Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace: Forgiving the Prequels

Alright, children. Gather ‘round. I’ll tell you a tale.

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, a franchise stole our hearts (and our money). This was a time before Instagram and TikTok changed the way we complain about… er… engage pop culture. Streaming services didn’t exist and we were slaves to our tv guide. In fact, it was even a time before the internet completely took over our lives. (I’ll pause for a moment while you catch your breath.)

Yes, the year was 1999 and George Lucas was finally continuing (beginning?) his beloved Star Wars saga with the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I remember lining up for hours outside the theatre, just hoping to get that fateful 12:00am showing on the first day. (I missed it by 6 people and had to settle for the 12:15am show.) This was pop culture history and we were going to be a part of it. 

As the film began, I remember people reading the scrolling text out loud, trying to digest every single new word to the sacred script. There were audible gasps when Darth Maul first opened his dual-bladed lightsaber. Even if the boy wasn’t beloved, there was joy over the fury of the podracing.

Every moment was memorable.

Fandom was different back then without social networking. It was more difficult to voice your opinions and join in the hateful fray. But, make no mistake, it was no less passionate. Case in point: I remember vividly the moment that Jar Jar Binks first came onscreen. As he, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn stumbled through the forests of Naboo, eliciting his first “Ex-squeeze me…”, the groans could be heard. (In fact, one person even shouted out, “Leave him there!”) And, of course, it built from there. 

In the years that followed, Jake Lloyd confessed how the bullying he received affected him. Ahmed Best became a despised figure (and running joke) within the franchise. Lucas was denounced for his poor script-writing. Oh, we were assured that these films would be beloved in time but, for those of us who wanted the same feel as the originals, we were furious. How dare Lucas make ‘kids movies’ out of the most fearsome onscreen villain of all time. Despite their positives, the prequels were long detested and we determined that we never accept them. 

But a funny thing happened. Those that said that time would change our minds… were right.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence in nostalgia for the films that were supposed to be derided for eternity. Those who were children upon their release look back on them as the stories that mattered most to them. And it has brought them back to life. Now owned by Disney, one of their most widely praised has been Obi-Wan Kenobi, starring a returning Ewan Macgregor. Hayden Christenson has been readmitted to the beloved category of Star Wars fandom. In fact, rumours even persist that Binks himself could re-emerge from the shadows.

So, the question becomes this: Can we finally accept the prequels?

Admittedly, the question is a bit ridiculous. After all, it’s not up to us to ‘accept’ any particular sequel or film. It’s inevitable that we will like some movies better than others. But one can’t deny that, 25 years later, The Phantom Menace (and the prequels themselves) feels almost worthwhile. 

After all this time, I can’t help but be fascinated by them.

Yes, the CGI is somewhat grating but, at the time, the creation of Jar Jar was cutting edge special effects. Yes, the dialogue remains clunky but, certainly, the originals have their moments as well. (Luke pining for power converters at Tosche station, anyone?) It’s even interesting to see how the use of the Force has changed over time. Faced with a changing culture, Lucas shifted the franchise’s use of the spiritual power dramatically in the prequels. Once believed to be ‘an all-powerful force connecting everything’, the Force suddenly became something that could be measured through ‘Midichlorians’. The mystery was lost, swapped in favour of a scientific approach that betrayed the sensibilities of the earlier films. Yet, somehow, it feels so indicative of the philosophy of its time. (Though, it’s worth noting that the return of the franchise with The Force Awakens seemed to steal back the Force from its more analytical methodology.) Yes, the flaws are glaring but they have so much to offer.

They have become window into our own history. In fact, I’d even dare to call them ‘classics’.

Now, with Phantom Menace back in theatres on its 25th anniversary, I can’t deny wanting to see it again on the big screen. I’m ready to thrill again at Selbulba’s treachery and John Williams’ now-iconic Duel of the Fates. After all, this is still a franchise that helped define my childhood. And this time, I get to bring my kids.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is available in theatres on Friday, May 3rd, 2024. 

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