There are two reason behind why I chose to write about The Phantom Menace for the Drunk Monkeys Star Wars Series.
Of everyone on the staff, I’m probably the most casual Star Wars fan. It’s nothing against the franchise. It’s never grabbed my heart with its sweaty hands, in the way that it has captured the hearts of millions of others. If you actually take the Star Wars vs. Star Trek argument seriously (and you shouldn’t, for the love of Christ), I’m more of a Star Trek guy.
I absolutely, unflinchingly despised Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace when I saw it. I was about fourteen. I was eager to see it, although not on a level severe enough to compel me to join the bloodthirsty throngs who waited in line for days and days, like some kind of weird Godot remake. I had minimal expectations. They were decimated by a film I perceived at the time to be one of the most insufferably boring movies released up to that point. My initial review of Episode I may or may not have been distracted by a constant need to hate and explore my body, but I nonetheless found the film to be arrogant in its conception, and absolutely horrible in its execution. A decade-plus later, I wanted to see if perhaps I could watch the movie with fresh, aged eyes, and whether or not doing so would change my overall opinion.
As I mention in the DM discussion of the film, I was almost eager to have my mind changed. I honestly enjoy being proven wrong with film, whether it’s an old opinion of something I saw, or severe caution after a crappy trailer. Being shaken out of complacency is something I value highly, and that extends to film. I am constantly trying to learn new tricks and revaluate.
Renting the movie from the a video store (yes, a video store) for this reappraisal brought back strange memories that now have the benefit of being funny in hindsight. On New Year’s Eve 1999, my stepfather got it into his head that he wanted to marathon the entire run of Star Wars movies. We didn’t own them, so the only logical course of action was to rent them. This was a little surprising to myself, and probably to the rest of my family. For over a year, everyone had been forced to observe a ban on trips to Blockbuster, or any other video store. This was because my stepfather, after being arrested by a Smithfield, Virginia video store for failing to return a copy of Four Weddings and a Funeral (even though he had already explained that the VCR had eaten the tape, and that he could be billed for the replacement), had been less-than-giddy to make any video pilgrimages on anyone’s behalf. With a dozen movie channels, it was easy to keep my fix coming in, so I don’t remember the ban ever truly bothering me. Still, it was great to go back to a video store. They had been places of weird solace for most of my life up to that point. Even a shitty Blockbuster Video was better than nothing.
The idea was simple: Run through the entire Original Trilogy as a lead-in to the first film in the franchise in fourteen years. By then, the movie had obviously already come, generated considerable controversy, obliterated box-office records, and moved on to the world of VHS in (financial) triumph. With all this in mind, my expectations were still about where they had been from the start. I was game to like the movie. I didn’t consider myself a fanatic, so I assumed before ever seeing it that I would either like it or not. Despising it didn’t seem reasonable to me.
Since this was Blockbuster, there were approximately nine thousand copies of The Phantom Menace still available. The Original Trilogy was there, too, so everything we needed for our New Year’s Eve film festival was firmly in place.
Other Drunk Monkeys writers have covered the Original Trilogy already, so I won’t go into those too much. I’ll just say that even as a laidback fan of this universe, I can still fully appreciate the marvel and awe that these movies sweep over even the most cynical viewer. Lucas’ infuriating tinkering through the decades aside, I love the Original Trilogy. I love Han Solo, Empire’s downbeat ending, the way Peter Cushing drolly quips “You’re far too trusting, Princess”, and so much more. Watching them succeeded brilliantly in getting me hyped up for The Phantom Menace, well beyond my level of anticipation going in.
And then the fun suddenly stopped. The carnival burned down. Santa Claus was caught doing blow off my mom’s left thigh.
Okay, that’s a stretch dramatic, but I truly remember being shocked at how much I hated Episode I. Suddenly, I was right there with the diehards I had been reading about in the weeks prior. I slowly and then completely understood their nerd rage. You can glean something along the lines of a complete review of Star Wars Episode I from the DM Film Department discussion. Interestingly, that conversation gave me more perspective than re-watching the film for the first time in about fourteen years. I still hate The Phantom Menace. A lot. Still, I walked away from this most recent viewing, and from the discussion with the Drunk Monkeys Film Department with at least a bigger list of pluses for George Lucas’ flawed fourth film than I did the first time around.
But still, at the end of the day, this movie can go fuck itself. It is a monstrous chapter in the world Lucas, Spielberg, and others created in the wake of A New Hope and Jaws. Not that there is anything wrong with the era that followed those films, or the era we share with film now. But when I consider what Lucas did to film with his samurai space opera, and when I think about what Phantom Menace represents as a commercial concept, I can’t help but wonder what film would be like if Jaws and Star Wars had never existed. I am not going to pretend or imply that things would be better, but I am fascinated by what the relationship between art and commerce in film would be like, if neither of those films had ever seen the light of day.
Good points aside, The Phantom Menace is a weird perversion of art and commerce trying to exist on the same stage.
But still, I will say this: That night I watched the Original Trilogy and The Phantom Menace with my family, in the moments leading up to the year 2000? Magic. I will treasure that night always.
Join us on Wednesday for our discussion of the first of the much-maligned Star Wars prequels, 1999's The Phantom Menace.