Simon Pegg writing on The Phantom Menace in Hotdog Magazine, May 2002

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Hotdog Magazine ran from 2000 to 2006. It edged toward a more edgy side of film journalism, sometimes coming across as cynical and overly sweary but generally expressing honest opinion without a thought to corporate concerns. Certainly it celebrated great movies without getting over excited about big blockbusters months before they were even released. Movies were expected to speak for themselves, marketing meant nothing.

Unfortunately it seems that someone behind the magazine thought that fuelling the Hollywood machine was the way to increase circulation and the publication became less distinctive. The covers began to feature the biggest stars from the biggest movies and people stopped buying it.

There was one article in the mag’s brief run that has really stuck with me. I, like so many millions of people, had been massively excited about the release of The Phantom Menace. Then on seeing it I, like so many millions of people, had felt a little let down and couldn’t quite put my finger on exactly what had disappointed me. Then, writing in Hotdog’s twenty fourth issue, the young star of a niche Channel 4 Sitcom hit the nail on the head.

The piece genuinely helped me clarify my own thoughts on the film and, wanting to reread it, I have been trying to find it online to no avail for a few years. Now, while clearing out some very deep cupboards, I have found my original copy. It is still a good piece of writing and I still agree with much of what it says so here for prosperity are some excerpts from the article. I hope it speaks to you as it did me and with that I hand over to Simon Pegg’s younger self:

There are few kinds of embarrassment more exquisite than watching somebody you look up to make a fool of themselves. Witnessing somebody or something you respect unfold painfully before your eyes and prove themselves/itself unworthy of the time and emotion you have invested in them/it. It is a moment of unbearable, sweaty disappointment. So it was for me, sat in the pregnant, savoury darkness of a Manhattan cinema, watching Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Rejoicing every second it actually seemed like a Star Wars film, and wearily attempting to forgive it every time it fell short, which let’s face it, it did constantly.

There is a reaction which comes from the hard line Star Wars fans. A breakaway republic of Phantom Menace defenders, who will argue: “Episode I? It was fine. It was just setting up the next film. The pod race was good. The lightsaber battles were amazing. You can’t be a Star Wars fan if you didn’t like it.”
To which I counter:
“Don’t be so blind! You’re defending it like a family member might defend a favourite uncle who has done something terrible. ‘Sure, he murdered his latest girlfriend with a hairbrush, but it’s Uncle Terry, he took us all to Alton Towers in 1981!”
While they reel against the force of this dazzling metaphor, I would further:
“George Lucas is just not the visionary we all deified him as, when we were little. He has sullied the memory of the original films by defacing them with pointless revisions and crap digital effects and made a vacuous, boring, pretentious, retro-actively destructive sequel, that in every way contradicts the very essence of what made the first films great.

I think it all boils down to to how long you can remain in denial before you acknowledge and accept the fallibility of the people you admire. Where did you concede? The Holiday Special? The Ewoks? CGI Jabba? Greedo shooting first? Or was it when that tedious taxation/trade routes bollocks crawl rolled up at the start of The Phantom Menace? Of course not, we were all still making excuses for Uncle Terry at this point. I don’t think I truly accepted that Star Wars was not the all-conquering force of wonder I’d always thought it to be until the second viewing of Episode I. And it wasn’t just the weight of expectation, it wasn’t the necessary process of exposition, it wasn’t supposed to be like that. It just wasn’t very good.

But so what? I actually felt quite liberated when I admitted that to myself. It felt good. I’d spent much of my childhood revelling in the fact that my favourite film happened to be one of the greatest films of all time. Occasionally, however, this was something of a burden. I would often experience an unnerving feeling of worry when a new sci-fi pic was released, in case it was better or more successful than my darling flick.

From 1977 to 1986, there wasn’t a single direction you could look in my bedroom without seeing something related to it. It belonged to me. I cared. I wanted it to do well. I felt somehow responsible for it and countless others felt the same way. It was an important and influential force during childhood, not just for me but for many others now in their twenties and thirties. It spoke to people, expanded their imaginations, increased their vocabulary, helped them play and make friends. It surrounded us, penetrated us, bound our galaxy together. In short it was important.

Then suddenly (if you don’t count the Special Editions) it slipped up. Star Wars farted in public. A great big fat, wet, rattling sky biscuit that shocked us all. Creating a schism in the church of The Force between those who smelt it and those who dealt it. There were those, who pretended not to catch a whiff and continue to blindly champion Episode I with enough lame excuses to fill a Star Destroyer. To them I say “let go”, turn off your targeting computer and face facts.

There’s even a rumour that George Lucas has admitted a certain culpability for concentrating too much on the aesthetics. Forgetting the importance of character and story and acting and not having bowl-headed little kids running around shouting “Yippee!” while Jar Jar the rasta haddock provides the kind of comedy that leaves you weeping with unbearable, sweaty, disappointment.

If had someone had told me, when I was a kid, I’d be writing an article about why my favourite film franchise was not quite up to scratch, I’d have punched them in the neck. Nowadays, admitting that Star Wars isn’t perfect isn’t a problem. It is in fact liberating. Try it. Go into a cupboard and whisper it to yourself. Don’t feel guilty.

Don’t fret, your childhood wasn’t for nothing. Star Wars Episode IV may not be the best film ever made, but it is still among the most important texts of the 20th Century, for its cultural and even it’s political impact, let alone the effect it had on us personally. The Phantom Menace changes nothing. You will still love Star Wars dearly, no matter how naughty it’s been. It’s Star Wars!

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