Monday, April 25, 2016

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Lucas... Just Double Checking My Midi-Chlorian Count

In preparation for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I made sure that in the week leading up to its release that I watched the first six movies as well as Tartakovsky's oft-overlooked Star Wars: Clone Wars show. For as long as I can remember, Star Wars has been a central part of my cultural vocabulary and an essential pillar of my own personal artistic cannon. Growing up on the margins of most social groups, the sci-fi genre was appealing because one of its core messages was always one of hope. Star Wars offered a different sense of hope than, say, the vision of the future that Gene Roddenberry gave us with Star Trek. The hope that Star Wars offered was the hope that for each of us there was the potential of completing our own version of the Hero's Journey: emerging from obscurity to stand against an unfathomably evil force and fighting back for the good of innocent people, your own survival, or to win a moral victory. It also offered the hope that no matter how badly you fuck up, like, say, making out with your own sister, you could still become a badass dressed in black walking the path of the righteous man.

In a lot of ways, Star Wars has become, both for myself and a substantial and increasing subset of the general population more than a series of movies--and video games and books and comic books and memorabilia of every variety that humankind can conceive of. It has become an icon, a cultural phenomenon that binds us and inspires us every bit as surely as the Force. Culture is a funny thing. Seemingly insubstantial artefacts are imbued with extreme significance, but as we validate that significance, we internalize it. Star Wars, like any other cultural text, is both completely irrelevant in the Grand Scheme of Things but intensely important on a very personal level and even on a macro societal level because it is integrated into both who we are and how we interact with each other. Being a fan of something isn't just some silly thing people do to pass the time and lower their chances of getting laid (by someone who isn't their sister); it's a part of their identity.

I only make the point because for me, Star Wars isn't just another movie or series of movies: this is part of who I am. I was born just slightly too late to have been able to have been taken on a pilgrimage by my parents to the movie theatre--the only Mecca I have ever known. But in 1999, when the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years hit theatres, you better believe I was old enough to make my own pilgrimage and see that shit on the big screen.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was more than a movie: it was an Event. It was an affirmation of everything that was right with the world.

Of course, things don't always turn out like we hope. From my dealings with the world at large, it seems that the prequels are near-universally regarded as being of a lesser quality than the original trilogy. In some circles, it is even a well-established fact that the prequels were nothing more than a steaming pile of bantha shit flung at audiences from the brain of George Lucas himself as he sat, laughing manically, on a throne made from melted-down action figures and the broken dreams of your childhood. For a long time, I found myself planted firmly in both of those camps.

I'm going to be honest here: like a lot of people, I expended a great deal of time and energy convincing myself why the prequels sucked and actively trying to hate them. I don't think I ever hated them as much as some people seem to, but I did my fair share of shouting to the heavens as evidenced here and here. But then as I popped Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace into my DVD player for the first time in far too long a time, I felt something come over me. As that familiar music blared out of my TV, and the title crawl started, I couldn't help but feel exhilarated.

But beware of the dark side. Trolling, racist and sexist
comments, hyperbolic comparisons to Hitler; the dark side
of the Internet are they.
From the outset, The Phantom Menace faced an uphill battle serving triple duty as the long-awaited follow-up to a beloved film franchise, the beginning of a new Star Wars trilogy, and as a prequel to the original Star Wars, the beginning of a grander narrative arc that would, in effect, contextually reframe the original trilogy. In a way, going back and making a prequels was an even more daunting task than just making a straightforward sequel specifically because of this re-contextualization of the original films and telling stories about established, iconic characters.

The Phantom Menace faced almost insurmountable odds in fleshing out beloved characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and especially Darth Vader. The narrative core of the original trilogy was Luke Skywalker's journey from virtual obscurity to saviour of the galaxy and particularly his relationship with his father, Darth Vader the Sith Lord formerly known as Anakin Skywalker. Darth Vader was a villain of truly mythological proportions, made more menacing by the ambiguity cloaking his past. We got a few snippets like how Anakin was a great pilot, fought in the Clone Wars, and helped Yoda learn how to dance just in time for the Jedi Academy prom. But there was a lot left to the imagination, much to the character's benefit. In a way, what's left unsaid can be more powerful than anything any single person can come up with, because in the absence of one thing, the audience is free to project anything to fill in the gaps.  

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and director of four out of six seven of the films, was well aware of the issues with breathing life into the prequels:

"The fans' expectations had gotten way high and they wanted a film that was going to change their lives and be the Second Coming."

In what will become a reoccurring theme of this review, I'm going to go ahead and say that Lucas was right. As difficult as it is to admit, a lot of my original reaction to The Phantom Menace and the other prequel films was negatively impacted by my ridiculously high expectations. It is not my intent to engage in any sort of apologetics for the Star Wars prequel trilogy, though any time someone expresses any love for those movies, the conversation tends to lean that way. But speaking as someone who grew up with the original Star Wars movies, I have to say that my opinion of those films is definitely coloured by the fact that they were an integral part of my childhood. 

And I must say that, even now, my first choice was not to see Darth Vader, one of the most imposing iconic villains in movie history,  as a small, wide-eyed child. I didn't get it then. It wasn't what I wanted. But I never stopped to consider that maybe just because I wanted something that didn't necessarily mean that it was what I needed or what was necessary. Maybe just because I wouldn't have taken that approach with my billion-dollar franchise didn't mean that it was the wrong approach to take or that there was any single right or wrong approach. And upon further consideration, starting Anakin Skywalker's journey as a young boy makes a lot of sense.

In order for a tragedy to be tragic in the Greek sense, there has to be the equal potential for things to go right as there is for things to go horribly, horribly wrong (*a-hem* looking at you, A Good Day to Die Hard). The central figure, the tragic hero, has to be someone that the audience can empathize with. He also has to be somebody flawed: if he's too perfect, then there would be too great a disparity between the character and his horrible, horrible fate and if he's evidently evil, then his horrible, horrible fate will seem justified (see: Mel Gibson's career). Eventually, said tragic hero ends up dying a horrible, horrible death, but not without first accepting the full weight of whatever horrible, horrible crime or crimes he committed and facing their fate with dignity and honour. That is to say, there needs to be some kind of catharsis at the end of the thing, an emotional release.

What The Phantom Menace does is reframe Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader as a tragic hero. Say what you will about Jake Lloyd's performance, seeing Darth Vader as a precocious young boy who, according to his own mother, Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August), "knows nothing of greed" establishes Darth Vader not just as a bad guy who was eventually saved by the love and unwavering faith of his son but as a character who in his own right had the same potential for salvation and damnation.

(And in a rather horrific example of life imitating art, Jake Lloyd suffered his own tragic tale in a chapter of Star Wars fandom darker than the debate surrounding George Lucas' Special Editions of the original trilogy. A bunch of grown-ass adults bullied, heckled, and otherwise degraded an eight-year-old fucking kid so much so that he not only quit acting at age twelve, but ended up in a downward spiral of self-destruction in his personal life as well. It's one thing not to like a movie, but it's another thing entirely to quite literally ruin the life of another human being because a) the movie he was in didn't live up to your expectations and b) because an eight-year-old kid wasn't the greatest actor since Jodie Foster turned tricks in Taxi Driver. Though it should be noted that Foster was twelve when she did Taxi Driver and even Ana Paquin was eleven when she won an Oscar for The Piano.

Now that might not have any bearing on Lloyd's acting ability, but as a counter argument, I'm going to point out that there's probably a very good reason eight-year-olds aren't winning prestigious awards for their acting ability and posit that maybe, just maybe, people's expectations were a little too high and the definitely there are a lot of assholes out there calling themselves Star Wars fans that truly deserve to be digested slowly over a thousand years in the stomach of a Sarlacc.)

The larger narrative of The Phantom Menace also mirrors Anakin/Vader's journey. Much like when I saw the child Darth Vader, the opening crawl of Episode I didn't exactly instil me with a lot of excitement or confidence:

Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.

Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.

While the congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict....

Taxation? Trade routes? Congress? What the fuck is this supposed to be? Yeah, sure, they
 mentioned Jedi, but the rest of this shit? The Phantom Menace is actually the only one of the Star Wars films where the title is almost a complete misnomer: there was barely a Star Skirmish, let alone a Star War. A Star Minor Disagreement. Who were the bad guys? Who were the good guys?  

But the fact that in Episode I of Star Wars that there is no war is kind of the whole point.

The fact that we see what the Star Wars galaxy looks like at peace creates a greater sense of empathy because it shows that there is so much to lose and also so much to gain. In the original Star Wars, and I'm talking the first movie, Episode IV: A New Hope, the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion is taken as a given and serves merely as a backdrop to Luke Skywalker's heroic journey. We're not given a lot to latch onto on a galactic scale, emotionally speaking. Even the destruction of Alderaan rings kind of hollow in a sense because we don't really get a feel for the weight of its loss. It happens more as motivation for our heroes than anything else.

But The Phantom Menace shows us that the galaxy is actually full of people, various alien races mostly just trying to live day to day like we are. Racing pods, building droids, selling death sticks, running diners. We get a sense of the scale. We're introduced to the Republic, a governmental body to which most sovereign planets have agreed to belong to in order to work together towards the greater good. We also get a sense that even though things are relatively peaceful, things aren't perfect. There are political disputes. As evidenced by Anakin and his mother, slavery still exists in some places. This also shows that the Republic, for all the good it has done, has not been able to create a utopia for all of the citizens in the entire galaxy. Political issues, economic disparity, human trafficking, corrupt bureaucracy. Sound familiar? It's almost as if the Star Wars galaxy as portrayed in The Phantom Menace was shown to mirror some other place, some planet on which we all lived, so we could easily see the parallels and invest emotionally in the goings on... don't worry, it'll come to me (like your mother did last night).  

Likewise, the true depth of Anakin Skywalker's own tragedy is established by showing what could have been. The Phantom Menace starts off with a young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) sent on the aforementioned mission to negotiate a trade dispute between the aptly named Trade Federation and the picturesque planet of Naboo. Right from the get-go, Qui-Gon is established as a rebel who doesn't play by anybody else's rules, not even his own. Right after they go aboard the Trade Federation vessel, Obi-Wan stars teling Qui-Gon how he's "got a bad feeling about this" explaining it's not about the current mission but "something elsewhere, elusive," and Qui-Gon goes all... Obi-Wan Kenobi on his ass:

Qui-Gon: Don't center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.
Kenobi: But Master Yoda said I should be mindful of the future.
Qui-Gon: But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, young Padawan.

I swear if  you try and give me another wet willy,
I will goddamn cut you in half. I am not even joking.
Yeah, that's right, Qui-Gon starts off with confidence enough to supplement the teachings of Yoda, the wisest and most learned Jedi Master of their time. He's got the street cred in this department, though, by simultaneously demonstrating his intricate understanding of the Force, making the differentiation between the Living Force and the Cosmic Or Unifying Force. Qui-Gon is also established as something of a cowboy, playing fast and loose with the rules, with the mind tricks and gambling and totally cheating at gambling and whatnot. Then later, once he and Obi-Wan find Anakin, through the will of the Force or whatever, Qui-Gon openly argues with/defies the Jedi council in regards to training Anakin to become a Jedi. Where Obi-Wan is shown to be humble and acquiesce to the will and wisdom of the Jedi Council, Qui-Gon spends his energy not giving a shit about his lack of promotion to that self-same body and goes ahead and starts definitely not training Anakin (*wink*) anyway.

In fact, it's pretty clearly established that Qui-Gon is probably the right guy for the job of training Anakin. In Episodes II and III, when Anakin is questioning the Council's decisions and is facing moral dilemmas and various temptations in his dealings with Senator-turned-Supreme-Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), he feels like the one guy he definitely can't turn to for advice is his friend and mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Despite their relationship, he knows that Obi-Wan is a hard ass about following the rules. You know who Anakin probably would have felt comfortable talking to about some of the more morally grey issues hes was dealing with? Probably the guy who completely bankrupted a random businessman on Tatooine to get the parts he needed for his ship in a crazy gambling scheme.

Qui-Gon Jinn's death at the end of The Phantom Menace is an integral part of the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, because it shows how things might have turned out differently. How they could have turned out differently. Qui-Gon is established as an outlier in the Jedi ranks, someone who follows the Jedi Code, but isn't afraid to question things and go his own way and follow his own convictions when he feels it's right to do so. He doesn't dogmatically adhere to the Jedi teachings, but he doesn't entirely stray from them either. Obi-Wan, on the other hand, turns out to be an awesome Jedi in his own right, but sticks to the Code like Tatooine flies to Jabba's shit. 

Qui-Gon is set up as a clear alternative to Obi-Wan in terms of their mentoring styles. I believe one of the core questions that The Phantom Menace presents to the audience is what would have happened had Qui-Gon Jinn survived and been Anakin's teacher as he had planned. Obi-Wan is a swell guy, but it's obvious that his teaching style didn't do Anakin--or the rest of the galaxy--any favours. Yoda and the Jedi Council sensed "much fear" in Anakin from the very beginning, and were very wary of training him in the first place. Obi-Wan kind of took this is a cue to be extra strict with Anakin to help ensure that he didn't follow down a dark path, but anybody with kids knows exactly how that approach is going to go. Hint: Not well. You want to know the best way to get somebody to rebel? Give them something to rebel against.

Qui-Gon, on the other hand, would have been exactly the mentor that Anakin needed. First off, he has absolute faith in this kid. He believes with the very core of his being that this kid from Tatooine is the Chosen One destined to bring balance to the Force. Most of us would struggle to find even one person in our lives who thought that we were that special. Even our parents' faith in our potential was tempered by the cold realities that kept presenting themselves to crush their dreams of living vicariously through us. When Anakin informs them while he gets ready before the big the big pod race--on which Qui-Gon has staked the safety and well-being of himself, Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), Obi-Wan, the rest of the random space people on their ship, and potentially the lives of innocent billions on Naboo--that he has never before even finished a race let alone won one but that "I will this time," what is Qui-Gon's response? "Of course you will," accompanied by a warm, fatherly smile.

I don't have time to explain how it fits into my plan to save
Naboo, just tell me where the nearest bar is.
When the Jedi Council told Anakin that he was "too old" to begin training (apparently, their default excuse when they don't want to train someone), what does Qui-Gon do? He whips out his dick, metaphorically speaking, and goes to bat for this kid. He risks his own career and possibly expulsion from the Jedi Order, openly defying the Council, and then quietly defying them later when he takes nine-year-old Anakin back into the middle of a war zone just to begin his training. Qui-Gon is in Anakin's corner one hundred percent. If he had lived, he would have been the Jedi mentor equivalent of that cool uncle who gave you your first beer. You can totally picture a scene on some backwater planet in the outer rim where Qui-Gon is chilling with Anakin in a strip club watching some Twi'lek dancers, smoking a couple of death sticks, shooting the shit about this Palpatine dude and some of the fucked up stuff he's been saying behind the Jedi's collective backs. 

This is why Qui-Gon's death at the hands of the Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) is such a tragedy. It's not just that Liam Neeson was portrayed as anything close to mortal; it's also because Anakin's fate is, in a sense, sealed from that point forward. The foundation for Anakin's path to the dark side and ultimate transformation into the nefarious Darth Vader is built on the corpse of Qui-Gon Jinn.

All of this ties into what might be considered one of the central themes of the prequel trilogy, and the George Lucas' overarching six-movie saga as a whole, the exploration of how people end up choosing a darker path in life:

What drove me to make these movies is that this is a really interesting story about how people go bad. In this particular case, the premise is: Nobody thinks they're bad. They simply have different points of view. This is about a kid that's really wonderful. He has some flaws--and those flaws ultimately do him in.

The core issue, ultimately, is greed, possessiveness--the inability to let go. Not only to hold on to material things, which is greed, but to hold on to life, to the people you love--to not accept the reality of life's passages and changes, which is to say things come, things go. Everything changes. Anakin becomes emotionally attached to things, his mother, his wife. That's why he falls--because he does not have the ability to let go. --from The Making of Star Wars Revenge of the Sith

Most "bad people" aren't "born bad." In fact, if one were so inclined, one might argue that there aren't "good" or "bad" people but just people. People who make good and bad choices. That's the truly tragic and terrifying thing about Anakin's eventual fall to the dark side; like so many people, he didn't start making bad choices for the sheer malevolent joy of it, he made those choices because he thought he could still make out that light at the end of the tunnel. Like most of us, his ultimate super power was that he was able to convince himself of anything. He took one step, and then another, and then another. And they were small steps. But pretty soon, he'd travelled so far that he couldn't even see where he started.

There's still debate to this day among fans as to who or what the title of Episode I: The Phantom Menace refers to. I think it refers to several things. On the surface level, it refers literally to the plot of the film in which Darth Sidious and Darth Maul are plotting behind the scenes to take over the republic and all of its many Twi'lek strip clubs. But I think on a deeper level, it refers to this capacity for darkness in all of us. This ability to make decisions, even (or maybe especially) with the best of intentions, while somehow ignoring the potential consequences of those decisions or convincing ourselves that the ends always justify the means, as long as we can make those ends happen. The Phantom Menace is the potential in a young, innocent child to become space Hitler. The Phantom Menace is the subtle manipulation of the government by a seemingly well-meaning senator from picturesque Naboo to take over the highest office in the galaxy and eventually implement incremental measures to position himself as the Emperor for life. The Phantom Menace is the potential for something as apparently mundane as a trade dispute to lead to a series of events that would serve as the catalyst for a full-scale war. The Phantom Menace is the well-meaning Jedi order succumbing to their pride and arrogance not being able to stop what's coming.

And the Phantom Menace is a fan with ludicrously high expectations and a distorted, nostalgic recollection of previous entries into a film franchise folding to the influence of popular (or at least extremely vocal) opinion and spending a considerable amount of time and energy decrying half of the movie saga that he claimed to love so much.

What was it about the prequels, and Episode I in particular, did I hate so much? What was it that offended me so?

Was it the characters? You have Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Queen Amidal, Anakin Skywalker, Darth Maul, Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious, and Samuel L. Jackson. They were all great additions and/or re-introductions to beloved characters.

Was it the acting? The heavy hitters like Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid fucking nailed that shit. Natalie Portman had some more questionable moments, but every time she was in the role of the queen the voice and performance worked like gangbusters. Jake Lloyd didn't blow me away, but his youthful exuberance was actually pretty contagious. Then you had supporting players like Samuel L. Jackson and and Pernilla August and Terrance Stamp who all did a bang-up job.

Was it the lack of practical effects and reliance on CGI? George Lucas did with the prequels exactly what he did with the originals: pushed the limits of available special effects technology. Also, as the old quote goes, news of his reliance on CGI has been greatly exaggerated. They actually built a ton of practical sets, and a shitload of miniatures that were then combined with CG effects. Does some of it not hold up today? Definitely. But that's part of the price you pay when you're on the cutting edge of digital technology.

The path of the  righteous man is beset on all sides by the
iniquities of the Trade Federation and the tyranny of evil Sith.
Was it the plot? Two Jedi on a routine mission end up rescuing a queen from a planet under siege. Along the way they pick up a Force-sensitive kid who kicks ass in a pod race. Upon finding out the bureaucrats are no help, the Jedi, queen, and kid return to the queen's planet to kick ass and kill the bad guys. Nothing really more complicated or convoluted than the plots of any of the previous entries. In fact, for all of the political intrigue, the plot of The Phantom Menace is surprisingly straightforward, as George Lucas himself has said several times that the Star Wars movies are, ultimately, children's films and designed as visual storytelling that people can follow even if they can't hear or understand the dialogue.

Was it the dialogue? There's not too much to say on that front, as old George-y boy himself has clearly expressed his feelings about the role of dialogue in his films on multiple occasions:

[Star Wars is] like a silent movie, you could be two years old and not understand anything that's being said, but you understand the movie. Or you could be 85 and not understand the movie and still understand the movie...I believe half a movie is the sound. The sound is extremely important, but the dialogue is not. That's not where the issue is. I'm notorious for wooden dialogue, but at the same time ... It's like 'Here comes another one!' You've got to say that. But what it does is ... it's part of the sound track. It's like singing. Obviously you can do it a capella, you can, it's beautiful, but ultimately when you have a big symphony orchestra, you have a lot of stuff. And the singing is in there, the choir and everything. It's all one big sound track.

In all fairness, though, the Star Wars films have never been known for their Shakespearean dialogue.

Was it the two biggest culprits that typically stand as prime examples for most of the ire in the geek community? I'm talking about our good friend Jar Jar Binks, the accident-prone alien sidekick, and those now famous microscopic life forms, midi-chlorians.

Well, I'm going to go ahead and make a pretty bold claim here: basically, if you hate Jar Jar Binks, you're an asshole. Maybe not a total asshole, but you're definitely not socially well-adjusted.  I'm not saying you have to like the guy; the dude can be annoying as all hell. But that's kind of the whole thing in a nutshell right there. Jar Jar is a litmus test for empathy that almost everyone in The Phantom Menace and everyone in the audience failed. Jar Jar is annoying, yes. He's clumsy and can get in the way, even making a mess of things. Jar Jar is, in fact, exiled from his people's underwater habitat because of his clumsiness. Qui-Gon takes a shot at Jar Jar early on, like two minutes after meeting him, when after presenting as evidence of his sentience the fact that they are having a conversation, Qui-Gon retorts that "The ability to speak does not make you intelligent." Even Obi-Wan refers to him as "a pathetic life form" in a roundabout way.

But the thing is, it's easy to like cool guys who do back flips all over, pulling off wicked moves with their lightsabers, mindtricking bitches and all that shit. The real test comes from how we deal with people we find less than desirable. Do we show them compassion and acceptance, even though it might slightly inconvenience us? Or do we throw them in a deep, dark hole with no food or water, and let the Force sort things out? You know who else is annoying, clumsy, and gets in the way a lot? Kids. If all of our parents had taken the same approach to us as we'd taken to Jar Jar, we'd all be wasted on prescription pain meds, living in a van down by the river.

Eetsa hard outa there fors a pimpsa.
Jar Jar can be annoying as all hell, but he's a well-intentioned dude who's willing to help you out and do the right thing. Take as a counter example one Darth Maul. He's a straight up evil son of a bitch who would murder you without a second thought. But he looks really cool, and he's kind of a baddass in the Clint-Eastwood-man-of-few-words kind of way, and people just cannot let that guy go. People were so pissed off that the murderous Sith lord who looked like a demon from the seventh circle of hell was killed and that the clumsy gungan who steps in bantha poodoo but is willing to risk his life in military service to fight for his people's freedom is allowed to exist at all. One of the key themes in the Star Wars films is seeing things from "a certain point of view," and it's an interesting exercise when you take it to heart.

The other major complaint that I, like a lot of people, had with The Phantom Menace was the introduction of midi-chlorians as an explanation for how the Force worked. At first, this seemed like a cheap and dirty way to quantify what was previously some vague energy field that surrounded all living things (basically the existential equivalent of a public swimming pool) to help show how strong in the Force that Anakin really was. At first glance, it seemed to be contradicting everything audiences learned about the Force from the original trilogy.  

But upon closer inspection, I came to the startling realization: midi-chlorians don't take anything away from the mystical aspect of the Force. And it's actually a lot like real life where we tend to attribute natural phenomenon to supernatural causes until, you know, science and rational thought determine the natural causes behind them. Through recorded history, it's never once gone the other way. And understanding something better doesn't take away from the awe and wonder of the universe. It's like we look up at the stars now and are just like, "Fuck it, those are just giant balls of burning gas, nothing more to see here, guess I'll go contemplate the meaningless of my existence."

In fact, I imagine for a lot of people, a deeper understanding of something actually contributes to their appreciation of it. Even if part of the explanation of why someone can lift a two-tonne spacecraft just by pointing at it and thinking real hard or choking a bitch from across the room is microscopic organisms in your cells, those are still amazing fucking feats. In no way does learning more about the mechanism behind it take away from the awesomeness of it.

And even if that weren't the case, midi-chlorians the way they're described in The Phantom Menace don't actually contradict the mysticism that people seem to want to cling to. According to Qui-Gon Jinn:

Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells.

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you.

Midi-chlorians are microscopic life forms residing in living cells that help communicate with the Force and are not the Force itself. This is actually the perfect example of having your cake and getting to eat it too. Midi-chlorians offer a science fiction explanation based on the typical type of quotidian detail that permeate the genre to help ground more fantastical elements that still leaves room for the more spiritual view of the Force previously established.

I'd take pleasure in guttin' you boy.
In fact, rewatching The Phantom Menace, I had a lot of trouble remembering exactly why I had hated it so much to begin with. I made an effort to go back into things with an open mind. In fact, I took a page from the Jedi Grand Master himself. As Yoda put it in The Phantom Menace: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Watching Episode I again, I found that all of stuff I had clung to for so long didn't really bug me nearly as much or at all. And all of the best parts were still awesome: the pod race, the lightsaber fights, the soundtrack, the locations, the ships, the worldbuilding elements including the socio-political context of the galaxy, the new additions to the Star Wars lore like Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul.

Fandom is a a complicated thing and the ownership of a creation involves an ongoing tension between the creator and the fans. Somewhere along the way, though, we'd forgotten a fundamental truth. More insidious than that, it was a truth that we had actively buried deep down inside, desperately trying to convince ourselves that what we knew was true, from our our own certain--and very stubborn--point of view. And that truth is this:

George Lucas doesn't owe you a goddamned  thing.

In the special features to The Dark Knight Trilogy Ultimate Edition, Guillermo Del Toro talks about how everybody has their own Batman, just like how everybody has their own Jesus. That is to say, everybody has their own, personal interpretation of what those icons represent and an idea of the stories they want told about them. In the same way, if I may be allowed the extrapolation, everybody has their own Star Wars. Fans internalize the object of their fandom, and it then takes on a unique meaning for them. Communities then form around the discovery of commonalities between meanings attributed by individuals.

And when these fan communities form, it can be a beautiful thing. The problem comes when that sense of ownership is distorted into a sense of entitlement (see the TV Tropes entry for Fan Dumb). It's not that much of a stretch. Living with that object of your fandom in your head for so long it's easy to begin to be confused about the genesis. The relationship between the creator and the fan is a symbiotic one, but just like in a rectal exam, it's important to remember where the boundaries are.

What it comes down to is that the only thing that fans are entitled to from the creators of the intellectual properties that they enjoy is an appropriate level of gratitude commensurate to the level of fandom. We're not owed anything for liking the work of another human being. It's nice when future work matches our expectations, but there is no obligation to serve you exactly what you want on a silver platter by a droid on Jabba's sail barge. I would go so far as to say that creators have a responsibility to stay true to their artistic vision and not be swayed by the will of the fans (see: the hero we deserve versus the one we need right now). Love him or hate him, George Lucas made the movies he wanted to make. And that, I think, was a bigger gift to fans than most are willing or able to admit right now.

The only other obligation of an creator of a cultural text has is a respect to the material he has created. But that obligation isn't to the audience; it's to himself and the integrity of his work. It was frustrating that George Lucas didn't reach inside my brain and extract The Greatest Idea for a Star Wars Movie Ever! and that what he produced didn't match exactly what I wanted. Being a fan is a tough gig sometimes, because the ownership of a cultural text is fluid. It belongs to each of us individually and all of us collectively. It belongs to all of us and none of us. It belongs to creator and fan alike, but it's the creator that is ultimately steering the ship. They may respond to the crew or not, as is their prerogative. That doesn't mean that it doesn't hurt when you feel like the person who created the thing you love and ultimately gets to make decisions about the thing you love makes decisions about that thing that you wouldn't have made and/or don't necessarily approve of. Depending on the level of fandom, we can invest a lot of time into the object of that fandom, and invest a lot of ourselves. And being a fan is more than just liking something a lot; it's an internalization of tropes and iconography that contribute to who we are. But it also doesn't mean that if the author does something that you wouldn't have done with a particular text that it is bad or wrong.    

Fandom is something of a double edged sword. Simon Pegg is unique but prime example of a particular kind of cognitive dissonance that is unique to fans of various properties. (Credit here to James Cooray Smith and his article for the NewStatesman: There is no way Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be as good as the prequels for originally pointing this out.) Pegg is a famous face of geekdom, and a large part of his geekery is based upon his dislike of the Star Wars prequels, perfectly illustrated in his excellent show, Spaced. He has also been known to echo the statement in countless interviews, but perhaps the best example is the following quote:

"I don't really have any respect for anyone who thinks those films are good. They’re not,” he told the News. “(They’re) a monumental misunderstanding of what the (original) three films are about,” he said. "It's an exercise in utter infanticide ... (like) George Lucas killing his kid."

In an interesting parallel, another prequel film of a beloved franchise faced strong criticism by its fan base, but this time it was one that Pegg himself was involved in. I'm talking about Star Trek Into Darkness, in which Simon Pegg appeared as Scotty. With the boot on the other foot, Pegg, with exactly zero sense of self-awareness, called out its critics:

"It's asinine, you know? It's ridiculous. And frustrating, as well, because a lot of hard work and love went into that movie, and all JJ wanted to do was make a film that people really enjoyed. So, to be subject to that level of sort of, like, crass fucking ire, I just say ‘Fuck You’."

And that's the kind of level of toxicity that can develop. And I'm not pointing this out to shit all over Simon Pegg. I'm a huge fan of his work, and he seems like an intelligent, well-spoken guy. But again, that's kind of the point. If somebody as intelligent as Pegg can fall victim to this level of cognitive dissonance, then it can happen to anyone. And it happened to me.

Watching The Phantom Menace without all of the baggage I had previously been lugging around, I found a new appreciation for the movie. Watching it as part of the Star Wars saga, an even stranger thing happened: it actually added to my appreciation of the original trilogy. The circle was complete. My hatred had been fuelled by influences such as the Red Letter Media prequel reviews. The problem was that, like a lot of people, I took them as gospel, letting somebody else do my thinking for me.

But after subjecting The Phantom Menace to the same critical framework that I brought to bear on the original trilogy--no more and no less--I have to admit that I was mistaken... about a great many things. In fact, I began reading up on what a wider range of fans thought about the Star Wars prequels and discovered new depth to the films that I had previously been blind to. Perhaps my greatest step on this particular path of self-realization was the Star Wars Ring Theory, an online essay by one Mike Klimo about the intricacies of the composition of the original six films that, to beat a colloquialism to death, blew my fucking mind.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace isn't my favourite Star Wars flick. In all honesty, the original trilogy will always hold a special place in my heart because of the specific childhood memories tied to it. But neither is The Phantom Menace the steaming pile of bantha poodoo that I had built up in my mind. It's a fun, exciting space fantasy movie that does an excellent job of setting the stage for an epic tragic story in a narrative format unique among the current slate of films. May the Force be with you.


I dug The Phantom Menace way more than I remember. Maybe I'm going soft in my old age. Or maybe, I wasn't completely as immune to peer pressure as I thought I was. Whatever the reason, I've got to give props where props are due. I'm going to go ahead and give The Phantom Menace an 8.5/10 = A Cloaked Holographic Head Pulling Strings from Behind the Scenes


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