The Phantom Menace at 20

WARNING: If you hate The Phantom Menace with the fury of a supernova, this is not the article you are looking for.

It’s hard to believe The Phantom Menace turns 20 today. The years have flown by like a quick lap of the Boonta Eve podrace.

Two decades on, it still remains divisive. But, with The Last Jedi now the punching bag of the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace can breathe a sigh of relief that it’s no longer the most hated film of the franchise.

So, on its 20th anniversary, maybe today’s the day to talk about its legacy.

Yes, it has flaws. It can be argued the movie is the product of a ring rusty filmmaker who hadn’t written and directed for 22 years.

You can, of course, find plenty of criticism and vitriol online if that’s your thing – enough to fill the hold of a certain Corellian freighter in fact – but I’d rather focus on what the movie gave us rather than what it didn’t.

A Different Beast

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was 16 years in the making. Crushed under a tidal wave of hype and expectation, its fall was inevitable.

For many, it was a different beast to the one they expected. Fans were angered by the slow and deliberate story. Instead of civil war, we got trade disputes and dry politics instead of balls to the wall action.

Controversially, George Lucas started the prequel trilogy with the story of a nine-year-old boy.

And Midi-chlorians? Let’s not go there.

The thing is, we were given the singular vision of an independent filmmaker famous for preserving his creative freedom to tell the stories he wants. Remember, it was Lucas’ dogged determination that got Episode IV: A New Hope made way back in 1977.

The Phantom Menace was a similar vision – a movie free of meddling studio execs insisting on something safe and familiar (probably a carbon copy of A New Hope). Lucas gave viewers his personal vision for Episode 1, made the way he wanted it. In modern Hollywood, this should be applauded.

World Building

Lucas’ vision, imagination and world building in The Phantom Menace are magnificent. It’s still a bold, innovative and visually stunning movie.

Stylistically and tonally, it’s deliberately different to the original trilogy (OT). Design director, Doug Chiang, describes it as being “richer and more like a period piece, since it was the history leading up to A New Hope.”

Unlike the straight-forward narrative and military/industrial style of the OT, the film gave us a somewhat wider, complex and nuanced story.

Design wise, the renaissance architecture of Naboo is rich and glorious – you can almost feel the Mediterranean-like sunshine and vibrant culture.

The art nouveau-inspired Gungan underwater city is beautiful and alien, in contrast to Coruscant, with its cosmopolitan skyscrapers and urban crawl.

We shouldn’t forget the sleek aesthetics of the Naboo starfighters or the Nubian royal starship, either.

We visited Tatooine again – led down the backstreets of Mos Espa and invited into the homes and workplaces of its denizens.

Nor should we forget the exhilarating and reverberating visuals and sounds of the pod race as it screamed across the desert landscape.

Then there’s the movie’s rich costume design, suggesting a society more sophisticated than the one seen in the OT. Queen Amidala, her Orient inspired outfits and makeup, coming to life on the screen.

Darth Maul, also, with his gothic black robes, devil horns and red and black tattoos, evokes images of Japanese demons, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan’s Jedi remind us of Samurai.

Importantly, the production design and set pieces (the pod race and climactic lightsaber battle) are visually stunning – they serve the story, not the other way round.

Duel of the Fates

Gluing it all together is John Williams’ epic score.

The ominous, choral-led Duel of the Fates theme underpinning what is by far the saga’s best lightsaber battle; The fight between Maul, Kenobi and Jinn.

It’s a spiritual movie, too. Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one – prophesied to bring balance to the Force. Episode 1 foreshadows his fall from grace when he later betrays his loved ones and brothers in arms.

Carrying out the devil’s work is Darth Maul, his demon-like appearance again referencing the movie’s spiritual subtext. Even the title, The Phantom Menace, suggest higher powers at play.

Which brings us to Senator Palpatine – the real Phantom Menace.

The two-faced, calculating and Machiavellian politician is a different kind of antagonist. He’s a master manipulator and conspirator. Yes we suspect (know) his secret Sith identity, and we enjoy this knowledge at the expense of the Jedi Counsel and Galactic Senate. Despite his appearance, Palpatine is the movie’s strongest villain.

A Second Chance

The battle for the heart and soul of The Phantom Menace has been fought along two demographic fractures – Generation X and The Millennials.

Fans who grew up in the 1970s and 80s will probably always hate the movie. Their disappointment is real and ubiquitous – they are not for turning.

But, the ill-will towards Episode 1 has mellowed over time with a shift in how it is viewed.

For older fanboys, arguments about the film’s evils are now said and done. They have moved on, with many choosing to forget and ignore the movie (and prequels) entirely.

The others grew up.

Rightly or wrongly, George Lucas made The Phantom Menace for children – a new generation superseding those of the 70s and 80s.

When released, Episode 1 was probably the first experience of Star Wars these millennial kids had. Like the older fans of the OT, their childhood was shaped by the saga, but this time with heroes like Anakin and Padme (and dare I say it, Jar Jar Binks), not Luke, Leia or Han.

These younglings would eventually have access to six era-jumping movies and a new plethora of toys, comics and video games. Now in their 20s and 30s (some now with children of their own) these girls and boys can nostalgically look back and celebrate a childhood enriched by Star Wars, starting with The Phantom Menace.

A Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

Thinking back to the early summer of 1999 brings back happy memories. The world was saturated with Episode 1. From posters to Pepsi cans – the hype and excitement was unreal.

Fan fever was stoked with the release of the first trailer in November ‘98 when it burst on to the net. There were news reports of fans buying cinema tickets to see Meet Joe Black, just so they could watch the trailer then leaving the theatre before the film began.

Many fans were still buzzing after the re-release of the original trilogy in their special edition formats. The promise of a new adventure was overwhelming – The Phantom Menace could not come soon enough.

The best memories were seeing the trailer for the first time. It was recorded on VHS; every image and word dissected by me and my friends.

The soundtrack never left the CD player.

Who could forget also the awesome teaser poster of Anakin on Tatooine casting an ominous shadow of Darth Vader?

Variety magazine boasted Annie Leibovitz’s on set photos plus George Lucas’ first Episode 1 interview.

My family – mum, dad and brother – enjoyed an evening out on premiere day. It was a special occasion for everyone.

It didn’t matter that The Phantom Menace didn’t entirely meet expectations, it was Star Wars. The Force was back on the big screen.

Despite having issues with the movie (I still hate those battles droids), I get a warm, fuzzy, nostalgic feeling every time I think back to the summer of 1999.

Nostalgia plays a big part of why people love Star Wars – the happy memories. They go together like Chewie and Han.

A Certain Point of View

With the release of The Force Awakens, some fans (me included) have revisited Episode 1.

Watching it again with fresh eyes, it’s possible to rethink the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

This is helped by much in-depth analysis of the prequels online, specifically its defences. For those interested, you can unpack near academic levels of pro arguments. One of these is Ring Theory.

Put simply, it postulates the idea of George Lucas likening the saga to poetry. As he said in the excellent ‘The Beginning’ documentary “it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza should rhyme with the last one.”

Going further, Ring Theory argues the prequels echo their corresponding original trilogy counterparts – in the case of The Phantom Menace, Anakin destroys the droid control ship the same way Luke does with the Death Star. The key difference with the prequels being that the Dark Side wins.

You can find many intelligent and passionate defences of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith at your fingertips. All offer a fresh and thought-provoking rethink of the films.

Best of these is The Prequels Strike Back documentary, should you be open to watching it. Remember; it all depends on a certain point of view.

The Clone Wars animated series can also take credit for breathing new life into Episode 1. It brilliantly fleshes out the prequel era, helping fans old and new in their acceptance of a story controversially told by George Lucas 20 years ago.

Acceptance

One of the most famous prequel bashers to rethink The Phantom Menace movie is Simon Pegg.

Calling the movie “a boring, turgid, confused mess,” he recently made a big u-turn in his acceptance of Episode 1 and George Lucas.

“For all the complaining that I’d done,” he says, “there was something amazing about his imagination. I do feel like his voice is missing from the current ones.”

Pegg’s contrition highlights the retro tone of The Force Awakens under Disney, and how different it is to the first prequel movie.

Love or hate The Phantom Menace, Mr Lucas reinforces a point made above: “My previous Star Wars films involved constant innovation. I worked very hard to make them completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships – to make it new.”

Episode 1: The Phantom Menace gave new depth to the Star Wars universe. It looked and felt different. It passed the torch to a new generation of fans, without whom there’d probably be no new movies to make and stories to tell.

The cycle will start again with young fans of the sequel trilogy.

At the very least, its legacy gives fans a great excuse to debate, discuss and dissect our favourite galaxy far, far away.

Happy anniversary.

Anthony Murphy – Editor, Rebel Briefing

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing

Bad Guys Doing Good pt.2

Stormtroopers are a taciturn bunch, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking to Gary Hailes. The Commanding Officer of the 501st UK Garrison takes another break from his day to day duties with the Empire to share a little more of what life is like in a galaxy a little closer to home. Here is part 2 of Rebel Briefing’s official report…

With more than 500 volunteers in the ranks, UKG members are expected to appear at least once a year in their costume to be granted “active member” status. Like other large organisations, it is made up of people from all walks of life. Each has their own reason and motive for pulling on their ‘bucket’ (helmet) and trooping across the UK.

Male, female, scientist to binman, there’s not a profession, gender, class, colour or creed that is not represented in the Legion. For members it is a hobby not a job, and nobody gets paid. The costumes are paid for out of their own pockets and can run into thousands of pounds. A Darth Vader costume can cost up to £3,000, while Gary’s armour was more than £1,000.

A lot of work goes into building every outfit – more than 25 hours for a classic Stormtrooper uniform and much more for other costumes including Vader’s.

It is like a big golf club. Not only do members help each other – a TIE fighter pilot fitted Gary’s back door and is now helping to build another’s kitchen – they also socialise together. The ranks are filled with people living in the north of Scotland down to Land’s End.

They usually meet in their geographic regions, but once or twice a year they get together en masse. Last year they met at Birmingham Comic Con. Star Wars Celebration is also a popular place to meet.

Movie Stars

Star Wars has always had a special relationship with the United Kingdom. Not only was the original trilogy filmed at Elstree Studios, The Phantom Menace was shot at Leavesden and the new trilogy at Pinewood. Lucasfilm has always relied on the skills and talents of the British film industry’s actors, film crews, model makers and technicians to shape our favourite galaxy far, far away.

In 2015 the UK Garrison became part of this tradition when six of its members appeared in The Force Awakens.

Apparently, JJ Abrams is a big fan of the 501st, and because of its close links with Lucasfilm, an idea was floated to have a couple of Garrison people appear as Stormtroopers.

“Mary Franklin, who was senior events lead at Lucasfilm, came to England to spend a day with us at London Comic Con,” says Gary. “She visited our stand and met some people. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was selecting guys to be in the film. I was never intended to appear, so I asked if I could act as liaison. I also drove people to and from the studio. By a quirk of fate I managed to get in front of the cameras as a Stormtrooper. It’s hard to tell which shots I’m in, though.

“It was fantastic, but hard work. We arrived at Pinewood at 5.30am and spent the day working on set. We didn’t leave until gone 9pm. We had tons of stuff to do, mainly Stormtrooper shots. I was impressed with JJ Abrams. He’s a hands-on guy; very friendly and ordinary. I love passion, and I believe that most people in the Legion are very passionate about what we do. JJ is just like that, a very passionate guy.”

Gary describes being on set as incredible. The down side was having to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Disney. The contract was so tight that the budding movie stars were only released after the film came out on Blu-ray.

Doing the Job

Having led the UKG for eight years, the demand on Gary’s time is immense. As Commanding Officer, he is the chief administrator and policy maker for every event that occurs within the Garrison’s borders. There is never a moment when he’s not on his phone updating or sharing Legion information.

For the last two years he has served as Legion Executive Officer of the global 501st – basically the organisation’s second in command. This is in addition to his UKG duties.

“I am lucky that I work freelance, which gives me a lot of flexibility to do my duty. For the UKG, I spend a lot of time ensuring things are done, passing information along and making sure things are up to speed. Today, for example, I was out on a troop at a hospital in Oxford. Now I’m speaking, reluctantly, to you Rebels. Afterwards I will workout before getting back to business. Luckily I have great people who support me including our events team, PR team and Finance Officer, who I’m constantly in touch with. My emails are constant and come in from around the world.”

Because of his position in the 501st, the UKG carries a big voice on the international scene.

“The Garrison is a big club, which is part of a bigger organisation. But we are loud, and we have our reputation for accuracy. We’ve been part of the 501st for 18 years. The Legion is now in its 21st year, so we joined early on. We were one of the first non-American groups to join.”

As Legion executive officer, he is friends with founder Albin Johnson, who he first met at Dragon Con 10 years ago. “We hung out together in the US and have stayed friends ever since. I worked under him when he was running the 501st. Albin’s an interesting, friendly and humble guy. He’s been over to the UK to troop with us several times.”

Duty, Honour, Empire

Gary’s motivations are bound in his duty, honour and service to the Empire. A massive Star Wars fan, his love and passion for the UKG and 501st is huge. He takes his role seriously because, as he says, he has to.

“It doesn’t matter that I’m not paid – people have a right to expect you to do what you say you will do. That’s a commitment. Over the years it just snowballed and evolved to become a massive, massive part of my life. Most importantly, we are normal people doing a normal hobby. We have a lot of fun.

“Some people like to tease, but I reply ‘yeah, I helped raise £50,000 for charity last year, what did you do?’ They then immediately ask how they can get involved. It’s brilliant, because when they do, it proves to me that everybody has a Stormtrooper inside them.”

Then pointing to the door, Gary signals that our time is up. His Stormtroopers hustle our agent towards the exit with the words “Rebel scum” hanging in the air.

Happy to be alive, there is a quick rendezvous with the Tantive IV, which is waiting in a docking bay. Before making the jump to lightspeed the vital intel is beamed to our Bothan friends at Rebel Briefing.

Editor’s note: 

Rebel Briefing would like to thank Ginny Tait for helping to organise our ‘sit down’ with the UKG. Thanks also to Mark Brooks for his contributions. Most of all, thanks to Gary Hailes for agreeing to talk to us. See, it wasn’t a Rebel trap!

You can find more information about the UK Garrison by visiting www.ukgarrison.co.uk

The 501st Legion homepage can be found at www.501st.com

For details about the charities supported by the UKG, visit The Royal British Legion, MediCinema, The Henry Allen Trust, Mitchell’s Miracles, the Oxford Children’s Hospital, and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Above image – courtesy of the 501st UK Garrison

Follow Rebel Briefing on Facebook @RebelBriefing or Twitter @RBriefing.

A Golden Age for Star Wars fans

Star Wars 1977

Image: starwars.com

Star Wars fans are enjoying a new golden age. During the 70s and 80s Star Wars, like the Force, was everywhere – it surrounded us, penetrated us and bound our galaxy together. Then, after Jedi finished its cinematic run in 1983, nothing… the galaxy fell silent and the franchise entered its first dark age.

Yes, in the early post-Jedi days there were the Ewok movies Caravan of Courage and The Battle for Endor to tide us over. And yes there were the animated shows Ewoks and Droids. But it wasn’t the same. Star Wars was chugging along on nothing but simple nostalgia.

Despite George Lucas’ insistence that he had no desire to return to the saga after finishing Jedi, Lucasfilm, sensing a disturbance in the Force, soon began brainstorming new ways of resurrecting the fading franchise.

The first major step was to release Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire novel in 1991 as part of the Thrawn Trilogy of books. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it reached No1 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Zahn’s trilogy went on to sell 15 million copies. This climaxed with the release of Shadows of the Empire in 1996. The multimedia event, dubbed ‘a film without a film’, treated fans to a new novel, comic books, soundtrack, trading cards, video game and action figures.

Both projects proved to Lucas that there was still a big appetite for his galaxy far, far away. It also proved there was a new generation of fans hungry for fresh stories and merchandise. These were dutifully delivered via Expanded Universe. The galaxy, though, was about to get much bigger.

Having retitled Star Wars as Episode IV: A New Hope – followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – fan demand for episodes I, II and III became a deafening roar. Now happy to oblige, Lucas once again turned his attention to the universe he abandoned in 1983.

The Second Golden Age

Enter the Star Wars Special Editions, which ushered in, from a certain point of view, the franchise’s second golden age.

Hitting cinemas in 1997 to mark the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, Lucas’ aim was to build on the enduring popularity of Star Wars. He not only wanted to renew the films in the minds of older fans, but connect with a younger generation of followers. The filmmaker also had another motive.

Having begun writing Episode 1 in 1994, Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) required a canvas to test the special-effects needed to bring the prequels to life. The original films were just the ticket. Taking advantage of the breakthroughs in SFX technology, ILM went back to complete the trilogy the way Lucas always intended – he claimed A New Hope fell short of his ideal creative vision because of the compromises made due to time and money. What followed was a full-scale restoration project incorporating new visual effects and an enhanced digital sound mix across the entire original trilogy.

They were a huge success, going straight to number one on their opening weekends, earning $138, $68 and $45 million respectively. By the end of 1997, A New Hope was the eighth highest grossing film of the year. As for attracting new fans; the Special Editions were a triumph as newcomers enjoyed the remixed sound, crisp visuals and improved SFX for the first time.

Not all the changes in the Special Editions were well received. For diehard fans, the digital polish, additions and many controversial changes (‘Han shot first’) sullied the films, inciting considerable criticism of Lucas. What they did do, however, was revive the ailing franchise and serve as an essential springboard for the long-awaited prequels.

With production on the new trilogy in full flow, the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999 ushered in a new, lucrative expansion of the franchise not seen since the release of A New Hope. This latest epoch boasted brand new films, soundtracks, toys, books, comics and animated TV shows. Star Wars was again at the heart of popular culture, inspiring countless magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, fan websites, costuming groups (the 501st Legion), fan-made films (Troops) and films about fans (Fanboys). Whether you loved or hated the prequels, the second golden age was now in full swing.

All was not well in the kingdom of fandom, though. After the hysteria and hype, criticisms of the Lucas scripted and directed prequels quickly began to sour the relationship between the maker and fans. Despite finding a new generation of followers, Lucasfilm could not silence the anger of older, hard-core fans who hated the films, particularly the goofy, kid friendly tone and over reliance on CGI. The relationship between Lucas and fandom, already strained from the changes made in the Special Editions, was coming to an end. ‘Lucas Bashing’ across the internet quickly became the norm as a million voices cried out in pain. It was to signal a harsh finish to the second golden age.

As the end credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith in 2005, the saga was put into cold storage. Once again the Star Wars universe began to contract and Lucas, fed-up with the online abuse, announced that there were to be no more films… ever.

For the best part of a decade fans laboured under the fact that there would be no more silver screen adventures from that galaxy far, far away. Then, out of the blue on the day before Halloween in 2012, came the shock announcement that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. The creator, embracing retirement, said it “was time to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of film-makers.”

Enter the House of Mouse

Since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney a new, third, golden age has dawned. Despite early scepticism and uncertainty, loyal followers of the Force have been treated to two new films, with many more on the way. The first two movies of the Disney era – Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin off movie Rogue One – were, for the most part, critical and box office smashes. Both were praised for bringing the saga back to its roots, relying less on CGI and returning to practical and traditional effects. They also brought back a sense of fun and adventure.

The franchise also continues to thrive on TV with the animated show Rebels, while the Expanded Universe, now known as Star Wars Legends, has been retconned. Looking to the horizon, a Han Solo film is in the works (due May 2018) and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now. J.J. Abrams will also return to round out the sequel trilogy with Episode IX in 2019. And if that’s not enough to keep you busy, there’s a Ben Kenobi movie in development as well as Rian Johnson’s recently announced new film trilogy. Oh, and there’s a live action TV show to come, too. In short, Star Wars has been given a new lease of life under House Mouse. All that is required is to sit back and enjoy this period as the franchise settles into a new golden age.