THE MOMENTS THAT DEFINE OUR LIVES RARELY announce themselves as such. Once in a great while, however, they come with release dates. The original Star Wars hit me like a bolt out of the blue, like a first kiss. It initiated a love for the movies that I've been lucky enough to turn into a career. But perhaps even more importantly, Star Wars, and then The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with their epic stories of heroes fighting the good fight, started me on my way to becoming an idealist, a romantic. When I made my mom take me to see Blade Runner in 1982 because the guy who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones was in it, I learned that movies could also be dark, ambiguous things. But even this couldn't shake what I felt about the Star Wars films. They were a whole hell of a lot of fun when they first came out -- they still are today -- and they meant something.
As I revisited the original films again and again over the last year to keep from going mad with anticipation, one aspect of the trilogy took precedence over all: It's the story of strangers who become friends who become family. (No doubt those folks who came together and braved the city streets to get the first tickets to Episode One know what I'm talking about.) Yoda's philosophizing, Luke's Jedi training, his redemption of his father, Darth Vader, and his father figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi, even the Alliance's struggle against the Empire are all subplots compared to what Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3P0 are prepared to do for one another, time after time. In Jedi, when Luke tells the Emperor during their fateful confrontation that his overconfidence is his weakness, what does the Emperor say in reply? "Your faith in your friends is yours." In short order, Luke's faith in his friends is more than validated. Going into an advance screening of The Phantom Menace last week, thrilled and antsy and lightheaded, I was praying for the same thing.
The chills started with the 20th Century Fox logo. They intensified and spread with the logo for Lucasfilm. Then, strangely enough, they broke. The hang-time between the appearance onscreen of that wonderful phrase "A long time ago . . ." and the first blast of John Williams' score seemed, after a year of waiting, interminable. Just minutes before, with the lights still up at the Mann's National in Westwood, as I stared at the gold curtains, I had a most startling realization: The Phantom Menace was only a movie. No matter what it has and will become as a cultural phenomenon, it couldn't possibly bear up under the weight of my expectations. No movie could. Unfortunately, there's no way around this. Everyone knows that as a prequel, The Phantom Menace takes us back to the beginning, back to where it all started. The full extent of what this meant didn't hit me until the Star Wars theme exploded across the sound system. For an exhilarating instant, the chasm of experience between long-faded memories and the present moment collapsed. I could barely make sense of the scrolling prologue -- something about political solutions abandoned in favor of war. I'm embarrassed to say it now, but all I was thinking was, "Thank God I lived to see this." It was one of the most intense experiences I've had at the movies. Ever. This alone was worth the wait. And it's a good thing, too, because the rest of The Phantom Menace is touch-and-go.
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This has nothing to do with whether or not Lucas made a bad film. The dialogue, the acting, the special effects, the direction and the story structure all have their problems. The original Star Wars had its problems, too. What I mean is that to watch The Phantom Menace as a lifelong Star Wars fan is to engage in constant, fragile negotiations between a cherished familiarity and the shock of the new. (In many ways, those die-hards who sought out every scrap of information on the film's plot -- or fans like me who settled for watching the trailers dozens of times on the desktop -- were perhaps unconsciously looking to buttress themselves against this shock.) R2-D2 still bravely beeps and whirs, but he and C-3P0 barely acknowledge one another. Lightsabers hum with destiny, but Yoda, far from his swampy hermitage, heads up a byzantine religious bureaucracy. And what of the Force itself? In a bizarre revelation, we learn that the mysterious energy field is firmly rooted in biology. It's not so much that science and faith are intertwined as that the former becomes the litmus test for the latter. It was disconcerting to learn that the characters and concepts I thought I knew so well, I really don't know at all. Even though some of what we discover is brilliantly satisfying, like what the Sand People do for recreation, Lucas deserves to be reprimanded. He has to understand that he is no longer the sole proprietor of this world, that it's ours as much as his. It's taken on a life of its own -- he is only its storyteller.
As for the major characters making their screen debut -- Qui-Gon Jinn, the young Obi-Wan, Princess Amidala, Darth Maul and the boy Anakin Skywalker -- it's hard to muster anything above indifference. Too much goes by too fast to get to know them well, as much a problem with the script and the state of Hollywood action films today as the result of my own spun state of mind. Where the bond with Luke, Han, Chewbacca and Leia was instantaneous and sure, these new faces will take some getting used to. With one possible exception: The digitized Jar Jar Binks must die. Note to Lucas: Episode Two needs a Wookie.
Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is Star Wars, but it's not my Star Wars. Though I thought it would be easy and natural to transfer my affection for Luke and Leia to their mother and father, this love will have to grow over time. These strangers will have to do more to earn my friendship. I'm hoping they will. At present, I'm hanging between deep resistance and a deep need to let them in, to believe.
AS THE TRAILER SAYS, EVERY GENERATION HAS A legend. I've had my Star Wars, and perhaps it's time to pass the legend on. In other words, while I'm already anticipating the next two installments, it's also time to let go. In that sense, this prequel stands as another defining moment, a lesson to be learned: Cherish what's been and accept what has come, because to a great extent it's all relative. We will always be able to find in the present those traces of the past that allow us to go on, to keep growing. Far from a shattering blow to my faith in Star Wars, I believe that in time these new films will only make it stronger. So what have I become? Perhaps just a little older.