“Tragedy is like strong acid -- it dissolves away all but the very gold of truth.” -D.H. Lawrence
Ten years. Can it really have been so long since George Lucas took fans back to that galaxy far, far away and brought about the second renaissance of Star Wars fandom? It seems unreal to think that such time has past, that indeed the saga as a whole has been completed. Sure, there was the brief appearance of the Clone Wars movie and subsequent television series, and there's the promise of a live-action series set amidst the period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope (or, as I still call it, Star Wars). So it can be forgiven if the day has a bit less significance for the more casual of pop culture/science fiction fans out there, given the prevalence of Lucasfilm material on the airwaves and easily at hand on DVD.
1983 saw the apparent conclusion of the Star Wars saga. Return of the Jedi brought Luke Skywalker full circle and had the scarred young hero face down his father and his father's dark master and redeem him, bringing him back to the light and reuniting with his long-lost sister. Also, the Empire got its collective ass handed to them by a combination of daring pilots, intrepid commandos, skilled naval leaders, and a band of tribal teddy bears. When the credits rolled on Jedi, even the most diehard fans presumed that was it. The story had ended.
Still, the franchise lived on. In VHS videos, toys, games, comics, and with the release of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novels and Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy's Dark Empire comics series in 1991 the galaxy far, far away found itself given new life. For all the excitement the newly born Expanded Universe (as the fans have come to call it) brought about it would be another eight years before Lucasfilm would produce another lightsaber epic.
To understand just why this film had the impact it did, you have to understand the world as it was back in 1998/99. The Internet was only just beginning to come into it's own as the central hub of geek information and speculation it is today. In those halcyon days if the average Star Wars geek wanted information on the (then rumored) production in the works, he'd have little choice but to slog through shows like Access Hollywood or even (shudder) Entertainment Tonight. So it was that one fall night in 1998, when my brother and I waited through an entire episode of teasing from the bipedal smiles of Access Hollywood for the merest glimpse of the Phantom Menace trailer. The images of the mounted Gungan warriors moving through the mists of the Naboo forest made our jaws drop in much the same way as I suspect that Star Destroyer's arrival in the original film blew '70s SF fans away. And then the rest of the trailer played, and we were hooked. Utterly.
Flash-forward in time to May 18th, 1999. My brother and I have waited patiently. Toys? Purchased. Novel adaptation by Terry Brooks? Obtained. The last day of waiting seemed an eternity, but when midnight rolled around and our tickets for the show were in hand we bolted to the Uptown theatre in Red Deer, Alberta. Waiting in line for what felt an eternity we sat and fidgeted and literally willed that last half-hour out of existence. The sheer joy in the room as the 20th Century Fox fanfare pounded through the speakers, giving way to the glittering green logo of Lucasfilm, the roar of the crowd at the sight of the familiar:
a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . . .
If converted to electricity it would have powered Tokyo for days.
I saw The Phantom Menace seven times in the theatre. Ryan would have preferred we'd seen it at least 10 together, but the fact of the matter was that by the fourth or fifth viewing the film just didn't blow me away as it had previously. I chalk this up to a number of factors, but I think it comes down to something a lot of fans took umbrage with at the time; it wasn't what they'd expected. Or rather, it was a Star Wars movie, just not the one they thought they'd be getting.
Sixteen years of anticipation, of supposition, of pondering just what the next move would be. Where would the saga go after the tale of Luke and Vader was told? I think a lot of the older fans didn't expect a look back, or a vision of their ultimate villain as a young slave caught up in the machinations of the virtuous and vile alike. They didn't expect a rigid, dogmatic Jedi Order that had become hidebound by its own rules, nor did they appreciate the notion of the idyllic Republic being seen as a corrupt body that allowed evil such as Palpatine's to flourish. They didn't expect C-3PO to have such strong ties to the Skywalker clan, nor did they expect to find that the mother of the heroes of the second trilogy to be nearly ten years Anakin's senior. It took a step back, it showed the truths behind the idealised story Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke in that hut on Tatooine. There's a shadow cast on the film despite it's nearly beat for beat echoing of the original Star Wars film. The optimistic ending doesn't hold true, given the foreknowledge we have of the protagonist's ultimate fate. By the time the end credits roll by and we hear Vader's labored breathing over the sweetly wistful strains of John Williams' Anakin's Theme, we know we've seen the beginning of something far different than any Star Wars we'd seen before.
Simply put, the Original trilogy is a heroic epic. It is the reclamation of hope from despair, the triumph of good over evil. The Prequel trilogy is a tragedy. It's the story of how paradise was lost. The Phantom Menace sets the stage for Anakin's fall from grace, introducing us to the key player's in his fall and showing us the galactic tapestry upon which he and Palpatine will warp and corrupt the face of the galaxy. Menace is a story of political maneuvering with adventure story trappings, whereas Star Wars/A New Hope is an adventure story with some war story trappings. The two are distinct entities within the greater series as a whole.
This is not to say the prequels are flawless; Lucas himself admits he doesn't have the best ear for dialogue and the less said of the capering of one orange Gungan the better. Still, for all his foolishness and subsequent brooming offstage Jar Jar Binks does help to engage the younger viewers in much the same way Wicket W. Warrick did with children of my generation. The fact that his blind idealism and hope for the future(and his desire to be admired) inadvertently pave the way for the formation of the Empire adds to the overall tragedy of the prequels.
The Phantom Menace dares to be different than what came before it. Is it perfect? No. But it is a relevant film and a worthwhile pattern in the greater Star Wars tapestry that is all too readily dismissed by those who aren't willing to appreciate it. To do so is to only focus on one half of the story as a whole, and to deprive oneself of the essence of the full heroic cycle. Do you need the prequels to enjoy the Star Wars fans you enjoyed as a child? Perhaps not. But without those first three films, the Original trilogy lacks contrast, and yes, even some depth. Because for all our proprietary claim to Lucas's vision, it is his story to tell. To focus solely on one half of the tale while dismissing the other can be done, but its a deprivation that can only leave the overall experience a diminished one. I encourage anyone who may have dismissed the prequels to give them a second look. They're not perfect films, but they do have something to say, and their contribution to the greater saga of Star Wars deserves to be heard.
May the Force be with you,