Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Surprise, To Be Sure, But A Welcome One

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I bought two tickets premiere day: one for the very first midnight showing, the other for a matinee the next afternoon. The brilliance of the trailers had me convinced this would be the best movie of the year, and I put so much faith in it that I simply knew I'd want to watch it again right away.

And if I hadn't done so, my feelings about the movie might be very different today.

Although I didn't react as badly to Jar Jar as many fans did, somewhere around the time the pongo surfaced in the capital of Naboo, I realized that Episode I was not the movie I'd been waiting for. I kept waiting for the fantastic scenes from the trailer to arrive, and then kept being disappointed when they did.

One of the biggest duds came in the Senate chamber, where Queen Amidala appears in her most magnificent, opulent, aesthetically spellbinding costume to plead the case for her planet. Yes, she uttered that iconic line, "I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this election in a committee." But on either side of her big speech, we see her looking absolutely lost and forlorn. I couldn't understand why George Lucas thought it made any sense to show us this young girl totally out of her element one moment, then have her give an electrifying address that topples the most powerful man in the Senate, only to return to a look of hopelessness immediately thereafter.

The film continued to let me down repeatedly, until somewhere around 2:00 a.m., the credits rolled and I walked out of the auditorium thinking, "Well, that kind of stank."

I felt so dejected that I considered going to the theater the next day and getting a refund on my matinee ticket. With finances pretty tight for me at the time, any waste of money, even just the price of a movie matinee, made me uncomfortable. But I remembered how cool the lightsaber battles were, and that the pod race had been a nice bit of spectacle, and I figured that maybe with my disappointment confronted, I might enjoy it more the second time around.

I went to the theater. I sat down and watched. Much of it played out just as it had before ... mostly okay, occasionally stilted and wince-inducing, even more occasionally breathtaking. And then, the Senate.

The scene I'd found so inconsistent before absolutely blew me away.

What I hadn't known that first time through was that immediately after departing the Senate, the young queen would take Senator Palpatine completely by surprise and then defy his advice by insisting on a return to Naboo. With that context in my head for the second viewing, I no longer saw Padme as a lost little girl being manipulated to fulfill the villain's schemes. Instead, I saw a brave and bright and highly idealistic young woman coming to the realization that the galactic democracy she believes in is a failure.

Suddenly, her fiery denunciation of Chancellor Valorum took on an entirely different light -- the passion of a true leader, furious with governmental impotence, who knows that she has no further recourse but to go back home and die with her fellow citizens.

And then, in the apartment afterward, another scene of incongruity resolved itself the same way. We open on Amidala and Jar Jar talking, the queen staring out the window almost distractedly. On my first viewing, it came across as an utterly passive moment from this girl who had just upset the whole Republic's applecart, only to be followed by another zig-zag shift of demeanor as she announces her return to Naboo.

But seen holistically, that distant stare became contemplative: the look of a tightly controlled mind awash in fatalism, the decision to die already made. Until ...

Jar Jar brags about the Gungans' mighty army, and the queen's eyebrow twitches.

Armed with this new information, she springs into action as soon as Palpatine returns. His political maneuverings no longer hold the least interest for her -- already determined to head home, she is now galvanized with the knowledge that her return may not be suicidal after all.

What had been a bumbling, incoherent mess on my first viewing, disjointed and portraying our heroine as a ping-pong ball of erratic moods, now became a seamless revelation of her intense intellect processing multiple consecutive pieces of world-tilting information and pulling them together into a plan of action rooted in stubborn hope.

As I walked from the matinee that day into a wash of sunlight, I found myself startled to realize that the hot mess of a film I'd seen the night before actually held depth and subtlety beyond any expectation I might have had.

It was a bright day, and I felt very lucky to have bought that second ticket.

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