Original Release: May 19, 1999
Directed By: George Lucas
Written By: George Lucas
Notable Actors: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd and Frank Oz
Here we are, at the start of it all, which comes three movies after the start of it all but actually this is the start of it all? How am I already confused? The Prequel trilogy might have more nerd hate than the ending of Mass Effect. More nerd hate than John Snow’s death. More nerd rage than not being able to get comic con tickets. But why are folks so gosh darn negative about these films? With an open mind, and a willingness to give them a second chance, my fiancé Carl and I sat down to re-watch the first of these films, The Phantom Menace. I’m here to tell you, it’s not all bad. Although, this film definitely gets a bit messy in parts and a bit awful at others, there are high points to be sure. But just how did this film come to be made so many years after the initial Star Wars craze? Oh yes, I have facts. Lots and lots of facts.
George Lucas essentially came up with the central plot of the prequel trilogy as he was writing the original films. In writing the fact that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, he pieced together an intricate backstory in order to ground the story line and give himself a point of reference. He had intended to make this new prequel trilogy when he finished with the original, but when the time came, he was simply burnt out and decided to put the project on the backburner. In the early 90’s though, he noticed the resurgence of Star Wars love through the high sales of Star Wars comics and books and with the realization that people still loved the series, he decided to consider making his prequels. In 1993, Lucas told Variety magazine that he would be making the films and he began work on an outline. The idea would be to write a tragedy about Anakin, from his birth to his transformation to Vader, ending the series with episode VI and his death. The saga was ready to be created.
The team for the film started to be hired even before the script was finished. Producer Rick McCallum searched within colleges for students who were just entering their fields to be part of the film, finding that he preferred to work with fresh meat. Many pieces of art created for the original trilogy but never used were brought back to the studios in order to create the cities of Naboo and even the huge empire of Coruscant. Many new creatures were designed, and some of the designs included entire food chains worth of drawings. Obviously only a fraction of these were used in the final film, but some would come to be used in later films in this new trilogy.
One big change we notice right off the bat is that the Jedi seem to move much faster and more dangerously than we’ve ever seen before. Nick Gillard, a stunt coordinator, was hired to create an all new fighting style for lightsaber dueling. In order to do this, he merged any and every fighting style together, from Kendo to Kenjutsu to the act of chopping down a tree. Hack slash hack.
There are a lot of fun facts in the casting of this film, but you can find all of that on your own. I prefer to share my favorite which concerns Keira Knightley who plays the double for Queen Amidala. Keira’s parents told her not to audition but she did anyway and was said to have cried every day on set as the costumes were incredibly painful to wear. Well, they look pretty awful so I don’t blame you Keira. It’s interesting to think of Keira in this film as it is very easy to miss her entirely.
The filming and addition of special effects in the film was a huge undertaking and as such, editing took two years to complete. Many times, an idea would be tried, not turn out well and then have to be done in a completely different way. A good example of this is the announcer alien for the podrace, played by Greg Proops and Scott Capurro. Originally, this character was meant to be the two actors but with their heads joined but upon completion, it was thought that this effect looked horrible, so it was changed to a fully digital alien, which had to be built from scratch. Things of this nature were a frequent occurrence in the production of the film.
The Phantom Menace was a much larger undertaking from a story perspective than any of the original trilogy. There are several different plot lines and a mess of political bureaucracy to wade through. Because of this, it is much easier to get lost in the sea of who knows what and who is controlling who. Amidst all of this is a story of a boy who is born of the force and seems to have power levels off the charts. Then there’s a Queen who just wants to save her people and a Senator who’s up to no good and the Sith are coming back and and and…it’s a lot to take in.
Let’s start with some of the good, shall we? This is a gorgeous film. Complaints of the overuse of CGI aside, because I know you’re making one in your head right now, the film is really beautiful. Yes, there is a lot of CGI but it all looks shiny and sleek and really gives a new life to a world we thought we knew. Naboo is lush and green and the underwater tunnels are grand in scale, but dangerous and foreboding. Corusant looks absolutely stunning. The ships and cruisers flying around in all directions, while somehow managing to not hit each other looks great and really leaves us wanting to explore more of this grand city. Tatooine has never looked better with all sorts of creatures and podracing, which we’ll get to in a second, has such a great feel thanks to every pod looking so different.
The look of podracing isn’t the only awesome thing about it. The race might just be one of the most fun action sequences in the film. The high speed chase sequence through these canyons really does keep you on the edge of your seat and watching pods explode into tiny parts is glorious. You cheer but also feel terrified that Annie is going to be next. There’s a danger and an excitement to it and the fact that the pods all seem pieced together and barely holding on makes every turn seem like a death sentence.
In fact, all of the action sequences in this film are pretty great. The lightsaber duel with Darth Maul is one of the best choreographed in the entire saga and the music kicks it up to a new level. I’d love to know why the core has such a weird security system that turns on and off in that way, but other than that, it is fun to watch and has a great pace. Maul, who has very few lines, manages to seem like a legit threat and the double lightsaber remains awesome to this day. I even like the space battle in the end, where Anakin manages to take out the entire space ship all on his own. It’s not entirely believable but from an action standpoint it feels epic and that’s all that matters.
If all of Phantom Menace was just beautiful scenery and action sequences, it would be a fantastic film. Sadly, sometimes these characters decide to talk and sometimes the plot decides to happen and when either of these things occur, the whole system breaks down a bit. The dialogue in this film is largely wretched with a spattering of good. Callbacks with such lines as “I have a bad feeling about this,” don’t feel like nods to the old films, but rather an admission that Lucas doesn’t know a better line to write. Anakin’s constant shouting of “Yippee!!” literally makes my skin crawl with how forced it sounds. Most of the plot gets sucked into a whirl of political talk but as we know little to nothing of these planets or their people, it left me with a sense of not knowing why I should care. Yeah, there’s misery in the galaxy but the scope is so big I can’t seem to find the soft spot in my heart.
Many will site one thing in particular as this film’s downfall and that thing is named Jar Jar Binks. Here’s the thing though, I don’t really hate him. Yes, his voice is obnoxious but he is far more useful than C-3PO. He helps unite two races, and is always willing to lend a hand. All C-3PO did was complain. In my mind, I honestly think these characters are on the same level of “I wish they would just go away.” Jar Jar may have an unfortunate voice and a childish demeanor but at least he has a heart.
Overall, I honestly think I liked this film more on my rewatch than on my original viewing. The action is fast and fun and the story, while not being great, is at least watchable. Sure there are missteps. I honestly think Lucas gave Portman the direction of “Don’t feel anything in your face or your eyes or anything. Just don’t feel.”
We know now that Portman is a wonderful actress but her delivery here is absolutely painful and something leads me to suspect our director. The dialogue is sloppy at best and tear-your-hair-out at worst but the film does open us up to hundreds of new possibilities and even gives us hope that this story is going to be pretty damn epic. We’ll find out next week when some clones do some fighting.
Next Up: Attack of the Clones
* * *
NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!