In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released theatrically. The rest is a blur – for me, at least. I was 12 years old at the time, the ideal age for an uncritical Star Wars fan to see the first entry in George Lucas’ then-new prequel trilogy.
And I liked it!
Or, more accurately, in that hazy period I now refer to as my “pre-taste” period, I devoured it. Though I’m still convinced I’ve only seen Episode I once or twice before last night, I knew the film by heart, having played two of the PlayStation video games inspired by the film. (There was the podracer game and the action-adventure one that always gave me motion sickness.... I only owned the latter once my peers had moved on to the PlayStation 2. I led a deprived childhood, I think.)
My taste in films evolved as the prequel trilogy was released. When Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones came out, I was 15. At the time, I was (and still am) an unabashed nerd but I was only slightly more opinionated. There were things in Episode II that I wholeheartedly enjoyed, like watching Yoda fight Count Dooku. (My sister and I gushed about that scene as we exited our Douglaston multiplex: Dracula versus a Muppet! Okay, a CG Muppet, but still!) Still, there were things about the film I distinctly recall disliking, like Hayden Christensen’s performance. I remained fairly uncritical at this point, though.
Finally, when Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005, I was 18. I was (and probably still am) a raging asshole and as opinionated as I’ve ever gotten. And I hated Episode III. I didn’t think it was the worst thing I’d ever seen but I did think it was pretty awful. Christensen was still bad, his character’s moral conflict was stilted (I still can’t get over the minute pause between, “No, I won’t cut his head off,” and “Okay, I’ll cut his head off!”), the romance sucked, the dialogue sucked and the fight scenes were labored but unmoving. I saw that film under ideal circumstances of a kind, too: with the high school Science Fiction Club that I founded and quickly disbanded thereafter. (This was our last group activity; almost all of us hated what we saw.)
The prospect of revisiting Episode I was daunting. By now, watching awful movies has become something of a passion of mine. But I didn’t watch this film, one that I still have fond preadolescent memories of, for the sake of rubbernecking. When I heard that George Lucas had post-converted The Phantom Menace into 3D, I knew my morbid curiosity would get the better of me and that attention must be paid. I earnestly wanted to know if the film could hold up for me. So I held a seance for my inner child at the Ziegfeld last night.
First, I had a beer and some bangers and mash at the Oldcastle Pub just down the street. This made Semi-Adult Simon happy (I’m 25, lemme alone). Then, I bought a big honking Pepsi and sat down with a friend at my favorite Manhattan movie theater (the opening night 7pm screening was not well-attended, though it wasn’t empty either). I was determined to give Kid Simon a fighting chance against George and what I rightfully feared was a three-dimensional cavalcade of crap.
And for a while there, I thought I could happily regress. The trailer for The Lorax looked like fun and I wanted to see the new Spider-Man movie and, hey, even the Ice Age cartoon in front of the movie made me laugh more than once. I was ready. I even wanted to shush my friend when he audibly rolled his eyes at the instantly recognizable “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” intertitle. But I was ready to like Episode I again. And I wanted to pretty desperately. But while I was open to suggestion, I anticipated the worst.
Everything seemed to be going well for the first few minutes: Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor fighting robots...but then there’s some aliens that talk like caricatures of Asian people, complete with slit eyes, Oriental robes and “w”- for-“r”-and-“l” wisps. Well, that part made sense, I rationalized frantically. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film whose story was co-written by George Lucas, there’s also an attempt to ground the kind of pulpy story we’re watching in the chauvinistic terms of “white man with whip knows best.” But that superior action film suggests that while Temple of Doom is inhabited by racial and sexist stereotypes, those characters (ex: Short Round and Willie Scott), the good stereotypes, prove themselves to be made of sterner stuff than the bad ones. So before Jar Jar Binks showed up, I was willing to give Lucas’ use of flagrantly offensive racial stereotypes a chance, too.
Then Jar Jar Binks showed up. And my inner child vanished.
It’s not enough to say that Jar Jar Binks is the nadir of The Phantom Menace: he’s pretty much every hyperbolic mean thing that’s ever been said about him by internet trolls and dejected fans alike (there might be a difference...). Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best) is a comic relief character so thoroughly miscalculated that he makes it nigh impossible to totally suspend your disbelief – in every scene he’s in. He’s too clownish, too offensive, too naïve, too pseudo-cute. He’s just awful!
And unfortunately, so is Episode I. Lucas took a film that I now recognize as being full of problems – especially bad dialogue, stiff acting with bad accents and illogical plot points (why is the Bedouin home of Anakin Skywalker full of so much STUFF? Isn’t this kid supposed to be a slave or something?) – and he made it worse by adding more stuff to it than it ever really needed. Darth Maul is unnecessarily introduced earlier than he previously was, Anakin’s acceptance into the Jedi Order is now over-explained, the podrace is overburdened with more instantly forgettable racers than were previously highlighted and the final fight scene with Darth Maul is now padded with extra footage. Anything that was once almost-spectacular in Episode I is now marred by new, distractingly cheap-looking sequences where characters stiffly intone lines as their CG-bodies bob from side-to-side to simulate human movement. It’s just awful!
Now I’m not sure how to feel about the prequels. Part of me wants to make a pilgrimage to the Ziegfeld for the remaining two 3D re-issues. But I honestly don’t know why. These films were important to me, so the sight of Jabba the Hutt’s son being randomly inserted into the podrace scene does bother me, just as it bothers me to see that a movie I remember semi-fondly was always awful. But George Lucas didn’t rape my childhood and he certainly didn’t ruin anything that wasn’t already ruined. I guess I just want to see this prequel 3D-fication thing through, because I feel nostalgic and, yes, I want to see a Star Wars film on a big screen again. I want to regress that badly, even though I’m now sure that I can’t while watching a Star Wars prequel. Sometimes, being an arrest adolescent really sucks.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.