Act IV: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

THE STORY

Two Jedi escape a hostile blockade to find allies and come across a young boy who may bring balance to the Force, but the long dormant Sith resurface to claim their old glory.

THE INTRODUCTION

Being a Star Wars fan has turned into a tiring prospect. After the release of The Force Awakens, this fanbase has reinforced its existence as a prime example for what’s known as toxic fandom. However, the start of this animosity can partly be traced back to its prequel trilogy amd the release of the infamous Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1973, young filmmaker George Lucas released his second movie to great acclaim (American Graffiti) and started working on his passion project: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the Journal of the Whills, Saga I: The Star Wars (yes, that name is real).

Because his original story treatment contained so much information – and to follow in the footsteps of his inspirations, Flash Gordon and author Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series, which were split in several parts or “episodes”- Lucas originally considered delivering 12 films in total without even knowing what the other 11 would entail.

In 1978, after The Adventures of Luke Starkiller… was mercifully shortened to Star Wars and saw its release, George Lucas found himself writing a sequel to his smash box office hit. While devising on how to move the story forward, the director thought of a twist that would change the franchise’s future: Darth Vader is the father of our hero Luke Skywalker and is a former Jedi called Anakin Skywalker.

Original concept art from Ralph McQuarrie

With a backstory established, he decided to incorporate his original idea of making several films in this universe and re-titled the original Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope around 1981, intending to later shoot the prequel trilogy showing how Anakin became Darth Vader and then a sequel trilogy that continued Luke’s story.

By 1983 and the release of Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi, Lucas had changed his mind on both prequel and sequel trilogy, deciding to effectively end the cinematic Star Wars saga with this chapter.

However, the franchise’s presence only became stronger after the release of Episode VI with the universe seeing an expansion that included comic books, novels, video games, toys, among other media. Yet George Lucas was alright leaving it that way and moving on to other things…

For a while.

Realizing that there was still such a large audience for everything Star Wars (and, one can imagine, the prospect of insane amounts of money) along with advancements in Computer Generated Effects (CGI), Lucas decided to revive the prequel films which centered on Anakin Skywalker’s descent into villainy.

In 1993, Lucasfilm announced Star Wars: Episode I – The Beginning (Early titles were apparently never a strength for Mr. Lucas) and the first time in 14 years, “A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away” found itself being written into a piece of paper once more on November 1st, 1994.

Originally, Lucas only intended to lend his hand to the series by writing and producing the new trilogy, even asking his friends Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Ron Howard to direct. They all declined stating they felt the task was too daunting.

From pre-production to post-production, Episode I took a daunting 5 years to be completed. Needless to say, fan expectations were huge before release. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace was released on May 19th, 1999.

As expected, box office records were smashed and it easily became that year’s most successful film grossing more than $900 million dollars. It’s reception from critics and fans, however, was another story.

Until the release of The Rise of Skywalker, The Phantom Menace had the worst scores on sites like Rotten Tomatoes with 53% and is still considered the lowest point of the franchise.

Well, almost the lowest…

Fans were outraged by the introduction of storylines they deemed pointless like the explanation of how the Force works with midi-chlorians, a childish tone represented by Jar-Jar Binks and his Gungan clan and the mishandling of the Anakin Skywalker character among many, many other problems.

And yet, out of the prequel trilogy, it still holds some of the most iconic elements that are still making their way into new Star Wars projects.

So, let’s get into…

THE GOOD

Darth Maul

Darth Maul is proof that strong character design can outweigh a limited role with limited screen time.

Conceived by Lucas as “a figure from your worst nightmare.”, Maul’s popularity can mainly be attributed to his design. His aesthetic mixed with martial artist Ray Park’s imposing physical performance and Peter Serafinowicz baritone voice make him perhaps the most visually arresting villain of the saga next only to Darth Vader.

Despite only appearing on screen for 7 minutes, having three lines and being unceremoniously killed at the end of the film, the devilish looking villain made such an impact that fans kept asking for a reappearance by the Sith apprentice. In 2012, they got their wish when the animated show Clone Wars brought him back from the dead and would even make his way into 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Master and Padawan

George Lucas arguably made some of his best casting decisions by putting acclaimed actor Liam Neeson and young Scottish actor Ewan McGregor into the roles of Jedi Master Qui Gon-Jinn and his apprentice Obi Wan-Kenobi, respectively.

At this point in time, both actors careers were in much different places than they are today. Neeson hadn’t yet become a walking meme because of Taken, known more for his dramatic and nominated roles in films like Schindler’s List and Michael Collins while McGregor was an up-and-coming edgy actor who favored darker characters in his collaborations with director Danny Boyle in Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary.

This move allowed the prequel trilogy to be taken seriously and the actors brought a sense of sincerity and nobility to the movie, similar to what Alec Guiness had done in 1977. Although Qui Gon-Jinn met his end during Episode I, McGregor went on to expand the role with two sequels and both ended up becoming fan favorite characters.

Duel of the Fates

If one were to ask a Star Wars fan what actually worked with this prequel, two scenes immediately jump out. One of them is the battle between Jedi’s Qui Gon-Jinn and Obi Wan-Kenobi against the Sith apprentice Darth Maul.

One of the aspects fans were most excited about going to the past was the opportunity to see the Jedi in their prime. Throughout the original trilogy, audiences only heard of the magnificence and splendor of these noble Jedi Knights and the incredible battles they were involved with, yet only met older and retired ones like Ben Kenobi and Yoda.

Lucas and stunt coordinator Nick Gillard took advantage of this to give lightsaber duels a fresh twist. Gillard created a new fighting style that merged every swordfighting style and the result was a vicious and fast battle unlike anything we had seen up until that point in the saga, elevated even further by the iconic, operatic and grandiose music from composer John Williams.

Pod Racing

The other scene is the Pod Race. Moreso than the Duel of Fates fight, this represented a bigger challenge and gamble. Clearly inspired by Ben-Hur’s chariot race, the scene finds young Anakin Skywalker engaged in a dangerous race that could potentially win him and his mother their freedom.

Visual effects were still very much in their infancy when Phantom Menace was in development, meaning the whole visual effects crew weren’t even sure the scene would work. Post-production took two intensive years and necessitated new software to constantly be developed along with endless research.

However, there is another one vital component that makes the pod race work as well as it does: Sound design. Renowned sound editor Ben Burtt and Lucas made sure each pod and their engine had a distinct sound, giving each racer a personality and ensuring audiences would not get lost in the scene amidst so many machinery.

The marriage of these two elements made for a colorful, energetic and entertaining sequence whose visual effects still hold up today.

Loud speakers are also recommended.

Ahmed Best

It’s easy to spew hate and vitriol on art of any kind without taking into consideration those responsible for bringing it to life. Actor Ahmed Best was 24 years old when he was cast to be in the new Star Wars movie to play a groundbreaking new alien character called Jar Jar Binks. At the time, he believed it to be the role and adventure of a lifetime.

Things turned out quite different.

The first fully-computer generated character in a live-action film, the bumbling creature quickly became not only the most hated character in the Star Wars universe, but perhaps in all of film. Binks became symbolic for what fans disliked about the prequels as they felt they became too childish and nonsensical along with being perceived as a racist caricature.

I can only agree with what Lucas stated regarding angry Star Wars fanatics, “the movies are for children but they don’t want to admit that…”. Ultimately, Best did a great job of what was required of him; portray a comedic character that was aimed squarely at children.

Criticism was so severe that Ahmed saw his role in the sequels immensely reduced. All this ended taking a toll on Best’s personal life and career, leading the actor to even consider suicide.

Thankfully, he didn’t go through and the character has seen a redemption of sorts after George Lucas and Frank Oz (voice of Yoda) stated that Jar Jar is their favorite character. Additionally, Ahmed Best is set to return to the Star Wars family as the host of a Disney+ game show called Jedi Temple Challenge.

THE BADILLO

The Shots

The Dialogue

Qui Gon- Jinn: The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.

 Yoda: Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

The Music

Legendary composer John Williams returned once more to provide music for the Galaxy Far, Far Away and yes, it is as good as one would expect from a man who has been nominated for a staggering 52 Academy Awards.

This time, Williams employed more electronic instruments such as synthesizers to “capture the magical, mystical force that a regular orchestra might not have been able to provide”, and create an atmosphere that was “more mysterious and mystical and less military” than what was heard in the original trilogy.

Lucas and Williams knew this would be the most important score in the trilogy as the next two chapters would heavily incorporate themes introduced here. “Duel of the Fates” immediately became iconic with fans and served as the “single” for the movie, a practice that would be followed in Episode II and III to great effect.

  • Duel Of the Fates

THE BETWEEN

  • Michael Jackson was interested in portraying Jar Jar Binks but George Lucas felt his celebrity status would distract from the film.
  • During filming, Ewan McGregor made lightsaber noises as he dueled. George Lucas explained many times that this would be added in by the special effects people later on. Ewan said “I kept getting carried away.”
  • Sets were built only as high as the tops of the actors’ heads, and computer graphics filled in the rest. Liam Neeson was so tall that he cost the set crew an extra $150,000 in construction.
  • Qui-Gon Jinn’s (Liam Neeson’s) communicator is a redecorated Gillette Sensor Excel Razor for Women.
  • Jake Lloyd has said that he retired from acting because of the trauma he experienced after playing Anakin Skywalker. According to Lloyd, other children constantly teased him about the role. For example, they would make lightsaber sounds whenever he walked by. Lloyd also said that the situation was made worse because, in his opinion, the film did not meet the fans’ expectations. Despite this, Lloyd has reprised the role of Anakin in several video games and has appeared at Star Wars conventions and events.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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