Some Good Things About The Phantom Menace

Geek Culture

Our Souvenir ShotOur Souvenir Shot

Our Souvenir Shot from Star Wars UK, other photos by Nathan Barry

A long time ago, there were these three great films set in space. Then, not so long ago, their director wanted to make some more films set in space. We were all so massively excited, and then so massively disappointed. I had luckily booked my first American holiday, in San Francisco, for two weeks after The Phantom Menace opened — this was in the dark ages when films weren’t released here in the UK for months after the US (wait a minute, The Muppets? Grrr…). Me and my very understanding future wife got the cable car from our hotel in Chinatown to the big multiscreen cinema and I got swept away in the excitement, leaving with only memories of the good parts in my head.

Towards the end of the holiday we took a tram out to the pacific coast and walked back into the center through Golden Gate park and Haight-Ashbury. We ended up back at the same cinema and my very exhausted future wife suggested we go in and see the film again — purely so she could sit down for three hours and recover. When we left this time, the doubts had started to creep into my head. The bad points, too numerous to mention now, have been covered in so much detail over the last thirteen years, that they’ve completely erased that thrill of seeing it for the first time.

And I thought I was a little short for a StormtrooperAnd I thought I was a little short for a Stormtrooper

And I thought I was a little short for a Stormtrooper

Now that George‘s wallet is getting a bit thin is introducing a new generation to the films on the big screen again, but this time in 3D, I wanted to reflect on the good parts of the story of Anakin Skywalker. I got to go along to press screening in the building site that masquerades as London’s Leicester Square and while it wasn’t as glam as heading out to Skywalker Ranch like GeekDad Matt and GeekMom Andrea did last month, it still helped to build up a bit of excitement for the movie.

The foyer was teeming with D-list celebrities and regular people having their photos taken with members of the 501st and a rather plump Darth Maul. R2-D2 and C-3PO were present in both Lego and statue forms, with the latter also walking and talking in the form of Anthony Daniels who was on hand to give a little intro speech and plug a tie-in with children’s charity Variety. A few Xboxes were set up running Kinect Star Wars so punters could stand awkwardly in front of them a make exaggerated attempts to fly a Pod around the course – they were all set on the Pod Race part, so I never got to see any of the other levels. Finally, there was a green screen photo opportunity booth, where the lovely Rachel handed us a print-out of ourselves (that’s Star Wars Begins/Raiding The Lost Ark filmumenatry maker Jamie Benning on the left of the picture at the top) superimposed into a nice collage of Phantom Menace characters – after said photo had been auto-uploaded to the Star Wars UK Facebook page without any warning!

Pretty soon we were being ushered into the giant screen and after a short intro from Anthony Daniels the movie began. Matt has our full review, but here are some of the good things about The Phantom Menace

The Opening Credits
The first one happens almost immediately: John Williams’ opening fanfare. Nothing can compare to hearing that iconic piece of music really, really loud and in a fully THX-certified cinema. In fact the soundtrack in general is great, not the 80 year old maestro’s best work (the choral section gets on my nerves a bit), but there are enough nods and cues from the original movies to keep me happy. And for years after seeing the original Star Wars I was convinced that the music over 20th Century Fox logo was part of the soundtrack and instantly thought I was about to see Star Wars whenever I heard it on another movie.

Anthony Daniels doing a bit of ThreepioAnthony Daniels doing a bit of Threepio

Anthony Daniels doing a bit of Threepio

The World Building Set Designs
Soon after the invasion begins we are treated to a visual spectacle to match the aural one of the fanfare. When the film was still in production there were periodic video diaries released on the web to whet our appetite – it was one of the first movies to really do this. I remember viewing each one with great excitement, watching the craftsmen and women bringing George’s vision to life, and seeing the movie come together bit by bit. One of my favorite bits was seeing the new locations being created and the level of detail involved in them. The flyby of the Royal Palace in Theed and our first glimpse of the planet-wide city of Coruscant blew my mind back then, with their renaissance and art deco inspired themes and you really can’t beat seeing them on a giant screen.

Playing ‘Spot the C-Listers and Cameos’
The Phantom Menace was the only one of the prequels that was filmed in their spiritual home, England (where all three of the original trilogy movies where made). This means that the supporting cast are predominantly English, or at least from the UK. Here’s a few of the more well known cameos and bit parts:

  • Chancellor Valorum
    Probably the biggest and most well known of the cameo roles goes to acclaimed actor Terence Stamp. I’d totally forgotten he was even in the film, his role as the pre-Palpatine chancellor was so brief. Two scenes, and then he was ousted in a carefully orchestrated coup by the scheming senator from Naboo.
    You may remember me from such roles as:
    General Zod in Superman II and Wilson in The Limey
  • Fighter Pilot Bravo 5
    Yes, we all know that visual effects supervisor (and co-inventor of Photoshop) Jon Knoll played one of the Naboo pilots, but he got blown up. English actress Celia Imrie lived to fight another day – at least I think she did; my head was hurting from the 3D by this point so I may be wrong. Much more well known for her posh lady drama roles and comedy work with Victoria Wood and Julie Walters, here she gives a bit of comms chatter in a performance worthy enough to make her the Wedge of Episode I.
    You may remember me from such roles as:
    Neurotic marketing manager Philipa in Dinnerladies or Celia in Calendar Girls
  • Sabé
    Queen Amidala’s number 1 handmaiden/decoy/bodyguard was played but none other than superstar Kiera Knightly, then just a 16-year-old making her big film debut. Obviously, she was cast because of her resemblance to Natalie Portman as the role required the two to switch places several time in the film. I remember on my second viewing of the film trying to work out when she was queen and when she wasn’t.
    You may remember me from such roles as:
    Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean series or maybe Sheena Rose in the TV series The Bill (whaddya mean you’ve never heard of The Bill? It’s where many an English actor/actress got their first break in the ’90s)
  • The Captain of the Radiant VII
    The Star Wars Wiki tells us her name is Maoi Madakor and she was played with great gusto by Irish born Bronagh Gallagher, delivering her few lines in a strangely odd accent that doesn’t seem out of place in the galaxy far far away, before being cruelly and savagely blown up in the middle of the hanger by the trade federation nasties.
    You may remember me from such roles as:
    Backing singer Bernie McGloughlin in The Commitments or stoner Trudi in Pulp Fiction
  • Ric Olié
    The Naboo cruiser pilot seems to appear from thin air to whisk Amidala and co away from their home planet to the relative safety of Tatooine. He mostly stays put on the ship and gives young Anakin a quick run through on how to fly a Nubian, knowledge that kinda comes in handy later on when they both go into battle against the droid control ship. Ralph Brown is no stranger to the big or small screen, and has a wealth of great character roles under his belt, but he’s never really landed a major leading role.
    You may remember me from such roles as:
    Danny, the constructor of the ‘Camberwell Carrot’ in Withnail and I or Eighty-Five from Alien 3

The Wire‘s Dominic West also pops up as a Palace Guard and Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola appears as another of Amidala’s Handmaidens. George’s daughter Katie, numerous members of the crew and even Mark Hamill’s son Nathan (great name) all grabbed a few seconds of screentime too.
And let’s not forget the voice talent as well. We all know comedian Peter Serafinowicz gives Darth Maul his menacing tones (and famously recreates them in Spaced) but did you know he also did a Battle Droid and a Gungan? Of course, Yoda wouldn’t be Yoda without Frank Oz and who could miss Brian Blessed’s baritone Boss Nass?

Demoing Kinect Star WarsDemoing Kinect Star Wars

Demoing Kinect Star Wars

The Sound Design
Ben Burtt redefined what sound could bring to a movie with his ground breaking work on the original Star Wars and he continues it throughout The Phantom Menace. Of course the lightsabers, blasters and crazy languages are all present, but it’s with effects like the Pod Racer engines where he and his team really excelled themselves this time. They bring together the best elements of F1 cars, fighter jets, drag racers and motorbikes to enhance the feeling of the speed these machines travel at. Each Pod sounds different, but it’s Sebulba’s that takes the crown. The part where he speeds up behind Anakin’s tiny chariot and we’re almost deafened by the ‘whump, whump, whump’ of his two giant jet engines is just amazing when it’s filling the whole auditorium.

Play spot the in-joke/reference/homage
The film might well be aimed at kids, but if you look closely you can spot a great many gags that will just pass the kiddies by.

  • When we first see Mos Espa up close, Luke’s landspeeder is parked to the left of the entrance, but it’s painted a hideous shade of green.
  • At least one of the pieces in Watto’s junkyard is from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • One of the paintings on the wall of Theed’s royal palace features a certain portly director.
  • In the Imperial Senate we see representatives from all over the Star Wars galaxy including Wookiees and, more bizarrely, a group of E.T.s.
  • In the background of the Pod Race crowd, a gentleman sports a rather fetching Fedora hat.
  • Also in the crowd are Figrin D’An and the Modal Nodes.

Lego ArtooLego Artoo

Lego Artoo

The Duel
It’s very hard to remember that before Phantom Menace, the only lightsaber battles we’d seen were between a) two old dudes, b) an old dude and a student taught by old dudes and c) a student and snow beast, so seeing the threesome of Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Maul battling away, with their blades swooping and swishing at hitherto unknown speeds was simply breathtaking. Sure, it probably went on a bit too long, that choir really did get on my nerves, and what on earth were the red forcefields all about? Oh, yeah, a plot device. But seeing the Jedi in their prime, fighting at the very peak of fitness with all their skill and energy – and still almost being beaten – was a great spectacle. Massive credit to the fight choreographer Nick Gillard and to Ewan MacGregor, who apparently broke 300 lightsaber props during rehearsals and constantly made his own lightsaber sound effects as he fought Ray Park with such enthusiasm that his blade actually connected a good number of times.

So, there’s a few good things about the movie – have you got any more to add?

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