How The Phantom Menace Destroyed a Generation

I think now is a good time to reflect upon how fundamentally weird it is that after this weekend, Star Wars will never be the same.

Imagine a devout Christian learning that an additional testament to the bible has just been discovered. They don’t know if this newer testament will be good or bad, whether it will be in keeping with what spoke to them regarding the previous testament, whether it will be full of excellent moral guidance or a disillusioning disappointment. But the one thing they know for sure is that a significant part of their identity will change.

The same is true for Star Wars. People may dismiss it as some silly movies, but that drastically understates its importance. Movies are our culture, our mythology. They reflect our ways of viewing the world, but that causality goes both ways. The shared experience we have of the movies we watch frames and informs on how we relate to each other and the world at large.

And in this respect, no movie franchise is more important than Star Wars. We see the world through the lens that Star Wars gave us. We see the light side and the dark side; the Evil Empire and the connection between all living things; oppressive soulless dictators that can only be brought down by idealistic scrappy heroes and dashing rogues with a heart of gold; an amazing adventure that awaits from us if we can escape our boring everyday life and circumstances.

To quote from Imaginationland, my favorite episode of South Park, “Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? … They’ve changed my life – changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but, but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.”

And this weekend, this fundamental aspect of our culture and how we see the world is going to change.

This isn’t the first time we faced a change like this. When The Phantom Menace came out, it had an enormous impact on the culture and on ourselves, and not for the better. Nobody noticed the impact at the time. Everyone saw it as merely a disappointing movie, not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But looking back, we can see how this bad movie changed our view of the world.

Think back to what the world was like between the releases of Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, from 1983 – 1999: (Or for you younger people, let me tell you.)

In the 80s, the US was locked in an existential struggle with the Soviet Union. This fit perfectly into the framework provided by Star Wars. We were the scrappy freedom-loving good-hearted individualists, while the Soviets were the dour oppressive monsters bent on universal domination. Ronald Reagan even called the Soviets the Evil Empire. But there was also hope and a sense of wonder. The world was getting better and everyone was getting happier, and we all had faith that we would prevail in this struggle.

Then Communism fell; the Empire was defeated. And we got to reap the rewards. The world was more or less at peace. Technology was accelerating at a pace never before seen in the history of the world. We had hundreds of cable channels. Video games transitioned from being kids’ toys to an entirely new form of entertainment for everyone. E-mail removed physical location as a qualification for friendship, as we could instantly correspond with anyone in the world. Amazon changed the way we bought stuff, removing from our lives the hassle of going to physical stores and trying to find what we want. Ubiquitous cell phones added another layer of convenience and awesomeness. The dot-com boom made millionaires out of anyone who glanced in the general direction of the internet.

Things were wonderful. There was optimism and hope, and the belief that everything was only going to get better.

And to top it off, we were getting new Star Wars. To those of us who came of age during this period, new Star Wars was the most amazing thing of all. The holy grail, the new book in our bible. Something we had been dreaming of since we were kids.

I remember sitting in the theater, just as the movie was about to begin, and my roommate turned to me and said, “Our whole lives have led up to this.” He was being a bit facetious and over-the-top, but in another sense this was true. Ever since we could remember, we had been anticipating and wondering what new Star Wars would be like. And it was finally happening.

Then we got this thing we had always dreamed of, and it turned out to be terrible.

That moment changed everything. The optimism and hope of the 90s gave way to the dour cynicism of the 2000s. We realized that nothing would ever be as good as we had hoped. The things people loved were all awful. The world was a cold and unforgiving place that didn’t care about your hopes and dreams. There’s was no wonder, no joy, nothing to be delighted in. The best we could do was seek out the worst of things and take ironic amusement in how bad they were. We devoted our time to tearing things down, eking out a tiny bit of comfort in our ability to point out flaws in the things that didn’t meet our standards. Since nothing ever met our standards, this meant tearing down the entire world.

Of course there were other things going on the world that contributed to this shift in outlook. The dot-com crash brought down the economy due to all those bad ideas that were making people rich in the 90s. The debacle of the 2000 election, where both sides were absolutely convinced the other was trying to steal the election, made us forget that people can disagree with us on politics without being evil. The prevalence of arguments on the internet made us forget that those people who disagree are human at all. And of course there was 9/11, the Iraq war, and the rise of Islamic terrorism.

The content of Phantom Menace gave us a negative framework that we used to view these events. Political leaders were not merely misguided, but were cynically and intentionally creating wars out of nothing in order to further their own rise to power. The so-called wise people were misguided fools who served as tools for the evil leaders’ ends. Success was not the result of hard work, diligence, or merit. Instead, annoying buffoons like Jar Jar and young Anakin bumbled their way through a series of ridiculous situations and prevailed out of dumb luck. Where we had all been confident we would triumph over the Soviet Union, nobody had any hope of winning against Islamic terrorism, or even a way to conceptualize what victory would mean. Any efforts to improve things were inevitably doomed to not only fail but actively make things worse, playing right into the hands of the evil people’s evil conspiracy. Just like the struggle between the droids/clones/Trade Federation/separatists, we see the world as depressing incoherent nonsense.

Art reflects life, but we view life through the context that art provides.

Phantom Menace also changed the way we relate to movies. We don’t want to be hurt again, so we won’t allow ourselves to love and connect to movies in the same way. For our generation, there will never again be anything like Star Wars. And it’s questionable whether any generation will have something like that in the foreseeable future. Harry Potter is huge and beloved, mostly by people who were too young to be disillusioned by The Phantom Menace. But as big as Harry Potter is, it doesn’t have anywhere near the cultural, emotional, and mythological impact of Star Wars.

Think of the hatred people have for George Lucas. He created this thing that we love, but then it took on a life of its own, and became much bigger than him. Star Wars was part of our culture, our mythology, and our souls. With Phantom Menace, Lucas reached into our souls, grabbed a piece of our identity, and crushed it. People can’t forgive that, despite the fact that he is the one that gave us the gift of the original Star Wars in the first place.

And now, once again, Star Wars is going to change. And this is going to be a different sort of change than happened in 1999. We’ll get new characters, worlds, stories, and outlooks, and early reviews indicate that these will be a vast improvement over the disaster of the prequels. But the more important change is that there’s going to be a new Star Wars movie every year.

My fear is that this is going to make Star Wars stop being special, and turn it into something more like James Bond. A new Bond movie has come out every few years for half a century. Some are better than others, and some people find them entertaining while others don’t. But they aren’t part of our culture and mythology; not in the same way as Star Wars.

If I were to ask what happens in Return of the Jedi, you could tell me. Even if you aren’t a Star Wars fan, and even if you haven’t seen the movie. There are all sorts of videos of people who have never seen the Star Wars movies describing them. While we laugh at the minor details they get wrong, everyone knows the overall gist. By contrast, if I were to ask you to describe, say, Die Another Day, you probably couldn’t. Hell, I’m a movie expert and a Bond fan, and *I* don’t remember what happened in that movie. Nor do I care enough to look it up, which is kind of the point.

There are far more James Bond movies than Star Wars movies. This makes them common, and gives us a lot less reason to care. And I fear that the same will be true of Star Wars movies once there’s a new one every year.

In a sense, this is the last time we’ll get new Star Wars as a cultural force. Instead, we’ll get yearly additions to the Star Wars franchise, and that is a very different thing.

Perhaps this is for the best. We can’t undo the damage of The Phantom Menace. It may be that all we can hope for is to end the relationship we have with Star Wars entirely. If someone breaks your heart, you can only really move on once you stop caring about them.

I’ll still be seeing The Force Awakens this weekend, and expect to see each new movie as it comes out. I am hoping to enjoy it. But I’m assuming that at best I will enjoy it on the level of a reasonably entertaining movie. It won’t be creating new mythology, and it won’t be adding a new chapter to the book that is written in our souls. That book is finished and closed, never to be opened again. This is the way things are, and we have to accept it.

I opened this essay by comparing new Star Wars to a freshly discovered testament to the Bible. And that analogy is apt in a different way: To a devout Christian, the notion of an additional testament is absurd. The bible is the bible, the revealed word of god, and it’s not going to change.

So this weekend, let’s all enjoy a (hopefully) fun romp of a movie, while saying goodbye to the connection we hold in our hearts for the original trilogy. We may not be ready to let go, and we may prefer it was otherwise, but we don’t have any choice in the matter.

And hey, there’s a new Harry Potter movie coming out next year.

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