It’s hard to believe that “Phantom Menace” debuted ten years ago this month, and in honor of that occasion, I’d like to present some of my thoughts about the greatest science fiction motion picture saga in the history of the medium. My comments will, of course, be, uh. . .forced to be short. And I’ll try to make that the worst joke you have to put up with during this whole thing.
Bear in mind that “Star Wars” is, of course, as popular as a cultural phenomenon as a movie series. Even those who haven’t seen the movies can’t ignore their impact. (I haven’t seen “High School Musical” yet either, but I can’t ignore its impact!) But the phenomenon is deeper than just “cowboys in outer space.” The excitement and special effects are all spectacular, but it takes more than those things to create a masterpiece, and hopefully I’ll be able to touch on all the parts of the saga that matter most to me.
EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE
Every saga has its beginning. And the debut of episode 1 was certainly met with more eager fans than episode 4 had been. (Access Hollywood began counting down the days more than 100 days before the debut!) Many of those eager fans, sadly, weren’t too happy. But it was wrong to expect “Phantom Menace” to be better than any of the other films. Contrary to what the naysayers said, it was “star wars.” It keeps the spirit of the films alive. It’s just different! Many of the elements we enjoy aren’t there. No wisecracking Han Solo. No Darth Vader yet. Not much of a romance factor.
The film begins with two wise masters of “the force” called Jedi. They make an attempt to visit the planet of Naboo, which is being held under blockade by the greedy trade federation. When the evil Darth Sideous hears that the two Jedi have arrived. He gives the immediate order to have them killed. We immediately know who the good guys and bad guys are! But the Jedi aren’t easily gotten rid of. They escape to the planet and begin the process of trying to get the trade federation out of the way. Along their journey, they meet up with several characters who help them out. To make a long (and some would say painful) story short, the Jedi are victorious, and relative peace returns to the galaxy.
Along the way we meet Anakin Skywalker, young farm boy from the planet Tatooine, Padme Amidala, the young queen of Naboo, and the legend himself, Jar-Jar Binks. Binks is an alien with a funny voice and a “cutesy” attitude that drove some fans nuts. Well, at least the fans without kids. (Think Elmo for the Star Wars world and you get the idea) And unfortunately, many Star Wars fans don’t have kids. I loved what a radio DJ said later about “Phantom Menace:” “That movie would have made twice as much money if everybody who went to see it didn’t only buy one ticket!”
The “Phantom Menace” is never specifically named in the Phantom Menace. Logic says that it must be Darth Sideous, who sometimes appears as a “phantom” when he is broadcasting to his “helpers.” But the phantom menace can also be something else. It’s what Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi felt at the beginning of the film. The idea that something was making him uneasy, but he wasn’t exactly sure what. This idea of something going on that we don’t completely understand is borne out in the next two films, as we see that Darth Sideous has some serious ego issues and some serious plans for destroying the Jedi so he can gain power.
I was lucky enough to get to meet an actress from “Phantom Menace”. . . no, not her. It was Michonne Bourrigue, who played Aura Sing. Aura Sing was the tall lady with the Mohawk who can be seen briefly watching Anakin’s pod race. She was in the film for about 5 seconds or so, and I got her autograph! We met her at the San Diego Comic-Con. My brother pointed out that she was there. “Wow!” I said. “I can’t believe I didn’t notice her.” “She wasn’t wearing a costume,” he replied. “Wow,” I said, “no wonder I didn’t notice her.” :) But I should have. She was quite attractive and gracious with her time. I asked about any chance of seeing Aura Sing again. “It’s possible,” she replied. “The script (for “Clones”) hasn’t been written yet.” Sadly no Aura Sing appearance materialized, but I obviously won’t forget Michonne Bourrigue and the pleasure of meeting her.
The film holds its own and is ultimately worth it, especially if you are a fan. But there is one great unanswered question: WHERE IS LINCOLN GASKING? Lincoln Gasking was the gentleman who was the first in line to see the new film, waiting several months (ah to be young and jobless again) to see “Phantom Menace” when it debuted. Then it debuted, and we never heard from him again! Did he go into hiding? Is he still in the restroom? Was the movie so awful that he didn’t want his face to be seen? Is he hanging out with Rodney Allen Rippy? Is he hanging out with Michonne Bourrigue? I’m hoping that someday I’ll be in a bar or something and somebody will say “Oh yeah, I remember him. He got a job and got on with his life. Just like we all did.”
EPISODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
I never knew how romantic a guy I was until I saw “Attack of the Clones.” It reaffirmed what most ladies probably already knew - the romance factor is very important to “Star Wars.” It definitely adds something to “Clones,” which is probably my favorite of episodes 1-3.
It’s years later, and Anakin and Padme are now youths who are old enough to legitimately begin to, well, notice each other. As their romance begins to bloom, the republic is facing new dangers, including assassination attempts on Padme. Anakin is assigned to protect Padme, and they spend some time alone in some beautiful places, and. . .well, fortunately they both have at least a little bit of self-control, something that is sadly lacking from so many of us these days. . .Anyway, their career paths seem to make it impossible for them to enjoy a life together. But as Amy Grant sang, love will find a way. Even if it ultimately leads to a terrible downfall. There‘s a danger to love. That’s one of the hidden messages of the “Star Wars” saga. Sometimes the love you have for someone can be used against you to make you do some terrible, horrifying things. . .
I actually came close to crying in “Clones.” It was the scene where Anakin and Padme are about to be led out to be attacked by a trio of monsters. “I’m not afraid to die,” Padme says. “I’ve been dying a little bit every day since you came back into my life.” Her declaration of love prior to what may be their deaths is beautifully romantic. I love it. Sorry folks- just remember that I’m a big “Phantom of the Opera” fan, too. And this little interlude of a movie shows us that even in the midst of chaos, love is there, and playing a very active role. I’m not just talking about romantic love- watch as Anakin rushes to save his friend Obi-Wan from being killed by the villain. Watch as Yoda saves the lives of both Anakin and Obi-Wan.
Also, very cool “running through the grassy field” clips. This reminds me of the dream sequence with Kermit and Miss Piggy from the Muppet Movie. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who noticed, but hey. . .
We definitely get the feeling in “Clones” that the Jedi aren’t exactly being completely honest with everybody. Watch the look on Yoda’s face when Obi-Wan mentions Jedi master Siphodeus (I hope that’s how you spell it). There’s definitely some “we’d better keep it quiet” stuff going on with the Jedi, and it serves to demonstrate their imperfections, which will become incredibly important in the next film.
But just as a preview: Have you noticed how terribly the Jedi treat Anakin? When he gets the right answer, they don’t say, “good job, kid.” Being loving in that way is just not the Jedi way, and it certainly works against them. (Hey, these guys apparently aren’t even allowed to love romantically.) On the other hand, have you noticed that the only person who is really kind to Anakin is. . .Senator Palpatine?
EPISODE THREE: REVENGE OF THE SITH
War! No kidding! Some consider this the best film in the series. It is certainly one of the most dramatic, with Anakin facing one of the toughest tests any of us can face. As tragic as this is, it is ultimately Anakin’s love for Padme that brings him down. The fear of losing her traumatizes him, and he vows to do everything to keep her alive. Everything. Kill little kids? Sure. Help kill the JedI? No problem. He can’t see what we can. He doesn’t see what Padme sees, either. “You’re going down a path I can’t follow,” she cries. His love has turned to evil. He is perhaps the best demonstration I’ve ever seen of why love isn’t always the answer. I suppose we all understand that love causes pain sometimes. But love shouldn’t cause THIS much pain! When you have to start killing people just so you won’t be lonely. . .
Don’t think for a minute “it won’t happen to me.” Even JedI master Yoda, who urges Anakin not to miss those people we lose through death, finds himself incredibly pained at those who he loses through death. He cares. We see it at the end of “Clones,” too, when Yoda saves the lives of Obi-Wan and Anakin, two people he obviously cares about. But as he does that, the villain makes his escape, thereby creating much more pain and agony later on. Should Yoda have let Obi-Wan and Anakin die so that he could stop the villain? What would YOU have done?
Then, after we watch Padme die, we watch Anakin die.
A tragic ending to a tragic romance, and a warning to all the world. And the groundwork for the next three films, which are among my most enjoyable movie memories of all time.
Some final thoughts on the Episodes 1-3 saga: I enjoyed all three. All three were fun. But I feel that many fans were let down. They wanted the films to be even grander than they were (which is pretty amazing when you think about how grand they already are!). We have to remember that we were seven to thirteen or so when the first movies came out. We’ve changed a lot since then. We’ve seen a lot of other good movies since then. I did not expect perfection when I watched episodes 1-3. I simply hoped for a good series that would equal or better the episodes 4-6 that I grew up with. Episodes 1-3 aren’t perfect. Neither are episodes 4-6. But they’re all good. And they’re all worth watching at least once. It’s kind of disheartening to hear people badmouth the first three and say that the newer saga ruined the first. Relax. It’s only a movie. The glory of the “original” saga still shines, which is what I’m going to talk about next time, Lord willing. Thanks for riding with me.
The cool Padme and Anakin image at the top of this posting is from “The Padawan’s guide to Star Wars costumes,” which is definitely worth a visit and could become a favorite of my Mom’s after I tell her about it. Check it out!
Speaking of those great costumes, I was also lucky enough to visit Trish Biggar's “Dressing a Galaxy” costume exhibit in Los Angeles in 2005, which featured not only many costumes from the Star Wars films she worked in, but costumes from the other films as well. It was a lot of fun, and I wish that every Star Wars fan could have seen it. Even without the “props,” the costumes bring a lot to the Star Wars movies, and are entertaining in and of themselves. It was also Heaven on earth for Padme fans. Virtually every one of Padme’s dresses was here! There were at least a good forty mannequins set up in the middle of the hall facing each other, each wearing one of the dresses Natalie Portman wore in the films. You can check out some pictures from the exhibit here: