An Honest Reaction to Episode I
Recently, the idea that the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy has caused people to change their views on the Prequels has become prevalent. From fairweather ‘fans’ who never gave the Prequels a fair shot to Simon Pegg, who never gave the Prequels a fair shot, people are starting to re-appraise Lucas’ creator-led work.
The idea from some quarters that people are only now jumping on the Prequel bandwagon has played on my mind. For what it’s worth, I’ve been consistent in my appraisal of Lucas’ saga. The Prequels tell a great story but suffer from some shoddy execution, no more so than Attack of the Clones; a film of good ideas undone by slopiness and in a style that doesn’t quite work. Meanwhile, Revenge of the Sith has been a high point of the saga since 2005 – an impression only re-affirmed with time.
Yet I’ve also been guilty of dismissing the Prequels over the years. It’s always been in an attempt to fit in with the prevailing viewpoint, and never been true to my own heart – and nowhere was this more prevalent that through my relationship with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Everyone knows the story. In 1999, 16 years after Return of the Jedi, George Lucas was set to release a new Star Wars film. The hype pervaded everything – The Phantom Menace was set up to be no less than a cultural second coming.
For me, an immature 15-year-old, the film was the biggest cinematic event of my life. But this devotion wasn’t the product of the hype – this was the culmination of being a Star Wars fan for literally as long as I could remember.
I won’t go into how big an event The Phantom Menace was at the time. The film hits 20 years old in a few months time and there’ll no doubt be plenty of reflection articles doing the rounds then. This article is about my honest first reactions to Episode I – which came after I finished reading the novelisation.
When the merchandise embargo lifted for The Phantom Menace I bought two things first: the John Williams soundtrack and the Terry Brooks novelisation. With the soundtrack famously giving away a certain plot point, the argument of whether to read the book before seeing the film became difficult to balance.
Within three days, I had read the book. Story understood, expectations set; I was primed for seeing the film – and thanks to the delay between the US release of The Phantom Menace and the film’s opening across the world, that happened far sooner than expected via a pirated VHS.
My brother’s mate knew someone who knew someone, and soon I had a loaned copy of the film to absorb and enjoy. I watched it twice in the comfort of my own home before the UK release date, applying the deeper characterisations from the novel to form a sumptuous understanding of the film.
When The Phantom Menace came out in the UK, I already loved it.
I saw Episode I three times at the cinema. Once at a midnight premiere thanks to the work experience placement I took through school, and then twice more over the following weeks. The sumptuous visuals of Naboo, the thrill of the pod race and of course the climactic lightsaber duel all stood out.
But of course, I very quickly became alone in enjoying it. The peripheral excitement from a month before had gone; in its place was pure scorn for Lucas. As the familiar ridiculous refrain of “George Lucas raped my childhood” swept the internet it became clear that if you liked The Phantom Menace, you were wrong.
It was tough to fight the prevailing view that the film wasn’t any good, and to my shame, I joined in. My friends and I, so pumped months before, made lists about how the film could have been better. About the enormous jumps that Episodes II and III would need to make. About how bad Jar Jar Binks was. Two of us used Photoshop to remove Jar Jar Binks from the film poster, in what was my first direct experience of a fan edit (and as stupid as it sounds I genuinely felt bad for doing it).
In private I continued to listen to the soundtrack over and over, while the N64 Racer game continued to provide an acceptable outlet for my fandom. But it felt like the only excitement in Star Wars was for slating Star Wars… which isn’t actually fun for anybody.
Yet despite it all, I was still a fan, and the discussions around the topic would never change that. What I found instead was that my Star Wars fandom became a far more personal experience.
On a whim one evening in 2001 I decided to watch Episode I once again. Alone, in my bedroom and shut off from the outside world – just me and the film.
Devoid of anyone else’s opinions or expectations… I loved it. Everything that had excited me before – the Jedi, the pod race, the lightsaber duels. The incredible score. By 10 minutes in, as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn prepared to steal aboard the Naboo invasion fleet, the realisation occurred to me that I was loving every second of it. Yes, it was a kid’s film. But it was a bloody good one.
It was right then that I realised my love for the franchise goes way beyond any impact the thoughts or opinions of anyone else could have.
With time I’ve appreciated the criticisms that washed over me as a kid – in particular on some of the vocal choices for the alien characters. The thing is, I enjoy much of what gets criticised. I love the world-building, and the roots of Palpatine’s rise to power. I love what we see of the Gungans and their culture. I said it then and I’ll reiterate it now: I have never found Jar Jar Binks that bad.
I’m not blind to its flaws; The Phantom Menace comes fifth out of six in my rankings of the Lucas films. But, that’s fifth out of six of my favourite films ever. And that in no way means that I don’t enjoy it.