I want to describe a secret society I’ve stumbled upon. It started with Spaced.
In Spaced, a social documentary dressed as a sitcom, the mystery unravels quickly: Tim, an out-of-work comic book retailer goes to claim benefits and finds himself offered money far quicker than many other applicants. The reason for the swift processing? Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He didn’t like it. And nor do others.
It was a scene in a comedy, but it’s not far from the truth. And that truth is a dark web of vice, full of sly winks and shared hyperlinks. You think you’re immune to its charms, but you’re not. First you’re disappointed with the film - Episode I, that first Lucas prequel - and you find sympathy in those around you. But as they start to forget about it little hints of what that film shattered stay with you. And in that you aren’t alone.
For this society The Phantom Menace is like the reformation; shattering a church of merchandise-supported art as if it was so much LEGO.
Imagine holding onto that feeling, clinging so tightly to it that you can no longer tell where you end and your loathing begins. Something twists in your soul, making you recognisable only to others who share your hatred of that film, that franchise, until someone sweet appears before you and drawls, ‘What’s wrong with your face?!’
What is wrong with it indeed.
This whole rotten underworld was revealed for what it was back in December 2009. Red Letter Media, a video production company starting to get a reputation for take-downs of the Star Trek franchise, released a seven-part deconstruction of Episode I to YouTube (now archived on their own site), airing every single fanboy’s petty grievances with The Phantom Menace and finding time to mix those up with exquisitely accurate assessments of its structural failures as a film. Every character, every weak plot point, every gimmick, every blessed moment of Lucas’s inserted ego was laid bare for all to see.
Which is nothing new. At all. It’s the bread and butter of what makes this dark little world of Lucasfilm-loathing critics tick. But Red Letter Media brought the lulz with Plinkett, the character voicing this 70-minute monologue.
Plinkett’s Phantom Menace review managed to be incredibly funny. Dark, but hilarious. Clips and loops of continuity errors and terrible characterisation were interspersed with shots of cats going into microwaves and Plinkett’s broken life. This is a critic who probably killed his ex-wife and leaves hookers to die in his basement, a grotesque villain, who manages to say the cleverest and wittiest things.
The review instantly went memeic, flooding Twitter and curated blogs like SyFy’s blog. It gave a community of haters pause for breath, the comments threads opening its arms to people tripping over themselves to come out and declare that they too felt this way.
The humour of the reviews comes from a space dominated by bedroom nerds, many of them boys. The jokes are intoned with the very same voice that whispers ‘lemon party’ in the dark, cheat codes to the basement hackers of the world, all of whom loved this moment in daylight. This was their triumph, their ‘Holidays in the Sun’, this was their Potemkin!
And then, as quickly as the storm arrived, the sun came out and all the darkness melted away.
Plinkett had shown these people a vision of the future that managed to blend film theory, rape/murder and pizza-rolls into one beautiful boxed-set. The nerds, this society, were never going to let him go.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones got the Plinkett treatment. Again the plot is destroyed, everything from the decoys one character has in case of assassins (‘Who would apply for such a position?’) to the characters’ responses to the threat level implied by the dialogue (‘The situation is so dangerous you’re walking around in the middle of broad daylight?’), let alone the epic battle sequence around which the whole prequel turns. He dwells on the awful-looking characters, calling them out for the cheap marketing fodder they are, and points out time and again just how little there is to fascinate about this whole exercise.
And for that strange little group of vilified, bitter viewers it was once again their time.
Much later, as the parties got started on New Year’s Eve and 2011 reared its head, Plinkett returned. The time between reviews had been taxing, and the snappy brevity of his approach seemed punctured. The review of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had bloated to almost two hours, and while it was technically on track the cut-aways and humour seemed painfully thin.
It emerged that the interjections had taken on a life of their own. Hooker Nadine, a throwaway reference in the first review, had blossomed into a character, capable of taking Plinkett on and taking him down. As this hybrid offshoot hit the screen the basement societies convulsed; what to do with this B-movie dressed in the trappings of our - ahem, sorry - their saviour?
It was terrible, the special effects hamstrung by their attempt at humour, the manifestation of Plinkett in human form. That voice just wasn’t right. And what was wrong with his face?
The Revenge of Nadine spoiled everything, shattering the beauty of what came before. It sullied the position of this once great trilogy and made it something else, something lesser. Red Letter Media ceased to be the jewels in the crown of this little sub-sect of geekdom and became just another bunch of chancers with a camera. George Lucas, had he noticed, would have wept.
But it didn’t change the society.
In cold basement cellars these people meet. They know one another by name and intent. They find humour in things normal people simply can’t comprehend, and loathe things that others might just let go.
And when I come home from work, open up my laptop, and sit in its weird blue-white glow only the most diligent of observers could tell the difference between them and me. I can’t.