Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace

Howdy all you Supercultists out there on the interwebz! I’m Bad Movie Professor Cameron Coker (BS in “Midi-Chlorians” with a minor in “Horrible Prequels”) and I’ll be posting my hype-tacular speeches every week along with some long lost speeches from past Supercult Shows!

This week Supercult picks a fight with every Trekkie within a 12 mile radius by watching Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace!

Supercult Phantom Menace Poster

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two Jedi Knights, defenders of peace and justice in the galactic republic, are called to settle a trade dispute between the peaceful people of Naboo and the conniving Trade Federation. But when negotiations turn to invasion and war the Jedi begin a new mission: protect the Queen of Naboo and uncover the mystery surrounding the resurgence of the long dormant Sith menace. Meanwhile, a young boy who may bring balance to the force waits for his life to begin. It’s the prequel that reintroduced us to the epic space opera legend! One Truth, One Hate…the saga begins again with Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace!

Much has been said, and probably has yet to be said about the first of the Star Wars prequels. The dreams of countless fans, and the pop-culture identities of countless more were forged and broken on May 19, of 1999 with the release of the Phantom Menace. Is Episode I a cult film? Not at all. In fact it could be said that cults were created to protest it! However, The Phantom Menace is one of those movies that ride the line between beautiful and tragic.

While writing the original Star Wars, George Lucas reportedly realized that the story was too vast in scope to be covered in one film. The original story evolved from the first film in a sequence to a film belonging to the saga’s second trilogy, A New Hope. Lucas developed an elaborate backstory to aid the writing process and while developing the first sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, he turned the villain Darth Vader into the father of the hero Luke Skywalker and decided that Vader was once Anakin Sykwalker, a Jedi Knight corrupted by the dark side of the Force. With this backstory in place and plans to eventually revisit the idea of a prequel series, Episode II was renamed Episode V (to the utter confusion of audiences at the time) and A New Hope was rebranded Episode IV. By the time of the third film, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Vader had become a tragic character who was ultimately redeemed, but Lucas reported being “burned out” and took a break from the series.

After losing much of his fortune in a divorce settlement in 1987, George Lucas had no desire to return to Star Wars and unofficially cancelled his second trilogy. In the 90’s however, Star Wars saw a resurgence in popularity and Lucas saw that there was still a large audience for his idea of a prequel trilogy. Lucas also concluded that film special effects had advanced to the level he wanted for the fourth film in his saga. In 1993 it was announced that Lucas would be making the prequels. He decided that Anakin Skywalker, rather than Obi-Wan Kenobi would be the main protagonist of the series, and that the trilogy would be a tragedy examining Darth Vader’s origins. This decision began the process of filling in the history and backstory of the previous trilogy and turning the franchise into a true saga beginning with Anakin’s childhood and ending in his death in Return of the Jedi.

Writing began on Nov. 1, 2994. During the screenplay process Anakin was first written as a twelve-year-old, but Lucas reduced his age to nine because he felt the lower age would fit better the plot point of Anakin being affected by his mother’s separation from him. Eventually, Anakin’s younger age led Lucas to rewrite his participation in the final battle, small scenes with him finding out how the ship works, and R2-D2 helping Anakin to make the story more believable. The film’s working title was The Beginning, but Lucas later revealed that its true title was The Phantom Menace, a reference to Palpatine hiding his true identity as an evil Sith Lord behind the facade of a well-intentioned public servant. The larger budget and possibilities opened up by the use of digital effects made Lucas “think about a much grander, more epic scale—which is what I wanted Star Wars to be”. The story ended with five simultaneous, ongoing plots, one leading to another. The central plot is Palpatine’s intent to become Chancellor, which leads to the Trade Federation’s attack to Naboo, the Jedi being sent there, Anakin being met along the way, and the rise of the Sith Lords. As with the original trilogy, Lucas constructed The Phantom Menace to illustrate several themes through the narrative. Duality is a frequent theme; Amidala is a queen who passes as a handmaiden, Palpatine plays on both sides of the war, and Obi-Wan is in conflict with his rebellious master but eventually becomes Qui-Gon by confronting his rebellious personality and accepting his responsibilities. Balance is also frequently used; Anakin is supposedly the one chosen to bring balance to the Force and the characters have someone to influence them—Lucas said, “Anakin needed to have a mother, Obi-Wan needed a Master, Darth Sidious needed an apprentice” as without interaction and dialogue “you wouldn’t have drama”.

The theme for the Phantom Menace’s production seems to have been, “Bigger, Better, and More CG”. Doug Chiang, the design director for the film stated that Lucas intended Episode I to be stylistically different from the other Star Wars films. It would be “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope”. Most of the locations and planets the story takes place were given distinctive looks with some basis in the real world such as the Tunisian inspired Tatooine, the Itallian inspired city of Naboo, and the metropolis inspired Coruscant. The Gungun city in contrast, was inspired by art nouveau aesthetics. Some elements were directly inspired by the original trilogy; Lucas described the battle droids as predecessors to the Stormtroopers. Chiang uses that orientation to base the droids on the Imperial soldiers, only in the same style of stylized and elongated features seen in tribal African art.

Terryl Whitlatch, who had a background on zoology and anatomy, was in charge of creature design, often creating hybrid designs of existing animals and matching designs and colorings to exosystems. At times entire food chains were developed even though only a small percentage of them would appear in the film. Whitlatch also designed detailed skeletons for the major characters and facial muscles on Jar Jar Binks as a reference for ILM’s animators. Lucas decided that the costume design should be elaborate because the film’s society was more sophisticated than the one depicted in the original trilogy. Designer Trisha Biggar and her team created over 1,000 costumes that were inspired by various cultures and worked closely with designer Iain McCaig to create a color palette for the inhabitants of each world. The wardrobe department eventually created over 250 costumes for the main actors and about 5,000 for the background characters.

Before the Phantom Menace, many special effects in the film industry were achieved using miniature models, matte paintings, and on-set visual effects—although other films had made extensive use of CGI, such as Jurassic Park, Dragonheart, and James Cameron’s Titanic. When VFX Supervisor John Knoll previewed 3,500 storyboards for the film Lucas accompanied him to explain factors of the shots that would be practical and those which would be created through visual effects. Knoll later said that on hearing the explanations of the storyboards, he did not know how to accomplish what he had seen. The result was a mixture of original techniques and the newest digital techniques. George Lucas said, “Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn’t constrained by anything. You can’t write one of these movies without knowing how you’re going to accomplish it. With CG at my disposal, I knew I could do whatever I wanted”. About 1,950 of the shots in The Phantom Menace have visual effects including backgrounds, environmental effects, vehicles, crowds, and CG characters standing alongside real actors. The scene in which toxic gas is released on the Jedi is the only sequence with no digital alteration. The work was so extensive that three visual effects supervisors divided the workload among themselves.

Even scenes of straightforward dialog may be comprised of up to 6 layers of computer-composited imagery. In one scene, Natalie Portman’s best take had been take seven while Jake Lloyd’s was take one. The two takes were spliced together. However, Lloyd’s mouth at the end of the scene is still gaped open, so the same segment from take fifteen (in which his mouth is closed) is patched in. Furthermore, when Portman appears to look down from Lloyd instead of up, those few seconds were run backwards, which unexpectedly caused steam in the background to rise in reverse. The problem was fixed by flipping the steam backwards. All these fixes resulted in a seamless scene, but this technique prompted Liam Neeson, upon the film’s release, to complain thus, “We are basically puppets. I don’t think I can live with the inauthenticity of movies anymore.” In effect, George Lucas is singlehandedly responsible for the “overly CGI live action film” movement.

The Phantom Menace stars Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor as his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, Natalie Portman as Queen Padmé Amidala, the young queen of Naboo and Jake Lloyd as the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker. Kiera Knightly played Sabé, an attendant/body double of the Queen. At the time of the film’s release, the producers ran a disinformation campaign to suggest that Natalie Portman played both Padme and The Queen at all times. In fact, for many sections of the film, the Queen is actually a decoy, played by Keira Knightley. The real queen, Portman, is actually disguised as a handmaiden. Various conflicting public statements make it extremely difficult to figure out who is who. Whole websites are devoted to figuring out which actress is playing which handmaiden or The Queen at any given point. Reportedly the two looked so much alike when fully dressed and in make-up that even Knightley’s mother Sharman Macdonald, who visited the set, had trouble identifying her own daughter.

Tupac Shakur a Star Wars fan since childhood) expressed interest in reading for the role of Mace Windu, even lobbying mutual friends of his and George Lucas’ to get them in touch with each other to set up a meeting so he could read for the part, but his tragic murder in September 1996 prevented any such meeting from taking place. Eventually the part went to Samuel L. Jackson. Apparently, sets were built only as high as the tops of the actors’ heads and computer graphics filled in the rest. But Liam Neeson was so tall that he cost the set crew an extra $150,000 in construction. During filming Ewan McGregor made lightsaber noises as he dueled. It was noted and corrected during postproduction.

The release of the first new Star Wars film in 16 years was, at the time, a momentous event. The teaser trailer was released on selected screens accompanying Meet Joe Black (Rotten Tomatoes Score of 51%) on November 13, 1998, and media reported that people were paying full admission at theaters to see the trailer. A second trailer was released on March 12, 1999, with the film Wing Commander (Rotten Tomatoes Score of 10%). Again, many fans paid full theater admission simply to watch the new trailer. Employment consultant firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimated that 2.2 million full-time employees missed work to attend the film, resulting in a $293 million loss of productivity. According to The Wall Street Journal, so many workers announced plans to view the premiere that many companies closed on the opening day of May 19, 1999. Queue areas formed outside cinema theaters over a month before ticket sales began and some advance tickets were sold by scalpers at prices as high as $100 a piece! Sadly the then 18-year-old, Natalie Portman missed the premiere party in New York because she had to go home to study for her high school final exams.

The Phantom Menace was a huge financial success grossing over a billion dollars worldwide from a budget of $115 million breaking many box office records in its debut (largest single-day gross for taking more than $28 million in the opening day and fastest to gross $100 million in just five days), but as you might’ve guessed, critical response was…mixed. Many aspects of the scripting were criticized, especially that of the character Jar Jar Binks, who was regarded by many members of the older fan community as a merchandising opportunity rather than a serious character. Drew Grant of Salon.com wrote, “Perhaps the absolute creative freedom director George Lucas enjoyed while dreaming up the flick’s ‘comic’ relief—with no studio execs and not many an independently minded actor involved—is a path to the dark side.” Conversely, Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four and called it “an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking”, and said “Lucas tells a good story.” In an Entertainment Weekly review for the DVD release, Marc Bernardin gave the film a C-, calling it “haplessly plotted, horribly written, and juvenile”. Andrew Johnston of Time Out New York wrote, “Let’s face it: no film could ever match the expectations some have for ‘Episode I – The Phantom Menace’. Which isn’t to say it’s a disappointment: on the contrary, it’s awesomely entertaining, provided you accept it on its own terms… Like the original film, it’s a Boy’s Own adventure yarn with a corny but irresistible spiritual subtext. The effects and production design are stunning, but they always serve the story, not the other way around.”

The Phantom Menace was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound Mixing; all of which went to The Matrix. The film also won Saturn Awards for Best Costumes and Best Special Effects, the MTV Movie Award for Best Action Scene, and a Young Artist Award for Jake Lloyd’s performance. Conversely it received seven Golden Raspberry Award nominations for Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Supporting Actor (Jake Lloyd as Anakin), Worst Supporting Actress (Sofia Coppola as Saché), Worst Screen Couple (Jake Lloyd and Natalie Portman), and Jar Jar Binks actor Ahmed Best won the Worst Supporting Actor category. Jake Lloyd has even 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/events.

Fan backlash towards the movie was so strong that a few USC students took the Japanese Laserdisc & made their own edit. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT cut out all scenes featuring Jar-Jar Binks, but does remove many of his sillier and more distracting moments, and makes many other minor tweaks. It became known as the “Phantom Edit” and even George Lucas requested to see a copy. Shortly thereafter Lucasfilm issued a press release reiterating that it is illegal to copy and/or edit a Lucasfilm property.

The Phantom Menace has a 6.6 on IMDB and a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s flashy, it’s fake, and it doesn’t have much substance…sort of like a pair of fake boobs. But, like fake boobs, we can’t help loving them anyway. Jar Jar, Midi-chlorians, and awkward child actors aside, The Phantom Menace did what no graphic novel or book series could: it reintroduced a new generation to a galaxy far far away, and paved the way for many more Force fueled adventures in the future.

Every Saga has a beginning…

The Supercult Show is proud to present Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace!

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