May 1999: Episode I: Kids All Over Again

(Writer's note: Just when you thought it was safe to visit, I'm back to subject you to yet more of my utterly biased and only semi-informed opinions. How could I not, seeing as how we'll have new Star Wars in less than two weeks? Read on at your peril!)

There's something in the air, folks. It might be as prosaic as the ringing of cash registers, or as ineffable as the sense of anticipation. Whatever it is, it's making people do things that they'd never do for any other movie.

They're lining up already; not just in front of Mann's Chinese Theater, where Star Wars: A New Hope (though it wasn't called that at the time) debuted twenty-two years ago and changed the shape and scale of the film industry. They're at the Cinerama here in Seattle, and at movie theaters across the country, waiting for tickets to go on sale. They're spending $500 a ticket on charity showings, and cadging for advance passes and press screenings. (Yes, even yours truly, pragmatic as she is, briefly considered dropping 500 bucks on a single ticket, just so she could see The Phantom Menace a few days early. Yours truly is, no doubt, nuts, and is also hoping that someone in the video department will get a press pass and give it to her out of the goodness of their hearts. Yep, nuts.)

May 3rd has hit, and with it enough merchandise to stuff a Boeing 747 to bursting. Even people who live under rocks and only come out once a month to get some sun can't possibly fail to notice the books, CDs, comics, toys, posters, and peculiar paraphernalia (a stuffed R2-D2 toy?) adorning the shelves of local retailers. My own employer opened a special Star Wars store on May 3rd, and sales of the soundtrack for The Phantom Menace immediately shot to number 1. I can only imagine what's going on with the novelization (raise your hand if you bought four copies so you could get all four covers). Yessir, the Lucasfilm merchandising machine has swung into motion, and even yours truly, who doesn't even own living room furniture yet, has to admit to salivating a bit. (Though that might just be because Ewan McGregor's in the film. Hubba hubba!)

As I watch news coverage of people waiting in line the evening of May 2nd to buy the toys as soon as the store opens, or listen to whoops and cheers in the theater as the trailer plays before an evening showing of The Matrix, or pop the soundtrack into the CD player during my evening bus ride, I find myself catching a bit of the excitement. That stuff's contagious, after all. And The Phantom Menace has got to be the most anticipated film of all time, even more than the sequels to the first Star Wars film. After all, we only had to wait three years apiece for those.

At the same time, I find that I feel a bit nostalgic. It's not that I'm not looking forward to the new movie--hell, even if it's mediocre, which I don't expect, it's still Star Wars. It's just that none of us are kids anymore.

I saw the first movie when I was, oh, probably around six or so. Naturally, the fact that Star Wars is essentially a kids' film didn't bother me--I was a kid myself. And though I've since seen the film often enough to have memorized the entire script, there's still a bit of the wonder and excitement of having seen it that first time, even though that was so long ago that I barely remember it now. For Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, I was still a kid. And so were most of Star Wars' most hardcore fans (though not all, mind you).

Well, it's been over two decades since then, and we're more or less grown up now. It's doubtful that we'll look at Star Wars: The Phantom Menace with quite the same affection that we view the original trilogy, plot holes and cardboard characterizations and visible matte lines and all, no matter how good the new installment is. We'll be seeing the movie through the eyes of adults, and that makes all the difference.

That's why I think that, no matter how good The Phantom Menace is, in some way it isn't going to live up to expectations. Having seen the trailers, it's pretty clear to me that this movie's gonna have everything that made the original trilogy great: fast-paced action, dazzling special effects, a archetypal take on good and evil, and a sense of epic sweep that has always made the Star Wars universe bigger and brighter than our own. The difference lies not in the movie, but in ourselves, our older, more practical, more cynical selves.

What's the answer, then? Not to see it at all? No way--we've waited years for this event, and I doubt that any of us could stay away if we tried. Whether we expect to be as charmed as we were when we were three or six or ten or whatever, or if we acknowledge that we are, for better or for worse, (mostly) adults, we'll be waiting in line to see the most anticipated movie in history.

But speaking as someone who criticizes for a living, I suggest that we don't go in as critics. Star Wars isn't just for kids: it's for the kid in each of us, the one that watches the original trilogy over and over, the one that slammed George Lucas for having Greedo shoot first in the A New Hope Special Edition, the one that (perhaps somewhat shamefacedly) admits to dressing up as a character every Halloween or to still owning all the original action figure toys--and taking them out periodically to play with. Just for awhile, let's all be kids again, and ignore the imperfections that we never noticed as children, so caught up in the magic of the thing were we. (Another characteristic of long-time fans is that we occasionally wax poetic Yoda-style.)

Everyone's a critic, but for awhile, let's not be. We're all gonna see this movie a million times anyway; save the nitpicking for the dozenth viewing, and enjoy the first eleven, just for the fun of it.