The story continues…
After it was over and the audience shuffled out on the foyer’s scuffed carpet, my sci-fi mate was ecstatic.
“That was everything I ever wanted to see in a Star Wars film. It was amazing. Brilliant.”
“I dunno,” I said. “The big fight at the end was great, but…”
“But what? Come on.”
“It was… alright. It took a wee bit too long to get going.”
Sci-fi guy wasn’t listening, although he bristled at a piece of prime devilment from another pal: “It wasn’t as good as The Matrix.”
The world lost its marbles somewhat over The Phantom Menace. I’d last encountered hype on this scale just over 10 years previously, with Tim Burton’s first Batman movie. My feeling upon leaving the same cinema after The Phantom Menace was much the same.
We were enthused about it all and had been dazzled by the technical wizardry on show, but our expectations had not been met. How could they be? If you expect something is going to be utterly amazing, then you rob it of a key component – surprise. That’s why The Matrix was truly amazing when it came out, and why Tim Burton’s Batman could never be.
I remember lying to myself and to some of my pals about Batman at the time, enthusing that it was the most amazing film ever, when I knew in my heart that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was a superior film in every way. I imagine a lot of people felt the same way in summer 2012 when The Dark Knight Rises landed with a limp, broken-backed thud.
The 1989 Batman still has its defenders, incidentally. The Phantom Menace does not.
The Matrix was new. Its effects were jaw-dropping, its story intriguing. In contrast, the new Star Wars looked and felt like you were watching a Saturday morning cartoon. Which you were.
I’ll discuss this in more detail in Episode Four, but one of many astonishing things about the prequel trilogy was how it seemed hell-bent on tarnishing previously good ideas. One example of this was assigning values to the beautifully abstract concept of being a Jedi.
The Phantom Menace took all the fun out of being a Jedi. In contrast, The Matrix took a well-worn philosophical problem – what if everything you experience is merely a simulation, and you’re actually just a brain in a tank? – and turned it into a blockbuster movie with guns, kung fu and Keanu Reeves. I’d never seen anything like it before.
A sign of the times, I remember being somewhat confused by The Matrix the first time I saw it. Its notions of a self-enclosed fantasy world running through microchips, electronically connected to the brain and determined by trickles of lurid green machine code, was too much for my mind to take in, first bite. I know others felt the same way. You have to remember that computers were all over our workplaces and in many of our homes, but they were not ubiquitous, and the internet was in its infancy as far as mass appeal went. No-one had heard of Google.
Just 16 years later, with Oculus Drift, smartphones and frighteningly immersive video games, The Matrix doesn’t seem all that far-fetched; in fact, I wonder how I could ever have been confused by the idea in the first place.
I took a trainee haematologist to see it, and we’d both said to each other: “What the hell was that?” It fired my blood though; hers, I don’t know about. Sadly, this union wasn’t long in the making. But while our paths diverged, and that lovely girl perhaps always thought that The Matrix was a load of bunk, it stuck with me. I wanted to see it again, and I did. What a bold piece of film-making, I thought; what a terrific statement to make about the movies and virtual reality.
Two bloated, self-important and over-wrought sequels tarnished the name built by the Wachowskis, but the original Matrix is still worth watching whenever it appears on the lower-division digital channels.
I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.
Episode four? Right here.
You want to start at the start? Here’s Episode One.