Prequel Trilogy,  The Phantom Menace

Starburst Magazine: “20 things we love about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”


It’s hard to believe, but it’s now exactly twenty years since George Lucas first unveiled EPISODE I to the world. The hype itself had started even longer ago. Back in 1995, a VHS re-release of the original trilogy had carried a bonus interview with Lucas in which he blew our collective minds with the news that pre-production had officially begun on a new series of movies, and by the time the first trailer dropped three years later on November 18th, 1998, excitement for the film had reached unprecedented levels. Never in the history of cinema had a movie been so eagerly anticipated; and in just a few short days following its May 19th, 1999 US opening, so reviled. But jump ahead two decades and things are very different. There’s a whole generation of fan who saw TPM in cinemas as younglings and rightly hold the movie in high regard, and its iconic characters still appear across the expansive STAR WARS canon, fully embraced by their new Disney overlords despite initial concerns to the contrary. Not bad for a film accused of doing unspeakable things to the childhoods of irate fans. The world has had two decades to wallow in what George Lucas did wrong, so it’s time STARBURST highlighted what things he got RIGHT! Presenting, in honour of this milestone anniversary, 20 THINGS WE LOVE ABOUT THE PHANTOM MENACE….


Looking back to 1999, film fans will remember well the ‘bullet time’ effect in The Matrix that saw Keanu Reeves’ Neo dodge projectiles as the camera rotated around him. It was a marvel of technology, a stunning piece of VFX work that has continued to develop over the years as the digital world becomes more defined. Impressive, no doubt, but compared to the digital backlot of The Phantom Menace, the arrival of CGI characters who could lead a film and the blending of physical models and actors into digital environments…. well, to say TPM was mugged at the Oscars would be an understatement. Cloth simulators made costues real in the digital world and animatics were taken to a new level as pre-viz technology improved. ILM applied photos and matte paintings onto 3D geometry, making the racetrack of the Boonta Eve podrace an endlessly malleable environment. The Phantom Menace was arguably as big a leap forward for visual effects as A New Hope had been 22 years earlier, and without those advances and the new era that Phantom ushered in, modern cinema two decades later would simply not be the same. | MN


While for many of us, the original trilogy is the definitive Star Wars, its creator was famously frustrated by the way his imagination was constrained by the technology of the time. Not so when it came to the prequels. Advances in effects, particularly the development of CGI, finally meant the alien landscapes Lucas envisioned could be fully realised on screen. And nowhere is it more breath-taking than Coruscant. Although it had been seen briefly during the special edition of Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace gave Lucas the chance to fully dive into the planet-wide city. And while Attack of the Clones’ speeder chase is technically more impressive, it’s the initial impression here that sticks in the mind. A sun-drenched, gleaming cityscape stretching as far as the eye can see. When our heroes arrive here after the familiar, sandy wastes of Tatooine, the contrast couldn’t be starker. While Anakin’s homeworld consisted largely of practical sets, Coruscant is completely otherworldly. It’s familiar yet fantastical, something based in our world, yet transformed into something truly alien; everything Star Wars should be. It’s the most beautiful, fully realised world in the entire saga, and we’ve got The Phantom Menace to thank for it. | IR


You could argue that of all the new characters introduced in The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn had the most influence on the story going forward. Anakin, Palpatine, Obi-Wan, and Yoda were existing characters that were always going to be a part of the story, but Qui-Gon was entirely new and, as portrayed brilliantly by Liam Neeson, he not only informed the character of Kenobi but also shined a light on the mindset of the Jedi Order and the wider Galactic Republic of the time. He understood that young Anakin was vital to the balance of the Force, a chosen one of prophecy, and was determined to train him. He wasn’t on the Jedi Council, despite clearly being more than qualified to be one of their senior Jedi, and had his own view of how the Force worked that didn’t jibe with their rigid beliefs. His loss, to Obi-Wan, the Jedi, and, in particular, Anakin, changed the course of galactic history and brought the Sith out of the shadows. Imagine how different the galaxy would be if Count Dooku later had access to Qui-Gon’s council, or how Anakin would have been trained…. | MN


“Congratulations on your election, Chancellor.” That one throwaway line – delivered by Padmé during the climactic victory celebration – skilfully undermines much of what preceded it. The Trade Federation and their droid army have been defeated, Darth Maul dispatched, and peace has returned to Naboo. And then Lucas reminds us that the bad guy not only planned everything but that he actually won. Naboo native Sheev Palpatine arranged for the invasion of his own planet to help get himself elected to high office, and it worked. For a blockbuster to end this way is unusual. For it to be done almost as an aside is probably unique. It’s rare that The Phantom Menace gets credited for being subtle, but Lucas pulls it off so casually that it’s easy for many viewers, unaware Palpatine and Sidious are the same character, to miss entirely. It’s a trick repeated more overtly in its sequel Attack of the Clones, where the Sith Lord commands both sides in the conflict. There he uses it to start the Clone War, which sees his eventual elevation to Emperor. But the way Palpatine’s machinations are hidden amongst the other plot strands here is, frankly, a genius move by Lucas. | IR


The saying ‘Like mother, like daughter’ holds true even in the Star Wars universe with the incredible Leia Organa and her mother, Queen Padmé Amidala. Natalie Portman, who portrays Amidala in all three prequel films, has stated in the past that she used the late Carrie Fisher’s performance as the backbone to her own, imagining the kind of woman who would have had a fiery daughter like Leia. It’s a genuine shame these two powerful women were never able to form a relationship in the films. Amidala’s grace and beauty coupled with her intelligence, bravery, and dedication to her people make her a formidable opponent to anyone who would dare cross her. She could lay waste to her enemies with a sure shot or a well timed, withering gaze. And let’s not forget she did it all while wearing some of the most complicated, eye-poppingly gorgeous costumes in the history of filmmaking! | VB


While all of us here at Moonbase Alpha have a considerable affinity for the famed Holy Trilogy, the lightsaber usage in those original Star Wars pictures was blown out of the water by the prequel trilogy. Sure, the intensity of Return of the Jedi’s Luke vs Vader fight is always going to be tough to top, but the prequel trilogy looked to reinvent what we’d become accustomed to where the trusty lightsaber was concerned. Case in point, Episode I had Qui-Gon using his weapon of choice to melt through a sealed door, while that same opening sequence saw him and Obi-Wan Kenobi use their lightsabers to deflect blaster fire. Such things seem commonplace when thinking about the Star Wars brand nowadays, but it was The Phantom Menace that first introduced such concepts. Then there’s also the small fact that the movie again took its lightsaber game to a whole other level by, y’know, introducing a double-bladed version. And when you have a martial arts expert such as Ray Park wielding that weapon as Darth Maul, that allowed the ante to be upped in terms of the movement and speed of the lightsaber work on display. If the original trilogy’s lightsaber battles were slow and methodical chess games, The Phantom Menace flipped the board off the table, chugged a load of Red Bull and jumped off a cliff sans parachute all while managing to maintain the intensity that makes such battles work in the first place. | AP


The film might well have received a hostile reception on release, but there’s one element that can always be relied on and is never criticised – the rousing score by the maestro, John Williams. Sixteen years had passed since Return of the Jedi, but we all felt our collective hearts skip a beat when the greatest fanfare in the history of cinema came roaring out triumphantly at us again in 1999. And what a score this one was, giving us the magnificent Duel of the Fates, destined to become as memorable as Williams’ Imperial March twenty-one years earlier, and the wistful Anakin’s Theme. Sadly, our long wait for the film after the American release (and not to mention the burgeoning Internet) made avoiding spoilers nigh on impossible, a fact made worse when the soundtrack CD was released ahead of the film, bearing tracks titled Qui-Gon’s Noble End and Qui-Gon’s Funeral. We’ll overlook our urge to kick Sony Classical swiftly in the midi-chlorians for the transgression, because let’s face it, John Williams’s conducting baton wields even greater power than a double-bladed lightsaber! | RP


We love a little bit of pomp and ceremony in our Star Wars films, and one of the grandest tableaus of them all is the utterly thrilling Boonta Eve Classic that took place along the hot desert sands and labyrinthine canyons of Tatooine. This sporting event attracts competitors from all over the galaxy. Only the best of the best will survive. Fatalities are high. The sport is simple – navigate the course and stay alive. First past the post takes all. Of course, the race itself is a combination of the Ben-Hur chariot race, Nascar, and Wacky Races. There are also those who’ll stop at no level of cheating to secure their victory – prime example Sebulba, the Dug who is only too happy to sabotage his competitors’ pods. Despite Sebulba’s best efforts and random potshots by the indigenous Tusken Raiders, local boy Anakin Skywalker takes first, in his home-made pod, no less. Guts and midi-chlorians win the day. But let’s also give a shoutout to the enthusiastic little Jawa who cheers the racers as they pass. “Utini!” | RP


An exhilarating, fast-paced racing game putting you in the driver’s seat of your very own pod, Episode I: Racer was just one of many titles that accompanied The Phantom Menace’s release, but it’s the only certified classic of the lot. There were a few different version of it, N64, Dreamcast, Game Boy, and while they were all OK, none of them quite had the graphical power to do the intense speed depicted in the movie justice. The PC port was a lot better, and using LAN made it an essential multiplayer racing game. Then comes the Arcade port. The music and sound effects pumping out of the inbuilt speakers and the visuals on the large screen were truly something to behold in 1999. The real sell, though, was the game’s unique controls that still have fans queuing up at retro arcade events to experience this amazing piece of hardware. Like in the film, there was no steering wheel, just two handles. You push them both forward to speed up, pull one back and one forward to turn one way, vice versa to turn the other, and both back to break. Hitting sharp left turns into right turns at break-neck speeds felt absolutely incredible back then, and still does now, twenty years on. On top of this, there was a large green boost button – press that when it lit up and you’d feel like someone just fixed your hyperdrive! | SB


We raise our lightsabers in salute to Ben Burtt, the unsung hero of the Star Wars universe. He created the title Sound Designer for himself because no other description quite fit what he did at Lucasfilm since the summer of 1976 – literally collecting everyday sounds and distorting them to create the noises made by things that didn’t exist. The unmistakeable lightsaber hum? His TV tuned in-between channels mixed with a 35mm projector working. He’s credited with resurrecting the famous ‘Wilhelm Scream’ sound effect and uses it in most of the films he works on. Burtt’s talent makes the film’s immense visuals truly come to life. Who’d ever think that the sound of the beam walls in the Maul/Jedi fight was a slowed down faulty ceiling fan motor? Or an electric razor inside a steel pot could be altered to become the signature sound of the droid army? Incidentally, the noise when the Neimoidians are receiving an incoming transmission? That’s the sound of Ming the Merciless’ communication screens from the Flash Gordon film serials of the 1930s – a cool nod to Lucas’ original inspiration. | RP […]”

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