Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace came out when I was 5 years old. I had seen the original trilogy several times before, but this was my very first theatrical Star Wars experience. I was on summer vacation in Stowe, Vermont, and my grandpa brought me to the little 3plex theater in town. I vaguely recall feeling exhilarated, but the only specific memory I formed that day was when grandpa leaned down and told me it was time to go, “it’s basically over.” The credits had not rolled yet, and I was very confused. Never in my tiny life had this happened before, I didn’t even realize it was possible to leave a movie before it was over.
I remember anxiously awaiting my chance to see the end of Phantom Menace. I played lightsaber battle on the playground and re-lived the film through the many toys I got for Christmas. (I still have a Jar Jar action figure, and it still says “Meesa called Jar Jar Bink!” when you push the button on his back”). It was a full year before I got the VHS in my Easter basket. I popped that sucker into the VCR and marveled at the existing Star Wars that I had yet to see.
I remember for awhile I thought of this as seriously offensive thing my grandpa did. Why would you deny a child all the Phantom Menace he wanted? It was one of those many small moments from childhood where you feel powerless and confused. But I grew up, and revisited the Phantom Menace, and realized it is a nigh unwatchable dirge of gibberish. As a child I was genuinely thrilled that the jedi could jump so high and that Darth Maul had a dual-bladed lightsaber (that’s twice the amount of blades that most lightsabers have). To a more consciously thinking human it is relentlessly boring, impossible to understand, and full of ugly racist caricatures. When I got my sticky little hands on that videotape I realized all I’d missed was a scene of the heroes celebrating their victory with a parade. It’s less than 90 seconds. Which means Grandpa, who by all accounts had no interest in Star Wars or science fiction, endured 2 hours and 8 minutes of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. He’s a goddamn hero. I can only imagine he felt at least as powerless and confused as I did.
I don’t know why I’m writing about this. I sat down to write a review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but I can’t bring myself to expunge all the ways I hate that movie. It’s a film of debilitating cowardice and disturbing hubris. It fears it’s own fans, and shamelessly reanimates corpses, both narrative and literal. I don’t want to get into it.
Since seeing Phantom Menace with Grandpa I have rewatched it many times. I’ve spent hours talking about it with friends and family, picking apart all the ways it makes no sense, laughing at the absurd background characters whose full biographies exist on Wookieepedia. In addition to the ironic joy I’ve derived from Phantom Menace, I’ve come to genuinely respect it for its contribution to cinematic history. (George Lucas invented an entirely new process for how films could be made, and willed digital filmmaking and projection into existence.) It’s an objectively bad movie but I’m glad it exists. It’s an important piece of the Star Wars story. I’m not talking about the fictional narrative of the 9 movie “Skywalker Saga,” but the story of a series of films and how they interacted with my life, and with our culture.
I grew up invested in the character Luke Skywalker, but also in the character George Lucas. Harrison Ford begged for his character to be killed, Carrie Fisher rewrote her own dialogue. I first discovered Darth Vader’s sad, terrifying withered face when I took the mask off a toy I had. My babysitter took me to KB Toys and bought me a totally rad Darth Maul lightsaber. The day Revenge of the Sith came out I went into school late because my dad took my brother and I to see it as soon as possible. And when I was 5 my grandpa endured The Phantom Menace, and we left a little early. This is all the stuff I love about the Star Wars saga. And now there’s a whole new chapter. Yes, it’s about Rey, Finn, and Poe, but it’s also about JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy. It’s about Mark Hamill vehemently disagreeing with Rian Johnson. On opening night of The Last Jedi, despite having bought tickets months in advance, I missed the first few minutes of the film because one of the theater’s projectors blew and they had to throw away any notion of assigned seating. All of this is the story of Star Wars, too.
I think the point I’m circling is that I hope little kids enjoy Rise of Skywalker. I’m sure they will. They’ll probably adore D-0 and Babu Frik, and dress as Zorii Bliss for Halloween, and have nightmares about the Emperor. I don’t think our standards for “kids movies” should be lower than for “adult movies,” if anything it should be the opposite. And I despise so much about this film’s ethos. But kids grow up, and they’ll develop their own, more conscious opinions about how these 9 films rank. For some, Rise of Skywalker will be their favorite, and others may realize they hate it. Either way I hope they spend hours talking about all the goofy bullshit that doesn’t make sense, like why are droids designed for battle so fragile? And why do the Stormtroopers never hit their targets? But they’ll still rewatch it along with the other Star Wars’, because they’ll have that experience of seeing it when they were little with their heroically patient grandfather at their side.