Wednesday, May 15, 2002

The Star Wars Prequels

Believe it or not, I watched Star Wars: The Phantom Menace for the first time last week. I borrowed the DVD from a colleague at work, and I finally got around to watching it. (I had just finished watching The Apostle, so I wanted to watch something "light".)

It's been three years since The Phantom Menace (TPM) was released (1999), and twenty years since Return of the Jedi (1983). Return of the Jedi was the last Star Wars movie I saw in the theater (I think I watched the rerelease of Star Wars (A New Hope) right before TPM).

For a variety of reasons, I never got into the idea of watching TPM. For one thing, I didn't really like the plot twists introduced in Return of the Jedi. Over time, I've come to understand them ("I am your father!"), and I've come to accept them ("I am your sister!") but I began to feel that George Lucas was pulling something over his audience.

I don't deny the popularity of the Star Wars films. Star Wars was the first movie that I ever watched more than once in a theater. The first movie in which I loved the music. The special effects. The great lines ("I have a bad feeling about this."). It was influential in that it has informed me of what a great movie experience is all about. I devoured Star Wars. I knew who Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels were. I read magazines on Star Wars. I collected cards. I had a Darth Vader poster on my wall.

But as I grew up, and was able to absorb more sophisticated movies, I learned that in the scheme of "important" movies, it may fall below, say The Godfather, or Forrest Gump. I've learned to appreciate simple cinematic touches (the unwinding ball of yarn in Cinema Paradiso), great dialogue (Hard Eight), and great acting (Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking).

So I was greatly surprised when I found that I really liked TPM. I watched it once, then watched the DVD's "featurettes" on the making of TPM, then watched it again, listening to the commentary track.

TPM, despite the dreaded Jar Jar, is a fantastic film. Ewan MacGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) had great approaches to their roles, and young Jake Lloyd played a terrific young Annakin Skywalker. And Natalie Portman (Queen Padmé Amidala) was wonderful. The story was well-paced, and I found myself quite engaged. You know how things will turn out, but you enjoy the voyage anyway. That's good story-telling! (Lucas isn't pulling anything over our eyes...he just doesn't have enough movie hours to tell his story!)

It's not as good as A New Hope. But it's got me hooked again. Joe Barlow's review sums it up: "TPM is a major step forward in the evolution of this series."

I've read some of the tough initial reviews on Attack of the Clones, but I'm sure the generation of young fans who saw Phantom Menace the way I saw Star Wars will be lining up when Episode II debuts. I think I know how they feel.

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