What's the antonym of premiere?
Whatever it is, I was sort of at one this evening.
But more of that in about six paragraphs' time.
Like every other kid in 1977, I went to the cinema to see Star Wars more than once. In fact, Star Wars was the first movie that I ever saw at the cinema. Aside from the made-for-TV Star Wars Holiday Special though, I never watched any of its sequels, or prequels for that matter.
It's hard to believe now, but it actually was common knowledge in those early days that George Lucas had several other films planned, to be set both before and after that original production. Why sure, I doubted that the prequels would ever actually come to be, but all the same, somehow over the years I found myself waiting for him to finish the whole series of nine.
People would tell me things that had happened in the movies that I had missed. Silly made-up nonsense concerning Luke's hand, Leia's parents, and Darth Vader's surname, but obviously fans will insist on winding up their own over-active imaginations so.
For example, presently people (probably Herschel) would tell me that Lucas had scaled back his plans and would now only be making six movies. They point at The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi as though they were the full series. They've obviously never heard of The Star Wars Holiday Special, Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure or Ewoks: The Battle For Endor. Recently Lucas even released The Clone Wars, extending the series to ten.
With this year's rerelease of the well-known six in 3D, it seemed like it was high time that I took the plunge and actually started watching them through.
That's why tonight I found myself at what seemed to be the final evening theatrical screening in the whole country of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It seems to be moving exclusively to mornings tomorrow, in another region. (I haven't checked any of this)
The series has a great opening. I was expecting to get a thrill from hearing the music in a theatre again, but it was the visuals that gave me the real adrenaline kick and made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
Very simply, that logo, in that exact shade of yellow, on such an awesome starfield. This was the way that starfields in the cinema had used to look when I was a kid. I should have got myself a tall rectangular Kia-Ora drink for the full effect.
Almost immediately however I realised that I had been duped, as another story-so-far scrolled onto the screen. The first sentence was pretty good.
"Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic."
The second sentence was suicidal.
"The taxation of trade routes to
outlaying star systems is in dispute."
What? Seriously? There's a dispute regarding outlaying star systems and the taxation of trade routes thereof? Oh, NO!
This was quickly starting to feel a bit like homework.
Still, that was only the opening creep. I don't like prejudging films, but I'll admit that the universal disdain of this one had caused me to attend the cinema intending to love this regardless. Over they years I'd had a whale of a time listening to all the euphoric publicity vs. all the embittered reviews, so today I was pretty well-disposed towards actually watching it. After all, it was pointless trying to kid myself that I could now come along and somehow still be objective.
In the end, I found this film to be equally spectacular and soulless.
Spectacular, because almost every single shot is stunning, just stunning. The universe of alien races that fill the screen at any given moment is amazing. The space scenes enthralling. The 1990s CGI looks far more wonderful than anything else I saw at the time did, even more so in 3D.
The sound to go with some of this let it down, such as the Neimoidians' lip-syncing, and several really heavy things happening quietly.
There are two really big sequences in this - the pod-race and the battle at the end.
The pod race is enormous in its scope, and with three laps is inevitably reminiscent of the 1959 remake of Ben Hur. I could have done with a few more shots from the driver's point of view here to really convey the impression of being in the race myself, but I can't complain. This entire sequence was grim, thrilling and fantastic. Best of all, most of it had no music, which in other scenes simply has nothing to do.
The battle at the end however suffered from my just not caring about anyone. From the get-go I hadn't really bought into, or understood, the trade agreement thing, Now among other things I was watching an army of CGI aliens fighting another army of CGI aliens. The only character who I had a reason to care about was comic relief Jar Jar Binks, who keeps messing things up, presumably causing lives to be lost. I couldn't really root for either his laughs, or his unlikely success at anything. Neither did it help that I could understand so little of what he was mumbling.
I have no problem with the presence of Jar Jar in this film, but he does suffer tremendously from the same affliction that everyone else has - they all have no soul. We're given precious little reason to care about any of them, and most of them seem so remote from each other.
Even Jedi Knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are victims of this. We really ought to want to want to be these guys. They lead such an exciting adventurous life, and are virtually unkillable - fantastic! Unfortunately they also have no passion, no sense of humour, and no rapport. Now who wants to be them? Could they not even have enjoyed eating their food with some gusto? Their tragedy is that they come across as such cool customers that they have no warmth left.
Generally speaking, all the other characters in this film are similarly lifeless.
Perhaps the most central moment of the film is young Anakin Skywalker's decision to leave his mother in order to train to become a Jedi. I found this event absolutely heartbreaking, but all the more infuriating because it seemed so unnecessary. Earlier, Qui-Gon had attempted to make a bet to free Anakin's mom too, but now upon being challenged by Watto, he makes next to no attempt to argue for it. Worse, surely with all the money they'd just made on the race they could have bought her freedom? Call me old-fashioned, but how can I be expected to get on board with the removal of a child from his mother, even if it's what the child unhappily picks when forced to make a choice?
Finally, I had a probem with the light-sabres. Why would you use one of them when you could use a gun? When Darth Maul shows up, they have about a dozen people outnumbering him with guns, so what do they do? They all abandon the two with only light-sabres to fight him. I get that light-sabres are the Star Wars universe's tool of tradition, but all the same. There's a reason why we have firing squads - it's because they tend to work. Just shoot him already!
Overall, I liked this film, and would probably enjoy it more on a second sitting, with a better idea of what to expect. While none of the events really mattered to me, the action itself was superbly and beautifully executed. There's no way this film could ever have been made like this without the universe in which it is set already pre-existing. That there is one man's unique vision driving the whole thing is extremely valuable, but for me not quite enough to save it.
The best movies are the ones that are different.
The worst movies are always the ones that are the same.
And then there's The Phantom Menace, which is very different to anything else, but without much variation about itself.
And E.T.'s race is in it, so I guess that's now film number eleven…