Posted on January 18, 2016
In 1999, a friend and I started to notice the advance viral marketing for a movie called The Matrix. There wasn’t much at first, just a few very short commercials that included that amazing scene where Trinity leaps into the air, goes into bullet time, and then plants a perfect crane kick on a cop’s chin. It was the first inkling of a movie that would change the style of action films forever.
The website, www.whatisthematrix.com (I checked, it’s no longer active) yielded just the most intriguing tidbits about the movie. As my friend and I got more and more hooked on hunting down information on the web, one of our coworkers turned to us and said, in a tone so smug I can’t reproduce it in text, “There is only one movie opening this summer.”
Of course, he was talking about The Phantom Menace.
The Matrix turned out to be one of the best action films ever made and The Phantom Menace turned out to be a gut wrenching disappointment. And then, one after another, the prequels fell in their awful, stilted way, gradually cutting out the hearts of fans everywhere.
I was lucky enough to have seen Episode IV in the theater on its first release without having any idea what it was about. In those days, hoopla moved at a printed pace and hadn’t quite reached my little hillbilly hamlet in Virginia by the time I wandered into the Reb Yank theater quite unawares. Another bit of luck: despite the move toward multiplexes, they hadn’t gotten around to cutting up the Reb Yank yet. It was still a gigantic, wide screen fit for 70mm spactaculars. So when those ships went over head in the opening scene, it literally blew my mind.
Literally. Gray matter splattered all over the seats. A woman screaming in the row behind me. An ambulance called… Okay, so not “literally” but it definitely figuratively blew my mind.
You have to remember that the sate of science fiction movies between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: A New Hope was mostly rear screen projection and mat paintings. It was The Green Slime, Fantastic Voyage, and Silent Running.
A person’s first viewing of Star Wars that summer was essentially their introduction to the future of special effects. But it was also a hopeful film that created a fictional universe everyone wanted to live in. It made people excited about science fiction again. It offered… wait for it… A New Hope.
Then Empire came out and it was even better. There were warning signs of bad things to come in Return of the Jedi, but I overlooked them because it was a Star Wars film! The ghosts of the force, the Ewoks, some really awful dialog all went under my radar until The Phantom Menace came out and it all sort of popped in my mind.
Maybe George Lucas was a technical genius who needed someone like Lawrence Kasden to punch up his scripts and smooth out the rough edges. Maybe Lucas was just falling too much in love with the SFX and the river of cash he was making from the toys. I don’t know but not only did I find the prequels to be largely unwatchable (Who gets a bad performance out of Samuel L. Jackson? That’s a special talent.) but it also soured any love I had for the Star Wars universe.
The Force Awakens changed all that. Apart from good acting and writing and directing and a striking visual style, TFA also had the one thing that had been missing from the prequels: It was fun. I’ve seen it three times and I’m going to keep seeing until it leaves the theater. Why? Because it’s fun.