I grew up in the nineties and early 2000s. I am, by all definitions of the word, a millennial, a peculiar if not entirely inaccurate designator. Simply due to the timing, my intellectual maturation occurred around the Star Wars prequels. When I was young, Star Wars had a mythical status: my room was littered with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader action figures and (eventually) Lego sets, and seeing the original trilogy on the big screen when they were released in 1997 was one of the defining moments of both my childhood and my life as a moviegoer. I loved Star Wars as only a child can, with an open heart and an overwhelming sense of endless possibility. My box of well-worn action figures still holds a mythical power over my adult brain, as if those chunks of moulded plastic somehow absorbed and retain to this day some essence of the countless hours of mental energy that I invested in them during my adolescence.
When The Phantom Menace hit theaters, I was eight years old and still possessed the nascent critical attitude of a child, which is to say that seeing a movie in and of itself was a positive experience, quality be damned. Some movies were better than others, of course, but I could never have recognized one as being bad. I saw The Phantom Menace twice in theaters and have watched it only one further time since then, and despite the nearly universally negative conventional wisdom regarding the film, my memories of it are so sporadic and bland that I cannot muster anything but the most general dislike for it as a movie. I was simply too young to make a real assessment of the film at the time, and so it exists more as a theater-going memory than a discrete piece of art.
Unlike The Phantom Menace, I have watched Attack of the Clones maybe a dozen times. This is because by the time that movie came out my family had acquired a DVD player and I had begun collecting DVDs, and one of my early purchases was the two-disc edition of Episode II. For years, that movie mystified me. There were parts of it that I liked very much as a twelve year old, but, overall and in very specific ways, I understood that it was wrong. As I’ve grown older and my critical apparatus has developed, I’ve been able to put these feelings into words, but prior to watching the third prequel in theaters and eventually again on DVD, I had nothing but a vague sense of discomfort regarding it. However, these feelings were neither strong nor developed enough to keep me from returning to the film again and again to seek its greatness.
Something imporant happened between the release of Episodes II and III that changed the way in which I approached movies: I began reading film reviews, mainly on the internet. This was a major step in my evolution as a moviegoer, because it taught me how to be critical about what I watched. Therefore, by the time Episode III was imminent, I had read and internalized the overall negative opinion regarding the first two prequels, and had developed a healthy skepticism about the third. My peers and I were at that marketable age where we could read about characters and download trailers on the internet, but while my friends plastered their bedroom doors with posters bearing the skeletal visage of General Grievous, I read articles bemoaning the insane drop in quality between the original trilogy (the hatred had yet to begin its backwards creep towards Return of the Jedi) and the prequels. By the time Revenge of the Sith came out, though, I had been suckered into the conventional wisdom that this was going to be the prequel that got it right, and, being in middle school, I more or less agreed. Watching the movie felt like playing an exciting video game, which I certainly enjoyed on an aesthetic level. After that, the trilogy was complete. Star Wars faded into the general cultural background noise that it had been since my early childhood, maybe at a bit higher frequency than before, but rarely at the top of anyone’s mind.
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As an adult, I am able to divorce the Star Wars films from the commercialist trappings in which they have ever been wrapped and view them as movies. Through this lens, the differences between the films are stark: Star Wars itself is a singular expression of cinematic creativity and energy about which I have already written an entire post; The Empire Strikes Back is the rare sequel that expands on the universe and characters of its predecessor in such a way that carries that initial momentum forward and upward to even greater heights; Return of the Jedi has an inspired opening act and a lackluster, though still engaging, remainder; The Phantom Menace is a standard adventure movie with bland characters and a truly abysmal middle act; Attack of the Clones pairs an ill-conceived romance plot with a semi-interesting and visually stunning noir storyline and concludes with an overwhelming display of fan service that hints at what is to come; and Revenge of the Sith rushes through the halfway compelling story that was merely hinted at during its predecessors while drenching itself in video game visuals and masturbatory self-reference.
Being able to separate these films from my initial experience of them and view them as movies worthy of (and requiring) discrete assessment paralleled my own journey as a moviegoer and, in a larger sense, a critical human being. I learned how to assess the world around me by thinking about these movies as I matured. In many ways, they were the crucible in which my critical lens was forged. And now, with the imminent renewal of the Star Wars franchise, I am in something of a quandary, which I will explore in depth in a future post.