Now This is Podracing

Comments (2) Film

I saw Hugo last night, and beyond the fact that it’s the first 3D movie I’ve ever seen that won’t, in retrospect, make me regret paying the extra movie ticket it costs for the “right” or “privilege” to wear those lame plastic Ray-Bans over my unaccommodating pair of prescription lenses, I suppose the big “news” coming from the movie is that Hollywood has pretty much run out of animated kids movies/lifeless horror films/questionably greenlighted action vehicles to spuriously retrofit and up-charge and rub their fingers greedily over, so early next year we’re going to see our multiplexes occupied by re-releases of James Cameron’s Titanic (erroneously billed as the most loved and acclaimed movie (*dramatic pause*) of all time) and, as the first in a series of six planned re-releases, George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

For the sake of clarity, I don’t particularly know if the version of Phantom Menace hitting theatres in February is going to be updated, changed, or modified from its original theatrical release, nor do I particularly care. At this point, I’ll accept that Han was lucky to survive his encounter with Greedo, that Hayden Christensen is digitally ghosted over the dumpy guy who originally played Anakin Skywalker, and that Darth Vader will forever reprise his world-shattering cry of “Noooooooooo!” as the Emperor hurls lightning at a helpless Luke. Around the time Lucas was re-releasing the original Original Trilogy in unscrubbed, less-than-remastered form after millions of voices cried out over a new round of changes and edits (Han and Greedo shoot at the same time! Wookie Life Day is celebrated at the end of Jedi!), I came to the realization that my Star Wars and George Lucas’ Star Wars are two entirely different things. Whereas I was and always will be satisfied with Obi-Wan’s less-than-intimidating Tusken Raider alarm, a few less Sandtroopers at Mos Eisley spaceport, and an utter lack of Jabba the Hutt (my favorite Star Wars character) in A New Hope, George Lucas, for as long as he lives, will attempt to achieve perfection with what is, at best, an imperfect narrative. What’s more, as long as he keeps chasing perfection, there will be endless legion of people who’ll mope and upload hour upon hour of YouTube video complaining that Boss Nass’ fat rolls jiggle more than they used to. No, I’m not in the business of writing an exhaustive list of complaints. Star Wars is George Lucas’ baby, his toy, and he’s free to bend and pose it in whatever way he wishes. I merely want to point out two things about the trailer for Phantom Menace, and then I’ll shut up about it for the time being.

First, and perhaps most importantly: These 3D re-releases weren’t the dramatic upgrade to the franchise we were promised, and I’m angry about it—at least as angry as I can be over the somewhat laughable idea of “updating” a movie from 1977 to be shown in the 3D of 2015. When I was a kid, the former Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village opened up an IMAX theatre and, living in Dearborn, our school often took field trips to see documentaries projected with such intensity that, if the projectionist felt like pointing the thing at the Moon, we could watch them among the stars. This was well before big tentpole movies and every Disney flick under the Sun was released in IMAX or, as is usually the case, “IMAX,” and well before I went to a movie theatre advertising an IMAX screen, only to wonder what happened to the rest of the screen. I don’t remember much about those movies I saw in IMAX as a child, but I remember the slide claiming the projector could show a movie on the moon, and I remember that, since IMAX was new then, still justifying it’s existence, before every movie they played a trailer for the format, and this was always the first thing I saw:

The aged and ill-adjusted often assert that my generation has never had a moment like the opening of A New Hope, but I disagree—I had that moment every time I saw an IMAX movie, a moment where I knew that movies, specifically a movie that I had known and loved for as long as I could remember, were going to change forever. For the record, Kid Me was wrong, as Kid Me has often proven to be, but the shot of the Star Destroyer chasing after the Tantive IV on a 62 by 84 foot screen is something that will always stick with me. I’ve been waiting for the Original Trilogy to come out in IMAX since I was a kid, and, for some cruel reason, it looks like I’ll be waiting for the rest of my life. Worse, these new 3D re-releases make it clear that, to Lucas, the wonders of 2D filmmaking are now small potatoes. Here’s an image from the trailer:

Yes, that image of Luke looking out wistfully to the universe beyond his desert squalor is officially small and meaningless, unless you see it as George Lucas intended it way back in 1977: RealD 3D. See these movies again, the trailer argues, and you’ll forget everything you ever knew about Star Wars.

Yes, according to the above trailer, you’re going to forget all about goofy battle droids, unthreatening trade viceroys, “Are you an angel?” and This is podracing!” In this new, perfect society, Boss Nass is a jovial, fair-minded ruler of a proud, brave race of men and women best represented by this picture…

…and is not, under any circumstance, the cruel, witless leader of a band of frowned-upon Noble Savages known most notoriously for sharing a common gene pool with one Jar Jar Binks, Bombad General. In 1998, which, according to the number of moments given away by this clip, was before people learned how to make a proper trailer, Jar Jar was practically promised by Lucas to be the world’s new best friend.

Jar Jar Binks, so universally reviled that his role in the prequels diminished and diminished to the point that only the trivia-hungry will notice it’s him giving the Emperor the right to rule over the galaxy, was pretty much the face of Phantom Menace. He was a Taco Bell toy, a Lays pitchman, a Pepsi addict. He was there when Anakin met Obi-Wan, when R2-D2 met C-3P0, and, for all we know, may actually be the biological father of Luke and Leia. Believe it or not, when the hype for Phantom Menace was at fever pitch, it was Jar Jar Binks who wound up mugging on the cover or Rolling Stone, his name taking prominence over Tom Waits, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Columbine, and Kosovo.

I might be the only person in the world who feels this way, but it’s practically a crime that Jar Jar Binks doesn’t warrant a single frame of the new Phantom Menace trailer. No joke, ladies and gentlemen. As much as you may like or dislike him, Jar Jar Binks is the face of Phantom Menace, not merely the reviled face of Everything That’s Wrong With the Prequels. The sad fact is that Binks isn’t even the fifth worst thing about Phantom Menace, and much like midichlorians, virgin births, and the stick up Samuel L. Jackson’s ass, he, too, will be given a chance to suck in the third dimension. But, unlike all that, the only hint of Jar Jar’s existence is the brief clip of the Gungan army hurling superballs at battle droids.

This is revisionist history, and, in a way, it’s worse than spending a few million dollars to make sure that Ewoks can blink. Yes, it’s also a cloying admission of guilt on Lucas’ part, and the fact that the guy owns up to such a colossal misfiring is, in a way, worth note. At the same time, Binks is conspicuous in his absence. Re-releasing any movie is an obvious cash grab, and, outside of Disney’s first few shots with The Nightmare Before Christmas, most don’t have much lasting impact. But Phantom Menace represents something much larger, a six year plan that likely represents a huge chunk of change for both Lucas and 20th Century Fox. Now that all six live-action films are out in the wild, it’s necessary to start at the beginning, despite Phantom Menace‘s poor standing as the worst in the saga. No whiff of its stench can be wafted to those in the theatre for Hugo or any other movie this plays before, especially considering that a new generation is due to be introduced to Star Wars and, unfortunately, this is their first shot that isn’t toy or Cartoon Network related.

If we accept that Jar Jar is the face of Phantom Menace, and that that’s exactly what George Lucas wanted, then it follows that his taking Binks out of the trailer and replacing him with pretty much every explosion in the film represents Lucas acknowledging that everybody who saw the movie deemed his version unworthy. James Cameron, at least, has the stones to put “My Heart Will Go On” in the new Titanic trailer, not to mention his willingness to expose the film as one where Leonardo DiCaprio pretty much stands on things and yells about how great the experience of standing on them feels. It’s a cash grab, but it’s an honest one. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is trying to present itself, once and for all, as the beginnings of a cultural milestone and, in redefining itself, looks more boring and pretentious than the grab bag of rehashed cultural stereotypes and  Laurel and Hardy gags no digital editing or 3D surcharges can blind an audience to.

This is naïve, but I expect a creator to stand by their decade-old work, especially while holding out the collection plate. The trailer for Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son didn’t try to convince anybody that it wasn’t a cinematic black hole, and it’s not fair that Lucas is trying to hide Howard the Duck by pretending to present The Empire Strikes Back. What’s worse is that the dude has an advantage: we now live in a society where everything we spend money on is automatically great because we don’t want to look stupid for consuming it. I don’t think anybody paying to see Phantom Menace in February will do so under the assumption that it’s a misunderstood masterwork, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any grown man in a Jedi robe that weekend willing to admit his folly. Hell, put it in IMAX, and I might just break out my Darth Vader voice changer. But unless this is the Phantom Edit, let me do so knowing full well that I’m seeing Phantom Menace, warts and all.