Monthly Archives: May 2024

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Phantom Menace

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace, and that seems to me a good excuse to look back on Episode I and its place in fandom, especially my own.

I am among the first generation of Star Wars fans and the return of Star Wars to the larger pop culture landscape in 1999 was a very big deal indeed. The movie’s cast was overflowing with well-known and well-regarded actors, and the marketing push was enormous. I’d never stopped being a Star Wars fan even after Return of the Jedi faded from memory, but the prospect of seeing a brand new Star Wars film on the big screen was something I’d given up on. It’s so very different today when it feels like Star Wars will never go away.

However, even before the movie’s premiere, there were murmurs of discontent, and after release some fans had strong negative reactions to the movie. I won’t belabor the point and subject you to a two-hour long video essay breaking down in excruciating and tedious detail all of the problems with The Phantom Menace. Honestly, the movie’s shortcomings are on the surface and obvious for all to see, and I basically agree with the criticisms we’ve heard over the last two decades. To this day, I’m baffled by some of the creative choices George Lucas made in the prequels.

But I also don’t care. Even now, I can sit down and watch Episode I and have a good time. The pod race is daft and fun. The lightsaber work throughout is among the best in any Star Wars production. Liam Neeson brings a noble presence to the role of Qui-Gon, a character whose actions don’t always seem that noble. Ray Park took a brilliant character design and imparted into it a wonderful physicality that brought to life one of Star Wars‘ best villains. Everything you need to know about Darth Maul is right there in how he looks and how he moves.

But among my friends and many of my fellow first generation Star Wars fans, The Phantom Menace was a disappointment. I think my reaction was tempered by the fact that I’d never stopped watching Star Wars. Since the original trilogy became available on home video, I’d rent all three from Blockbuster once or twice a year, and in between marathons there were countless comics and novels and games to discover as well. Upon repeated viewings, it became clear to me that the original movies are not without their flaws. The lightsaber fight in the first is not good at all; it’s cringeworthy every time Luke and Leia kiss, and, boy, Harrison Ford doesn’t seem like he was trying too hard with what little he was given to work with in Return of the Jedi.

And that’s not counting the Expanded Universe. I love so many of those original adventures that filled the gaps between movies, but plenty of those stories weren’t my cup of tea, to say the least. As far as I was concerned The Phantom Menace was a damn masterpiece compared to Splinter of the Mind’s Eye or Shadows of the Empire.

I make no bones about it: I grade Star Wars on a curve. In spite of Episode I’s flaws and because of its ships and costumes and music and alien worlds, it still feels like Star Wars to me, and that counts for a lot, indeed, it probably counts the most. Not everyone judges movies the same way. That’s cool.

As a Star Wars fan who is more on the fanatic side of the spectrum, I’ve engaged with the movies and fandom in ways different than others whose appreciation is more casual. I watched the backlash to the prequels turn to anger at people who were just trying to make a kid’s adventure movie. Anger at people who most certainly did not deserve it.

I’ve become frustrated with friends when discussing The Phantom Menace. Their complaints are nothing I haven’t seen, heard and read a hundred times already. I don’t think anyone is wrong or unjustified for disliking the movie, but when the reactions are so strident and filled with bile years or decades after the fact, I start to wonder if something else is going on. I think George Lucas’ cardinal sin may be that he failed to make a generation of jaded 30 years olds feel like they were 8 again.

I have also chatted about The Phantom Menace with younger fans who grew up with the prequels the way I grew up with the original trilogy, and their reaction is often quite different because they sometimes feel like they need to temper their enthusiasm with embarrassment because older fans hate the prequels. Now I see the cycle of conflict repeating between fans of this new era of Star Wars and followers of the older ones. And this all just makes me sad. No one should be embarrassed for liking something.

One of my great pleasures over the years has been watching new people discover Star Wars for themselves. Each generation has their own era:the Original Trilogy, the Expanded Universe, Prequels, the Clone Wars-Rebels-Ahsoka cycle, the Sequels, Rogue One/Andor, the High Republic, and on and on. I love that what Star Wars means to me is different from someone else. My nephews could rattle off the names of every clone who fought in the Clone Wars; I draw a blank after Rex and Cody.

Seeing that kind of enthusiasm for different parts of Star Wars lore makes me want to see what I’m missing. I don’t connect with it all by any stretch of the imagination, but because of my nephews, I gave Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars show a second chance, and I’m glad I did. Star Wars is better with Captain Rex, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Doctor Aphra, Luthan Rael, Rose Tico, Ezra Bridger, Satele Shan and Geode in it. And, yes, Star Wars is better with Jar Jar Binks in it.

It’s not my position that The Phantom Menace is “good, actually” or that it’s above criticism. It is, at best, a shaggy dog of a film, but isn’t every Star Wars movie? What I’m saying is this: don’t turn that dislike into resentment. There are bad actors out there all too willing to harvest that resentment to feed the algorithm and force their tastes on everyone else. Just because you loved Star Wars as a kid, doesn’t mean you have to love it years later. It’s okay to move on and let Star Wars become something different for new audiences. Just don’t be a dick about it. No one likes hipsters who tell people they’re wrong for liking the things they like.

In the end, I think the closest that Star Wars can actually come to making you feel like an eight year old again is to see it through someone else’s eyes. Let their discovery of it remind you of your own, even if it’s not the same as yours.

 

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Filed under General Star Wars, My Artwork

Good Riddance to the Yellow Filter

Wednesday’s SWTOR Livestream previewed the new additions coming to the game with Game Update 7.5, Desperate Defiance, but I want to focus on just one: the visual change to Hutta’s environment. One of my goals with this project is to examine the symbols in SWTOR, but not just their literal meaning, but also their connections to the worlds inside and outside of the game. The changes to Hutta does not involve fake space letters, but the meaning does involve something symbolic that I think is worth exploring: the “Yellow Filter”.

Color is an extremely powerful tool in visual storytelling. It can be used not only to differentiate locations, but also suggest a mood and meaning to places and the people in it. Within Star Wars lore, The Empire Strikes Back best demonstrates the use of color as a means to enhance the story. Hoth is “cool” white and blue; Dagobah is covered in “lush” greens and earth tones; and Bespin is primarily lit in reds that swing from “passionate” to “hellish.”

SWTOR is often staged in a similar way, but over the years it has also been influenced by other cinematic techniques popular at the time. Hutta is a case in point. The Hutta players have experienced since launch is bathed a bright yellow color grade. But why? Yellow can mean different things in different contexts, but I think we can agree Hutta is yellow to suggest the world’s corruption and pollution.

If we take a step back and look at how yellow grading is used in other media, we can see that SWTOR was likely inspired by movies and TV shows like Traffic and Breaking Bad which applied a yellow color grade to scenes set in Mexico. In those cases, this effect serves to make the action set there among the drug cartels feel not only more arid and hotter than scenes set in the United States, but corrupt and rotten as well.

So, of course, I can see how the SWTOR of 2011 might have been inspired to use a similar visual shorthand for Hutta. But in the years since, the meaning of the yellow filter changed, and in many case it has become known as the “Mexican Filter.” Even if we leave aside the fact that casting locations in a yellow color key does not accurately represent their actual appearance, the filter has become used to imply that a location was not only hot and arid, but foreign, poor, different. And it did not go without notice that people who lived in the locations that get the yellow filter treatment from not only Mexico but also the Middle East and Asia almost always have brown skin.

I am not saying that Yellow Hutta is racist and that the devs who made it are racists or anyone who prefers the original version is racist, but I do think that SWTOR is an evolving thing, and new players are experiencing aspects of its game for the first time well over a decade after it launched. I am glad that the team at Broadsword is willing to make changes and updates to the game, even after all this time. I believe that Hutta’s yellow filter has not aged well. It is at the very least clichéd and at the very worst reminds players of a filmmaking trope that has become lazy and often racist itself.

The updated Hutta of 7.5 shifts the color cast towards the earth toned end of spectrum. Certainly there is still plenty of yellow, but a bit more reds and browns instead of orange as well. In addition the cloud cover is now at ground level and the entire environment feels murky and clammy. I can see how many people might prefer the first iteration of the world. Certainly the strong primary color cast of the original Hutta is very dramatic and immediately marks it as an alien world, but, to me, the new Hutta feels sticky and I can practically smell the swamps and polluted air. And when we do see different colors, whether they are the nameplates of enemies or the neon sign of the cantina or an oil slicked rainbow, they pop a bit more.

I think the muted color tones and smog of the new Hutta does a better job of implying that the current environmental catastrophe is something that has been done to the planet by its Hutt overlords and not simply how it has been all along. To me that is more interesting symbolically than a hackneyed yellow filter that these days just says “hot and poor.”

 

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Filed under General SWTOR, Legacy of the Sith