Episode I--The Phantom Menace
Not only now but every week, I am reminded at two-minute intervals of the influence of Star Wars. It's enough for me to pause in my writing; the computer goes black, and dots of light begin streaking toward me from the machine's illusory depths. If you were to seek the origin of this common screensaver, you'd probably go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the plunge through deep space made its appearance as a novelty. It took the popularity of Star Wars nine years later to transform such imagery into a visual cliché, so that the star-field animation is today the unconscious of my writing machine.
In 1977 Star Wars was all about that crossover between novelty and cliché. I joined in one of the many opening-day audiences and can testify to the viewers' reaction when the long-winded opening text finished scrolling into the distance and the shining underbelly of a spaceship slid onto the screen. For the first few seconds the crowd remained quiet, having seen this sort of thing before. But when the ship kept coming, stretching beyond all expectation, a murmur grew with it, and kept growing until more spaceships--fighters--zoomed into view, at which point the rumble opened out to a full-throated cheer. This was a picture we felt we'd carried in our minds, even though we'd never seen it before. Now George Lucas had realized it more fully than we could have hoped, joining familiarity with surprise.
At that moment, some of us were also giddy enough to feel we'd triumphed over the past. Lucas was young. He lived in Northern California, not Hollywood. He'd previously made only small, personal films (THX 1138 and American Graffiti) and was allied with Francis Coppola, who seemed at the time to be a rebel shaking the film industry from within. If Lucas's rebellion in Star Wars involved the summing up to perfection of a century's worth of sci-fi illustrations, that merely proved the vitality of his project. Too many older directors had abandoned the virtues of visual storytelling--so said the conventional wisdom. But Lucas, like others from the film school generation, had returned to earlier and better models. In Star Wars he carried you along for minutes on end with sequences that were virtually wordless.
The feeling that the past had been redeemed was made visible in Star Wars. Its most conspicuous sign was the use of the old-fashioned scene-changing device of the wipe: An image would roll up like a window shade or a fan to reveal another, as in a serial from the thirties or forties. There was no sense of nostalgia about these throwbacks. They hinted instead at an awakening to innocence, as if the "simpler time" that Americans see in the past could now be achieved, thanks to the vigor of the young.
In 1977 it was easy for Americans to think in such terms. Only two years before, ill-equipped rebels in a faraway place had in fact defeated the empire, whose citizens, never comfortable with seeing themselves at the controls of the Death Star, now wanted to join the winning side, if only in fantasy, if only for a laugh. And laughter was easy, now that Richard Nixon had relieved us of his burden. That stiff, cold-eyed figure with the booming voice, our national Darth Vader, had fled the world's stage--permanently, we thought--taking with him a load of schemes and slaughters. Star Wars played upon this recent history, sometimes with insouciance, sometimes with a sap-headed religiosity--which was pretty much how Americans in 1977 mythologized their country, lauding what they saw as its fundamental goodness, mocking the lone madman who had betrayed it to the dark side.
Now the President we mock is of the same generation as Lucas. "Star Wars" has become the tag for our empire's space-based missile defense system. Images of deep space, unrenewed by wit, gape from every desktop. After twenty-two years, as we contemplate the "beginning" of the Star Wars series with Episode I--The Phantom Menace, perhaps the least interesting question we could ask would be, "Is this a good movie?"
If "good" denotes a combination of technical polish and narrative drive, then I suppose the trivial answer would be yes. The settings are impressive and beautiful: an underwater city made of glowing bubbles; a palace complex that might have been built by Shah Jahan after a visit to St. Peter's; a Metropolis the size of a planet, where you never see the subterranean levels but only the sections that float in the sky. You go from the core of a world to the clouds, from lush forest to desert to the chill of space; and just as Lucas takes care to vary his terrain, so too does he skillfully change pace and mood. Big, noisy set pieces, such as a race in Ben-Hur style, make way for intimate moments such as a boy's leave-taking from his mother. Even the climax is varied: In a sequence of extended virtuosity, Lucas cuts among battles in four different locations, involving as many sets of characters. Whatever you may think of the substance of Episode I--The Phantom Menace, you can't deny that Lucas has repeated his feat from the opening shot of the original Star Wars. He gives the audience more than they'd expected of exactly what they'd expect.