True Confessions: I Defended ‘Phantom Menace’ in Print

This is kind of embarrassing.

But I’m going to let you read it anyway.

One of the first things I wrote after I started my job as a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press was a passionate defense of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” which was receiving almost universally scathing reviews.

Ironically, this opinion piece helped land me a position as an entertainment reporter for the Showcase section, so I look back at it with a certain fondness, no matter how misguided it may be.

Keep in mind that it was penned almost immediately after the release of “Phantom Menace” and many of us were still basking in the glow of a Star Wars revival and the fact that we had just seen Jedi spinning and leaping in the air, twirling their lightsabers, like we’d always dreamed it could be.

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Lavender Vroman with her Princess Leia buns and tickets to “The Phantom Menace.”

And we had yet to see the other two chapters of the new trilogy. I think many of us were willing to give “Episode I” the benefit of the doubt until the abysmal “Attack of the Clones” came out.

While I do not agree with almost everything I wrote back in 1999, I’d argue that some of the points about the original trilogy and its greatness, despite its lack of conventional “greatness,” still ring true.

I think my youthful journalistic folly can also serve as an object lesson as we anticipate the arrival of the first part of yet another Star Wars trilogy.

Only time will tell if the intense hype and euphoria surrounding “The Force Awakens” is warranted, and if there’s any greatness to be found in it.

Let’s not leap to judgement or praise. Let’s give J.J. Abrams’ incredibly risky new venture a chance to become what it’s destined to be. Hopefully, it won’t be something we later wince at and try to forget.

Below, the full text of my defense of “The Phantom Menace,” originally published in the Opinion section of the Antelope Valley Press. (Please don’t hate me.)

Critical Defense of Much-Hyped Star Wars Film

To cranky film critics everywhere — lighten up! As Darth Vader would say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

You promptly pronounced the long-awaited, much-hyped “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” a disappointment. You cut the film down with strokes as swift as a lightsaber’s. You blasted the plot and dialogue with the heartlessness of a battle droid. Your annoyance with the comic character Jar Jar Binks had you bellowing like Wookies. You scoffed at the actors’ performances with scorn to rival the evil Emperor’s. Sinister villain Darth Maul’s lack of screen minutes made you rave like Tuscan Raiders awakened prematurely from an afternoon nap. You argued that computer animation and special effects smothered any attempt at spiritual, artistic or moral substance.

One of you went so far as to compare George Lucas to Darth Vader, in an amusingly ridiculous extended metaphor. You said the writer-director-producer of the great Star War series had finally gone too far, taking himself, and his new film, too seriously. And you didn’t even realize that you were guilty of the very thing of which you accused Lucas.

In “Episode IV,” Yoda says that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” And everyone knows that these things inevitably lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And so, I suggest, do self-seriousness and the loss of a basic sense of wonder. Somewhere in that 15 year dry spell between “Return of the Jedi” and “Episode I,” you must have forgotten what made the original series so delightful  and successful.

Were “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” so remarkable because of fabulously constructed , original and flawless plots? Because of eloquent and layered dialogue to rival Shakespeare’s? Because of superb acting and deep philosophical content? Of course not.

Plot and dialogue have never been George Lucas’ strengths. He’s a storyteller on the most basic level. The original Star Wars trilogy was built on the most simplistic of plot lines, borrowing heavily from well-worn myth and fairy tales. It’s the story of an everyday hero who goes on an impossible quest and finds himself and something greater along the way. The stuff all good tales are made of. It’s cliche, it’s hokey, and people everywhere still love it.

As for dialogue … audiences in 1977 seemed to have no objection to such cheesy gems as Han Solo’s line, “Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her.” If nobody minded then, why should they now?

They shouldn’t, and that’s because the power of Lucas’ science-fiction epic has little to do with the spoken word. What makes him a good director is that he communicates effectively at the level that all films inherently operate on — the visual level. It is precisely Lucas’ vision of space, the things we saw when we first saw “Star Wars,” that have so captivated millions of people. It is what we saw of the characters, not only what we heard them say, but the visual impression they made on us, that endeared them to us. Who would actually say that Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher astounded audiences with their great thespian skills?

“The Phantom Menace” isn’t, and never was, intended to stand on its own. It’s a part of a whole, and to do it justice, it must be considered along with its other parts. The important elements, the things that branded the original three films into popular consciousness, are there in “Episode I,” and they make it a joy to watch.

Yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. Yes, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to give creepy Darth Maul more screen time. And no, Han Solo wasn’t there to grin his rascally grin and crack up the audience with his, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Get over it.

The first of the prequels isn’t perfect, but it succeeds in the same way the other three did. For, once again, Lucas takes us places we’ve never been, fills our eyes with sights never before seen — the Venice-like, regal planet Naboo, the metropolitan, silvery city of Coruscant and the underwater bubble village of the Gungans. He introduces us to a sad and beautiful queen arrayed in costumes Madonna could only dream of and Jedi in the midst of duels so full of motion and power they make our heads spin. We meet an innocent boy named Anakin with an arrogant streak, foreboding a downfall to come. Even Darth Maul’s short but memorable appearance hints of a greater evil awaiting us in the next episode.

“Episode I” is only the foundation for the remainder of three prequels and as a start it will do just fine.

So, all you film critics — I sense that there is still good in you. See the film again, this time on the lighter side of the Force.

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Jar Jar Binks photo: zap2it.com.

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2 thoughts on “True Confessions: I Defended ‘Phantom Menace’ in Print

  1. Aaron C

    No need to feel shame. I defend “The Phantom Menace” (and “Attack of the Clones/”Revenge of the Sith”) to any and all who will listen.

    Like

    Reply
  2. garethrhodes

    Haha! Great article. I’m afraid my only memories of this film are associated with a deep sense of boredom and apathy. The dialogue and performances had the feel of a primary school play. I only hope The Force Awakens brings much needed balance back to the force.

    Like

    Reply

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