My Love/Hate for Star Wars Episode I

Today was that inofficial Star Wars public holiday named „May the Fourth“ and some stuff happened. First of all the release of „Tales of the Empire“, a new trailer for the upcoming show „The Acolyte“ and the timed re-release of Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace. A movie that came out 25 years ago and also brought me back to the time in 1999.

Back when I was 17 in 1999.

Maybe some background first. At the time I was around 17, started to look into my driving license, started the last two years of school and had one of the most profound experiences of my life, a total eclipse just happening outside on August 11th 1999. Why am I telling you this? Because around one week later was the release in Germany of „Die dunkle Bedrohung“, nearly three months later than the original release of the movie in the US. Back then it was quite common that movies came to Germany with some months of delay. And I think the reason why this is no longer the case today, has something to do with Star Wars Episode I.

Back in those years, I was a big Star Wars fan. I watched the movies on VHS tapes and the Special Editions two year before in the cinema. I was playing all PC games that came out like X-Wing, TIE Fighter, Rebel Assault, Jedi Knight and so on. I was reading the quasi follow-up novels by Timothy Zahn. I was diving into the CD-ROM library „Behind the Magic“ which was detailing all those character and sub-stories that were happening in the background. And this was also the time, that I really found out that the person in my favorite scene in Jedi was named Arvel Crynyd.

At this point, I have seen all original movies multiple times and could even recite them. Sure, there had been this one time when there was this multimedia event named „Shadows of the Empire“ that had books and games and whatnot, but no major mainline movie. I remember when I was borrowing VHS tapes years before I bought them myself and asked my uncle why the original Star Wars movies are named as Episode IV, V and VI respectively. Where are episodes I, II and III? I think he did not have an answer then and was mentioning that they could be made eventually. But that took a few more years. Then, sometime in early 1999, the first trailer was airing on German television and I was taping it once it came out and… let’s just say that VHS tape was pretty worn out at the position where that trailer was recorded.

The original Star Wars Episode I trailer

At the time it was totally different than what I have seen before, yet felt somewhat familiar. Once it was out in the US, something happened, that had not been done in that magnitude: Piracy. Days after the first showings, recordings appeared on the Internet and were spreading via burnt Video-CDs like wildfire. I remember my best friend at the time, got ahold of one those versions and we were watching the first 10-15 minutes of the movie before we stopped. It was a very low quality video and audio was pretty bad, but we decided not to spoil ourselves with the entire movie and had to wait a few more months until the original translated version was released.

Then, in late August, it was time. I think I watched it at least two or three times over the span of several weeks. Then again, when the VHS tape came out, the movie was even longer with additional scenes (for example the Podracing scene had several extended scenes that wasn’t in the original theatre cut). When the DVD came out years later, they changed another bits, namely puppet Yoda was replaced by CGI Yoda.

But there are some things to be said about this movie. It never reached the height of any of the original movies, though the Dual of the Fates scenes are among the best cinematic experiences I have ever had in a movie. Just when the choir starts with their chant, I’m getting immediate goosebumps. And the fight between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is like a wild, violent dance with lightsabers. In 2020, only a few weeks before the first Covid lockdowns happened, I was attending a concert in Stuttgart named „John Williams vs. Hans Zimmer“ and they had Dual of the Fates on the tracklist, together with a complete choir. It was a magical experience and something I will never forget. Just like the first time I was hearing this soundtrack in the movie and seeing that fight scene.

The overall story… well… it’s a mess. The first 10-15 minutes are amongst the heaviest rail-roady storytelling I have ever seen. Stuff happens here and there, characters are not fully introduced and yet they are being protrayed as if you would have known them for a time. Sure, we already know Obi-Wan already… or at least the person he would eventually become, but who the hell was this Qui-Gon Jinn guy. And this Gungan Jar Jar Binks. But I couldn’t really hit it on the nail what exactly was wrong with this movie, until I found this well-known documentary / horror-movie, i.e. the Plinkett Reviews.

It’s become some sort-of must-see-documentary about what and how this movie shows bad signs of movie making, but overall it started a new trilogy of movies that eventually culminated in the release of Star Wars Episode III in May 2005. At that point in time, Star Wars was finished. Done. Completed. Maybe the animated Clone Wars show expanded a little bit on the backstory between Episode II and III, but overall the Saga was done. Well… until 2012, when Disney bought up Lucasfilm and announced the creation of a new movie in 2015.

Which brings us to today. Now, the entire franchise has several stand-alone movies, TV shows, animated shows, comics, novels and new timelines. There are things happening in the High Republic times and we have also seen the results after the Galactic Civil War 20-30 years later. Last years Ahsoka show was so interwoven in current storylines that you would have to have seen Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and other shows just to understand most of the plot happening there. It’s feeling no longer like fun but more like homework that you would have to do in order to understand and appreciate the narrative. And yet, Disney decided to re-release the original Episode I. As mentioned above, it kinda felt off back in the day and it seems like a generational shift in appreciation. Like with the Ewoks in Episode VI who were hated by grown-up viewers back in the 80s, but I myself loved them, when I saw the movies in the early 90s. Similarly, later Millennials and Gen Z’ers have a more fond appreciation for Episode I than I had. It didn’t spark the flame for me, but now it seems like the general audience loves this movie more than in the beginning. It’s also sad to see that some of the original castmembers like Ahmed Best, Jake Lloyd and in later movies Hayden Christensen got so much hate for their characters and either had their careers be very difficult or had them to deal with mental illnesses.

2023 Star Wars Celebration: Fan reaction to Hayden Christensens appearance
Ahmed Best interview about his personal struggles after Star Wars

It’s sad to see that this movie that has brought so much joy to many people has been also the reason for so many sad moments. And looking at some of the Red Letter Media stuff, it becomes clear that none of these issues of the movie are their fault. While the original trilogy was more like a combined effort of many contributors around George Lucas, the Prequel trilogy feels more like a one-man show with writing and directing by him personally. And you can see some of these effects 20 years later pretty much. Lucas wanted to use these movies also as a means to push the digitalisation of film making. While episode 1 and 2 had lots of on-site shoots on real locations, most of episode 3 was shot on a blue or greenscreen. With regards to cameras, episode 2 and 3 were shot with the first versions of digital cameras and they only had a rough 1080p resolution, far away from today’s standard of 4K with more and more cameras being able to shoot in 8K. So, episode I was still shot on film but it had lots of VFX being done in post-production… and this was VISIBLE today. Even worse, you could even distinguish what was done in some scenes. Remember when I was saying before that the theatrical version and the VHS release was different and had additional scenes for the home release? Those scenes looked like they had been upscaled with a bad algorithm and you could really tell what was in the original version, what came with the VHS release and what was placed into the movie with the DVD or BluRay releases. Some of the CGI elements suffered from low-poly textures and since this movie was shown on a 4K projector, you could really feel that this movie has aged poorly in a technological way. I remember when the OG trilogy came out in 1997 and they had lots of remastering done on it to give it a more modern look-and-feel. And I did not have the feel that this also would apply to Episode I, even though it was produced a few years later than the Special Editions. And I fear how Episode II and III would look like on such a screen today. Sure, it was an influential movie that would see a rise in the use of VFX but it already felt outdated by Episode II when the first movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out.

But overall… I had fun. It was really exciting to hear the old 20th Century Fox fanfare starting the movie and slowly transitioning into the Star Wars crawl. Hearing Dual of the Fates again. Watching the threeway lightsaber fight with Darth Maul. The excitement of the Podrace. Listening Yoda’s most important line for the 2020s „Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to Anger. Anger leads to Hate. Hate leads to Suffering.“ Despite its lacks and poor remaster quality, stale dialogues, bad acting, bad directing… I had a great time. I felt like 17 again just for a brief moment. Traveling back to a much more simple time in 1999. When Star Wars only had 4 movies.

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