Thursday, August 18, 2011

The New Beginning

 - An Episode One Retrospective -

Though I cannot particularly recall when I first discovered that George Lucas was going to make more Star Wars films, I do remember the magazine clipping that someone had saved for me announcing them. An intense quiet built up around me the moment I learned the first three films narrating the back-story of Darth Vader were finally going to be brought to life. While my fandom had been dormant for some time, this short article was enough to fire a single spark inside me, igniting an excitement that would burn steadily for years.

A first generation fan, Star Wars was the very first film I'd seen in a theater. I was so young I'd barely known what a cinema was, but the moment that Star Destroyer thundered overhead exchanging laser-fire with the fleeing Blockade Runner, I was utterly captivated. Somehow, a skinny, bearded director with a closet full of flannel shirts and scuffed Nikes had managed to capture everything in a bottle that would thrill, inspire, and delight an entire generation of children like nothing else ever had. His space-age fairy tales saturated our young lives - it was the air our imaginations breathed, the very water they swam in. For us, George Lucas was nothing short of a maestro who'd conducted a galaxy-wide symphony. He'd taken the fixed stars of our childhood, populated them with modern gods and goddesses, and brought them to life through the magic of film.

So it was quite a moment to learn that he was going to be doing it all over again.

Many of us have spent a fair amount of time crafting analytical essays about the prequels, mining the subtext, and interpreting the symbolism. As rewarding as this is, I've elected to spin something more immediate and visceral this time around, and maybe even more important. For this ode to the prequels, I wanted to talk about the experience itself, that golden feeling that only settles over the world when new Star Wars films are on the way and the profound exhilaration that shakes it when they finally arrive.

When word officially spread that Lucas was once again going to take us into the world of Jedi and Sith, droids and spaceships, lightsabers and blaster bolts, the faint embers of fandom were stoked into a burning blaze. And, despite some grumbling about changes with the special editions, this was before the armchair critics and professional haters had consolidated into an empire, before the dark times on the forums and talkbacks across the 'net. It was a world when every scrap of news and every released photograph was something of an event.

Daily visits to the early were rewarded with continuous information and speculation alike. Eventually, the announcement came that the first episode had been cast, Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Natalie Portman, and some kid named Jake Lloyd winning top billing. Fans started rolling their tongues around exotic-sounding names such as "Qui-Gon Jinn" and "Padme Amidala," "Naboo" and Coruscant." Every new issue of the Star Wars Insider featured exciting updates courtesy of producer Rick McCallum, and the pages in front of them could never turn fast enough.

One trip to Ain't It Cool News finally provided the title of the new episode, something that had been speculated over forever, with fake ones constantly leaking on the Internet. The reaction was palpable when my eyes first fell across the words The Phantom Menace, a visceral feeling right in the gut. It took a moment to digest the pulpy-sounding title, but the longer you played around with it, the more appropriate it seemed. Incidentally, this was also about the time talk on AICN centered on a little script called Fanboys, which narrated the adventure of four lifelong friends who tried to break into Skywalker Ranch to see the new episode because one of them was terminally ill, although the actual movie wouldn't be made for some time.

Without question, the single most thrilling moment before the actual film was the release of the teaser trailer. For the first time in two decades, new footage from a new Star Wars film was going to make its debut, a mere couple of minutes that nonetheless had the entire fan community delirious with anticipation. This was going to be Episode One in embryo, a delicious taste of the film before its release in May. Force-starved fans even braved the likes of Meet Joe Black and The Waterboy to win a glimpse of that galaxy far, far away again, often buying tickets for movies they never even bothered watching (guilty as charged). The media covered the teaser trailer as though it was a movie in its own right, and critics went so far as to review and discuss it.

In college at the time, I had classes all day and sadly missed going with a friend of mine who I always seemed to have philosophy classes with. Later that evening, I did manage to sneak off and watch the coveted preview. The small audience was nonetheless electric, especially when the screen went dark and the Lucasfilm logo filled it. Words and images began drifting across the screen, beautifully highlighted by the first strains of the familiar Force theme.

Every generation has a legend ... Then mysterious, mounted creatures started riding out of a fog-drenched swamp. Every journey has a first step ... Then a herd of dewbacks grazed on the sun-scorched dunes of Tatooine. Every saga has a beginning ... Then the first glimpses of a strikingly beautiful, classical city, and the ornately-costumed queen who overlooked it.

When the screen went black again for a split second, the entire world was holding its breath. The entire world, in a magical, mystical moment that somehow seemed to last an eternity. Then John Williams' score blasted through the speakers, and everything exploded into a genius collage of thrilling scenes and rich images.

Pods shot across a desert. Spaceships flew past frame. Lightsabers twirled. Lasers fired. Then the first haunting line from the prequels was heard - "You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the Force. You believe it's this ... boy?" Cut to a cherubic-looking Anakin. The trailer was breathless, dynamic, inspired, a deftly-cut look at a "more civilized age." Speeders, battle droids, a double-bladed lightsaber, and Yoda's quotable monologue on fear, hate, and the dark side. It was all there. Not to mention the collective chill of excitement and anticipation that raced down every fan's back with the simple line - "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi."

By the time we'd all spilled into the lobby to discuss what we'd seen, any lingering anxieties about the prequels were utterly blown away by that singular experience, so much so that it partly carried me on through all three films. Whatever adult defenses I'd marshaled since the original trilogy, whatever dubious critical eye I'd gained in film class, it was honestly all over at that moment. Any cynicism or doubts in me were washed away in a tide of sheer, overwhelming prequel goodness. Watching those rapidfire, luminous images, I for one was forever convinced that the magic was back, that the galaxy far, far away was alive and well and still breathing that mystical energy field known as the Force.

Seeing the artistry of computer graphics painting entire worlds thrilled me from the start. The parade of new characters, as well as the actors portraying them, were all dead-on from the first trailer. As with the original trilogy, all the humans, aliens, and droids were like old acquaintances, the film partly family reunion. Since the beginning, Lucas has always been able to take the totally new and exotic and simultaneously drape a thin veil of familiarity over it. As a child, my impression of Lucas was that he was as much an archeologist as a creator, as though he'd actually unearthed ancient relics from some far away galaxy, dusted them off, and reanimated them with the power of myth for our entertainment and edification.

It was difficult to suppress this delightfully uncanny feeling again when standing in front of the unforgettable teaser poster for the first time. A young, innocent, sandy-haired moppet on Tatooine casting the shadow of the archetypal villain of our childhood made for a great juxtaposition. Much like the film itself, the poster was rich with symbolism, as it conjured an image that looked like something out of a dream analyzed by Carl Jung.

Next up came all the behind-the-scenes interviews and, before it was all over, it was difficult to pass a newsstand without a Jedi Knight or Sith Lord lurking on the magazine cover. Vanity Fair kicked it all into high gear with a gorgeous, multiple-page spread. The photo of Lucas in Tunisia again gave that odd-feeling of homecoming, with an intelligent cover story introducing the new players on the galactic stage. Another highlight was the philosophical interview between Lucas and Bill Moyers in TIME, as they sat at Skywalker Ranch where The Power of Myth had been filmed. The circle was truly complete, with the padawan becoming the mythic master.

During all of this, the merchandise began hitting, starting with a mail-away Mace Windu figure. Then the big release came that spring, and I was hanging at Media Play counting down to midnight with a huge group of increasingly anxious fans. The store reopened that night, and it looked as though the movie itself had exploded in the meantime. The Phantom Menace had spawned posters, t-shirts, books, games, and of course the sought-after novelization. Naturally after that, every Walmart and Target had shelves dripping with toys, the deliciously devilish visage of Darth Maul adorning just about everything. The cynical may scorn the merchandising aspect, though it’s as much a part of Star Wars as the Force itself.

For me, those action figures, those plastic incarnations of our favorite heroes and villains, are simply modern versions of the carefully molded clay figurines of gods and goddesses dating back into prehistory. The thrill of getting the toy likeness of Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Anakin, Darth Maul, Watto, Palpatine, and all the rest was palpable and electric. It put a smile on my face, much like seeing Lucas interviewed on 60 Minutes (incidentally, contrary to the haters, Lucas often has that effect on me).

The weeks leading up to the release of Episode One were unlike anything our culture has since produced. No one has forgotten the lines populated by increasingly colorful Star Wars fans that stretched around movie theaters. Nor the first time their ears heard the haunting chorus of The Duel of the Fates. Nor for that matter the spoiler-filled track listing on the soundtrack inappropriately announcing "Qui-Gon's Noble End."

Securing tickets ahead of time, I sat down in a darkened theater early opening day, the crowds breathless with anticipation. As the curtain pulled back and the screen filled with the previews for the summer movies, it was time for the first Star Wars film in sixteen years to deliver on all the hype. The Phantom Menace would polarize and divide the fan community like nothing before. It would inspire bitter flame-fests across the Internet. It would be analyzed and second-guessed a million times over.

Of course, to be fair, The Phantom Menace would also thrill, inspire, and delight a new generation of little Star Wars fans who would embrace Jar Jar and midichlorians as naturally as we embraced wookiees and stormtroopers.

But none of us knew that at the time, nor did we need to know. All we did know was that the day was here, the hour was upon us, and we were about to be transported out of our mundane lives. In many ways, we were about to go home again after a sixteen year exile.

Then that half-sacred blue font appeared on the screen - A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ...

And, for the next two hours anyway, all was right with the world. 

* This was sort of going to tie in with the 3-D release in February, but what the hey. I suppose it still does. 

** Also available at The Forcecast!