The personal force of The Force
By Dennis Michael
May 18, 1999
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- I've found myself explaining to a fellow reporter how to pronounce the name 'Qui-Gon Jinn.' (It's KWI-gon Ginn.)
I spent hours one day last week covering the story of people camping out for tickets to this Wednesday's opening of "Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace."
And before we go any further, I confess that the idea of raiding Toys "R" Us at midnight to squander a fortune on "Star Wars" toys -- toys that in many instances will never spend even a moment in the hands of childhood-aged children -- is incomprehensible to me. (Serious collectors keep them pristine in the package, unopened and unblemished by the wear and tear of fun.)
But as with any cultural phenomenon that sweeps through the public awareness like a strong wind, the epic (story and event) that is "Star Wars" can be made to carry more baggage than it really deserves.
"The Phantom Menace" -- despite happening even longer ago in that galaxy far, far away -- has some real meaning in the here and now.
A nod here is due to the late Joseph Campbell, a scholar who recognized the elements of classic myth recurring in the "Star Wars" saga. In books and on PBS, he linked Luke with King Arthur, Beowulf and Gilgamesh, Darth Vader with Grendel and the evil Mordred of the Arthur legends.
The Hero's journey is the same whether it's Orpheus in the underworld or Luke passing through Dagobah. Our reaction to the "Star Wars" mythos is programmed into our DNA as human beings.
George Lucas tapped into the same stories that we all share subconsciously, stories that show the triumph of right over wrong and the individual over tyranny, as well as the promise of redemption -- all things just as timely now as in Homer's day.
Hope and redemption? I think I'm ready to sign up for a little of that.
Is the picture too big to earn respect? A bloated "Big Hollywood, Big Studio" epic? Is it too far from the "true faith" of the low-budget independent films?
Well, bigness is relative, but if any film ever deserved the honor of the "ultimate avatar" of the independent film, it's "The Phantom Menace."
Lucasfilm Ltd. funded the film entirely, without a dime from 20th Century-Fox. Fox will distribute the film, and the studio's income on the film comes only from distribution chores.
Because the studio invested no money, it didn't buy the right to tell Lucasfilm what to do. What is an independent film, if "The Phantom Menace" is not?
George Lucas yields no control, artistically or editorially, to focus groups or test audiences. Studio chiefs keep their notions of "story beats," or elements, to themselves. Lucas pays the bill and makes the movie he wants to make. Period. The force is with him.
Other critics find fault with Lucas' heavy use of the latest visual technology.
"The Phantom Menace" is the most technologically advanced film ever made. A few years ago, effects houses bragged of 100, maybe 200 effects shots in a movie. Of the 2,000-odd shots in "The Phantom Menace," only 200 aren't special effects shots.
"The Phantom Menace" may have some slow spots, problems with exposition, characters that haven't become household names and cultural favorites, at least not yet.
It also has the most rapturously beautiful visual flavor I've seen.
Compared to "The Phantom Menace," "Blade Runner" looks like a four-character black-and-white drawing room comedy. The pod race puts the chariot race in "Ben Hur" to shame. David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" never walked a grander desert, and the frozen mansion in "Dr. Zhivago" is a hovel compared to the wonders of the Gungan Underwater City and the gleaming marble of the Royal Palace of Naboo.
Perhaps the answer to all the criticism is to try the simplest test imaginable: look at the result.
Grouse about the T-shirts and all the other commercial tie-ins all you want. Deny your children the Jar Jar Binks action figure if you dare. It doesn't matter.
"Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is a worthy movie to end the millennium. The movie offers hope, beauty, a connection with our shared past and the triumph of the individual.
And to me, at least, that's worth a little "collectibles" overkill.
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