Wednesday, May 04, 2016

From the Archives: May the Fourth Be With You - Part II

As I noted in my previous post, 17 years ago this month, I was one of hundreds of Star Wars fans who camped out in front of the Uptown Theatre in Washington, D.C., to be among the first to buy tickets and then to nab the best seats to see the long-awaited prequel to the epic trilogy, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

While my first report for The Metro Herald described the spontaneous community that emerged along the Connecticut Avenue sidewalks, my second report was a sort-of review of The Phantom Menace.

I just found this article in my archives and had not read it in many years.  The biggest surprise to me? Not a single mention, positive or negative, of Jar-Jar Binks.

The following article appeared originally in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Metro Herald in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 21, 1999:

Star Wars: Supernova or Firecracker?
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Raising more questions than it answers, The Phantom Menace, episode one of the Star Wars series, burst upon the nation this Wednesday, May 19.

Preceded by months of active anticipation and sixteen years of quiet waiting for fans and non-fans alike, the newest segment of the Star Wars phenomenon was accompanied by hype, hoopla, and hurrahs.

At the first showing at Washington’s Uptown Theatre on upper Connecticut Avenue, NW, the audience was on edge and playful. After more than 60 hours of sleeping, playing, and waiting patiently on the sidewalk outside, and taking their seats some 45 minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, members of the audience participated in mock light-saber battles in the area in front of the huge Cinerama screen. The slightest mention of Star Wars or its box-office champion nemesis, Titanic, elicited loud cheers or jeers.

And the moment the words “Lucasfilm, Ltd.” appeared on the screen, the auditorium was consumed by hoots, hollers, whistles, footstomping, and applause.

And how well-deserved this greeting was! The Phantom Menace is a tour de force of special effects. George Lucas, returning to the director’s chair for the first time since Episode 4: A New Hope of 1977, has given us a payoff for his long wait for technology to catch up to his imagination.
Drawing upon the mythological traditions of Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, Lucas has created a story with universal appeal. Using archetypes that have been found throughout literature since before man learned to write, Lucas shows us, quite literally, the stuff that dreams are made of.

It is conventional in a review like this to resist revealing key plot developments and, in particular, the ending. So I will resist. But a few comments are in order.

Young Anikan Skywalker (played by nine-year-old Jake Lloyd) is intelligent, humble, and helpful beyond words. He is easy to love. Yet, at the same time, because we know what happens in Episodes 4-6, we also know that he will become the evil Darth Vader. Thus it is with some ambivalence that the audience applauds when things go well for young Anikan. Is Lucas trying to mess with our minds? Is he trying to personalize this Manichean struggle between good and evil? Is he helping us to demonstrate for ourselves that each of us has within us, as Jewish tradition would put it, a good yetzer and an evil yetzer?

Are we supposed to cheer and applaud, only to draw back and correct ourselves, saying, “Hey, this cute little kid is the bad guy! What am I doing?”

Some have faulted this episode of Star Wars with being big on special effects and short on characterization. This may be true, so far as it goes, but one should also keep in mind that this episode is meant as an exposition, setting up a situation for a payoff that will happen later. Half of the fun is to look for clues and links to events and characters we already know from Episodes 4-6. We can count on fuller character development in Episodes 2 and 3. Still, The Phantom Menace stands on its own as an entertaining whole. One need not have seen any of the previous (later?) Star Wars films to enjoy this movie.

The rest of the summer will no doubt be filled with Star Wars mania. Enjoy it while it lasts. The next film is not scheduled to be released until 2002.

My review of that 2002 release, Episode 2: The Attack of the Clones, is here. My look at Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith, is here, while memories of my first encounter with Star Wars in 1977 can be found in this group post on Bearing Drift.  My 2005 photo essay about "Dressing a Galaxy," an exhibit of Star Wars costumes, is here. (And just one mention of Jar-Jar Binks among them all.)

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