Remember the last time people were as excited about a new Star Wars movie as they are now, with the release of the Episode VII trailer?
In November 1998, the arrival of a teaser poster and a trailer for Star Wars Episode I sent people mad with anticipation. The poster depicted a young boy, Anakin Skywalker, standing on the sands of the planet Tatooine and casting a tall shadow whose outline was not that of a child, but the unmistakable shape of Darth Vader. That clever image would turn out to be better than almost anything in the film.
The official Star Wars website had alerted fans in the US that the trailer was about to open on seventy-five screens. At the Mann village cinema in Los Angeles, 500 people arrived for the 1pm showing of the Denzel Washington thriller The Siege and nearly two-thirds walked out after the Episode I teaser.
In Britain, in early 1999, a lot of people reportedly went to see Star Trek Insurrection especially to see the Star Wars trailer, and some went home mightily upset because the teaser wasn’t shown at every performance.
By this point, of course, fans had been feeding for years on a small amount of official news supplemented by large portions of rumour and speculation. You may remember some of the early rumours: Kenneth Branagh was going to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. Alec Guinness was going to play Obi-Wan Kenobi, thanks to computer technology which would recreate the actor as a young man. Mark Hamill would pay Anakin Skywalker. Macaulay Culkin would play Anakin Skywalker. The film would be called Balance of the Force.
The real news, when it started to emerge, had been encouraging. Take the casting: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp. These were fine actors. We sensed the series was in safe hands. And most significantly, the film would mark the triumphant return, after a 22-year-break, of George Lucas as a film director. George Lucas, the man who gave us the original film, and who had never directed a bad movie.
Some fans were getting so excited that Marcus Hearn, editor of the official Star Wars magazine in the UK, tried to dampen their enthusiasm. “I’m doubtful that any film could be as good as the one some people are expecting to see this summer,” he wrote. “I advocate keeping an open mind and realistic expectations. We should be prepared for a film that may be a departure from the previous ones in the Star Wars series.”
As we now know, the film really was a departure from the previous episodes. After all, the previous episodes had been good.
The reviews of The Phantom Menace were generally terrible. I, for one, didn’t believe them. I maintained my faith in George Lucas all the way into the cinema. And then, about five minutes into the movie, I started getting uneasy. The pace of it seemed to be off. The characters weren’t engaging my interest. A few minutes later, Jar Jar Binks appeared and my heart sank at the prospect that he might be sticking around for the rest of the film.
When the film was over, I – like millions of fans, I’m sure – found myself experiencing a sort of cognitive dissonance. It had been unsatisfying in so many ways; yet that didn’t compute. I saw it again, with some part of me clinging to the idea that perhaps it had all been a misunderstanding on my part, and that its greatness would be revealed to me. I tried that several more times over the years. But The Phantom Menace really was a feeble piece of story-telling.
Fifteen years after the release of Episode I, a lot of people – me included – have been impressed by the teaser for Episode VII. But this time, I find myself approaching The Force Awakens with a healthy detachment.
I have liked all of JJ Abrams’ films, to varying degrees, so I’m expecting that this one is likely to be good. But more importantly, this one is clearly a sequel, in the traditional sense. This is not part of the grand plan which George Lucas claimed, rather unconvincingly, to have mapped out for his saga. Since he used to say his story ended with the death and redemption of Darth Vader, this one represents a spin-off, a further adventure in the same universe. That places it in the tradition of the Flash Gordon serials whose example helped give the first movie its freshness and charm.
A lot may be riding on The Force Awakens commercially, but I, for one, am not nearly as emotionally invested in this one as I was in the others. George Lucas’ Star Wars series is over. JJ Abrams’ successor film could be good, should be good, looks very promising. But if it isn’t good, I’ll be OK. I have grown strong.
Now I just have to maintain this healthy perspective for another year.