Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace. An interesting but irregular prequel.

In light of the upcoming release of the most maligned Star Wars: Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker movie, I’ve decided to go through all of the Star Wars movies, and give my personal take on each one of them. And I’m going to begin in the most unlikely of places. I’m gonna do a run down of the Prequel Trilogy, and make a case as to why they’re so underrated and more engaging than people may think.

The Elephant in the room

Let’s start with the Star Wars movie that, up until recently, was regarded, by many fans and casual viewers alike, to be the worst Star Wars movie ever produced. That is, until Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi came out.

Regardless of what you may think about the movie as a whole, it is quite clear in my eyes, and in spite of its many screenwriting and filmmaking shortcomings, that this is a movie that’s got more merits than many people would like to admit. Let’s start with the obvious. The movie is the first chapter of a, according to George Lucas, larger story that, due to the technological constraints at the time, had to be abandoned until such time when technology would be able to catch up and Lucas’ vision could be completed to his satisfaction. Whether you believe that he had this 6-part-story arc in mind back in 1976 when he started shooting Star Wars or not, is really up to the viewer. I, myself, highly doubt it. From what I’ve gleaned from documentaries and interviews with Lucas from back in the day, I firmly believe that he didn’t have the Prequel Trilogy in mind at the time ( the Episode IV: A New Hope title wouldn’t be added to the opening crawl until the 1981 re-release of Star Wars) and that, given the consequent massive success of the first Star wars movie, he just started adding to the mythos and the backstory of the characters as the sequels came along. What he had in mind after the release of Return of the Jedi was another thing altogether, and by then, I believe, he had a clearer idea of the direction in which he wanted to move the story for Episodes I to III.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the genesis of this new trilogy.

The Origin

On November 1st 1994, George Lucas finally started writing the first draft for Episode I. He already had a 15-page-outline for all three episodes. All he had to do was develop and expand upon that outline, which he would do over the next three years. He would also assemble a very skillfull team of conceptual artists and model makers around him to help him realize his vision.

Casting

Lucas had a pretty good idea of who he wanted to cast for the main parts; so slowly, but surely the likes of Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jin, Ewan MacGregor as his Padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi, Natalie Portman as Queen Padmé Amidala, Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine/ Darth Sidious, Ray Park as his apprentice Darth Maul and Ahmed Best as the most derided by fans Jar Jar Binks. Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker would both reprise their roles as the most bickering robot couple in Cinema History, C3-PO and R2-D2. But what would prove to be the most crucial piece of casting was that of the actor who was to portray an 8-year-old Anakin Skywalker. The casting crew went scouting worldwide for potential child actors who could play the part. As many as over 3.000 candidates were interviewed and screen tested for the role. In the end, they managed to narrow it down to three actors; of which Jake Lloyd, who had some previous experience on the big screen ( he played Arnold Schwarzennegger’s son in the Christmas flick Jingle all the Way) was chosen.

Neeson, MacGregor and Park would undergo rigorous sword fight training needed for the elaborately choreographed Light Sabre fight sequences, and Natalie Portman, on her part, would be subjected to endless Wardrobe fittings for her role as Queen Amidala of Naboo. It would be several months until actual shooting started.

Problems in Africa

With cast and crew pretty much locked down, the movie started shooting in location in Caserta,Italy, for the scenes that took place in Queen Amidala’s palace in the planet Naboo, and in Tunisia, Africa, for all those scenes that took place in Anakin’s home planet of Tatooine, like some exterior shots of the town of Mos Espa, and especially the crucial Pod Race sequence. All the different life size Pod Race models were built in England and flown over via Cargo Plane to Africa. Unfortunately, an overnight rainstorm would blow away most of the sets and the Pod Race models would suffer the most, as most of them were so badly damaged, they would have to be haphazardly re-assembled from existing parts from other models. The Pod Race sequence, which was one of the first on the shooting schedule, had to be placed last, in order to give the crew time to repair what damage had be done. Lucas, on the other hand, considered this hiccup to be a good Omen for the success of the picture, as the same thing had happened to him back in 1976 when they were shooting the original Star Wars in Tunisia and an overnight rainstorm had flooded the Luke Skywalker’s Homestead sets. After this, shooting resumed as normal without further incidents. These, though, would be the only in location shooting that would take place. The bulk of the production would be filmed on sets constructed in Leavesden Studios, on the outskirts of London, further enhanced by the use of miniatures, digital matte paintings, puppetry (Frank Oz was brought in once again to reprise his role of Master Jedi Yoda), and especially, computer graphics.

Visual artistry

It was in the digital realm, especially on the part of Special and Visual Effects wizards, Industrial Light & Magic, that the most astounding results would be achieved. In the intervening years since the release of Return of the Jedi, technology was leaps and bounds ahead of anything that could’ve been achieved back in the mid 80s, and the time was right for Lucas to unleash his imagination in ways that he’d never been able to before. Pretty much everything that was put on the page and later drawn and modeled, could be brought to life with the aid of CGI (Computer Graphic Images). Sights like the Federation’s Control Ship, the wonderful vistas of Naboo, the Underwater City of the Gungans, the surface of the Planet Coruscant, that was comprised entirely of buildings of all shapes and sizes, the Pod Race sequence, the ground fight between the Gungas and the Droid Army, the Space Battle over Naboo, are but a few of the examples that we can see throughout the movie.

Personal thoughts

Let’s get the bad out of the way first; from the initial crawl we immediately can see that the movie has got a completely different feel to the previous movies; its gonna be more on the political side of things, and not so much about the all-out adventure that the first trilogy was. That, in my opinion, bogs down the proceedings somewhat, and makes it loose the carefree spirit that the first movies had. It gets too mired in political issues that don’t seem to belong in a Star Wars movie. It is true that Lucas explains in the Audio Commentary to this movie that he had to try to get as much of the exposition and the political issues that are engulfing the Galaxy, out of the way in this movie. But surely he could have devised a way of getting through all of that without all the extremely talkative, politically-driven conversations between Queen Amidala, Senator Palpatine and her advisors. Those scenes only slow the movie down and distract from what should be the main plot point of the movie; the introduction of Anakin Skywalker. Once the first half of the movie is done, his character is pushed to one side and forgotten about, only to resurface during the last battle on Naboo, making him a surprising participant in said battle, for the sake of doing something with the character, if nothing else.

The other big point of contention, and the reason this movie is so derided by fans, is because of the introduction of Jar Jar Binks. Lucas’ obsession with this character and his decision to push him so heavily as an important element of the story, is something that baffles me. This character and, by association, the Gungan race, could have easily been excised from the movie without any lasting damage to the overall narrative of the film. His is a very annoying character, who is only there as doubtful comic relief. Fortunately, Lucas listened to the complaints of the fans and wisely decided that it would have a minimal role in the subsequent entries.

The issue of charisma, or lack thereof on the part of the actors for this new trilogy, is another problem. Unfortunately the flat nature of the dialogues don’t help the actors in this regard, and we don’t get the spark and wit we got in the OT. Everything is one-dimensional and straightforward. We get the occasional rare dramatic moment; Anakin’s farewell to his mother, the deliciously devious nature of Ian McDiarmid’s performance as both Senator Palpatine and Darth Sidious, but these moments are few and far between.

On to the good stuff; the special and visual effects, as per usual with Star Wars are top notch. Lucas surrounded himself with the best in the business to help him bring his vision to fruition. The likes of Doug Chiang as Chief Conceptual Designer, Gavin Bocquet as Production Designer, David Tattersall as Director of Photography, the legendary Dennis Muren and John Knoll as Visual Effects Supervisors, Trisha Briggar as Costume Designer, Ben Coleman as Director of Animation, not to mention the great Sound Designer and Co-editor Ben Burtt, who throughout the years, and from the very beginning has helped shape Star Wars through his Sound Design and Editing, as much as Lucas has helped it with his imagination and direction. Last, but not least, we have the legendary Composer John Williams, who once again brings his enormous talent to the table and helps round up the Star Wars Musical Universe.

The movie may be lacking a strong script, charismatic characters and be tonally quite different from the OT, but it more than makes up for it with its assemble of great action set pieces. One thing that, for me, immediately comes to the fore, is the amazingly dynamic and impactful light sabre fight sequences. Darth Maul versus Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is the stand-out fighting sequence in the movie; brilliantly choreographed and executed, the Pod Race sequence on Tatooine is another mesmerizing show of brilliant action and astounding visual effects; easily the best sequence on the movie and both the final Ground and Space Battle on Naboo. Those are the moments the movie is worth watching it for.

Then we get the best animated character in the movie, and the best non-live action character we’d seen on the big screen until Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy showed up; Watto, the owner of Anakin and his mother and junkyard dealer, with whom Qui-Gon must negotiate to get the spare parts to repair the Queen’s broken down ship. The animators did a brilliant job giving it a grumpy, uncanny and very clever nature, making him, in many instances, outstage the live-action characters. Who would have thought?.

All in all, a very worthwhile entry to the franchise, with some script and pacing issues, but brilliantly executed action set pieces and top notch production values.

Thanks for reading.

Published by flickgeeky

Love cinema and everything that has to do with it, from the screenwriting to the filmmaking process, acting, to its final presentation on the big screen and finally, to its home media release

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