I’m old enough that Star Wars means something to me, yet young enough that I only caught the prequels in the cinema. I can still remember when The Phantom Menace came out… a massive multiplex was built to coincide with that launch and we stood outside for some tickets. My sister worked there for quite a while, more for the access to the movies than the actual job. Still a cinephile!
A few years prior, Lucas had re-released Star Wars to cinema and I had gone to watch them all multiple times. Smart to raise the hype. I was used to the old VHS versions that felt like they were of their time. The remakes polished some bits but also added some weird sections – Jabba in A New Hope, a moving Sarlacc, and the very jarring cantina signing scene. Foreboding!
I remember going to watch the Phantom Menace as a group. Full Star Wars hype was abound! The movie started to cheers with beginning of the scrolling text. To this day, I can still recall the group confusion that came when the words ‘taxation of trade routes’ showed up on screen. But then Jedis and action! Great! Meeting Jar Jar was really odd, but I figured it was one of the multiple passing characters in Star Wars. That he became a tag along was grating and an extremely poor substitute for the droid duo. The pod racing was, and still is, exhilarating. The final battle sequence with Darth Maul still holds up with great framing, pace, and music. That final score is found in every pre-quel movie, including the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
The end of The Phantom Menace was a high note. We came out with smiles, then talked about our favorite parts. It really only focused on 2 pieces…and then the conversation turned to the stuff that didn’t work. There was way more than 2 pieces.
I still went to see Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith in cinemas. The former was confusing and had horrible dialogue, while the latter had some amazing combat sections. The end result was mixed, but a better appreciation for Ewan McGregor. While it should have been Anakin that tied it all together, it really was Obi-Wan.
The major challenge the prequels had was that the universe had been fleshed out something fierce by that time. The sense of mystery and awe just didn’t exist in the same way. We knew how the prequels would end… there were books about it long before the movies. They didn’t talk about pod races, but the larger lines were out. The movies had a fairly high bar to reach before they ever reached our eyes.
There’s plenty written on why the original trilogy worked. Pacing, character building, physicality, R2D2 being a literal deus ex machina, and C3P0 being a stand in for the audience. Editing, photography, writing, and direction are all big ones – things that are much different in the prequels. These highlights are counterpoints to the prequels being so derided.
As bitter as it made me feel, I always knew that the core was solid. It’s Star Wars! It took a while for news to spread but someone had taken a knife to the Phantom Menace and edited it down to something watchable. The Phantom Edit was in nearly every respect, a better film with 18 minutes less content. Jar Jar was nearly removed, the Trade Federation was done with subtitles, midichlorians were removed, and then some precise edits. Just an overall better film! And the one I presented to my own kids. Attack of the Clones had the same treatment but ended up cutting nearly 40 minutes. These fan edits created an entire new sub-genre of film fanatics…there are dozens of fan edits of Star Wars films now.
And yet, the point remains that there was more good in these movies than bad. It was like a puzzle with too many pieces, and set up in the wrong order. When put together in a different way, the image is much clearer. If anything, it truly highlights the value of a great editor (not the person in the credits, but the person making the final calls).
So with Star Wars day last week, and a subscription to Disney+ my family got together and re-watched the prequels. No edits. Plenty of Jar Jar. Horrendous love dialogue. A brooding Anakin. A stellar Obi-Wan. The realization that the Emperor was in 7 of the 9 Star Wars movies (quick cameos in Episode 5 + 8). That Star Wars, for all it’s place of conflict in my mind, is best experienced through the eyes of a child’s wonder with no expectations. There is no extended universe for them. Just some crazy space ninjas with laser swords. And who wouldn’t want to watch that?
An excellent retrospective, I experienced all of that almost exactly as you did.
I’d never heard about The Phantom Edit though. Damn, I need to see that!
I saw the first Star Wars in the cinema on original UK release in 1978. In those days Hollywood movies usually took 6-12 months to release over here. I would have been eighteen. I have virtually no memory of the occasion.I can’t even remember which cinema I saw it in. I’ve seen it several times since so any impression it made on me probably comes from later viewings.
I remember seeing Empire Strikes Back more clearly. I was at university by then and I saw it with a bunch of people including my girlfrien, later to become my first wife. She was a huge Star Wars fan, a member of the UK Star Wars fan club and a contributor to the official fanzine. I do remember being impressed by the second movie. I was also at college when we saw Return of the Jedi, and I probably have the clearest memory of all of that one. It was a mixed bag but I enjoyed it. I think most of the conversation afterwards was arguing over the Ewoks and if they were a good or bad idea.
I saw all three of the prequels at the cinema, on release. I would never have bothered but at the time I was going to the movies fairly regularly with my ex-girlfriend, who turned out to be a major SF fan although weirdly it never seemed to come up when we were together. She was pretty keen on them at the time although she’s changed her position somewhat since. I remember all of those visits more clearly than any of the ones to the original trio but then it was a lot more recently.
Jar Jar is an interesting one. I literally didn’t see anything odd about him at the time and although he was a bit annoying it didn’t seem all that out of the run of things for a Star Wars movie. Later, I remember having arguments about the racial stereotype implications, which I couldn’t see even when they were pointed out to me. I can see them now. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. All the tax stuff I just tuned out although I do remember thinking it was a bit odd to have it in an action movie. The second prequel I remember being much worse than Phantom Menace. Quite embarassingly bad in places. The last one I thought was just a lot of fighting for the sake of it. Never seen any of them again.
I have yet to see any of the third trilogy. They sound much better but I no longer go to the cinema (well, hardly ever) and I laready have far too many unwatched movies to think of watching any more Star Wars. Even though I’m a lifelong SF, comics and fantasy fan and I was still in my teens when I saw that first trilogy, the whole franchise has never made any real impact on me. I do think you really need to be about nine or ten at the oldest when you first get introduced to the Star Wars mythos for it to get a real grip. Otherwise you’ll already have experienced too many things that are similar (and I’d say better, but really it’s the first timeness that counts, I think). I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the cinema on release in 1968 when I was 10. I don’t think Star Wars was ever likely to top that.
My kids (and friends kids) were bit by the Star Wars bug and the core driver for me watching the 3 final films. My wife never saw a single Star Wars until about 5 years ago, so her perspective is also quite ‘childish’ in a sense. I enjoy being able to share some geekiness with all of them, and really try to share their enjoyment as much as possible. They LOVE movies, so only natural to have this as a shared experience.
That said, there are things that I treasure tremendously and that my family simply raises an eyebrow. Doesn’t bug me so much anymore.