I’m not entirely sure when I realized that The Phantom Menace was bad. There was certainly a denial period for me, and I remember coming out of a midnight screening in Poughkeepsie, New York to talk about it with friends at a diner. At first we focused on the stuff we liked, the nerdy Star Wars universe stuff that excited us. Then we started getting to the problems. To Jar Jar. To Jake Lloyd.
Still, it was a bunch more viewings before I allowed myself to admit that the movie stunk. And the denial came back for Attack of the Clones; it wasn’t until Revenge of the Sith that I was pretty comfortable admitting that Star Wars was dead to me. I had hundreds of figures and collectibles, and they ended up shoved in bags and eventually donated to a children’s hospital.
As The Phantom Menace is unleashed again it’s easy to focus on the crushing disappointment that these films held for me. But that’s really only half the story - even though it’s the half we think about the most. Anytime a relationship ends painfully the break up overshadows the good times.
But there were good times. The lead up to The Phantom Menace was actually pretty incredible, and the sense of nerd energy was palpable. It began with the 1997 rerelease of Star Wars, something that dominated my life that year. At the time the digital tweaks Lucas made irritated, but I didn’t ever imagine the original versions would disappear forever. In the meantime I was excited to see the classic films returned to the screen, enjoying them in packed theaters.
You have to remember that Star Wars had sort of disappeared after the 80s. There were some cartoons, but it wasn’t until the Thrawn trilogy that Star Wars began resurfacing. It was kind of perfect because the franchise needed time to cool off. While Vader and Yoda remained in the pop consciousness, it was nerds like me who kept the rest of the saga (and the then-slowly accumulating expanded universe) alive. The franchise had time to grow for us; it wasn’t always being shoved down our throats. Keep in mind this was a time when new Star Wars toys were rare and exciting, not a regular part of the product cycle.
Those years presented a slow ramp-up to the rereleases and then the prequels. Shadows of the Empire, a canon story taking place between Empire and Jedi, was mind-blowingly cool, even though it really disappointed as narrative. What was important was the way it filled in little gaps and continued expanding the universe. The idea that the Star Wars universe was more like a tiny, inbred community wasn’t so clear then.
Looking back it’s remarkable how perfectly Lucasfilm built up this energy. Of course I don’t think it was on purpose; I think there was some water testing to see if people still wanted these characters and this universe, and a gradual emboldening that led to the creation of new characters and concepts and an enlarging of the playground. The Star Wars universe in those years felt organic and filled with the efforts of creative people.
I wasn’t a line waiter for Episode I, but I was there at midnight. I was hugely spoiled by then - that was also part of the fun, and there’s another little reminiscence to write about how this movie totally altered the face of movie fansites - but I was buzzing with excitement. I remember that my girlfriend at the time was driving up to Poughkeepsie from New York City, and the weather was terrible. She was very late and, this being the era before cellphones were widely out there, I didn’t know if she was ok. I was balancing my irritation that she was so late with my fears that she died in a wreck on the Turnpike.
And then the movie. But fuck the movie. Everything special about The Phantom Menace came before. It was a time when anything seemed possible; looking back it was like Hunter S Thompson’s quote ‘[W]ith the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.’ While The Phantom Menace largely marks the beginning of the latest age of the geek blockbuster, I’m not sure that age is all so golden. Maybe the real golden time was before, when we shared these things with each other, where the details of the Clone Wars were ours to own and play with. When the Lucasfilm marketing machine hadn’t become fully sentient. The lesson here is that the anticipation is often better than the culmination.
Maybe this is a touch cynical, but I look at the prequels as the movies that made me really grow up as a film fan. In a lot of ways George Lucas has been instrumental in that; my first true disappointment at the cinema was Howard the Duck. Driving home in the backseat of my mom’s Toyota I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the movie was so fucking bad. My eyes started opening, and it would be the prequels that completed that process.
Yeah, there’s something to be said about being rabidly anticipating a movie, to be the guy who will brook no dissent to his conviction that this unseen film will be the best thing ever. There’s juvenile charm to that, and I was that guy when The Phantom Menace came out. But juvenile charm wears thin, and I prefer the film fan I have become since the prequels. I’m more wary and measured in my anticipation, but I’m also more open to being wowed. I don’t expect us much from films and I allow them to come at me on their own terms.
I still can be a rabid champion for a film, but I try to hold that until I see a movie. I try to keep that enthusiasm and mix it with a conviction born of actual knowledge, not blind hope. That’s more powerful to me, to be an evangelist for a movie I know instead of a movie I’m projecting. I think it makes me better at my job, and makes me a better film fan because I’m a fan of THE FILM, not the vague, hopeful idea of the film. I’m not a blind partisan, I’m an educated admirer. This was the powerful lesson I learned over the course of the release of the prequels.
Again, it’s like any bad break-up. You have to remember the good stuff as well as the bad, but you also have to walk away from the heartbreak stronger. I’m a better film lover because the prequels sucked, and I kind of thank George Lucas for that.