I. Your First Step Into a Larger World

Anakin Skywalker “No one can kill a Jedi.”

— Anakin Skywalker,
The Phantom Menace

I am a child of Star Wars. The original movie came out when I was seven, and I think it's safe to say that George Lucas's epic means more to those of us who were kids at that time than to anyone else. Star Wars grabbed hold of my imagination and readily displaced Batman and Superman as the primary mythological construct of my childhood. There was something so right, so endlessly fascinating about this simple tale of a farm boy, a wizard, a princess, a pirate, a villain in black, spaceships, aliens, robots, and a mystical force of both good and evil. It was silly, it was corny, it was full of bad acting and lame dialogue, and it was perfect.

Of course, I wasn't satisfied with just the one movie. We all wanted more. From fan magazines and interviews with Lucas, I learned there was definitely going to be a "Star Wars II," but that wasn't all. The plan was for the saga to be a series of nine movies altogether! And even more incredible, Star Wars was actually the fourth movie in the complete set. That was nearly more than my youthful brain could process.

Thus, it's important to note that fans like myself have known about the Star Wars "prequels" since even back before The Empire Strikes Back came out. (We were the few and the proud who understood why that movie's opening crawl was headed "Episode V.") The prequels were even more mysterious and tantalizing than the upcoming sequels, which we at least knew would be about the further adventures of Luke and the gang. But we had no idea what story was going to fill up three whole movies set years before Luke was even born. All Lucas would say for sure was that R2-D2 and C-3PO would be the only characters to appear in all nine movies. Other than that, we figured these earlier movies would be about the Clone Wars that Ben Kenobi had fought in, and depict how his pupil Darth Vader turned to the dark side, hunted down the Jedi Knights, and killed Luke's father. It didn't sound like much material to make three movies about, but of course, it wasn't till later that we learned how the history of those characters was a little more complicated than that.

The Empire Strikes Back came along in 1980, and we were treated to a perfect and masterful continuation of the story begun in A New Hope. I even thought it had a richer and more interesting plot than the first one, and I still do today, although I consider the first two movies to be equally good overall. This episode ended with cliffhangers galore and enough dramatic material to assure us of a thunderously powerful resolution in the next installment.

And then George Lucas dropped the ball. Return of the Jedi is a reasonably good action/adventure movie, judged on its own, but compared to its two marvelous predecessors, it is crap. There's no need to repeat the many weaknesses and failings of Episode VI here, except to say that contrary to popular opinion, I think there were bigger problems than just the Ewoks. (You can find my detailed commentary on that movie's shortcomings in the epilogue.)

Jedi deeply disenchanted me from the Star Wars saga. I felt betrayed, with all my years of devoted interest having led up to this lackluster conclusion. And yes indeed, the conclusion of Star Wars was what this movie appeared to be. Lucas was now saying that all plans to complete the saga with the proposed prequel trilogy, followed by a sequel trilogy, were indefinitely on hold. The Flanneled One explained that he'd had enough of focusing on Star Wars for so long, and now he wanted to concentrate on other things for a while.

I felt the same way. I was 13 when Jedi came out, the age when you start to feel like you're not a kid anymore. Other things in life were looking a lot more interesting, and Star Wars was looking like a part of my childhood that it was time to leave behind. (In what some would brand a developmental regression, one of my new interests was a return to comic books, which I'd ditched in favor of Star Wars -- but that's another story in my sad, geekly life.) In my teenage years, Star Wars faded away into the background, and it was fun to quote lines from the movies and watch them on video now and then, but the saga definitely wasn't anything to get excited about anymore. I was grown up now, and the magic of Star Wars was gone.

Sometime in the early '90s, things slowly began to change. I had graduated from college, it had been nearly a decade since Return of the Jedi, and the bitter disappointment of that movie was receding enough for me to remember how good the first two really were. I came to reembrace Star Wars with a new appreciation of the saga's timeless appeal for audiences of all ages. Especially audiences who can ignore and forgive the worst parts of Jedi.

It wasn't long after my reconciliation with the Force that George Lucas began to make noises about returning to Star Wars. My friends and I had given up all hope for the Old Master, who was apparently content to count his billions at Skywalker Ranch and make lame movies like Willow and Howard the Duck for the rest of his life. Then out of the blue, Lucas was saying in interviews that he intended to go back and do the trilogy of Episodes I, II and III, which he confirmed would involve the early years of Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. But not yet! Lucas insisted that special effects technology was not yet sophisticated enough to produce the prequels as he envisioned them, and he'd have to wait a few more years before it would be possible to make the movies. He guessed the first one would be out sometime around the turn of the century.

Man, what a tease! But at least it was a commitment. A new hope. As the next few years rolled by, it turned out just as Lucas had foreseen, and the computer-generated imagery and effects available to filmmakers took a dramatic quantum leap. In 1993, after seeing the lifelike CGI dinosaurs his buddy Steven had created in Jurassic Park, Lucas quietly issued an earth-shattering statement: it was time. Lucas knew the technology had caught up with his vision for the new Star Wars movies, and now he could get back to work.

I'll admit, I let myself get really excited about the idea of finally seeing the prequels. I felt optimistic that they would be great, despite the lousiness of Jedi, despite Lucas's alarming lack of any other memorable output beside the Indiana Jones movies, and despite the fact that I was now an adult with discriminating tastes. Much like Luke had sensed there was still good in Darth Vader, I believed there was still good in George Lucas, and with this new trilogy he would turn away from the dark path and redeem himself at last.

As the opening date of The Phantom Menace drew near, the first ominous rumblings of discontent began to sound. Stemming from Internet spies and "industry insiders" who claimed to have seen rough cuts, word rapidly spread that the new Star Wars movie just wasn't very good. The early reviews invoked the same discouraging adjectives over and over: disappointing, banal, juvenile, empty, soulless, boring. I was stricken with some tiny tinge of worry that they might be right, but I was determined to remain hopeful and make up my own mind. The critics and the intelligentsia have never really understood the Star Wars movies, anyway. If you have to ask why people like Star Wars, you'll never know.

Let me reiterate a simple truth that will serve as the central pillar for the argument I am about to construct: All the Star Wars movies are silly. They are corny. They are full of bad acting and lame dialogue. And, Return of the Jedi notwithstanding, they are perfect. The magical quality that makes the Star Wars saga so good is hidden deep beneath the surface, underlying the intergalactic melodrama and the glitzy special effects. It's the mythological underpinnings, the retelling of the classical hero's journey, the celebration of friendship and honor, and the stirring depiction of good and evil, as both a desperate civil war and an internal duality in all of us. This is the substantive stuff that gives the Star Wars movies their heart and soul. It's these resonating themes that audiences have responded to so powerfully. These layers of meaning, not the spaceships and big explosions, are the real reason why these silly, corny movies are the most successful film series of all time.

Average moviegoers have never been aware of all that stuff, or really cared -- all they know is that they like Star Wars movies. And there's nothing wrong with that. Film snobs and other Star Wars haters just don't get it at all. Hardcore Star Wars fans are the only ones who fully appreciate the depth and significance that the series has to offer. Despite any onslaught of disparagement, dismissal and denial from non-fans, we have always understood.

Or at least, we always did until The Phantom Menace. When non-fans hate the movie, I have no argument with them. In fact, I'd say it's to be expected that they would hate it. But I do not, and can not, understand how a Star Wars fan can hate The Phantom Menace.

II. A More Civilized Age
Why The Phantom Menace is a damn good movie.

Why I Love The Phantom Menace

Cinema