Originally published on Monday, May 24, 1999, in The Coffee Shop Times.
I’ve seen “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” three times already. The last occasion was a 5:15 AM showing — that’s right, 5:15 in the morning — at a large theatre near UCLA. You’re thinking I’m crazy, I’ll bet, but there were at least 200 other psychos in the audience with me. Everyone was cheering, laughing, and clapping the whole way through as if it were 5:15 PM. And it’s not just in media-hungry L.A. that this is going on. Theatres in cities all across the country are running the film around the clock to keep up with demand.
By the time you read this, the film will have more than earned back the $115 million George Lucas paid (out of his own pocket) to make it. Not bad economics — spend three years and a large chunk of change, and the audience happily lets you make it back within six days of the film’s release.
What does it all mean? The fans — the average Americans — have spoken. People are standing in impossibly long lines to see the movie at all hours of the day and night — and they’re doing it again and again. And loving it.
And then there are the movie critics. The “wise” ones, the observers and commentators on our nation’s most beloved pop culture institution. Their powerful thumbs-up or thumbs-down can often doom a film to a speedy trip to the 99 cent rack at Blockbuster. And these “experts” have almost unanimously panned “The Phantom Menace,” their comments ranging from polite dismissal to savage mockery. By any indication, this film should be bombing at the box office.
But this is one of those wonderful occasions where the American people demonstrate their true depth of character and spirit, where they prove they’re smarter than the so-called pundits. You see, “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi,” have always been stories that appeal to the innocent part of us. They’re child’s adventures, full of innocence and wonder.
This fourth film, the first in a series of three prequels, is no different. It chronicles the attempts of two Jedi Knights, master Qui-Jon (Liam Neeson) and apprentice Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) to save the planet Naboo from the evil forces of the Trade Federation (predecessors to the evil Empire of the original trilogy). Their journey takes them and the teenage Naboo Queen, Amidala (Natalie Portman), to the planet of Tatooine, where they encounter a slave, young child prodigy Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). The Force is indeed strong in Anakin, as Qui-Jon soon ascertains. Anakin’s kind and giving ways, in addition to his remarkable powers, save the group’s hide both on Tatooine and later on Naboo.
There are lots of treats along the way, too. We learn where R2D2 and C3PO come from, as well as see Master Yoda in action back in his pre-swamp days. Also making appearances are Jabba the Hutt and a whole host of other alternately repugnant and cute creatures most will remember from the other films. The special effects, including sweeping alien landscapes, a futuristic drag race, and battle sequences galore, are simply the best that have ever appeared in theatres. They will take your breath away.
The dark shadow hanging over this exhilarating ride, of course, is that we know that young Anakin Skywalker will eventually fall from grace and become the evil Darth Vader. How this happens will have to wait until Episodes II and III of the prequels, but it will be well worth the wait.
Nobody I know under the age of 25 has been anything less than wild about this film, despite its flaws. And those who like it that are older seem to have one thing in common — being young at heart. This, in fact, explains why the critics just don’t get it, while America does.
Film criticism — indeed, criticism of any sort — is the realm of the hyper-intellectual, where mostly middle-aged cretins sit in cushy offices, wildly overpaid to tear apart the creative work of others. Most of these people don’t even know the difference between screenwriting and directing and editing. Often their reviews are platforms to celebrate their own self-absorbed cleverness, rather than evaluate whether a film might appeal to the audience or contribute something worthwhile to the body of filmic artwork. Sounds a lot, in fact, like the United States Congress, or any other number of “institutions” of leadership.
There are, arguably, two kinds of people in this world — those who believe in magic, and those who don’t. Those whose imaginations still fuel their dreams, or not. Those who still are pure enough at heart to believe in good and evil, in redemption, and in the triumph of the human spirit over the coldness of intellectualism and technology. Or not. It is a sad commentary that the halls of power are mostly filled with the “nots.”
Luckily, the seats of movie theatres are filled with those who are still kids at heart. For them, “The Phantom Menace” will nourish that part of them, and this, I believe, will do more good for the nation’s soul than any amount of scholarly writing, or bills passed by Congress to ban automatic weapons or approve money for Kosovo.
George Lucas was recently interviewed by Bill Moyers for TIME magazine, and offered this thought:
I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’ — that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.
This is the beauty of Lucas’ creation. In addition to being chock full of cool stuff — creatures and toys and spaceships and exotic planets — it is layered with significance and purpose beyond the eye candy. And it is only with an non-cynical, unjaded eye that you can step into this realm and experience the multiple levels of meaning. “Star Wars” is a gateway to a deeper and more profound part of ourselves, but it’s not available to those who have ceased to see the wonder in the world around us.
In fact, our country’s most popular religious system, Christianity, has this to say about the type of experience I refer to:
Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
I’m not necessarily comparing Lucas to Christ, or claiming his universe is somehow perfectly holy (indeed, “Phantom Menace” is not without flaws — clunky dialogue abounds, for example). What Lucas has done, though, is tapped into the best part of all our subconscious and spiritual sides, and offered us stories about ourselves. He has given us a new tool, another key, to explore the complexities of what our lives mean.
Most critics out there have dismissed “Phantom Menace” out of hand; they think it a corny, shallow special-effects-laden piece of cotton candy, or a cynical merchandising tool, or a hopelessly simplistic and retro morality play. To those people I challenge you to check your spirit, and remember — if you can — who you were as a child. Is there any Anakin Skywalker left in you, who looks up at the stars and longs to visit them all? Or have you long since become Darth Vader, a cold machine devoid of spirit?
For those who don’t get it, your soul may be, as George Lucas would say, “in deep poodoo.”
I’m going to see “The Phantom Menace” a fourth time tomorrow.
See you in line.
Robert Zimmer, Jr., is a screenwriter and Jedi-in-Training.