“We’ve decided to make it official. I know this is difficult for you, Han, but please respect our wishes.”
The saga continues…
Ever since trailers had appeared the previous winter, The Phantom Menace had blotted out just about everything else on the cultural landscape. I think I’d first seen the trailer attached to Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, or maybe the previous Star Trek movie, Insurrection.
It was breath-taking. It could not have looked bigger or more spectacular, a rush of gigantic monsters, zooming pod racers and Jedi knights clashing lightsabres, accompanied by the John Williams music we know so well.
Watch it today, and you’ll still feel a residue of excitement, a reminder of a time when you could be nakedly enthusiastic about a film coming out in the pictures. The baddie, Darth Maul, with his iconic evil tomato make-up, looked terrific, and the brief glimpses of lightsabre duelling had a gymnastic elasticity that couldn’t have contrasted any more sharply with Alec Guinness and Dave Prowse’s arthritic three-point turns in the original Star Wars.
The new film had been seeded in my mind much earlier, thanks to my aforementioned sci-fi mate, who was then studying for a postgraduate qualification. He’d gotten hold of some production pictures out of one of the American magazines, perhaps Entertainment Weekly, and they looked terrific on his office wall – Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan, and Ray Park in full Darth Maul costume, taking a flying leap at each other in the desert.
An image which would not appear in the finished movie.
Before this, of course, had been the Special Editions of 1997. Now routinely abused by people pining after the original cuts and hand-made effects, these palimpsests were instrumental in rekindling interest in Star Wars and also priming a new generation for what was to come. The children who had grown up with Star Wars – people of my generation – were now in their late teens and early twenties, college age. While there was an element of ironic appraisal in reliving these relics of childhood, in keeping with the tone of the Britpop/Grunge era (certainly we all went to see The Empire Strikes Back with a few drinks in us), it nonetheless triggered a fresh appraisal of the series.
Also in 1997 there was a documentary from the BBC, possibly by Alan Yentob, released in tandem with the original movie’s 20th anniversary. It followed Ewan McGregor during his first day on set of The Phantom Menace, getting his hair shorn and meeting Jake Lloyd. There was also footage of him sat alone in a cinema, watching a screening of the Special Edition of Star Wars – or, as George Lucas insisted we should call it, A New Hope.
“Look at the detail, there,” McGregor said, when Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen’s barbecue spare rib corpses appeared on-screen. “That’s horrible.”
I’d dug out my battered VHS video copies of the original trilogy as far back as 1996. I am not sure whether news of the forthcoming Special Editions, and rumours of a new trilogy, had prompted this. I do know I was in the middle of an intense movies phase, gorging myself on cinema, a kind of tertiary education to my ongoing studies in English literature. Coppola, Scorsese, De Niro, Polanski, Spielberg and Nicholson were my tutors, my idols, at this time. George Lucas was part of that awesome wave of 1970s film-making, and so I reviewed Star Wars with a keener eye as an older youth, and not just for nostalgia purposes. It had been years since I’d last watched the films, perhaps as far back as when I was 11 or 12.
A curious thing to note about my love for Star Wars when I was a kid: although I watched the films again and again, and the toys were my favourites, I never warmed to Luke Skywalker. He was a bit of a whiner, a teensy bit pathetic. I much preferred Han Solo’s buccaneering style and swagger, not to mention the fact that, ultimately, he gets the girl.
And who didn’t want that girl?
I definitely favoured the random and clumsy action of a blaster to the elegant, civilised strobe-swishes of the lightsabre (though I had a lovely green lightsabre toy when I was seven).
I thought Darth Vader was even better than Han Solo. I didn’t see any moral problem with Vader emerging victorious, kind of, in Cloud City, although I was confused at the time as to how Vader could be Luke’s father as they weren’t exactly dead ringers.
Fast-forward to the age of 19, and I could relate much more to Luke Skywalker’s journey. We always strive for meaning and relevance in art in relation to our own lives at impressionable ages, and I was still enough of a fantasist to see some correlation between my own voyage through academic life and Luke Skywalker’s journey from dirt poor farm boy to stone-cold, black-clad, intergalactic badass.
Except that I couldn’t lay claim to great deeds, heroism, or even any romance to speak of.
Go forward a bit further, and in spring 1999 I was in the midst of what some people these days recognise as a crisis among a population that is better educated than ever before, but not necessarily cleverer or better-off than previous generations. Uni has finished; working life has begun; your previously upwards trajectory has flattened out into a wavering straight line towards mediocrity.
In retrospect, what I should have been doing was learning to drive, staying out of the pub, minding my pennies and saving a deposit for a flat. But it’s difficult to say this to guys aged 21/22, of course, as your life revolves around leisure, particularly drinking. I look back on this as a waste, but I did have fun.
Girls… you want to know more about them, I guess. Hang on for a wee bit. I’ll come back to them.
I was working under a total prick, a caricature of a boss straight out of a badly dated sitcom, while his number two managed to combine stridently feminist principles with sitting on middle-aged bosses’ knees at corporate parties. I came from Glasgow, I lived in Glasgow, and I worked in Glasgow, but I was the only Glaswegian in the office, and I felt very much like the outsider. “Going nowhere fast” was my theme.
And so, in the midst of this, came The Phantom Menace.
I had an absurd sense that I might die before getting to see it. I joked about this with friends beforehand, but the scenario became something that actually made me anxious. It was reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s fear that he might expire mid-season in Fever Pitch, the final reckoning of league tables and raised silverware unknown. Imagine waiting all this time, and not getting to see The Phantom Menace?
But the day finally arrived, balmy and bright. There were four of us in the squad. My sci-fi mate was antsy as we shuffled into one of four screens showing the movie, but settled down when he realised that we were bang on time, the deflector shields were up, and we were not to be denied. The cinema was packed out. We had plum pre-booked seats, right in the middle of the theatre. We scoffed our nachos and rancid cheese before the static adverts on screen had ended.
The trailers came and went. The title card came up. A few people cheered. My pal’s legs beat a faintly obscene tattoo. He was still young, and like the rest of us, I’d bet he never thought he would see a brand new Star Wars film in the cinema.
“Lucasfilm” flashed up. Then came the 20th Century Fox overture.
Then, in familiar pale blue script, amid a hush almost crackling with energy, came the legend: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Hey… you’re in media res. You want to read Episode One first, don’t you?
Or, you can go about your business with Episode Three. Move along. Move along.