It’s become uncool to dislike Episode I. This angers me.
I feel like Episode I critics are being treated unfairly, that our thoughts are being marginalized simply because it is (1) the general consensus, and (2) a consensus that was reached a short while after seeing the movie.
I freely concede: Episode I has its supporters. I don’t mean the young ones who came along later and who were too young to remember a world where Star Wars was “three movies, some books, one great comic and a few video games.” I mean those who, like me, were there opening night, who walked out the theater—like me—entirely thrilled beyond all belief, and who—unlike me—have remained passionately supportive of the movie these many years later.
I know they are out there. They are the “true believers” as Stan Lee would call them, and bless their hearts for their devotion. It’s commendable.
Let’s back up a bit…
I was in 9th grade when Episode I was released. I was born a year after Return of the Jedi premiered in theaters. My childhood was spent enjoying Star Wars on VHS. This VHS set in particular…
The one with Leonard Maltin interviewing George Lucas before each movie. Just thinking about it brings back a flood of memories, images and feelings. I still have the set in my closet. Yard sales come and go and I have the trilogy on DVD (twice), blu ray and even in their original unaltared form as HD movie files on my computer. But I can never part with this VHS set. It is my childhood.
Those movies are Star Wars to me. In addition I grew up with these books…
which, no matter how much I’m sure to enjoy the “official” Episodes 7-9, will always be tucked away in the back of my mind as the “original” sequel trilogy.
Other than that, and the Shadows the Empire multi-media smorgasbord (book, comic, soundtrack and video game), there was no more Star Wars for me. Sure there was “Dark Forces” and “Dark Empire” and “The Jedi Academy Trilogy” and “Rogue Squadron” but nothing substantial. Nothing truly “Star Wars.” Just a bunch of stuff based on Star Wars.
Then came the teaser. Then the trailer. Then the Weird Al parody song. And then finally, May 19th, 1999, Star Wars: Episode I was released.
I knew major characters, I knew a lot of the basic plot, but for the most part I went in not knowing in what direction the story was headed. Two hours later I was climbing into the back seat of my brother-in-law’s car. He asked me if I liked the movie and I said what most-everyone said on May 19th, 1999:
It was Star Wars, are you kidding?! It was the best. movie. ever!
If you weren’t around back then you can’t appreciate it. Granted, some folks hated the film immediately. But for most of us, it was simply not possible for the movie to be bad. We couldn’t fathom it anymore than if you suddenly told us the moon itself had disappeared. Our brains weren’t ready to process even the hypothetical reality that Episode I would disappoint, so when we saw it, and it royally disappointed we reacted the way we expected to react: We said we loved it.
As time went on many of us thought more about it and our opinions began to change. For some, the Plinkett reviews were the eye-opening moment that made fans stop and realize the truth. For others, those reviews were able to articulate and coalesce the thoughts that we’d had swimming around our head for a long time. It was one thing to think “You know…Episode I really wasn’t that great” but it was another thing to say it out loud. You didn’t insult royalty. And Star Wars was cinematic royalty.
But as time went on, and especially as the follow up prequels under-performed, it became more socially acceptable to point out just what it was that made Episode I so frustratingly disappointing, as as a franchise-starter, as a unchanging cog in the now-Disney-owned Star Wars wheel and just as a movie in general.
Now there are newer fans, who have grown up with the prequels on DVD and Blu Ray, who enjoy the “Clone Wars” reruns on Netflix, and the new Rebels show on Disney XD. They have the Marvel comics and the countless games. They listen to an old fogey like me ramble on about how much I hate how much I was disappointed in Episode I and they say “It wasn’t that bad…it actually was pretty good.” I’ve seen people on the internet say they like the prequels more than the OT. I’m not going to link to those sites. They don’t deserve the publicity.
They deserve a public shaming.
Nevertheless, a lot (a lot) of things have been written about Episode I and why it didn’t work. I don’t want to retread that road. But maybe we can look at it in contrast to A New Hope, and use that as the tool to illustrate what went wrong.
Whereas the original Star Wars movie had very little mythology weighing it down, by the time Episode I came around, Star Wars was more than a film-trilogy. Even though it wasn’t as prevalent in pop culture as it is today, it had still encased itself in pop culture as “the greatest sci-fi trilogy of all time!” and so on. Its three-part story was revered. And the fact that it didn’t have the weekly cartoon show, spin off movies and comic books only added to the mystique. By 1999 we had the complete saga showing the rise of Luke Skywalker from naive farm boy to Empire-overthrowing Jedi Knight. And then, George threw us a curve ball and said “Turns out that the real main character was his dad! Just wait till you see how he fell to the dark side!”
And then we did…
Turns out there really wasn’t that much to tell. There’s maybe a movie and a half’s worth of plot in telling the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, and none of that story is actually told in Episode I. What you get in the first prequel is the calm before the storm. You get the way things were before everything goes to crap. You get to see the Jedi as they had been for a thousand years, as the “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” You get to see the Senate before it was ruled by an Emperor. You get the prologue to the actual reason for the story’s existence.
If this were a novel it might have worked. Lots of novels have universe-establishing prologues that explain the world that the reader is about to jump into. That’s usually needed because a book isn’t a visual medium the way a movie is. With films, however, the rule is “show don’t tell.” The original Star Wars movie used that mantra as its guiding light. The prequels abandoned it entirely.
This entire movie is one long “tell don’t show” stretch after another, broken up by a random action scene that is entirely expendable to the plot. The underwater monster chase? The podrace? The three-pronged battle of Naboo? The only action scene that felt connected to the plot and necessary to move the story forward was at the beginning, when Obi Wan and Qui Gon are fighting their way off the ship. Apart from some clunky dialogue, the beginning of the movie is actually a pretty good start. But things soon go off the rails when they leave Naboo and arrive on Tattooine.
Star Wars (A New Hope) worked because we experienced the movie through Luke’s eyes. It’s become commonly stated that the movie is seen through the eyes of the droids (in a nod to Rashomon) but that’s an exaggeration. Luke is our principal guide through the crazy world of the first film. With The Phantom Menace, however, this basic writing tool was abandoned, and the movie was left without a primary character. At first you think Obi Wan is the protagonist, but for some inexplicable reason, he spends the entire second act sitting on his thumb while Qui Gon pals around with Anakin. Qui Gon takes the lead in the film but only for the duration of the second act; once the action returns to Naboo (nevermind the dreadfully dry and snail-paced interlude on Coruscant), Obi Wan and Anakin split time as the movie’s leads. The climactic lightsaber duel happens mostly through Obi Wan’s eyes, but that is only a small segment of the overall film. Without one central character, and without one central goal (“rescue the princess” is the driving force behind A New Hope), the movie just meanders from one location to another, without any single compelling character to keep the audience’s attention.
There are a dozen other complaints that people have offered about the movie..
- Jar Jar and the kind of unintelligent, lowest common denominator humor he represents
- Character decisions that lack clear motivations
- The aforementioned “start-and-stop” pace of the movie
- Wooden acting
- The aforementioned meandering screenplay
…and such like.
Movies have survived worse problems. What doomed this movie (apart from its failure to live up to impossibly high expectations) was how much of a slave it became to its mythology (both the mythology that had previously been established, and the one it was working to reveal across three movies). As a result, long-stretches of the film are simply speeches of exposition, callbacks to the OT that are nothing more than gags. The movie seems to go out of its way at times to be dry, deliberate, and wholly “unfun,” as it works to set things in motion that will be paid off in later movies. Have you ever watched someone build a Rube Goldberg device? Watching the device in action is a blast…watching someone put all the pieces in place is a chore. Guess which one is the Prequel Trilogy and which one is the Original Trilogy? This “set up with no immediate pay off” mentality is especially evident when sitting through the Coruscant scenes. First time viewers in 1999 adored this segment of the movie, because we were so enchanted by the place we had only read about we didn’t have time to stop and reflect on how little was actually going on in the movie. The film just stops for the duration of its stay on the capital planet, as though the writer/director knew he needed to do some piece-moving on his three-movie chess board and “boredom” was the price that had to be paid.
And that’s just one example of many where it seems like George Lucas simply “settled” instead of reached for the stars. The ambition and rebellious nature of the first Star Wars movie is missing from the opening to the prequel trilogy. I suppose that’s fitting as Episode IV is made by a rebellious punk bucking the system about rebellious punks bucking the system. Episode I is made by a stuffy businessman whose been on the top for so long he’s insulated himself to his own flaws about stuffy businessmen who’ve been on the top for so long they’ve insulated themselves to their own flaws.
Watching Episode IV back-to-back with Episode I is startling. To think that the same writer/director/visionary was behind both films is remarkable. Today when I see it, it’s like watching Godfather part III. I spend most of my time just shaking my head, frustrated at what was and what could have been. Even though, as said, there’s barely a trilogy’s worth of stories to be told that detail the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker, there was still the potential to tell three movies about the rise of the Empire and the Fall of the Jedi Order. Those two events alongside the personal tragedy of Darth Vader had tremendous potential for a Star Wars trilogy of stories, but it was squandered on an opening third that had nowhere to go and no one to take us there. Episode I was two hours of set up to a story that ultimately disappointed.
Hopefully JJ Abrams, along with Disney and co. have looked at what failed with the prequel trilogy and will avoid the same mistakes. With Episode I, the “mythology” of Star Wars took precedent over the “movie” of Star Wars that was being told. And that’s the most damning thing that can be said about it: It failed because it tried too hard to be a “Star Wars” movie, that it forgot to relax and just be one.