Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Many Dimensions of Star Wars

At midnight, May 19, 1999, I sat in a crowded theater like scores of Americans waiting for the lights to dim and the “first” installment of Star Wars to fill the screen. Sitting next to me was my wife of nearly two years. At home was our infant daughter, born almost one month to the day before. At that moment, I felt young and old, mindful of the past and hopeful for what the near future might bring.

None of this seemingly has anything to do with “The Phantom Menace,” but it has a lot to do with it. When I was seven years old, I saw the “first” Star Wars movie - Episode IV: A New Hope - in a different city, obviously at a different time. It would be another 12 years before I would meet my wife. The idea of having my own daughter was deep in the future. On that day, I was just a little boy who wanted his own light saber. Consequently, my reactions to both movies, like many others in the audience, were vastly different. With the re-release of “Episode I” in 3D, it’s probably worthwhile to revisit the opening chapter, now removed from the acclaim and vitriol that greeted it nearly 13 years ago.

“The Phantom Menace,” of course, is the beginning of the six-film story of the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the prophesied Chosen One, the boy/man who eventually becomes Darth Vader. In our first film, Anakin is a nine-year-old boy in a forgotten part of the galaxy, discovered seemingly by accident at the exact moment of an intergalactic disturbance. Something that was on my mind in that crowded theatre in 1999 was a passage I remembered from a story in Time Magazine quoting Steven Spielberg that the “first” Star Wars trilogy would be very different from the “second” - “more like a Greek tragedy.” “The Phantom Menace” therefore must give a sense of the tragedy to come.

Lucas does this by showing us Anakin in the beginning as an absolute innocent, a little sandy-haired slave who scampers across the screen shouting “Yippee!” For those of us whose young nightmares were inhabited by the seven-foot Sith Lord he grew into, the boy seems inconceivable. It would have been a much easier decision to introduce an older version - slightly more mature with a more visible hint of darkness. But Lucas gives us the boy consciously to highlight the tragedy which follows. He must give us a sense that a soul has been corrupted, and also that there is something within him later worth redeeming, let alone fertile ground where redemption is possible.

We also encounter Luke and Leia’s future mother, Queen Amidala, the embattled sovereign of something that is either a monarchy or a democracy or both. (The politics of the prequel trilogy somehow manage to be too complex and too simple at times.) She is older than Anakin but not too much so - she shows a motherly concern for him as the group leaves Anakin’s home planet in a scene meant to echo a later one between Luke and Leia in Episode IV. But she is closer to the action in a way that Anakin is not - at least, until the film’s end.

Watching the movie again, I was struck by how ambitious it is. In the course of two hours, we move among two civilizations on one planet, speed to another world and visit still another before returning to our entry point at Naboo. I was also struck by the speed with which all of this happens. In the first thirty minutes, we are introduced to the Jedi Knights, witness a planetary invasion, travel from an underwater city through the planet’s core, then take off into space and arrive eventually in a junk shop to meet the saga’s hero - and villain - in the person of our young budding pilot. This newfound speed was a surprise, since one of the first impressions I got watching the film that opening night years ago was of “dead spots” in the narrative - expository scenes that didn’t really advance the story. Those spots are still there, as though Lucas did not trust his audience enough to keep up.

Lucas made another decision with the prequel trilogy, which was to create a set of films to stand the originals on their heads. This results in a trilogy of much more subtle films than the saga of Luke Skywalker. Instead of the Galactic Empire, a perfect adversary in the first trilogy, (Torture! Murder! Planetary destruction!) it seems this time we have the Galactic Trade Federation, which invades Naboo with its droid army. However, we know next to nothing about them beyond their green viceroy, Nute Gunray and his Japanese-sounding speech patterns. What do they do? Why do they need a droid army? Or perhaps it is Darth Maul, the horned-tattooed, intimidating figure with the double-edged light saber we should fear? He barely has any dialogue at all and is only called on to glare menacingly when he is not fighting two Jedi at once.

That’s because the real villain, of course, is the “Phantom Menace” - hiding in plain sight, the Senator from Naboo, Palpatine, who secretly is Darth Sidious, the Dark Lord of the Sith. As we will learn later, the will of the Force has ordained that the Dark Side will soon gain ascendancy. The Dark Side clouds the vision of the Jedi, making them unable to see the calamity which awaits the Republic. Instead, they can only sense the danger that seems to surround the coming of Anakin. It is the death of Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin’s would-be teacher, that forces the Jedi to take on the boy’s instruction. However, the death is a double tragedy, since we are left to wonder what the boy would have done under Qui-Gon’s tutelage. And though we only dimly realize it, the Old Republic’s days are numbered. All too soon, it will become the Empire.

But in recounting these plot points, it’s easy to see the essential problem with the prequel trilogy - we know where the story is headed. Lucas has actually attempted something new - he is depicting a fallen messiah, foretold by a vague prophecy. We should be shocked to learn the fate of this little boy, but we aren’t, because we know it already. Because of this, plot twists do not surprise us. If you were to watch all six films without knowing the story, the revelation that Palpatine is Darth Sidious should surprise your. That the sweet boy of Episode I will two movies later murder younglings in the Jedi Temple should shock us, but it doesn’t. Our big shock moment came when Darth Vader revealed to Luke who his father was, and that’s the part of the story we want to see now, not some kid blowing up a ship in what seems like a pale echo of his son’s later achievement.

The chief source of derision in “The Phantom Menace,” of course, turns up early on in the movie - Jar Jar Binks, a clumsy, flop-eared amphibian who accompanies Qui-Gon, Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the journey. Jar Jar perfectly illustrates the problems that the movie presents. My theory is that Lucas, knowing that Episode III would be extremely dark, invented Jar Jar as a light-hearted entry point into the story, counterbalancing the eventual fate of Anakin. And like the rest of the movie, Jar Jar is many things at once- a fully digital character, aimed at providing both slapstick and spoken humor through his speech patterns, a loveable chum with a funny walk for our heroes. He doesn’t just try to pull off one thing, but attempts all these at once, and one occasionally wonders if any one of these ambitions is ever fully satisfied. If we take the original movies as a model, he’s in the story to function as Chewbacca. But Chewbacca doesn’t have dialogue, and his comic relief is largely physical due to his size. Basking in the reflected light of Han Solo, Chewie is “cool.” By creating a slapstick foil who is a fool, Lucas disappoints his fans with a character who is not sufficiently cool.

And herein we have the source of our movie’s anguish. “Star Wars,” as a whole, accomplishes what all great, enduring fiction does - it creates a world that makes you want to inhabit it. But more than that - it made a whole generation of fans want to create their own extensions of it. Because George Lucas made the decision to begin the saga in the middle, he gave that generation of fans a free license to imagine the story that precedes the coming of Luke Skywalker. This explains the subsequent fan fiction, fan created movies, novels, video games, and the constant demand for them. Giving those same fans 16 years after the original trilogy to imagine the backstory gave them ample time to fall in love with their own stories, to claim ownership of the fantasy realm, and to disdain anything that might replace them. When considering this, it is little wonder they didn’t expect - or want - the story to be filled with the likes of Jar-Jar Binks. When one sees the hate “The Phantom Menace” spawned from fans who waited patiently for it, the result seems academic.

Which brings us back to where we started - the theater where all of us waited to see how our cherished story began. The newer film didn’t mean the same to us as its earlier manifestations because it came to us at a different time in our lives. Our fantasy suddenly had much larger frontiers, and we were left wanting something more familiar. In fact, one wonders what the verdict would have been if Lucas had made the films in order, from Episode I to VI. Would we be disappointed that Luke’s portion of the story wasn’t as suitably grand as the fall of his father, or that the rebellion is a much smaller affair than the earlier wars with thousands of computer generated armies? Would we lament the absence of the prequel trilogy’s more earnest characters, replaced by the cocky heroism of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian? Would some critic find fault with Anakin’s presence behind the dark mask, his brooding thoughts closed off to us, and his children weak imitations of the characters who came before?

In watching the 3-D version, a few things have changed. I’m 41 and my daughter, now 12, sat next to me this time. The 3D transfer was unremarkable and a little disappointing. The moments where I laughed seemed more out of obligation than inspiration. But as Obi-Wan Kenobi fought Darth Maul to the death, I felt myself once again transported, and would have happily sat down to watch whatever came next, no matter how well I knew the outcome. At least that reaction was still intact, virtually unchanged from its beginning in 1977. Such is the enduring power of the Force.

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