I remember it as one of my "pod people" moments. I was out of step with the people around me. If only they could leave one of the alien seed pods by my bed that night, I would wake up wondering how I could ever have thought differently. It was a panel on Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace at the January 2000 Arisia.
My views were pretty much what most critics had said: the film was a disappointment, overlong, lacking drama or suspense, and the character of Jar Jar Binks may be the single most annoying character in the history of science fiction film. I had not realized I was in a roomful of true believers, who could not accept that anything Star Wars could be flawed in any way. (The notorious Star Wars Holiday Special was not raised.) One of the people there, clearly disagreeing with my assessment, asked me how many times I had watched the film, which had been released the previous summer.
Only once, I noted. Ahh, came the reply, if I watched it several more times I would come to a different conclusion. All around me people sagely nodded in agreement. The fault, it seemed, lay not with Star Wars, but with me.
Ten years after its release I was finally prepared to take a fresh look at the film. Perhaps I had been too harsh. After all, I had seen the original Star Wars in 1977, before it became Episode IV: A New Hope. I had waited the three years for The Empire Strikes Back, generally regarded as the best of the whole series. I then waited another three years for Revenge of the Jedi...er, Return of the Jedi, as it was hastily retitled when it was pointed out that the Jedi don't take revenge. Then—
Now, finally, along with whole generations, I eagerly anticipated the long-awaited "prequels," since we had long been told that the original trilogy were conceived as the middle three of a nine film series, with only the two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, appearing as characters in all of them. The night of the sneak preview for the press was the most intense I had experienced since the 1989 release of Batman. Security was tight. Guests needed to be approved. Once we made it through the security gauntlet we were given a disposable bracelet to wear, identifying us as "approved." If it was removed, we would not be permitted in the theater.
Finally the movie began. The introductory text scrawled into space and we learned this exciting space adventure was to be about...taxation of trade routes. Huh? Had they slipped in an episode of Wall Street Week instead of the movie? Nope. This was going to be a Star Wars movie where the war was about a commercial federation taking over the planet of Naboo after it refused to pay stiff tariffs. We see that the Republic's Senate is too busy dithering in debate to take any action. This anti-democratic attitude is jarring. Way back in 1977 I recalled critics comparing the finale of Star Wars to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi tribute Triumph of the Will. Not that Lucas is a fascist, but representative government is presented as a bad joke. Instead the day is saved by the Chancellor sending private mercenaries (i.e., the Jedi) and, later, by armed resistance by the local population abandoned to its fate.
So the two Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) arrive on Naboo after an ugly encounter with representatives of the Trade Federation. Here is where they encounter Jar Jar Binks, a computer animated character voiced in high-pitched Pidgin English by Ahmed Best. Two things are readily apparent. First, McGregor may be the best actor since Robert DeNiro in The Godfather, Part II to step into the younger version of a role created by a distinctive actor in an earlier film. McGregor's task was not simply to bring young Obi-Wan to life, but to make us believe he would later become the character portrayed by Alec Guinness. It was a difficult job and that he accomplished it without turning it into a parody is to his credit.
The second thing is that since the earlier Star Wars films George Lucas had apparently taken leave of his senses. The role of the comic sidekick has a long history in movies, science fiction and elsewhere, and it wasn't surprising that Lucas would want to utilize it in his space opera. However, having already created the two droids, what possessed him to add this horse-faced character whose every appearance would make audience members claw at their eyes? He's like Joe Besser in the later Three Stooges shorts or Rob Schneider in any Adam Sandler movie: a character that nobody wants to see.
Lucas apparently put him in "for the kids" but subsequently learned his lesson as the character virtually disappears from Episodes II and III. Jar Jar is introduced as someone so stupid that he was actually exiled by his own people for clumsiness. He nearly gets Qui-Gon killed in their first encounter, and ultimately helps fight the war against the robot soldiers through strategic klutziness. Usually such characters are lovable or amusing, but Jar Jar Binks is neither. Indeed I might have ended up liking the movie better if it was Jar Jar rather than Qui-Gon who makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Meanwhile, back at the trade negotiations, Princess Amidala is living proof of Lucas's juvenile attitude towards his female characters. As if to show the people who criticized Princess Leia's hairstyle, which made it look as if she had attached baked goods to her head, Lucas takes the lovely and talented Natalie Portman and turns her into a grotesque caricature. And this is the heroine of the movie! Her contributions to the plot are to be a big sister (or more?) to young Anakin, being manipulated into doing the wrong thing politically by turning on the current chancellor who is her biggest ally in the Senate, and then taking an utterly absurd risk to resolve the crisis by going into battle herself in a fight she's likely to lose. That she makes Jar Jar a key component in her strategy only compounds her lack of judgment.
However, before we can get to the climactic battle we have to have a long, LONG sequence on Tatooine where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan first meet Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd). It's hard to say which is more annoying. Is it that this slave boy they stumble upon by chance has a high level of "midichlorians" in his blood, making Qui-Gon think he is the "chosen one" who is prophesied to "bring balance to the Force?" Or is it that they risk everyone, including their own freedom, on a nine-year-old winning a high speed race against adults? Perhaps it's that the race goes on forever, though the end result is never in doubt even if it is utterly preposterous?
That may be the real problem here. Lucas has fallen into the trap of most Hollywood sequel/prequel makers of simply telling the story he has already told only louder. Instead of Obi-Wan and Yoda instructing young Luke in the ways of the Force, we have Qui-Gon and Yoda doing the same to young Obi-Wan. Instead of the battle to blow up the Death Star, we have the battle to blow up the ship controlling the warrior droids. Instead of the big celebration of Princess Leia's rescue and return we have the bigger celebration of Princess Amidala's rescue and return.
Not only have we seen this already, but those things that are new—
Now some may argue that future generations, watching the film in "episode order" rather than by year of release, won't necessarily have that knowledge in advance. Maybe so, but the big assumption being made there is not that people will want to watch Episode I first, but that after they watch it they will have any interest in continuing. Indeed, watched in that order the story of the series is how Anakin grows up, becomes angry and disillusioned and turns into evil Darth Vader, who is finally redeemed in death. Is that really the story that inspired George Lucas way back when he made the original Star Wars? Is that a story that moves and inspires us in the audience? The original trilogy was about how Luke (Mark Hamill) discovers his destiny, goes through ordeals and eventually triumphs, defeating evil and saving the galaxy. If the six Star Wars film are really about Annakin/Darth Vader, Luke's adventure is little more than an overextended subplot.
By the time he was giving interviews promoting Episode I, Lucas denied any intent of doing nine films and said that when he was finished, the six films would be the whole of it (notwithstanding the animated Clone Wars stories). Perhaps that's the only thing that could redeem the series at this point, taking us to the point where Luke is the old, wise Jedi teaching his own apprentice and showing that while Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are gone, the battle against evil evolves and is ongoing. The problem with that is that Lucas would have to think about the story he wanted to tell, rather than simply the merchandising possibilities of new characters and spaceships, and how many different times he can release the same films in new or tweaked formats.
There's no question that the original trilogy has a special place in the history of SF cinema and that George Lucas has had a tremendous impact on the genre and the film industry. At last August's World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, I was on a panel assessing Lucas's career (which was filmed for an upcoming documentary, The People vs. George Lucas about the love/hate relationship fans have with him and his films). However you weight the scales on the plus side (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Industrial Light and Magic) there's little doubt that Episode I in general, and Jar Jar Binks in particular, fall with resounding thuds as minuses.