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I remember the cultural avalanche that built around The Phantom Menace. I spent my childhood watching battered VHS copies of the Original Trilogy taped off the telly. I loved that world and the escapism, creativity and playtime that it precipitated. When the Special Editions hit in my early teens and a new trilogy announced, it’s safe to say I was sat in the front carriage of George Lucas’ hype train, ready to depart once again to a galaxy far, far away
At 8pm on 19th July 1999 I sat in a gross, dilapidated, but packed-out cinema with my Dad and was taken aback by what I experienced. I would best describe the event as “exhilaratingly underwhelming”. There were new planets, creatures, characters, ships and designs. The John Williams score was exceptional, otherworldly and immersive. There were so many elements that chimed with me that I refused to even see the negative aspects. The dialogue was atrocious, some of the performances were stilted, the plot was nonsense and the visual effects just weren’t quite “there” yet.
Of course, I wanted it to succeed. This was a thing that I had loved growing up. I played with hand-me-down toys (I was born in 1983 so I kinda missed out on the first wave of this cultural phenomenon), watched both Ewok movies several times, read a whole heap of expanded universe novels and trivia books. Star Wars was my jam. I wouldn’t let a little thing like Midichlorians put a limp in my swagger. No amount of trade route taxation or oddly accented aliens would bring down my euphoric awe.
As I said, I bought the ticket. I took the ride.
Through videogames, comics, magazines, novels and eventually owning the film on VHS, before upgrading to DVD, I speculated and theorised about where the story would go next. The Phantom Menace hadn’t just been a rehash of a previous franchise entries. It tried something bold and dared to be different. It would take years to concede that “bold and different” didn’t necessarily mean “worthwhile” or “worthy”. Whenever I’d hear people discuss the new movie in disparaging tones I would either ignore their words completely or do my damnedest to eschew their negativity with positive points about Episode I. In the beginning, I was full of bluster. I still believed there was good in George Lucas’ brave new world and could. not. wait. to see how the story would continue.
By the time Attack of the Clones reached theatres in 2002 I was a cinema projectionist at a multiplex. I’d spent months re-watching the trailers, preparing myself for what was to come. Who was Jango Fett? Would we finally get to see the Clone Wars? Who was with this “charismatic separatist” being played by Sir Christopher Lee? Even “making up” the film print from its individual, 35mm reels made me shake. I was literally handling history and was positively vibrating with excitement.
And then, the Clones Attacked. There was no denying that the dialogue had gotten even more clunky… but I did. I’m not sure how they did it but they managed to downgrade the kid playing Anakin. Hayden Christensen easily delivers the most wooden performance in the entire saga and his complete lack of chemistry with Natalie Portman did not bode well for Episode III.
But once again John Williams created a spectacular score. His Across the Stars love theme becoming the new Dual of the Fates, evoking Nino Rota’s beautiful theme from Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet. We got to witness the true, birth of an Empire with the design of the Clone Troopers echoing the iconic look of those white helmeted baddies from the Original Trilogy.
When met with sniffy responses from friends and co-workers I would often quote Chris Hewitt’s 5-Star review in Empire Magazine (which has since been realigned to a more temperate 3 Stars), at no point was I dissuaded by what I’d witnessed multiple times on the big screen.
Attack of the Clones opened up a whole new war in the stars for the Expanded Universe with a glut of video games and novels, plus two animated television series to boot.
Star Wars: Clones Wars? Played it. Loved it.
Star Wars: Bounty Hunter? That too.
Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds? Wasted hours on that.
Two novels devoted to Clone Trooper triage nurses and medics? I’m your guy.
I was wholeheartedly of the belief that the more of this (now, non-canonical) claptrap I absorbed, the richer the Episode II experience would be, and the more potency the film would have. All the time failing to comprehend the fact that a good film must first stand on its own merits. I shudder to think of the amount of times I’d blurt out a pithy, “Well actually…”, when greeted with dissenting voices. I was (for my sins) a bit of a fanboy dickhead, unable to comment or discuss my fandom in any reasonable, level-headed manner.
Yes, I was that insufferable guy in the office who put up a “500 Days until Episode III” calendar. Lucky for me, my workplace was a dark and dingy projection booth, but still, it’s more than a little bit cringe, looking back on it.
Revenge of the Sith dropped in 2005 to mild applause. Well… actually it was more of a slow hand clap when I come to think about it. The CG had improved drastically but the dialogue and performances had not. In fact, I think Hayden Christensen had managed to get progressively worse. In spite of our better senses, it seemed collectively that we all enjoyed the final moments which acted as connecting tissue to the Original Trilogy. The preceding two hours and fifteen minutes had been ropey as hell but good ol’ George managed to stick the landing.
And then it was all over. No more Star Wars. The story was complete and the pressure and expectations had all but subsided. We all adapted to this new world. We evolved culturally. I aged a bit. And as the hype train had ground to a halt I’d spend the better part of the next decade living out a series of, “oh no”, moments of realisation. Luckily it didn’t all hit me at once. Occasional re-watches of the sextet of feature films, retrospective video essays like the ones from the guys at Red Letter Media, and my own fevered thought processes led me to reconfigure my opinions and reconsider my blind devotion to an imperfect and often terrible thing.
You may think I’m writing this a month ahead of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi as some sort of reminder to keep myself in check, and this is partly true. As someone who blindly followed and obnoxiously defended (if not, outright attacked for) my fandom, I see that same poisoned mind-set in other recesses of popular culture. Whether it’s the baffling DC/ Marvel divide or obsessive gamers, the internet has a canny way of amplifying the awfulness of our fanaticisms.
Attacking people because they just straight-up don’t like a thing you love is nonsensical and more than a little bit silly. You can scream and shout until you’re blue in the face but you won’t win people over with insults and bluster. It’s taken me many years and a whole heap of hindsight to learn the simple truth that opinions, are indeed, like arseholes. Everybody has one, and nobody thinks their own stinks.
This has been a cautionary tale.
Beware the toxicity of dogmatic belief.
Oh… and check out my gushing reviews of The Force Awakens and Rogue One!
Justice League opens November 17
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