Saturday, 1 June 2019

Phantom Pains: Star Wars Episode I Remembered



Twenty years ago Britney Spears dominated pop culture with her hit single "...Baby One More Time" and a beloved space saga took fans back to a time before Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo challenged a tyrannical Empire.

Guest post by Nick Smith

In 1992 I watched Star Wars Episodes 4 through 6 and then I cried! I loved the movies, the characters and the warm fuzzy feelings they gave me. I cried because I knew there would never be another Star Wars movie.

It sounds silly now in a widely-branded galaxy of sequels, TV shows and video games but back then George Lucas had made it clear that he would not make his long-promised new chapters of the saga. Marvel had long since dropped its comic book run and the sci-fi bubble had burst at the box office. I had to settle for drying my tear-stained face with my copy of Heir to the Empire – an original novel so successful (reaching number one on the New York Times bestseller list) and passionately written that I get the feeling it nudged a little announcement in 1993, although author Timothy Zahn would be far too modest to admit it.

That proclamation had fans frothing with excitement: Lucas was planning a new Star Wars movie. This started a locomotive of speculation, special editions, video games and new toys. Six long years of build-up and light speed hype led to a new hope of a movie that took our minds off fears of Y2K and middle east conflict. This was also the first Star Wars segment to premiere since the advent of the internet – no wonder conjecture was rife.

We knew Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), John Williams, Frank Oz (Yoda) and many other old hands were returning to the series as if it had never been away. More importantly for a filmmaker like myself, Lucas was shooting some of Episode I on high definition digital video tape – a step away from exclusive celluloid and legitimization for folks like me who made their features with a video camera. The future was as bright and optimistic as a farm boy dreaming of the stars.



EVERY SAGA HAS A BEGINNING
Lucas knew how to tease. The teasiest tease of all was a poster of a small boy casting a shadow on a stone wall. Look closely and you could see that the shadow belonged to Darth Vader. Gasp! We were going to meet Luke Skywalker’s father… before he broke bad. So far, so stoked. The only warning sign was the goofier elements that Lucas added to his Episode IV special edition – a Jawa swinging from his Ronto, for example. Surely the story of The Rise of Anakin couldn’t be that goofy?

GUNGAN STYLE
The Phantom Menace premiered in Los Angeles on May 16th 1999. I got to see it soon after with my partner Ros. 16 years after Return of the Jedi I was finally getting a fix of this filmic space drug and I. Was. Excited. There was plenty to be thrilled about as I watched the movie on the big screen with my parents and my practical Scottish partner, Ros. There was Darth Maul (Ray Park), the Gungan land battle, the duel of the fates and the mighty Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) adding Alec Guinness-level gravitas to the proceedings. Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), fresh from Trainspotting, was a cool Hollywood hero.

Although some of the CGI was… jar-jarring, most of it was jaw-dropping in its scope and seamlessness. I was transported back to a time when Lucas’ ambitious cinema could bring a tear to my eye. "Och," said Ros, Scottishly, "that wasn’t so good." I was crushed.

A lot of people agreed with Ros, though. For every positive comment about Ray Park or the podrace, there was a negative one about Ahmed Best’s (Jar Jar) misguided performance, Jake Lloyd’s (Anakin Skywalker) pip-squeakiness or the exciting plot about the Trade Federation and taxes. Lucas had had so many years to make a great prequel; he had decided to focus on filmmaking technology rather than the old-fashioned storytelling that had made the original trilogy so popular.

A SURPRISE, TO BE SURE, BUT A WELCOME ONE
Now there are fan-edited “better” versions of Episode I and the movie seems worlds apart from Disney’s slicker sequels. Yet something special has happened to Anakin’s early adventures. A new generation of fans has grown up on Lucas’ experimental epic. "Anakin, drop!" is a catchphrase in our house and my 19-year-old son Sam communicates with me mostly with prequel memes. With fan-fueled theories such as Dark Jar Jar plotting the downfall of the Senate and more official tales of Darth Maul running around on robotic spider legs, the internet that was so new in 1999 has helped to give Phantom a life that its creator couldn’t have imagined.

No one cries for The Phantom Menace. But its conclusion, so full of peace and hope, brings back those warm fuzzies I longed for back in the dark days… before the Clone Wars.

What are your memories of The Phantom Menace? Let me know in the comments below.

2 comments:

  1. Great read. Thank you for sharing. I will add that a certain movie in 1993 helped Lucas in deciding that the technology was there to bring the next chapters of Star Wars to the big screen. Ultimately, he spared no expense.

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    1. The Last Action... Oh, Jurassic Park! The T-Rex attack still looks better than anything in The Phantom Menace. Because practical effects with CGI used sparingly.

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