Phantom Menace 3D
“So I saw the new Star Wars trailer last night and at the end, Darth Maul shows up and he strikes this pose,” he took the famous double lightsaber pose, “And then ignited TWO blades. So we’re going to practice our Darth Maul poses.” That sensei was awesome. I’m sure he went on to become Chuck Norris.
The trailer aired before Wing Commander, the atrocious Freddie Prinze Jr/Matthew Lillard space film based on the epic video game which ironically starred Mark Hamill.
But the trailer was incredible. Holy hell was this trailer incredible. The invasion force, the hover tanks, the promise of a two-on-one light saber fight. I didn’t know (or like) this Qui Gon Jinn idea (Obi Wan clearly states Yoda trained him…which is re-explained post-Phantom Menace in books as meaning that Yoda trains all the kids, then at Padawan level other Jedi take over, re-confirmed in Attack of the Clones) and all this talk of a Trade Federation seemed a farcry from the menace of the Empire. Also, my magazine had informed me that the first episode was to be about the Clone Wars, with Obi Wan and Anakin fighting clones. But wait, why was Anakin a child? Didn’t Obi Wan say that “he was the greatest star fighter pilot in the galaxy” when they met? Oh well, everything will be fine.
I was spending a lot of time at this point telling my friends about the prequel outlines I’d read in Star Wars Insider, about the Clone Wars and all the expanded universe knowledge I was bringing to the table, all the stories written, hints given in the films…I was stirring up a teenage nerd firestorm.
Despite how terrible Wing Commander was (and it was so very terrible), when I caught wind of it playing at the Colossus Theatre in IMAX (at that point, one of the biggest screens in Canada), I grabbed my friend Tomo and convinced him we needed to go see it. We were both pumped to see the trailer on the giant screen; it was exhilarating and well worth the 45 minute drive…until the film started without any trailers. We then got to watch IMAX-sized mediocrity and I had to apologize profusely for subjecting my friend to it (incidentally, this was one of the last times he and I hung out together; we had a great time despite the film but drifted apart soon thereafter. He passed away last year; he was a good friend and I miss him.)
When the preview toy, a Battle Droid on a STAP (those stand-up speeders from the invasion, Qui Gon “A-lot-more-fun-if-you-imagine-he’s-Liam-Neeson-from-Taken” Jinn wrecks a few at the start of the film) came out, I bought it immediately and my imagination ignited with all the possibilities of this awesome looking robot on a flying gun platform. This film was going to be amazing.
They released the toys a week before the film: I bought one of each, everyone from Jar Jar Binks (there was a time when I was excited for Jar Jar-was he going to be like Chewie?) to Darth Maul (the most sought after figure) to Ric Olie. Remember Ric Olie?
Of course you don’t, nor should you. He’s the random pilot who tells Anakin how to fly a ship and then is our generic pilot point-of-contact for the space battle. I assumed he was going to be Han Solo. Surely there would be a kick-ass pilot, right? All the action figures came with bases that had voice clips; you had to buy a big reader for them (built to look like a Jedi communicator) which in turn led to an encyclopedic knowledge of random lines.
The graphic novel came out three days before the film; it took every ounce of nerd willpower to NOT read it cover-to-cover before the film. I wanted to wait. And then it opened.
Anyone who’s seen the film knows the problems that followed. The endless exposition, the stilted dialogue, the uneven pacing, the casual racism, the forgettable supporting characters, the vague story, the gut-wrenchingly terrible performance by a horrendously mischaracterized Anakin Skywalker (featuring Jake Lloyd somehow making bad lines worse.), and to a Star Wars fan, flagrant disregard for the established mythology (the aforementioned issues about Obi Wan not choosing to train Anakin, previously established as an act of hubris, now established as fulfilling the wishes of his dying master…vastly different things) and a tonal shift that was quite jarring (although Return of the Jedi was kid friendly, Phantom Menace‘s lazy humour -Jar Jar stepped in poo! A creature farted!- made the Ewoks look like Scarface.). As a kid, A New Hope captured my imagination because it was dark and serious (though still fun and adventurous). This represented (to my audience mind) a fundamental misunderstanding by Lucas of what kids wanted to see and a blatant disregard for the fans.
Leaving the theatre, I was riding high from the Darth Maul fight, which was (and is) the realization of everything I wanted and imagined it would be (due in large part to John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” theme, which pretty much justifies the entire new trilogy) And I remember declaring, “That was the greatest movie I’ve ever seen!” But then I started to process it and it all started falling apart. I was passionately arguing to people that Palpatine and Darth Sideous couldn’t be the same person, that it was too obvious. I had a great idea that Palpatine was Sideous’ clone (think about it, AWESOME). My aunt bet me he was Sideous. I still owe her a book for losing the bet.
Hmm…you know, when I cover the top of his face, he kinda looks like that evil guy with the great hood disguise…
I had far more faith in Lucas than was warranted, in large part because I had grown used to the much deeper and better written universe that existed beyond his movies. Having fully immersed myself in the books (particularly the incredible Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn…which introduced Coruscant to the Star Wars universe, incidentally.) I was expecting more of the story than Lucas was willing to give and this bothered me to no end.
It’s taken me a long time to come back to The Phantom Menace but watching it the other night, I really and truly enjoyed it. I didn’t mean to, but there I was. It was fun, funny, exciting, and surprisingly deep all of a sudden…part of this was nostalgia, but there was more than that: what I realized, watching the film was that in the time since that first viewing, I had engaged personally with the world it created beyond the film: I read the novelization, played the video games, played with the action figures-had created my own stories, my own worlds. And all these memories, stories, and adventures in turn folded back into the film. I never realized how deeply I’d engaged with the universe presented, but here I was knowing every line (and the delivery, thanks to the crappy voice toy) and feeling the Battle of Naboo and the pod race more intensely because of the games I’d played.
The 3D doesn’t add a whole hell of a lot to this film, but during the Podrace, I felt like I was playing the game again, which I have done with friends all over the country and enjoyed so thoroughly. I recognized every racer, every pod, how the damage and heating systems worked, and when it was in the cockpit, I actually felt exhilarated. The 3D brought me back to all those great times and though the film hasn’t improved my feelings about it have changed vehemently.
Same goes for the space fight; it’s short and lazy and Anakin presses the wrong button (explained in the book as a subtle suggestion by the Force. Boo-urns) and isn’t fantastic. But there was a great PS2 game called Starfighter set in this period which culminated in chasing the final boss through the droid control ship as it was exploding. It was a fantastic level, very exciting, and appropriately epic. Watching the film, that is what my mind went to and I was flooded with memories of how exciting that level was; in a sense that was the scene I experienced as the lazy film version toddled along.
This experience was repeated throughout, having wandered around a variety of planets in Old Republic I felt like i was visiting a familiar place and enjoyed it. On Naboo, I remembered playing a number of fantastic scenes in Battlefront 2 (an incredible war game set in the Star Wars universe) shooting droids and Gungans with equal glee. I was reminded of my first Dungeons and Dragons game, from the Star Wars RPG starter kit, set during the invasion of Naboo with my cousin and I trying to figure out how the hell the dice rolling system worked. All these were part of my film experience, though they were no where on the screen.
And finally, Jar Jar Binks, that awful, awful creature; when I told my Dad about this experience, he reminded me that the only way he knew the character was from an action figure movie series I shot one Christmas called Han and Jar Jar at the Movies where I used my Han Solo and Jar Jar action figures to act out a variety of film parodies (only children at Christmas away from home…it’s how we roll). The floppy eared mistrial has become a part of my legacy and visa versa (at least for my Dad). The character is no less annoying or offensive, but somehow now I can “claim this creature of darkness as mine own”. (That’s rife with post-Colonial importance too…look it up.)
And in addition to all these things running through my head, I was with good company and that, too, made all the difference. We’re all twenty-something guys raised on Star Wars and we engaged in the film like it was a pantomime. It was more like watching a cult B-Movie than a theatrical re-release. We knew all the lines, we laughed at the terrible bits, cheered the good bits (lightsaber fights, the Podrace, Samuel L. Jackson, our mutual love of Natalie Portman…also, note to Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan in 3D…we’ll buy a million tickets.) and groaned frequently at awful things. It was closer to a screening of Rocky Horror or The Room (Jake Lloyd and Tommy Wiseau might be related, they deliver lines the same way) than Star Wars, but that made it great. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Star Trek: The Original Series‘ cheesiest moments (the double punch, the Gorn captain, Clint Howard, that horrific Shore Leave episode) in that it seems like a less refined, sillier version of the original Star Wars movies (original Trek is, of course, much deeper and better than Phantom Menace, but there are still those laugh-out-loud LOL moments of wackiness and bad performances or lines; Phantom Menace is like if you cut all those scenes together into a film). This is, of course, ironic since Phantom Menace was made so long after the original trilogy that it should, in theory, have benefited the way Next Generation did, but instead it’s best to view these newer films as the campy counterparts to the classics. If taken like the Adam West Batman, it can be quite enjoyable, whereas my original viewing had me expecting Christopher Nolan Batman.
So, my advice if you’re a Star Wars fan or a campy B-Movie/Sci-fi fan, grab some buddies and go see the film. Be vocal, relax and revel in the terrible writing. Let yourself have fun. The big learning that my 1999-era self taught me was that the film itself will not bring a great experience; but if we bring our fun to the film, if we engage with it and merge our experiences with it’s presentation, we can have a great time experiencing The Phantom Menace.
You need to engage the film, not watch it.