One question that gets brought up every once in a while when debating the merits of I-III verses IV-VI, usually by people claiming the later films to be inferior: Would Star Wars be as successful if I-III had been released first?
This, of course, is useless in any kind of examination of the merits of any individual film. It’s not like we can travel and look at this alternate timeline, and even if we could the success of something does not always speak to its true quality.
That being said, if you take the pressure off to prove one thing or another and frame it as nothing but academic conjecture, it does make an interesting discussion point. I have even touched on this very briefly before; but as has been happening with more and more frequency, my brief observations benefit from re-consideration and extended analysis.
So here’s my thought experiment. Let’s say human history progressed in the same way it has, except that George Lucas and ILM somehow discovered the technology to make The Phantom Menace in the 1970’s. So, for the sake of argument, The Phantom Menace as we know it today was released on May 25th, 1977 instead of A New Hope. There was no such thing as “Star Wars” before The Phantom Menace.
To quote The Simpsons: Short answer “Yes” with an “If”; long answer “No” with a “But”.
Short answer: Yes, if by success we’re talking about how it’s regarded in cinema history and public opinion.
One thing you have to understand, and it has been brought up in nearly every account of the history of Star Wars, is that the atmosphere in the mid-late 1970s was overall pessimistic. Vietnam and Watergate were still extremely fresh in people’s minds, destroying the general population’s faiths in both a working government and a moral military (at least in the United States. I’m regrettably not familiar with the cultural atmosphere around the world, a somewhat chronic flaw where I live). Also, the Cold War had pretty much been a way of life for the past several decades, and the fact that the other shoe had not yet been dropped was far from reassuring. Much of popular cinema at the time reflected this sense of fear and nihilism.
This is the main reason that New Hope exploded the way it did, apart from its groundbreaking special effects. Here was a movie that featured a plucky band of underdogs defeating an oppressive regime – something we hadn’t been able to do for a while. It captured that sense of wish-fulfillment, that titular sense of hope.
So what do we get when we replace A New Hope with The Phantom Menace? Well, we still get a rollicking space adventure. We still get some light-hearted fun, pulse-pounding action, and effects more realistic than has been seen in the history of film up to that point. We even still get a heroic victory against some less-than-savory types. But there’s one crucial difference.
People would have taken one look at Palpatine and screamed “Nixon!”
Even without the other films, it is strongly implied that Darth Sidious and Senator Palpatine are one and the same, and it would not have taken long for moviegoers in that time to make this crucial connection. So what we have here is, in essence, a movie where the bad guy wins. The heroes get a victory, sure, but at the end of the day it’s pyrrhic at best. In the back of your mind, despite the celebration, you know things can’t end well for these characters.
And as I said before, that’s basically what every movie at the time was doing. While the wow-factor of the visual effects may have saved it financially, it would have become too lost in the sea of familiarity to become the pop-culture juggernaut A New Hope had started. Star Wars as a massive worldwide phenomenon would likely not have happened. But then some very interesting things would start happening.
Without the enormous expectations to live up to, The Phantom Menace would be judged on its own copious merits. Film schools would begin to study the symbolism. A cult following would spring up of devoted fans. Generation X would embrace it as their childhood. It may take several years, but soon enough Star Wars: The Phantom Menace would be not only a beloved piece of ‘70s nostalgia, but a venerated classic of cinema.
And assuming George Lucas couldn’t afford to make Attack of the Clones as quickly as he made The Empire Strikes Back in our normal timeline, the demand would still come sooner or later to finish the story. I believe we would still have gotten our six Star Wars movies eventually, though it may have taken longer between and probably would not have had as much mainstream attention.
To sum up: Star Wars as a franchise may not have had the immediate success had The Phantom Menace lead the charge, but I feel The Phantom Menace itself would be remembered far more fondly. There would eventually still be the various knick-knacks and kitschy paraphernalia. Except that the artificially-aged t-shirts would feature Battle Droids rather than Stormtroopers. All the Boba Fett bobble-heads would instead be in Sebulba’s likeness. Yoda might still be quoted, but Qui-Gon moreso. All of these would be less numerous, more niche items. But they’d be there.
And that’s a world I wouldn’t mind living in. To be completely frank, if it weren’t for the internet holding initial divisiveness in the mainstream consciousness longer than anything in the history of cinema, we’d be seeing The Phantom Menace and its fellows similarly recognized today in our own timeline. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of bullying and positioning the bashers have done over the last sixteen years has prevented I-III from truly coming into their own and taking their rightful place in film history. It’s starting to slowly happen, but with much force and pushback. And hiring people who just don’t get it to work on official projects will only make it that much harder, and that much worse. That’s why I and those like me fight back so hard against the endless sea of self-congratulating ignorance. Only when I can profess my love for these movies as they are in public without fear of harassment or pressure to accentuate the negative will I feel that I can finally sit back and end this exhausting crusade. And that day can’t come fast enough.
One final thought: What if I-III had been released at their normal release dates, but IV-VI had not existed in the late 70’s/early 80’s? The effects boom would certainly have been stunted and we wouldn’t get any of the classic effects films in the interim. But I feel much the same thing would have happened with Star Wars as I described above. In fact The Phantom Menace, and by extension Attack of the Clones, were eerily prophetic of the direction US politics would follow shortly after each film’s releases (and Revenge of the Sith was almost a pure mirror). Perhaps more people would have seen that in a positive light than in reality, where many dismissed it as poor modern references despite the fact that this story has happened in history countless times in varying forms.
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