*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.
Memorial Day weekend 1999 contained one of the very worst film going experiences of my lifetime. I was a high school English teacher at the time, and, due to some underhanded office politics, I had been passed over to teach the film class at the school where I worked. The retiring teacher who was giving up the film class had taken a dislike to me and saw to it that I not take over her class. The school’s normal procedure of filling positions from within before going to outside candidates was subverted and a less qualified middle school teacher was given the job. This was in the previous spring of 1998. In May of 1999, near the end of the school year, the new film teacher came to me and invited me to attend a special screening with her classes.
I appreciated her asking me, it was a classy thing to do. The film we were going to see was one I had been really looking forward to. Hell, it was a film everybody had been looking forward to. It was a little something called Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. I had been a massive Star Wars fan as a kid, and, like many film nerds today, Star Wars was one of my gateway movies that led to an eventual deeper exploration of cinema. In fact, I’ve always wondered about film critics who hate genre cinema. How did they get into movies in the first place? Don’t most people get into film through genre films they saw as kids? So, in May 1999 I went to see the first of the Star Wars prequels with the woman who had gotten my dream job instead of me.
This probably should have been a sign to me of things to come.
I was very excited as the movie started. The 20th Century Fox fanfare played, and the LucasFilm logo appeared. Is it just me, or is the Fox fanfare as much a part of Star Wars music as John Williams’ now familiar themes? The logo popped on screen, and then that cool/awkward exposition slowly ascended the screen and drifted off into space. The movie began.
It didn’t take long to realize that something was amiss. The movie wasn’t very exciting. Ewan MacGregor and Liam Neeson were oddly wooden. I know George Lucas isn’t a good director of actors, but how do you hire Liam Neeson and get a wooden performance out of him? Better yet, how do you hire Samuel L. Jackson and make him seem boring? But, I told myself that this was just exposition and the movie would pick up. Then, he showed up. Of course, I mean Jar Jar Binks. I try really hard in life to avoid Jar Jar as a point of reference. Yes, he is a genuinely terrible character, but it’s just too easy and too obvious to bag on him. Jar Jar jokes are lazy, like children and old people swearing. Having said that, he is a wild miscalculation, and I’m stunned that Lucas never realized how awful he was going to be. I guess adding digital characters later can blindside you in post. (To be totally honest, I have a tradition with the new, updated Star Tours ride at Disneyland. If Jar Jar shows up, and he sometime does depending on the planets you visit, I have to boo him. I have passed this tradition on to my nephews. They boo Jar Jar with gusto. It makes me proud.) By this point, the movie was a complete mess of awful digital worlds and awful digital characters, and this was before one of the worst child actor performances of all time unfurled. I was beginning to realize with horror that The Phantom Menace wasn’t just going to simply miss living up to the hype, which would have been forgivable as the hype was likely unmanageable. I was slowly realizing it was a bad movie. A terrible movie! To this day, I have never re-watched it, nor have I really had any desire to.
You can argue Episode II is an even worse film. You can argue that Hayden Chistensen gives an even worse performance than Jake Lloyd. Either way, nothing prepared me for the blindside that was Episode I. The truth is, nothing is going to ever be as palpably disappointing as that screening of Episode I. By the time it rolled around three years later, I was expecting Episode II to be awful. I was ready for it. Episode I helped to soften the blow.
You may have seen this week a video that made the rounds online in which JJ Abrams announced a raffle of sorts in which fans donating to UNICEF could win a trip to London and a walk-on role in the now-shooting Episode VII. The video was brief and kind of inconsequential, but 15 years after the crushing disappointment of The Phantom Menace, that little video filled me with a new hope. Abrams, who was filmed on their set on location in Abu Dhabi, briefly interacted with some odd-looking space creature. Abram’s obsession with secrecy is firmly in place, so it’s unclear at this point which companies may be involved (The Jim Henson people say they aren’t.), but somebody is building practical alien effects for Episode VIII. Abrams has already indicated he’s shooting the new movies on film. The script is by a collaboration of Oscar-winning people, none of whom is named George Lucas. Now, we have some proof that he’s shooting on real, tangible locations, which is incredibly exciting. (Similarly, that appalling CG jungle in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull always rubbed me the wrong way.) And now, we’re seeing a tangible alien that will occupy the same physical space as the actors. If you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s a glorious thing to behold. It’s odd how Abrams seems to have a better handle on what made Star Wars work than its own creator had. Fifteen years later, it’s a cinematic kick to the groin that‘s worth celebrating.
Based on that news alone, this new film is already better than the prequels.