The week of December 20, 2015

How learning to hate the ‘Star Wars’ prequels made me a better fan

By Phil Owen

Not all disappointments are created equal.

Sitting in the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, at the world premiere, next to a young boy who seemed even more nervous than I was, I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the first time. In terms of pure nerd hype, this is as charged a viewing environment as I could have found. This was one of the first theaters to show the original Star Wars in 1977, and the photograph most often trotted out to illustrate the Star Wars mania that occurred that summer features a mob of fans in front of the place. That’s a meaningless factoid, but it carried significant weight for me as an obsessive fan—the sort of fan who has a collection of more than a hundred tie-in novels and just sort of reflexively attends Star Wars conventions. Hype doesn’t get any bigger than this.

I didn’t love the movie. Though I found the new young cast members (John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver) to be spectacular, the film as a whole came off as a vapid exercise in fanservice from a director (J.J. Abrams) who has always delivered style at the expense of substance. I didn’t struggle to come to this conclusion. I didn’t have a period of denial I had to overcome. I was disappointed but hardly crushed by it. Decades of Star Wars fandom, the bulk of which came during my most formative years, had prepared me for that moment.

Mann's Chinese Theater when "Star Wars" opened in May 1977. (Mann's Chinese Theatre Photo)
Mann's Chinese Theater when "Star Wars" opened in May 1977. (Mann's Chinese Theatre Photo)

The Phantom Menace arrived in 1999 just shy of my 12th birthday. I’m not gonna take the blame for liking it, because I was a child and extra susceptible to the absurd amount of hype surrounding its release. Though so many of us fell for it in the moment, popular opinion turned in the following years. By the time the movie was released on DVD in 2001, I had more or less accepted it as a disappointment.

But I still believed that The Phantom Menace was just a bump in the road, and that Episode II would be better. In fact, I more than believed: I was convinced. I needed to be—Star Wars was a huge part of my identity. It’s a universe that was as real to me as our own, with characters and stories that built a history that felt as tangible as that which I’d read in my school textbooks.

And I was, to my friends, the “Star Wars guy.” There was baggage in that, because I thought I had to live up to their label, because they were normal people who weren’t Star Wars obsessives. I needed these movies to be good; if they weren’t, it reflected badly on me, Star Wars Guy. And I thought of Star Wars like a friend who deserved my loyalty.

And so I became an apologist for a movie nobody had yet seen. In 2002, two weeks prior to the release of Attack of the Clones, I went to Indianapolis for Star Wars Celebration II. Celebration is the official Star Wars convention; this was the first of four I’ve attended, and I’ve since realized that, naturally, if you want to keep any semblance of a level head amid otherworldly hype, going to Celebration is not the way to do it. But I went, and it was a doozy. I worked as a volunteer at the booth; I attended the Star Wars Fan Film Awards; I stood in line for hours to get my hands on an exclusive Celebration-only action figure. That figure, bizarrely, was George Lucas as a Rebel pilot.

I thought of Star Wars like a friend who deserved my loyalty.

The pinnacle was undoubtedly a presentation given by notorious sycophantic prequel producer Rick McCallum, who showed us a 20-minute sizzle reel of footage from Attack of the Clones. It was only action, mind you, as they were, I guess, self-aware enough to avoid exposing us to any of the film’s meager demonstrations of acting. And the effect was powerful. The footage was great, and the mood in the room peaked even before we got our first-ever look at Yoda whipping out his lightsaber and attacking Count Dooku. We knew—we knew—this shit was gonna be good.

After I got home I did something remarkably ambitious: I bought tickets to see Attack of the Clones at three separate shows on opening day, the first for the initial midnight showings and two more the following evening after school. “What if it’s bad?” my friends asked when I told them what I’d done.

“There is no way it will be,” I replied, completely sincerely. I knew it would be great. I knew. I didn’t allow myself to imagine the alternative. I didn’t want to think about it because it was a disturbing thought, that the thing I believed defined me may not have been worth the emotional investment I’d made.

When the big day came, I was still absolutely sure. I waited in line at the theater all evening, long enough that I got a great seat, and I was ready for the magic. That the trailers included one for The Matrix sequel certainly did nothing to calm me down.

But then a funny thing happened: the movie started.

It opens with Senator Amidala’s ship descending to the planet Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, flying through truly awful-looking CGI fog. It landed, and the fog remained. The senator and her retinue of guards and handmaidens started walking out of the ship, and the fog remained. The ship shockingly exploded! And the fog remained.

It turned out that the woman who appeared to be the queen was actually a decoy, and the real Amidala rushed over and held her friend as she lay there, mortally wounded. The decoy died in hilariously faux-dramatic fashion. And that appalling fog remains through all of it.

Attack of the Clones looked cheap and—worse—thoroughly fake, every shot marred by obvious visual effects.

Right then I knew something else. I knew that I hated this fucking movie. The acting was painfully stilted, with editing that left a truly remarkable number of awkward pauses between lines of dialogue. And it didn’t even look good. Attack of the Clones was the first big-budget movie to shoot entirely on digital cameras, and boy, did it show. It looked more like a Star Wars video game than a legitimate movie. It looked cheap and—worse—thoroughly fake, every shot marred by obvious visual effects.

By the time it ended, I was about to explode. But I couldn’t admit defeat. That, to me, was what saying I didn’t like it would have been. Star Wars was my thing. It was me, and I was it. Attack of the Clones was worse than The Phantom Menace ever dreamed of being, and I knew it. But I couldn’t admit it—even to the people I had just watched it with. I told everyone the next day at school that it was wonderful and amazing and I loved it so much. I told this lie to my parents, and my best friends, and everyone else. All the while I felt horrible dread knowing I was going to have to sit through it two more times once school was out. And it’s not as though I didn’t want to watch it again—this was a Star Wars movie, and no matter how I felt about it I was going to watch it a bunch of times anyway. So I put on my bravest face and powered through. And I was completely miserable.

It was not that long before public opinion turned against Episode II in the same way it had turned against Episode I. People were more wary in general, and after a couple months I felt like it was safe to come out of my hater closet.

I was fully free by November, when Attack of the Clones was rereleased in IMAX. At the time, IMAX projectors were film-only, and they could only run movies that were two hours long, which meant a solid 20 minutes had to be cut for that version. It was still bad, but it was also a marked improvement since most of what was cut was dialogue scenes.

When Revenge of the Sith arrived in 2005, I was a few weeks from graduation. That year I returned to Star Wars Celebration, and this time there weren’t any 20-minute sizzle reels to get us all hot and bothered. George Lucas himself was scheduled to make an appearance, which he hadn’t done at Celebration before (or since). It was a big deal, naturally, and thousands of us waited in line all night for the chance to be in that (huge) room. It was a great evening, even though it rained. George only showed up to talk for a few minutes, and I can’t for the life of me recall anything he said. It was that anticlimactic.

My real coup that weekend was volunteering to work in the convention’s merch store for a couple hours. Doing so entitled me to buy as many of the convention-exclusive action figures (versions of R2-D2 and C-3PO based on early concept art) as I could afford. So I filled a box with them and would sell most of them a couple weeks later in the lobby of the movie theater as we waited in line for Revenge of the Sith. They were $10 each for me. I sold them for $50 each.

George Lucas only showed up to talk for a few minutes, and I can’t for the life of me recall anything he said.

Remarkably enough, I went into that movie with a confidence similar to the sort I’d had for Attack of the Clones. I’d been more concerned in the runup to release, but the reviews were very positive and the consensus was that George had finally made a good one. I didn’t really consider the possibility that it would be bad.

But it was bad. Very, very bad. Another nightmare for me.

The aftermath was different this time. Once the credits rolled, I turned to my friend and said, “That was complete bullshit.” In that moment, I was an outlier, as everyone seemed to enjoy it. I just enjoyed running my mouth about how much I hated it. It felt good. It felt right. And nobody questioned my fandom.

My friends were regular people rather than obsessive fans, and for as long as they’d known me I’d been a total nerd about Star Wars. For them, there was nothing to question. They understood. And I understood, for the first time.

Fandom is not a competition. I got nothing out of trying to prove my loyalty to Star Wars by pretending I liked Attack of the Clones except for a whole bunch of bottled-up irritation and long-term bitterness. I hated that being a fan made me feel obligated to act as if I was all in, even though I wasn’t.

I don’t have any obligation to Star Wars, and Star Wars doesn’t have any obligation to me. Fandom is a one-way street, and I can opt out at any time and then opt back in at any other time. A decade removed from the prequels, I’m still here, still being a huge nerd about Star Wars. This is the longest-running relationship I’ve ever had, and it’s as good as it’s ever been, not because the quality of Star Wars Things in General is better than it was before, but rather because I know I have absolute freedom to be honest about it. I always did—whose feelings were I really going to hurt with my complaints?—but the race to be the biggest fan prevented me from seeing it.

I was excited to watch The Force Awakens, even though I found it disappointing. I’ll have seen it at least two more times before you read this—and I’ll watch it again with my mom when I visit her for the holidays. I’m not happy with the movie, but I’m not upset, either. The beauty of being a hardcore Star Wars fan is that there’s always more of it on the horizon: five more movies are already on the calendar, and countless novels, comics, and video games are on the way, all by different authors telling their own stories in this great universe.

After the premiere, I discussed my many misgivings with old friends and people I’d just met over drinks. I did so openly, without any reservations. It was fun. It’s a scene I can’t wait to repeat.

Illustration by J. Longo