Ten years ago? Really?
Doesn’t seem like it’s been a full decade. I can still vividly remember everything about the build-up to the release of “The Phantom Menace,” the first new “Star Wars” film in sixteen years.
Fandom has changed profoundly in the last ten years, and it would be hard to argue that it’s been for the better. Although I detest that sub-moronic oft-repeated metaphor about George Lucas “raping my childhood,” I could be willing to agree that 1999 was the end of fandom’s innocent optimism and the beginning of something rancid and self-entitled and angry, something that’s more about tearing down and insulting than about celebrating or enjoying.
On the surface, it seems like Hollywood has changed for the better, though. Take a look at the sort of movies that make up most of what we see in any given summer right now. It looks like the nerds won, doesn’t it? Like we’ve taken over? Every Friday, there’s a “Wolverine” or a “Star Trek” or a “Terminator” or a “Transformers.” Geek service of the most direct nature. But for every one of those films that feels motivated by a love of the material or a story genuinely worth telling or an affinity for the genre, we get a dozen films that are craven, designed by committee, hollow and phony. And it seems like “fans” have lost the ability to tell one from the other, willing to grant a monster opening weekend to almost anything, no matter how distinctly the marketing promises another goddamn heartbreak. Part of it is a sort of battered-fan-syndrome, where they keep telling themselves “It will be different this time… it will be different this time…” And part of it seems to be a gradual erosion of standards in which everything is one big homogenized equal.
So what does the tenth anniversary of “Star Wars” have to tell us? What perspective have we gained?
[more after the jump]
In 1999, as people counted down the days to May 19th, it was obvious that a genuine cultural moment was underway. There was an excitement in the air, and more than that, an optimism. People belived in the best possible version of what a “Star Wars” movie could be, and there wasn’t even a hint of the idea of the potential for failure. If you go back and read the message boards and the talkbacks and the international press, what you’ll see is… well, for lack of a better word… faith.
I didn’t stand in line for the film for weeks or even months like some people did, but I was living in Hollywood at the time, about five blocks from the Chinese Theater, where the biggest line was located, and I had a number of friends who were part of that. I also found myself getting back in contact with old friends all over the country who got in touch because of my work on Ain’t It Cool, and I made new friends as well, people I’m still in touch with now, who were just “Star Wars” fans who read what I wrote and had to reach out to say hello. And what was most amazing about that period of time was the way it seemed like this one movie was bringing people together, the way people were all sharing this excitement, this anticipation. Fandom was about unity. Like I said… fandom was about faith.
And just as I will never forget the hope leading up to May 19th, we are never going to fully shake the pop culture heartbreak that set in afterwards.
Jar-Jar Binks, perhaps the most reviled character in the entire “Star Wars” mythos, has become a symbol of everything that went wrong with the prequels. You want to make a “Star Wars” fan mental, just tell them, “Meesa wuv Jah- Jah!” Even now, I’ll bet you see a twitch. In another way, though, Jar-Jar isn’t just a symbol of how Lucas failed… he’s a symbol of exactly where fandom lost its way.
See, I’m not a hater of the prequels. I don’t love them, either. Hell, I’ve got something like 10,000 films in my house, but I don’t actually own any of the three prequels. I’ll probably fix that when they make it to BluRay. But I do have my theory why the prequels simply didn’t connnect with many audiences. And it’s not an answer that Hollywood’s going to like, especially when you look at the way they seem determined to fill in every single blank in every single geek property ever created.
Because I’m not blinded by the hatred, I have a pretty good idea why the hatred exists in the first place.
Familiarity breeds contempt.
And prequels are a narrative dead end. Period.
Please. Please. Please.
Stop giving geeks what they ask for.
“I want the Clone Wars!”
No. No, you don’t.
You think you do. But you don’t.
“I want the Terminator Future War!”
Again… no. You really, really don’t.
It’s Pavlovian. You’re watching some good science-fiction movie you love and they mention “attack ships on fire off the belt of Orion” or some such thing… like “You’re older than the Zarkon Battlefields,” and you end up liking the movie a lot, so you end up watching the movie a lot because that’s what geeks do. And by the 43rd time watching it, and half-watching it, and watching it with friends while talking, and wallpaper-watching it, you hear that line again… “You’re older than the Zarkon Battlefields”… and you think in passing, “Man, I’d like to see the Zarkon Battlefields.” And then it becomes a thing, an itch you feel like you need to scratch.
No. No, you don’t.
Storytelling… great fun pulp storytelling, anyway… is all about forward motion. Everything is always in motion. The entire idea of backing up to fill in the blanks is counter-intuitive. So here’s where I find myself now on this entire prequel reboot remake update reinvention thing.
It is an onslaught. It’s not one small part of the mainstream diet these days… it’s all of it. All the oxygen in the room seems to be for fan service, to diminishing creative returns. And that’s where “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” is, in fact, not a failure at all so much as a signpost, a landmark if you will. There is no film, in terms of technical craftsmanship, that has left a larger mark on the last ten years of pop culture. Every big-budget genre movie this summer owes something to “Phantom Menace” in terms of techniques or equipment invented there or pushed to the breaking point for the first or the furthest times. Even some of what it didn’t quite do right (like Mr. Binks or those embarrassing Charlie Chan aliens) was sort of pioneering in terms of what others have done since, building on those near-misses.
I think filmmakers today have amazing opportunities and incredible tools to accomplish anything they can imagine. You look at the work being done for films like “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” by Digital Domain or ILM’s impressive space combat in “Star Trek” or John Gaeta’s brain-bending environmental work in “Speed Racer,” and really… you can do anything. Style is more important than ever, since world-building can be on a whole new level of persuasive.
So… let’s say that all of this prequel reboot remake update reinvention stuff has been all about getting those tools right. Practice makes perfect.
Stop practicing. Time to do.
Tell me stories you haven’t told me yet. Get me hooked all over again. I don’t mind adapting from comics or from books or from other media… even video games… as long as we’re seeing storytellers move forward. Sequels… I’m not morally opposed as long as you’re telling new stories, and as long as you create characters worth spending more time with.
Jar-Jar Binks, I’m sorry to say, is not the Devil. He led the way to Gollum, who paved the way for Davy Jones, who is but mere warm-up for “Avatar,” and whatever lies beyond that. That’s not a bad legacy at all.
Anakin Skywalker, though… he’s the Devil. Because he’s the one whose story and whose absolute lack of dramatic purpose cripples the “Star Wars” prequels. Anytime you back up to tell the same story again… and again… and again… and again… well, that’s Hell. That’s Anakin. And that is what we have to be done with.
Let’s take this moment this morning to toast the Decade of Anakin Skywalker. 1999 to 2009.
And now… let’s put it to bed.
Let’s dream big again.
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