Tragedies have a way of sticking in your mind. Ask any baby boomer where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, and you are sure to elicit a rambling, semi-coherent story involving couch upholstery and home cooked meals from grandma while the nation cried. The story will be coloured with terrible loss, and a sense of magic, as though those times were any better than our own. This is my own rambling narrative.
I was checking my email on my brother's computer. The sun was hiding among the grey, grey clouds, which threatened to erupt at any moment into a torrential downpour. My MSN Messenger popped up its happy little head and beeped for the entire world to hear that I had new mail. Excited or maybe just a little buzzed from the crazy idea that someone cares enough to write, I opened up my Hotmail account. And Lo, it appeared. Star Wars Homing Beacon #40. A Special Announcement. The title of the next Star Wars movie. The buzz was real now and quite pronounced. I scrolled down the message, vague reminiscences of when The Phantom Menace had been announced playing in the back of my mind. And then I saw it.
Attack of the Clones
Neurons fired info-coded chemical signals at near-light speed, passing through my ganglia carrying a 3 word message from deep within my psyche to the language centers. These three words contained a thought I had never associated with anything Star Wars before in my life. It was a new idea, and therefore somewhat thrilling in itself. And yet horrifying. I scarcely believed my voice as I intoned the sentence aloud.
"Well, that's stupid."
Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace debuted to record box office and, shall we say, somewhat less-than-kind reviews back in mid-May of 1999. North America had just finished having their senses overloaded by the spiritual action adventure flick The Matrix. The fantastic effects and dance-like fight choreography wowed us all. It was something unknown to the larger audience, something refined out of the Hong Kong martial arts flicks and fantastic wuxia. As a nation we lined up to see George Lucas blow us out of the water, just like The Matrix had. As a nation, we were vastly under-whelmed.
I personally loved TPM. I also very much disliked The Matrix. So I found myself in the Western world's newest visible minority. Two years on from the release of both films, I can now see why one was embraced and the other left behind like a stepchild in a locked car on a hot day. You blow the Keanu-stench off the Matrix and you are left with a taut exciting movie. It was fresh. It was new.
TPM, for a number of reasons, was old. The Jedi fight scenes were the only true innovation there onscreen, and they were amazing. But the effects got in the way of the story, something director George Lucas supposedly claims to abhor. As an audience we were asked not to be thrilled by the onscreen action, but rather at the intense innovation that was required for the effects themselves to come together. Why try to believe in the character of Watto, or the vast army of battle droids? It was almost as if we were supposed to think any failings were okay because these effects were so amazing. Most people saw it right away, but it took me awhile to come round.
I have heard it argued that if TPM had come out in '77 it would have been acclaimed as much as the original. I agree 100%. That is its biggest problem. TPM was a 1977 movie released 22 years too late. Or, given how Star Wars was "a decade ahead of its time" and adjusting for the release of Return of the Jedi in 83…a 1993 movie released in 1999. So instead of a progressive piece of life changing art, we have a 6-year-old valiant effort. This is most readily seen in the space battle.
The outer space dogfight is a Star Wars movie staple. As much an element of the genre or style as a femme fatale in noir, or semen jokes in a Wayans brothers spoof. George delivered us a space battle. A space battle at least as good as the one that could be seen on TV daily in the form of a music video, "Larger Than Life" by the Backstreet Boys. When AJ, Kevin and Howie get together and nearly outclass Star Wars, something somewhere is horribly, horribly wrong. Star Wars created a standard in space battles, Return of the Jedi raised the bar. TPM should have not only raised the bar further, after 16 years, it should have changed the damn sport.
And then there's Jar Jar Binks. This hapless, reluctant hero was introduced to the Star Wars mythos as the jester figure, a humanizing element for the younger crowd to relate to and laugh at and learn to love as they explored the vast universe with the more effective protagonists. To most of the world, he came of as at best offensive, and at worst a figure of more contempt than either old Joe Stalin or Adolph Hitler. At least commies and Nazis are funny.
Personally I found that the charges of racism in Jar Jar's character were overblown. Having since seen Spike Lee's film Bamboozled, with its portrayal of people of African descent throughout the history of mass entertainment, I can generously forgive anyone who felt so. Jar Jar and the rest of the Gungans may as well have been farming watermelons. Regardless of the intent behind Jar Jar, the fact that so many people found something reprehensible in the character suggests that he in fact is a mistake. And perhaps he is the key to George Lucas' biggest mistake.
Mr. Lucas would have us believe that Jar Jar is simply a children's character, and moreover, that TPM was a children's movie. Therefore, if you do not like Jar Jar, you are not meant to, and perhaps you are 'out of touch' with your inner child.
The Star Wars series, by which I mean the first 3 films, are indeed children's movies, or more correctly 'classic' films for children of all ages. People of my generation saw these movies and many had their lives changed by it. This life-changing effect would not have been felt were the films not aimed at children. George Lucas forgot one thing when creating the prequels. The children who saw the originals were no longer children. We are in our 20s, and some in their 30s. Some have children of their own. And in seeing TPM, many were hurt, or embarrassed, or disappointed that the film was as it was. Lucas either ignored or was unaware of his existing audience. Was he really that out of touch, imagining that uninspired children's fare, in the worst sense, would be accepted and loved as his earlier masterpieces were? Did he imagine that the people who were all so in love with his vision were emotionally arrested, unable to allow for growth and maturity? I imagine he is in fact not so out of touch. Instead, he is surrounded by people, up there on his Skywalker Ranch, who are nothing more than masturbatory glad-handlers. Perhaps what George needs is for someone to simply say 'No' to him when he has a less than stellar idea. Or maybe, like King George of old, he is syphilitic and needs prompt medical attention.
The overall result of TPM was that it left so many Star Wars fans feeling as though this thing they had loved was mere puerile, childish nonsense. Perhaps worse, he left many non-Star Wars fans, the potential fans, feeling exactly the same way.
Left with this conundrum, George went away to make Episode 2. This would be his chance to prove everyone wrong! Star Wars would be shown to still be a thing of glory. Rumors filtered out of the production. Boba Fett was back! And he brought a brother! What's this? Yoda will be fighting? Sam Jackson kicking Sith ass? Oh, yes, George was going to bring back the glory. By some strange whim, however, he was also bringing back Jar Jar. And then, instead of proving everyone wrong, he names the film, this return to glory, Attack of the Clones, supposedly harkening back to the 50's serials. And he just confirms what everyone was already thinking. Star Wars is childish. It is puerile. How can anything called Attack of the Clones be anything but, unless it is satire. I have to admit, the title does evoke the old movie serials. However, there were good serials, and there were bad ones…
I stood in line for 26 combined hours for tickets and entrance to TPM. It was great. A little community formed there on the sidewalk, people united by their common love of Star Wars. I have to say that I at the time loved the film, and still like it. But I have seen behind the curtain. George is so wrapped up in the digital film revolution, I can't help but think he will maybe let story lapse again. Too much behind the camera, not enough in front. And while I am sure I will like Attack of the Clones, there is no way in hell I can picture myself waiting in line for that long. I can barely imagine asking for a ticket. It'll feel as ridiculous as ordering a Super Happy Fun Double Mouth Burger at the local family themed eatery.
So, like so many before me, I now feel betrayed by what I once loved. Luke Skywalker was lied to, betrayed, as was his teacher, Obi-Wan before him. Maybe it is just something that comes with the Star Wars territory. And maybe the initial hatred and fear of the Attack of the Clones is unfounded. After all, those things do lead to the Dark Side. Maybe the wonder and magic we all felt for Star Wars as children are not as ridiculous as they feel right now, either. Maybe one day it will again be all right to love Star Wars. From a certain point of view.