Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace

Photo: Star Wars
Lucasfilm ltd. ® RTM & © 1999 Lucasfilm ltd.
courtesy Netherlands Fox Films Corporation BV
Long, long ago in the far away state of California there was Lucas. Then Lucas begat Lucasfilm and Lucas Online and LucasArts and Lucas Digital and Lucas Licensing and Lucas Learning. And so everyone eventually came to have a piece of Lucas for his or her or its own. Let's go to the very beginning; a very good place to start. When you started, you were there for four, five, six. Now you've reached point one, with all new tricks. Yes, the world is alive with the sound of Jedi. It may have taken more than twenty years to get started, but we've all come of age and are able to think on parallel lines, both vertical and horizontal, jumping from one reality to another, be it virtual, real, or something yet unheard of. So, here we go.

As a young Obi-wan Kenobi (Ewen McGregor), not quite beyond completion of his apprenticeship (to those in the know, a Padawan Learner), accompanies the magnificent (tall) Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) on a mission to pursue negotiations with the gigantic commercial Trade Federation. This Federation has been ignoring the wishes of the weak and peaceful planet Naboo (as well as many others) and recently introduced them to the horrors of warfare.

Ambushed whilst awaiting further emissaries, these unsuspecting knights suddenly fall prey to an attack that only Jedi warriors could possibly hope to survive. Neither poison gas, nor attacking pinhead robots, nor Droidecars with rolling guns can halt our heroes from their designated missions. They escape intact.

Photo: Star Wars
Lucasfilm ltd. ® RTM & © 1999 Lucasfilm ltd.
courtesy Netherlands Fox Films Corporation BV
They know instinctively that the Nimoudian viceroy Nute Gunray (Silas Carson with a distinctly Japanese tint to his voice) and his associate Rune Haako (Jerome Blake) want to capture Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) of Naboo. The Queen, please note, is invariably dressed in the most fantastic oriental-type gowns and headdresses (courtesy of Ian McCaig), so that some of you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the Nute Gunray is secretly after her wardrobe. (Most of the time she stands around looking noble, but, no question about it, she is not able to carry her feathers gracefully down a stairway. Love the lights in the red Throne Room number, though.)

Hoping to seek refuge and assistance from another community of creatures, the Gungan, the knights encounter Jar Jar Binks, the newly-billed star of this latest SW entourage (computer- generated image for actor Ahmed Best). Like a breath of fresh air, Jar Jar possesses a distinctly different voice (this time rasta with a touch of humor) as we quickly discover when he begins using such anomalies as "Ex-squeeze me". (The combination of dialects spread throughout the movie obviously makes it multi-cultural and very now for the future.)

Photo: Star Wars
Lucasfilm ltd. ® RTM & © 1999 Lucasfilm ltd.
courtesy Netherlands Fox Films Corporation BV
Yes, the animation from ILM is as amazing as one has come to expect of them and the vision of the glowing domes as we approach the underwater city is spectacular (talk about your Art Noveau). In case you're not quite up to speed, the Naboo are the attackers and the Gungan are potential allies (a group to which Jar Jar belongs - or sort of). Boss Nass, the king of the Gungan, however restricted in screen time his role may be in this epic, manages to steal the day from Jar Jar. Who, you may ask, is this majestic ruler with the booming voice and the slobbering shake? Well, anyone familiar with the Brian Blessed can venture a good guess. Proud to have the last line of the film he is, as Yodo (Frank Oz) might say. Before the Jedi knights get near the subterranean circuit, however, (still following this, are you?) there are more dangers to be encountered and thwarted. Battles must be fought and wars must be won; or, as Liam Neeson might put it: "there's always a bigger fish".

No, you don't have to settle for the down-to-earth thrills of a world gone-by. The universe is full of variety and the spatial travelogue is eye-boggling: Italian palaces near canals and piazzas, bubble-domed metropolises under water, desert sandscapes where monolithic Lawrentian battles take place, high-tech plateaus with regimented air traffic, assembly halls with floating speaker boxes, and any number of edifices that make you wonder ver-to-go. Doug Chiang, an art director at ILM, has done a spaced-out job along with Terry Whitlatch, who dreams up monsters unheard of, and Ian McCaig, who puts everyone in rags that make you weep with wonder and scream out "sew those cocoons". Production designer Gavin Bocquet took Chiang's concepts and was responsible for overseeing the construction of more than sixty sets in England, Italy, and Tunisia. These all have helped to make up the magic of Tatooine, Naboo, and Coruscant, if you know what I mean. Stare ahead and go blind from beauty.

Take notice of those hidden moments that repeated viewing reveals. When Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn make away with the Queen after a daring leap from an arched -bridge balcony, look again and see that Jar Jar, who hesitates in hope to stay behind, jumps slightly later than the others and hangs onto the balustrade for dear life. Humor? Visit places inhabited by robots with Stephen Hawking's voice, which intonate such things as: "That doesn't compute. Aah. You're under arrest." Even in the face of dire danger, one should never lose one's sense of humor. And if that doesn't tickle your fancy, try Jar Jar's eating habits as he slicks a mile-long tongue to get at his fruit.

When their starship begins having serious problems, it's good old R2D2 (Kenny Baker) who evokes a response from one of the crew who astonishedly says, "Power's back. That little droid did it." Our friends decide to land in Tatooine, the territory of the Huts (who aren't yet aware of the Queen's flight and, therefore, aren't looking for her themselves.)

Things get heavier, as usual. Even the traitor emissaries who began the first battle with our Jedi knights have to finally admit, "We should not have made the bargain."

Neeson searches the areas of Tatooine, desperately inquiring about "pods for a J type 327 Nubian" so they can all finally escape to safety when he chances, during this scouting session, to meet Anakin Skywalker (the nine-year-old version of Darth Vader played by Jake Lloyd). He can't get these pods from the long-nosed blue swindler Watto (Andrew Secombe) who makes no bones about telling the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn , "I'm a Togdarin. You're Jedi tricks don't work on me.") Jinn realizes that a ship without a power supply isn't going to get them anywhere. Nevertheless, something else has taken his attention: "There's something about this boy."

This blonde-haired boy and his mother Shmi (Bergman movie veteran Pernilla August, bringing yet another accent at this point into the story) were sold into slavery and get ready to hold onto your hats, cause it feels like the King of Kings might be around here somewhere. ("Who was his father?" "There was no father." Could we have some Jesus epic movie music in the background, please. Thank you, JW.) This child reveals to us that "I had a dream I was a Jedi - I came back and freed all the slaves." This whiz kid, by the way, is not only a masterful mechanic, but drives a mean machine. He podraces around the arena to the tune of a two-headed sportscaster against the agressive competitor Sebulba (Lewis MacLeod) while maintaining the speed and pizzazz of Ben Hur. As they say, "when in Tatooine, do as the Romans do." This kid can do about anything, but, when you come down to it, he's just a little too "cute." (His character's name is Anakin, but you could almost call him Annie and expect him to burst out in a chorus of "Tomorrow".)

Photo: Star Wars
Lucasfilm ltd. ® RTM & © 1999 Lucasfilm ltd.
courtesy Netherlands Fox Films Corporation BV
A female marketeer in the desert town with a distinctively Australian twang (aha! This is assuredly a world of mixed tongues), warns them, "Storm's comin'up. You'd better take shelter." And we're off again to more adventure. A spying black-ball-transmitter-type- floating-receiver has scouted the area and Sith Lord Darth Maul, who soon follows, almost wipes out the boy while himself in pursuit of a death duel (no, not quite yet) with Qui-Gon Jinn. Those Siths are mean mo'fxxx'ers, believe you me. As the adage goes, "where there's a Sith, there's a black cape." Apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park) adds his colorful red and black visage to the ensemble; a face that will challenge any scarification or tattoo this side of the last galaxy. And, after all, what's an epic without a villain (or two)? When this one makes his first landing, listen to the satanic shout wafting behind the waves of desert air. Ray Parks make an impressive acting debut, showing the endless stunts and moves of an exceptional martial arts expert, accomplished swordsman and incredible gymnast (under the choreography of renowned stunt coordinator Nick Gillard). Yes, folks, he's for real. Talking about evil, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, who has lost some years this time around, says that the role he plays is "conventional on the outside, but demonic on the inside. He's on the edge, trying to go beyond what's possible." Must have been fun working with these guys.

Fantasy time for me now, folks: I believe that if you listen sharply to the mumbling of Lord Darth Maul (re: "the boy") when sending a message through the floating transmitter, before pursuing his first attack on Qui-Don Jinn, and also take note of the near collision with the boy when Maul rides his air-jet-bike, you might have a hint of what's coming in part 2 or 3 of the new trilogy. Think about it a minute. Who is Anakin's father (,assuming the mother has lied in order not to reveal the truth)? And consider the mythological set-up of the 9 (eventual) movies. My guess is it will turn out to be the evil (evil? notice the cinematic pan at the final courtly line-up in chambers preceding the parade at the end of the film). Senator (not yet Emperor) Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) was conceivably not only the teacher of Darth Maul, but wants his own son (?!), Anakin, destroyed in order to ensure and preserve his own powerful political future. Having previously banished the child to the desert with his mother as a result of his awareness of the prophecy, possibly; perhaps he thought they were dead; perhaps they ran away from his tyranny. This would also mean that Palpatine is Luke Skywalker's grandfather. What secrets the old Obi-Wan must withhold. Sometimes I get so carried away. But my mind is wandering and fantasizing far too far behind; let's get back to the cinematic facts (?) at hand.

All the actors were enthusiastic about acting against a blue wall (more like a blue city in this case) and some of the interesting comments made about the film have been:

"These films are tapping into a void."
"I obviously couldn't say no when the part was offered."
"It was wonderful playing a young queen with so much power."
McGregor, again:
"To draw a lightsaber and fire it up... no one can imagine what that feels like!"
Art director Chiang adds a few interesting words as well when he admits:
"George's design genius lies in the odd juxtaposition of unrelated images."

DP David Tattersal must be praised for both his breathtaking and precision camerawork. Gavin Bocquet, needless to say, has taken all our breaths away. Editor Paul Martin Smith has made sure we haven't had too much time to catch them again. Producer Rick McCallum has delivered all the goods in many ways, shapes, and forms once again as he has so often done in the past. Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom blow us audibly away. What else can one say? The list goes on. Not to mention that 95% of the film (as I will mention here), composed of 2,000 shots, employs digital work. 250 computer artists worked for 2 years on creating this digital universe. Leavesden Studios in the UK, an ex-Rolls Royce aircraft engine factory, had their 850,000 feet of space (the other kind) converted into ten stages and sixty sets as well as having room left over for the construction of special creature effects and costume manufacturing. Of course, there's Dolby Digital-Surround EX for this film, employing 6.1 channel sound, a new system overseen by Oscar-winning sound designer Rydstrom, for John Williams' soundtrack and Burtt's sound design.

If you just can't get enough, have no fear that part 2 will not arrive. Don't forget the prophecy, which must be fulfilled, about "the one who will bring balance to the Force." You will not have to suffer for long.

"Hard to see the dark side is."
"Fear leads to anger
Anger leads to hate
Hate leads to suffering"

What, you may ask, is going on in the digital backlot of my brain. If you can't make head or tails out of much of this, it doesn't really matter because you should go and see it for yourself. It's an icon, after all; it's an icon after all.

In the meantime: Peace, brothers and sisters.


Shame that Joseph Campbell isn't around to enjoy it with us.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett