A Generation Apart
I think the biggest problem for people of my generation, is that we were all kids when the original Star Wars Trilogy was released, but grown ups when the prequel trilogy finally hit theaters. Had George Lucas continued to release Star Wars movies every three years or so, until all 9 episodes of his saga had been created, I think things would have been ok. But 16 years passed between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. I was 8 when Return of the Jedi was released and 25 when Episode I came out. That is a big difference. By 1985 Star Wars was moving off the radar. No new movies were being readied and even Kenner had stopped making new toys. It wasn't until 1992 When Timothy Zahn published a new Star Wars Trilogy did my excitement for Star Wars return. Within a few years there were hundreds of new Star Wars books in the "Expanded Universe", the toys came back, and new video games were released. Everyone wanted more Star Wars, and George started writing a new episode. Has anyone ever stopped to think how great it might have been if he had used the Thrawn trilogy for his blueprint? The original cast was aging, though I think Harrison Ford and Mark Hamil would have been able to reprise their roles.
However, George Lucas wanted to write a prequel story, and tell us how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. All Star Wars fans instantly envisioned their own take on how this could have happened, but we were confident that Mr. Lucas already had most of the story planned out in notes at least from his original drafts written in the early 1970s. Everybody knew that it was going to be great. When the original teaser trailer was finally released it promised greatness, despite the title. The music, the lightsabers, the space ships, state of the art CGI effects, it really looked like Star Wars was back:
When it was finally released, I went to see The Phantom Menace on opening weekend (no I did not queue up on opening night). Like everybody else, when the Lucasfilm logo appeared I cheered. The hairs on the back of my neck tingled as I read "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...", and then the huge Yellow Star Wars appeared and the crowd went wild, things were great, there was no way this could suck. We had waited so long for this, and so far it was everything we had imagined it would be. The crawl began and... Wait, what? The language was all wrong, it just didn't feel right: "The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute... blockade... Trade Federation" ??? Yawn! "...secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict....", well that doesn't sound quite so dull, let's give it a chance. But that initial feeling of joy, optimism slowly vanished, replaced by a growing disappointment. Is it really this bad? Now, to be fair, it wasn't all bad. Darth Maul was pretty cool - too bad they killed him. At the time, I was really into Chinese Martial Arts and Wushu, so I thought the lightsaber duels with Darth Maul were great. The Podrace was... ok. I do remember that despite the cheering at the very beginning, there was just silence for the rest of the movie. No cheering, no laughter, no gasps of surprise. As I left the theater I was quite disappointed, but trying not to show it, I mean this was Star Wars, and I had waited 16 years for this!
I didn't pay to go see it again, but I did buy the DVD. Perhaps in the 6 months or so since I had seen it I had convinced myself that it hadn't been as bad as I remembered. Watching it a second time, however, I realized that it wasn't the kind of film that grows on you. In fact it just got worse and more annoying. The CGI Yoda was less believable than the muppet, and his inverted diction just seemed forced, almost a parody of Yoda. Jar Jar Binks seemed to be what someone with no sense of humor thinks humor is. He has an annoying voice, he walks funny, he steps in crap. That's funny, right? Well, not to my generation, but my kids seemed to find him quite amusing. Which raises an interesting point: I was a kid when Star Wars came out, did the grown ups at the time love it as much as my generation? Probably not. My parents were not excited about watching it every Christmas like I was. They watched it once in a while, and seemed to appreciate it, but that was as far as it went. So did George Lucas write the movies for kids? Is that why we just don't get it? Maybe, but am I the only one who had to try to explain what a trade embargo and sanctions are to my kids? Even my kids' eyes were glazing over for most of the film, only getting into it during the lightsaber duels, the podrace and the space ship battles. The rest of the time they looked even more bored than I was. Should George Lucas have written the prequels targeted at a new generation of fans (read kids who will buy merchandise for many years to come) or for the aging generation who loved the original movies? Perhaps in trying to please both, he pleased neither. He went on the record explaining that he wrote it for the kids, but is that true or was that just his excuse? Do kids really care about taxation, politics and Senate Meetings? Does anyone? Is George Lucas just too big now for anyone to question his ideas? Is he now surrounded by yes men who when asked if they liked Jar Jar told him it was fantastic?
But what about the Ewoks, they were pretty bad too weren't they? Well, yeah, but at least they were really there, not just CGI. The whole green screen virtual sets and interaction with CGI characters was a big part of the problem with the Prequels for me. I don't think it helped the actors deliver the best performances, and it didn't suspend disbelief in quite the same was as a real set and real people in costume.
When Obi-Wan introduces 'The Force' it is described as an "energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together." It is all very spiritual. Some people are more sensitive to it than others, but perhaps with the proper training anyone might become a Jedi. Admit it - you've tried more than once in your lifetime to "use the force" to move an object or to try to influence someone's mind. As powerful as it is, your moral compass becomes very important or it could lead you to the dark side.
- "The Force evolved out of various developments of character and plot. I wanted a concept of religion based on the premise that there is a God and there is good and evil. I began to distill the essence of all religions into what I thought was a basic idea common to all religions and common to primitive thinking. I wanted to develop something that was nondenominational but still had a kind of religious reality."
- ―George Lucas
Then came Midi-chlorians which reduced this religion to a measurable genetic anomaly which you either had in sufficient quantities to be a Jedi, or you didn't."look at how much religion you have!" Bummer!
Fans know what they like, and essentially what they want from a sequel (or a prequel) is more of the same. In many ways, Return of the Jedi was a remake of Star Wars - it begins on Tatooine, Jabba is there, his palace is filled with odd looking creatures, and music just like the Cantina and at the end there is a huge space battle in which the Rebels destroy the Deathstar. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade used many of the more popular aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark, such as making the Nazis the bad guys, and having the bad guy's face melt off at the end. I think The Phantom Menace, and the prequels in general, just failed to deliver the key features required for a successful Star Wars movie.
To be fair, everybody who had seen the originals, or even just the special editions, had expectations, and there was almost no chance of George Lucas meeting them, but I truly believe that the prequels could have been so much better.