A phantom ‘failure’?
The original Star Wars trilogy concluded satisfyingly with the release of the 1983 film Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.
In a wire story written by Dale Pollock that ran in the Greensboro News & Record on May 29, 1983, a burned-out George Lucas told Pollock he would be taking at least a two-year vacation before returning to the Star Wars franchise.
Sixteen years and one Howard the Duck movie later, the long-awaited follow-up came in the form of the 1999 prequel Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
Towle: When the first prequel came out, you couldn’t help but be excited about that. I saw the first one several times in the theater and it still had the visual stuff that I liked a lot. I do remember liking it and parts of it, but I do distinctly remember when the film started rolling and you heard that trumpet herald and that crawl with the letters, and when the thing was over, and it just stopped, there was just silence in the theater and people kind of got up and left, and I thought, Well that’s kind of weird.
Parks: So I saw the movie with my friends, and we’re hanging out at the movie theater after the movie, talking. And no one wanted to say that it was horrible. I kept hearing over and over, people were saying, ‘Darth Maul was awesome.’ Or, ‘That pod race, well that was something.’ But no one wanted to talk about how awkward and just not good it was. And I really did think it was horrible.
Jermaine Exum can remember the exact moment when he stopped caring about Star Wars.
The co-manager of Acme Comics in Greensboro had no issue with the poorly regarded first Star Wars prequel. He also managed to endure its dull, tedious follow-up Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
For Exum, the straw that broke the Wookiee’s back was Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The Jedi are being exterminated by Stormtroopers. A group of child Jedi trainees — known as “younglings” — are cowering in their temple only to be viciously mowed down by Anakin Skywalker.
Exum: There’s a variety of heroes to be had in the original [Star Wars] movies. Maybe you’re a Han Solo guy. Maybe you really like the droids. Maybe you like Lando Calrissian. Maybe you like Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker.
In the prequels, you really didn’t have that variety. You either like Obi Wan Kenobi or you like Anakin. And if you did like Anakin, you had to deal with him participating in some pretty dark content for any fantasy/sci-fi series.
He basically kills his fan base. That’s how I’ve always looked at that scene. Kids at that time really liked his character and connected to him because that was what was available. He was the young guy, he was the kid. And sometimes younger audiences will see something like that and say, ‘Hey, that’s the kid.’
The story became so far removed from what I thought it would be or whatever I was hoping it would be that, for a long time, I completely stopped thinking about Star Wars — to the point where I couldn’t even remember some characters’ names.
But not everyone hated the prequels. There are adults today who first watched the prequels when they were kids — or “Jar-Jar babies” — and considered the prequels to be a perfect way to spend time in a dark theater.
Brittini Harbin, a life-long sci-fi/fantasy and comic book nerd and expert at the Apple Store in Greensboro, is one of these so-called Jar-Jar babies. Harbin was 10-years old when The Phantom Menace hit theaters.
Harbin: When the new ones came out in theaters, we went of course. And for the first two, I went with my family. And for the third, I went with a friend. And so it kind of represented the transition from being a kid-kid and starting to do things on your own. Everyone now will talk about how bad they were, but those were the new ones to us. We saw those in the theaters, and at the time, I did like those characters and did think those movies were better. But now that I’m not 13, I know that they are not better.
And it’s funny. At the end of the last movie, the guy sitting in front of us kind of stood up and he was like, ‘And you can just tell there’s gonna be a sequel!’ My friend Jamie and I laughed really hard, and it was probably rude, but thinking back, we knew what was coming up after that. These were prequels, but he had no idea.
Parks: I realized those movies were not made for me. Episode I, II and III, they were not made for a guy who is 40 years old right now who loved Star Wars all his life. They were made for kids who wouldn’t think Jar-Jar is stupid.