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Star Wars saga revisited: Episode I - The Phantom Menace


In anticipation of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's release this December, we're counting down all the Star Wars movies in chronological order of release.

This week, we're looking at the first instalment of the prequel trilogy: The Phantom Menace.

What's the story of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Trade Federation is causing disruption by blockading the peaceful planet of Naboo in preparation for an invasion. Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are sent in to rescue Naboo's queen, Amidala, and return her to the neutral territory of the planet Coruscant.

However, en route they're forced to stop on the desert planet of Tatooine, where they run into a young boy named Anakin Skywalker. Wise Quin-Gon senses the boy is remarkably strong in the ways of the Force, vowing to take him on as his new pupil.

However, danger looms in the form of shadowy Sith Darth Sidious, and his deadly apprentice Darth Maul...

How did The Phantom Menace get made?

By the time The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, new Star Wars movies had been absent from the big screen for 16 years. However, the franchise's status as a pop culture colossus was in no doubt – in fact, two years prior to the arrival of The Phantom Menace, series creator George Lucas presented Special Editions of his original Star Wars trilogy. The move led to a resurgence of interest in the series, which anticipated the arrival of his brand new prequel trilogy.

Despite the original trilogy's standing as a joyous and spirited ode to the serials of Lucas's youth, the director hadn't enjoyed making the first movie, A New Hope, released in 1977.

Battling a disillusioned cast and crew while attempting pioneering effects and sound design, Lucas appeared to burn out as a creative force. Indeed, it's alleged by some that A New Hope only came together via a miraculous edit that salvaged some of Lucas's more outre directorial choices.

But if Lucas was frustrated as a film-maker, he'd made history as a businessman. In the course of making A New Hope, he'd secured lucrative sequel and merchandising rights via a deal with distributor Fox, which in the course of the film's astonishing success made him one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.

Lucas was then in a position to extend Star Wars as a monumental merchandising force through toys, spin-off books and various other tie-ins, even though he became progressively less and less active behind the camera.

Indeed, The Empire Strikes Back was directed by Irvin Kersner and Return of the Jedi, by Richard Marquand. However, the architecture of the series was sculpted behind the scenes by Lucas himself.

In the midst of making Empire, Lucas conceived the first three Star Wars movies as as being the second of two trilogies. The prequel trilogy would explore the creation of feared villain, Darth Vader. For this reason, A New Hope was retrospectively named Episode IV on re-release, with Empire becoming Episode V and Jedi, Episode VI.

In the late-nineties, Lucas was even more of a lucratively successful figure not just thanks to Star Wars, but also his key creative involvement in friend Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones trilogy. When The Phantom Menace rolled cameras, Lucas was ready to take his place in the director's chair again, steadfastly (even autocratically) controlling every creative decision and aspect of the production.

"Writing the script was much more enjoyable this time around because I wasn't constrained by anything," Lucas said. "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".

In the eyes of many, this is where the prequels began their downfall – Lucas, although skilled behind the camera on early films THX 1138 and American Graffiti, was hardly a born storyteller or natural communicator like Spielberg. Combine this with his infatuation with the newfangled CGI developments of the 1990s (pioneered by the likes of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park), and it's little wonder the prequels struggled to secure classic status.

The CGI-laden aesthetic of The Phantom Menace perhaps offers the most startling contrast with the earlier trilogy. Whereas the first three Star Wars movies were made in an era of practical effects, model work and clever perspective photography, CG now allowed Lucas to fill every aspect of the frame with computer creations, to the extent the movie lost the tactility and wonder of what had come before.

That's not to say the story isn't inherently interesting – in the wake of the Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker storyline of the earlier movies, who wouldn't want to see the former's rise to power? It's a pity, therefore, that the combination of clunky scripts and artificial, CGI-laden landscapes, not to mention actors who are clearly at sea struggling with both things, fails to invest the scenario with anything approaching fun.

Lucas had started to conceive The Phantom Menace in 1994, and developments in visual effects allowed him to realise the grandiose vistas that he originally wanted to apply to A New Hope. However, he wasn't always set to direct – the likes of Spielberg and Ron Howard (whom Lucas had directed as an actor on American Graffiti) were approached, but turned it down. They cited the project as Lucas's baby, and encouraged him to direct, seeing as his prequel framework had been gestating in his head since the 1980s.

Despite the advances in technology, Lucas sought to stay true to the principles and philosophies of the original trilogy. Lucas stressed the theme of balance in the story, explaining "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".

However, one of the more controversial aspects of the storyline messed with the Force's methodology. When Qui-Gon discovers that Anakin is strong with the Force, Lucas attempts to give it a pseudo-medical explanation via something called 'midichlorians'.

Whereas the balance of the Force was once mystical and elusive, Lucas now (in the eyes of many) over-explained the key tenet of the Star Wars universe via way of microscopic life forms that reside within all living things. For many fans, it's emblematic of the disastrous creative decisions that derailed the prequel trilogy. 

Conceptual pre-production began in 1995, way before principal photography even began. This included Lucas's approval of thousands of artistic designs under the guidance of Doug Chiang. The latter explained that the movie was essentially a period piece, occurring many years before A New Hope, and this informed a more grandiose aesthetic. Chiang described it as "richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope".

Zoologist Terryl Whitlach was brought in to base a host of creature designs on real-life animals, while stunt co-ordinator Nick Gillard developed a new lightsaber fighting style. Because of their short-range weapons, Gillard thought that the Jedi would have had to develop a fighting style that merged every sword-fighting style, such as kendo and other kenjutsu styles, with other swinging techniques, such as tennis swings and tree-chopping.

Over 1000 costumes were designed by Trisha Biggar, who co-ordinated the look of the clothes according to the planet they originated from. For example, the watery planet of Naboo contrasts rich greens and golds whereas the sand-blasted Tatooine sees the characters wear threadbare, grayish cotton clothing.

Liam Neeson was cast as Qui-Gon and Ewan McGregor, then one of the hottest young British actors around owing to the success of Trainspotting, portrayed Obi-Wan. Samuel L. Jackson expressed enthusiasm for appearing in a Star Wars movie and he landed a role as Jedi master Mace Windu. (Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill later complained there was no point casting the Pulp Fiction star if all he would do is sit down and pontificate like the Pope.)

Natalie Portman graduated from the innocence of her role in 1994's Leon to the regal grace of Amidala, although her mixed use of accents continues to baffle to this day. And stunt co-ordinator Ray Park embodied Darth Maul, before his voice was later dubbed by British actor and comedian Peter Serafinowicz.

The experience of working on the film was especially unhappy for two actors: young Jake Lloyd who played Anakin, and Ahmed Best who played reviled character Jar Jar Binks. Both cited abusive and hateful reactions to their depictions in the wake of the film's release, with Lloyd retiring in 2001 and Best not appearing in anything since.

Production returned to Star Wars' spiritual home of London, alighting at Leavesden Studios, which was leased for a two and half year period from the start of principal photography on 26th June 1997. (Pick-up shots were completed later in 1998 on the same site.) The movie was shot on 35MM film, the last Star Wars movie to do so until 2015's The Force Awakens.

Tunisia again stood in for Tatooine and Italy's Caserta Palace acted as the stand-in for Naboo. Filming finished on 30th September 1997, in anticipation of a furious schedule of post-production that included 1950 visual effects shots. It was a workload that demanded the involvement of three effects supervisors, including series veteran Dennis Muren.

Although much criticised, The Phantom Menace did mark a watershed moment in terms of a movie's dependency on CGI.  Such was Lucas's ambition that the conceptual artists were initially unsure how to bring his creations to the screen.

In the scenes where flesh and blood actors were to interact with creatures later replaced by CGI, Lucas 'blocked' (rehearsed) the scene by having the stars respond to the voice of the eventual visual effects creation.

This would help guide their movements and sight-lines – such an approach became common not only in the later prequel trilogy but also in most large-scale Hollywood productions beyond this point. (An exception would be Christopher Nolan who said on the commencement of Batman Begins that all effects would be achieved practically, where possible.)

All in all, editing took two years, split between Paul Martin Smith on dialogue and Ben Burtt (later of Wall-E fame) on sound design. The final sound mix was completed in March 1999, ahead of the film's release later that year.

How did John Williams compose the score for The Phantom Menace?

If Lucas's direction and the script came in for much criticism, the typically sterling work of composer John Williams was beyond reproach. It was a given that Williams would return to the franchise – his original prequel trilogy scores reignited interest in the Hollywood film symphony, inspiring a host of young composers throughout the 1980s including James Horner (Battle Beyond the Stars) and Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future).

Come 1999, Williams was revered as one of the finest classical artists on the planet. His reputation at the start of the decade was emboldened by the Oscar-winning impact of his devastating Schindler's List score for Steven Spielberg, and much of Williams's mid-nineties work (Nixon; Sleepers et al) continued in a similarly sombre vein.

The idea of Williams's return to a more adventurous, romantic idiom was therefore feverishly anticipated. Performed as before by the London Symphony Orchestra at the renowned Abbey Road Studios, The Phantom Menace score is an operatic powerhouse. However, the Williams of the 1990s was far more experimental and creative than the Williams of the preceding decade, and he this time incorporated intriguing electronic and choral effects to assert a new sound for the prequel trilogy.

The key inclusion is the thunderous 'Duel of the Fates', deployed during the climactic lightsaber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. Composed for a piercing Sanskrit choir and racing orchestra, it's the kind of imposing masterpiece that only a composer of Williams's standing could achieve.

Williams stated that his mixture of synthetic and organic elements was meant to capture "the magical, mystical force that a regular orchestra might not have been able to provide", and create an atmosphere that was "more mysterious and mystical and less military".

Whatever the criticisms directed at the film, Williams's intelligent incorporation of his original series themes with new material is bold and exciting. Especially brilliant is the foreshadowing of Darth Vader's Imperial March during the otherwise innocent theme for young Anakin – we get the sense of a pure soul marching towards Sith-laden doom, a fabulous conceit by one of Hollywood's greatest composers.

How was The Phantom Menace received?

Following an ear-splitting, $20 million marketing campaign and nine months of hype (the first teaser was attached to Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black in November 1998), The Phantom Menace was released in the USA on 19th May 1999. Record-breaking queues began forming a full month before the movie's release, and it was perhaps inevitable the film wouldn't live up to 16 years worth of expectations.

Merchandising tie-ins included deals with the likes of Hasbro (famous for the Transformers), and author Terry Brooks wrote a Lucas-approved tie-in novel. Drew Struzan's famous teaser poster, showing young Anakin with Darth Vader's shadow behind him, was released in November 1998, just one of the many elements that accentuated feelings of nostalgic excitement.

Things came down to Earth with a bump when the first reviews came in. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times described Binks as "a major miscue, a comic-relief character who's frankly not funny." Drew Grant of 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".

That said, the movie also had its supporters. The noted Roger Ebert praised the movie as "an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking". Critic James Berardinelli later wrote, "The Phantom Menace was probably the most overhyped motion picture of the last decade (if not longer), and its reputation suffered as a result of its inability to satisfy unreasonable expectations".

Despite its importance as a watershed moment in the development of the Star Wars saga, it's safe to say The Phantom Menace's reputation hasn't weathered especially well over the years. In spite of its many laudable elements (Neeson's noble performance, Williams's thrilling score, possibly the finest lightsaber duel in the series), the movie's over-reliance on CGi, tinkering with the mythology and clunky dialogue mean its a tough proposition for all but the most devout fans.

Such was the sense of disappointment in some quarters that it even permeated pop culture to hilarious effect – just check out this moment from cult Simon Pegg comedy Spaced.

What was the next movie in the Star Wars saga?

The next instalment of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones, arrived in 2002.

When is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker released in the UK?

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in Cineworld on 19th December. Tweet us your favourite Star Wars moments @Cineworld.