January 13, 2009

The Phantom Menace Effect - An Essay

To begin, 1999 marked the first documented "Phantom Menace Effect" for me personally; it was an epic experience of victimization that tricked me (and a billion other people) into thinking that a certain sci-fi movie had lived up to its own hype. This thesis explores the phenomenon in full detail with many examples of how Hollywood film studios and producers take advantage of a movie-goer’s nostalgia for old classic films/prequels, novels, comic books and 80s cartoons and uses this to manipulate and cheat us all.

I had my first PME experience during the year that Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace first came to theaters. May 1999, I was in my second year of college taking a Digital Animation course. For this grand occasion, I dressed up as Jabba’s sidekick, Bib Fortuna. Along with a dozen other classmates of mine we all made costumes, stood in line for an hour, had a few beers before the show and were all ecstatic at the thought of witnessing the first new Star Wars film in 16 years.

Little did we know that between this momentous occasion and the time that the film would be released on video that we (and the millions of others) would fall victim to the biggest con in movie history… what I like to call the Phantom Menace Effect!

It was a Wednesday-midnight showing of the Star Wars film, so after the film we all gathered outside of the theater at 2:30 am on a warm Thursday morning, we reminisced over the wonders we had just seen. The sheer awe-inspiring volume and quality of CG environments and characters and the expansion of the Star Wars universe with new mythology, worlds and characters introduced (along with Darth Maul who , in my opinion, had his life cut way too short). It’s as if 12+ animation students (all grown men and women) had shared a 2-hour orgasm in a theater together. Life was good.

In the coming weeks, me and a couple friends of mine went to see the film again… twice! Each time I would especially look forward to the final light saber duel (which I still say is the best one from all 6 films). Each time the “orgasm” was a bit less satisfying, as the accent of the bad guys on the starship, the unnecessarily long pod race sequence, and the mere presence of Jar-Jar Binks were all annoyances that I chose to ignore but were increasingly troublesome on my psyche.

Months went by. I graduated college, and got my first job in the animation business. Pulling long hours animating a character for a Nickelodeon pilot that never came to be, me and my co-workers were counting the minutes until Phantom Menace would be released on VHS at HMV.

The day finally came and my girlfriend bought me the super-special VHS video edition of the Star Wars Episode 1 movie!! It came with a filmstrip from the movie and a mini “Art of” booklet. I was thrilled. I popped in the tape, and watched the whole movie on my little 14 inch TV/VCR combo, without blinking once. Once the movie was over, I felt empty inside. After thinking about it for a few hours, wondering ‘where the magic had gone’ I figured I wouldn’t tell anyone, fearing I would be outcast by friends and family. I kept my disappointment in the movie all to myself. Assuming no one else felt like this, and deep down, secretly I had the feeling that the movie conned me, conned me into thinking it was the best movie ever, conned me into buying 3 movie tickets and one expensive VHS tape, conned me into believing all the hype behind the movie.

Little did I know that EVERYONE felt this way. Very few actually saw the fact that the film was bullshit from the very beginning, who would? We’re talking about STAR WARS! As the weeks went on after the video release, word-of-mouth and the internet were the conduits in spreading the conspiracy theory of how George Lucas had practically raped Star Wars and served it to everyone on a silver platter for everyone devour. And we ALL fell for it. At my work place it was a slow and gradual realization over the fact we had all been fooled. We were victims of the biggest con of all. Using everyone’s nostalgia over the old classic Star Wars films to re-invent and re-create prequels for all to enjoy sounds all swell, but as these three new films came out, it became more and more evident as to what was going on. With well-known actors, the slightly younger Yoda, a young Anakin, and a kick-ass villain like Darth Maul, what could go wrong?

As reality set in around the Spring of 2000, the world began to create many spoofs and satires online over the ridiculous acting of the young Anakin, the stupid characterization of Jar-Jar Binks, and the many other factors that played out in the film that ultimately made it a horrible movie in general. It was the biggest box office success of that year and it spawned MANY fan films on the internet as well, but deep, deep down we ALL knew the truth, it was just too difficult to admit in the beginning.

This is the PME. In later years this ugly effect would rear its ugly head for me, and I realized that EVRYONE has a similar story, and with all the remakes and sequels happening lately it’s only getting worse. Whenever you look forward to a movie, whenever you go see a film in the theater with very high expectations, you may be opening yourself up to the PME. The PME can come in may forms, sometimes it can happen right in the middle of the first time you see the film, this is the earliest and the most convenient time to experience the PME. Often it hits you hours or even weeks after you’ve seen the film…. You think to yourself… “Shit… I guess that really wasn’t a good movie…huh.”

For me personally, Ang Lee’s “Hulk” and Brain Singers’ “Superman Returns” had the PME happen to me again. On both accounts, I had HUGE expectations for the films, watched the films and came out of the theater thinking “Wow, that was the best thing ever!” But then as I sub-consciously replay the movie in my mind over the next couple days, I realize that I was conned, and see the movie for what it was: a steaming pile of crap.

The more you fall victim to the PME, the more your senses get attuned to detecting it for the future. Transformers, Twilight, Prince Caspian, AVP2, Pirates 3 and dozens of others were advertised as epic films but I saw through the ruse. These movies and many like them of the same type at first seem like grand adventure movies, and for many the whole turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-show mentality works, it works for me as well, mindless action-flicks are great escapism. But you must see those other films as being the empty movies that they are, cashing in on the hype, the popularity of the prequel, novel, comic book, or 80s cartoon that they’re based off of. These films that fool you with their trailers, teaser and TV spots are the ones you must watch out for, they may break your heart.


Since my many experiences with the PME, I’ve been able to shield myself from potentially bad experiences, and have saved me hundreds of dollars by not buying the DVDs. Obvious ones are X-Men 3, Spiderman 3, Indiana Jones 4, where the hype, the build up, the trailers and teasers all legitimately fooled me in believing these movies would be as good or better than its predecessors. Once witnessing them in the theater, I subsequently vomited in the aisles, and saw the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I went to see both Star Wars 2 & 3 (Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). I laughed through both films. Almost as a retaliation towards George Lucas who had raped me back in 1999, I felt comfort in mocking the two additional prequels. I haven’t watched either one since, I saw them immediately for what they were, simply bad filmmaking. Bad acting, bad timing, bad everything. In fact, after some discussion with several friends on the subject, I think Star Wars Episode 1, is actually the best one of the 3 newer Star Wars films. Simply because Darth Maul and that light saber fight made the hairs standup on the back of my neck. For a brief period, it WAS a great experience shared with many friends. Even though the enjoyment was a big hypnotized fake, it at least seemed very real, even for just a moment, a very similar and short feeling similar to when I saw Star Wars and Empire back to back for the first time at a Sunday afternoon Matinee when I was 6 years old.

I must make note for when the opposite effect happens, and of course this effect is far more gratifying and worthwhile. For me, television shows and films like There Will Be Blood, Fight Club, The Machinist, American Beauty, Once Upon A Time In The West, No Country For Old Men, Bladerunner, Magnolia, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings, Unbreakable, Good Fellas, Band of Brothers, Deadwood, Rome, Team America and the countless others that leave me with a great feeling inside, whether because of the strong aspects of Drama, Comedy, Cinematography, or sheer entertainment value, I find myself thinking about the film long after it’s over, and the more I think about it, the better it gets, and upon multiple viewings the film only gets better and better.

I hope this document serves as a warning or a comfort to some, to keep your radars up, your wits sharp, and to increase your awareness against all those George-Lucas-style swindlers out there that insist on stealing your time and money and prey on those who love the prequels, novels, comics, TV shows and cartoons that these new films are based off of.

And if you’ve fallen victim to the Phantom Menace Effect, you are not alone, feel better about yourself, watch more of the old movies you love, appreciate them, whether because they make you laugh or make you cry, and know that you were not the only one fooled by all the propaganda and publicity for a new exciting film.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

So very true. I think a lot of people felt the FME start to take hold around the time of Pirates 2, and it was in full swing by the time the third rolled around.

For me personally, the latest was The Spirit. I wasn't expecting much but jesus christ.. if you listen closely you can actually hear Will Eisner spinning in his grave.

Mark C. said...

Hahaha you dressed up for Star Wars! I always knew you were one of 'those' super nerds Rumble! Melissa would divorce you if you had the guts to marry her... maybe you would if she dressed up like IG-88 or something.

Leisl said...

So that's what happened!
I remember standing in line to see Phantom Menace too, making all kinds of new nerd friends... watched it twice in the theatre. :P

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