Star Wars, as a franchise, is just a bit older than I am. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve loved it dearly and loathed its existence. I’ve appreciated the ability George Lucas had to conceptualize a universe that felt lived in and diverse, and palmed my face at the utterly stupid things he made come out of the mouths of his characters. And in this cynical, Internet-fueled, post-Plinkett world of critics and criticism, it’s trendy to hate on things, older things being remade even moreso, and Star Wars most of all.
But is it really worth hating?
I mean, yes, Lucas going against the final product he originally gave the world in ’77 is utter bullshit. And there are some monumentally stupid decisions that were made in Attack of the Clones. But let’s rewind the clock. Come back 13 years with me to the premiere of The Phantom Menace in theaters. I wasn’t as experienced, hardened or jaded as I am now; I’d yet to go through a few experiences that lead me to who I am today. However, I still tended to watch movies with the mindset that if the things I liked outweighed the things I didn’t, I’d declare it an overall success. Since it was harder for me to focus on aspects I disliked, I maintained my focus on Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman and the lightsaber fighting more than I did Jar Jar, Jake Lloyd, the tedious plot points and the tepid, stilted dialog. In fact, when I saw the movie for the first time, I liked it.
Yes. I liked The Phantom Menace when it first came out. And there’s no reason I should be ashamed of that.
I know I’ve pointed you in the direction of a certain Z-list Internet celebrity several times, so this may come as something of a surprise. But I don’t always agree with Bob Chipman. I don’t like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as much as he did, I think he can get a bit nitpicky when it comes to superhero movie hype (then again, somebody has to as we can’t all be gushing fanboys) and I don’t quite understand the sheer amount of bile he continues to spew at first-person shooter video games. However, I highly recommend you check out his episode of Escape to the Movies where he discusses The Phantom Menace and why hating on it is a zero sum game.
In addition to all of that, there is a part of me that loves pulp adventure without a hint of irony, especially pulp science fiction and fantasy. I know that Flash Gordon and Krull are cheesy as hell, and there are elements of Stargate and the new Star Trek that go for broad, somewhat shallow action and adventure instead of deep character-driven introspection. I’m okay with that. In fact, I think that when we eschew that sort of entertainment entirely we lose some of the whimsy that gave rise to science fiction and fantasy in the first place. And The Phantom Menace had that.
Yeah, the kid’s acting was wooden, a couple story points were unnecessary or tedious, making the Trade Federation obvious stereotypes was an ignorant move and I still want to flatten Jar Jar with a cricket bat. But when the movie stops trying to tie into existing Star Wars canon while ignoring the hard work and imaginations of its own expanded universe and just lets itself be Star Wars, it’s fun. Chases though space ships are fun. Duels with laser swords are fun. Big, flashy space battles are fun. These are the things that Lucas showed us way back in the original Star Wars (I guess I should give up and just call it A New Hope), and The Phantom Menace tapped into that whenever it stopped getting in its own way.
It’s not great. In fact, it’s kind of mediocre. I’d still watch any of the aforementioned movies before The Phantom Menace. But I think it’s better than we’ve let ourselves remember. I think we should weigh the good as well as the bad. I think it’s time we let go of our hate.