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Defensive 'Phantom Menace' fans strike back

May 27, 1999
By Franklin Harris

I wonder what it would have been like if the Internet had been around when the original "Star Wars" movies were released? Would fans have engaged in verbal warfare with each other over the merits of "Return of the Jedi?" Would those who hated the Ewoks and Boba Fett's comedic death and those who loved the state-of-the-art special effects and the climactic battle between Darth Vader and the Emperor have called each other names?

Probably, but even so, it's hard to imagine any fanboy conflict over "Jedi" approaching the level of hostilities the fight over "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" has reached.

My own rather mixed review of "The Phantom Menace" seems to have sent some defensive fans into a tizzy. A few even called the owner of the comic book shop I'm known to frequent to complain about me.

Why they contacted him and not me -- I include my e-mail address with all my columns -- I don't know, but I can guess.

Of course, if you think my "Phantom Menace" review was negative, you haven't seen anything. Mark A. Altman, former editor of Sci-Fi Universe magazine, lambasted the film, giving it a D-.

"The Phantom Menace's" defenders were quick to retaliate, posting Altman's review to the Internet and calling Altman names not fit for a family publication. They also recalled that Altman had had the temerity to criticize "Jedi" and 1997's "special editions." Obviously, he was on some sort of anti-"Star Wars" vendetta and couldn't be trusted to give an unbiased review.

That Altman likes both "Star Wars: A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back" is irrelevant, I guess.

I am perfectly willing to concede that many people who claim to like and even love "The Phantom Menace" truly do so. Sometimes there is simply no accounting for taste. After all, I admit to having enjoyed the film version of "Lost in Space." Even more bizarrely, Altman gave "Starship Troopers," possibly the worst sci-fi movie of the decade, a favorable notice.

I have noticed, however, more than a few "Phantom Menace" fans who seem to have talked themselves into liking the film. They can rattle off an impressive list of the film's flaws, but then they say that the movie was great, anyway.

As derided as they often are, not even the most dedicated Trekkers have trouble admitting that some "Star Trek" episodes are sub par and that some of the Trek franchise's nine films aren't very good or are just plain bad. Trekkers are nearly unanimous in their loathing of "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," and most don't have good things to say about "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and "Star Trek: Insurrection," either.

So why are so many "Star Wars" fans so defensive when it comes to "Phantom Menace" criticism? I suspect the answer is that some fans have adopted a siege mentality.

After hyping it for almost six months, just before its release the media suddenly turned on "The Phantom Menace" and its writer/director George Lucas, and the backlash continues.

During it's first week of release, "The Phantom Menace" broke box-office records left and right. It set new marks for the biggest opening day, biggest opening week and biggest non-holiday weekend. "The Phantom Menace" crossed the $100 million mark faster than any movie in history, even though Lucas had limited the number of screens on which the film could be shown.

So, what did the headlines say the Monday after "The Phantom Menace" opened? Instead of focusing on the many records the movie set, newspaper headlines focused on the one it didn't. "The Phantom Menace" failed to break the biggest opening weekend record set by "The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2."

It's one thing to give "The Phantom Menace" a bad or lukewarm review. It's quite another to make up bad news where none exists.

So, I can understand why some fans just might be a bit defensive.

To those "Star Wars" fans who are in denial, simply remember that George Lucas isn't God. He has made mistakes before ("Howard the Duck," anyone?) He isn't infallible.

And remember that one misstep doesn't invalidate the original "Star Wars" trilogy.

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