Episode One- The Phantom Anticipation
This is the first in a six part series leading up to the release of the latest Star Wars movie ‘The Force Awakens.’ In this installment I get sappy, lament some bad movies, and try to grapple with lowering expectations…
My first memory of the original ‘Star Wars’ is seeing it on the Disney Channel (back when the station was a paid premium channel on your cable provider). I vividly recall being in the living room standing or sitting in the La-Z-Boy watching Luke Skywalker’s land speeder glide across the desert terrain of his home world of Tatooine.
My first memory of ‘Return of the Jedi’? When I was out sick from school. It was released on VHS and we had a free rental. I can remember being in the basement of the daycare I went to, huddled on the couch in a sleeping bag, watching the Ewoks take down the Empire. I also remember the speeder bike chase, and the final moments of the confrontation between Darth Vader, his master Emperor Palpatine, and Luke Skywalker.
Oddly, I don’t remember the first or most memorable time I saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, my favorite of the three (actually, my favorite film of all time). Though, I do have fond, yes fond, memories of the Ewok films, ‘The Ewok Adventure’ and ‘The Battle for Endor’. I never saw the holiday special or was big into the Droids cartoon.
In 1997 I got the chance to see the films for the first time in cinemas with the Special Editions in which scenes and special effects were added or enhanced. I was first in line for all three movies opening night and didn’t limit myself to one screening. It was a moment I hadn’t really had to that point, seeing a previously released movie once again gracing theater screens (except for maybe an old Disney animated trope).
But just two years later, I would get to experience something different. The first original Star Wars film since 1983 came soaring into our lives like an X-Wing, heroic and shiny. ‘The Phantom Menace’ wasn’t a sequel to those movies from nearly two decades earlier, it was a PREQUEL. At the time it was a new concept, daring to tell the back story of a beloved franchise while also telling its own story.
This would be a different experience from those who saw the original film in 1977. They had no idea what was about to hit. In 1999, we had the hindsight of three of the best movies ever to be produced to that point and since. I remember seeing my first glimpse of Darth Maul, a character who made Darth Vader look like a French poodle. The trailer for the film is credited with having boosted the first weekend box office of the flick ‘Meet Joe Black’ (this was before trailers were readily available on the Internet, kids).
The hype and marketing for this movie were unprecedented to that point in film history. Star Wars, a surprise merchandising juggernaut after its release in the 1970’s paved the way for this movie to be branded on everything imaginable. It was the Kiss of sci-fi/fantasy flicks. It was the first time I ever remember there being a street date for toys, which took up an entire aisle at your local retailer. And it was something that a new generation of Star Wars nerds could share in.
Then we saw the movie. And it was a midnight show full of mixed reactions. Some loved it, others downright hated it, and then there were people like me who wanted to love it so badly, but couldn’t ignore its obvious and glaring shortcomings. Even calling them shortcomings is being nice in some cases of the missteps associated with ‘The Phantom Menace.’ I dreaded being asked the next morning at high school what I thought of it, because I’d have to admit this thing that I’d obsessed over just wasn’t very good.
Then there was ‘Attack of the Clones’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith.’ Each one improved immensely over the other, but still displayed issues that didn’t need to be there, and seemed to persist because of creator George Lucas’ involvement, a notion that pains fans to admit, but gives them a place to direct their distaste. Many of the creative choices taken in those movies- bad dialogue, stilted direction for otherwise superb actors, and an onslaught of CGI porn for its own sake- were his doing and at his insistence.
The bottom line is there is a fair amount of distance between what George Lucas feels these movies are, and what they are/mean to the public who love them.
During that time we also had a Clone Wars cartoon that was more fantastic than the films it was meant to supplement. That later morphed into another iteration which was equally if not more successful. It went to show how much better others could do with Lucas’ property than he was able to. He may have built the sandbox, but everyone else seemed to play in it with more success.
Fast forward a couple of years and Lucasfilm is sold to the Walt Disney Company. So now the Mouse House owns Star Wars (and Indiana Jones). Almost immediately there is talk of more movies. But not just any movies. Rumors begin circulating once again, as they had on and off since 1983, of sequels to the original trilogy of films…with original actors Mark Hamil, Carrie Fischer, and Harrison Ford reprising their roles from 30 years prior. THE HOLY GRAIL IN ALL OF MOVIE HISTORY. And I don’t say that as hyperbole or over-exaggeration. I truly believe there is no more asked for, desired, or necessary film sequel in all of time but that which would be labeled Episode VII.
Eventually it was announced, and there was celebrating like people in the square of Coruscant after the Empire was just brought down. So much jubilation and excitement, but with a little trepidation and disbelief. The pure joy that this was going to happen couldn’t be described by a film geek. At the same time we’d seen this type of excitement before and been burned as if we’d been in a duel on Mustafar.
Each step of the process was met by mixed emotions by many fans. They hired JJ Abrams to direct, a man whose abilities and love of Star Wars was matched by lens flares and a penchant to not have a story that was all too original or fantastic enough. Lawrence Kasdan softened that blow, however, as one of the writers of the film. He’s the guy many hold responsible for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ being the film it was. Just look at the way in which he wrote Yoda and compare it to the way Lucas did, and you could see who gave the diminutive Jedi his true voice.
Whatever other issues arose, they were met with glimmers of hope. And when the main title theme sounded in theaters and across the Internet heralding in the trailers for the movie, it was like being a jilted lover wooed back to someone you knew just might not be no good for you, baby. John Williams’ score is the siren song out of the Pied Piper’s flute calling the nerds to possible doom. Or a wrinkly old man trying to tempt you to the dark side.
I don’t envy ‘The Force Awakens.’ It carries two equally crushing burdens by trying to live up to three of the greatest films ever made, and crawling out of the negative shadow cast by three of the biggest disappointments to be produced under the same banner. It’s an awful predicament for all involved in the making of the movie and those who will see it.
Long, long story short…I want to be really excited. I have become more and more excited as we get closer. But I don’t want to jinx it. I feel like I have the victims’ syndrome where I blame myself for the franchise’s past failures, and if I let my expectations get too high too much, I’m setting myself up for failure. Maybe it’s just fear, and we all know where that can lead. Perhaps I should just let go, search my feelings, and…Well, you get the idea.
All photos are probably property of Lucasfilm, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company. Their use is to supplement my crappy little article. Please don’t sue us.