Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Most Anticipated Movie Ever Made?

Quite possibly, although the likes of Gone with the Wind and Harry Potter were certainly just as as eagerly anticipated in their day. Neither of those films however, had fans who'd waited 16 years for the film to come along. As such, it was perhaps inevitable that they were going to be disappointed.

That is not to say that what came out in 1999 was a bad film: a perfectly reasonable one in fact, but its mere release became such an event that was greater than the film itself; people went to cinemas just to see the trailer without even bothering to see the film which followed it; actor Brian Blessed visited 10 Downing Street but all Tony Blair wanted to talk about was the new Star Wars film; fans who couldn't wait until its UK release date in July crossed the Atlantic to see it first hand on Memorial Day weekend.

Such behaviour was phenomenal and obsessive perhaps, but came from 16 years of expectation, so a good deal of context is required. This also happens to be a film that I had imagined 10 years before its eventual arrival on the screen, and any similarities therefore between my vision and the film that George Lucas eventually made in 1999 (and the subsequent episodes) will be indicated thus.

So as this is a rather more personal blog than most others on this page, readers who are solely interested in The Phantom Menace itself are advised to jump to the section titled "The Film". For the others, I crave your indulgence.

The Build-Up

In May 1987, George Lucas made a rare personal appearance at a Sci-Fi convention celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Star Wars saga. Among the many questions he was asked by worshipping fans and delegates were the following:

Q: "Will there be more Star Wars films?"
Lucas: "As long as enough of you support the films, there will be."

Q: "Will you return to the Star Wars universe?"Lucas: "Hopefully, I will some day be doing the next three Star Wars, but I'm not sure when. The next three would take place 20 or 30 years before the films they're celebrating here today. I'll do the first trilogy first. There are nine floating around there somewhere. I'll guarantee that the first three are pretty much organized in my head, but the other three are kind of out there somewhere."

Q: "Advice to young filmmakers?"Lucas: "Persevere. Work very hard, and always do the best at whatever you do, no matter how lowly the job seems."

I remember reading that last quote in Starlog magazine and took it slightly to heart. It was in that autumn of 1987 that I made the significant step from school into college, often a mind-expanding, liberating experience for young people, where pupils become students, children become adults, and the foundations of political causes are often cemented. In my case, it was at the brand new Sixth Form College in Colchester, where among the subjects I was studying were some extra-curricular "Video Production" courses, encouraging "potential Spielbergs" to be involved in the film making process.

From this I was able to start pottering around with a video camera with friends, and at some point we needed people to step in front of the camera and act - so I started acting again, something I hadn't done since the age of 11.

So: I knew that I could act, and after a while discovered that I had an enthusiasm for making films as well. I'd also seen Return of the Jedi just a couple of months before, and from that bought some old back copies of sci-fi magazines from 1983, which included this last section from an extensive "Starburst" article:

"Having disposed of his central trilogy, George has to gamble on going back to the beginning, to the real Star Wars I, II and III. Starting all over, with Artoo and Threepio apart, new characters...before of course, come the Nineties, going on into VII, VIII and IX, which cover the rebuilding of the Republic."
The article seems unusually knowledgeable about the general future of Lucasfilm, as mapped out in 1983. For the time being however, George Lucas himself had put thoughts of Star Wars aside. There were two spin-off Ewok films and a TV cartoon series featuring the cuddly heroes from Jedi as well as the cartoon series Drioids (featuring R2-D2 and C-3PO), but no sign of the cinematic exploits of Luke, Leia, Han and company, or the late Darth Vader.

Shattering news came along in the autumn of 1988: Elstree Studios had been sold off to Brent Walker, a local businessman who chose to dispose of the site to whomsoever was interested. Five years later in 1993, half the sound stages were pulled down (including the mighty Star Wars stage specially built by Lucasfilm in 1979), and a Tesco supermarket was built over it. If Star Wars was going to ever be made again, it would be at somewhere other than Elstree.

Watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a year later therefore had a certain bittersweet taste to it - the last film made exclusively by Lucasfilm at Elstree - and there was no sign of a new Star Wars film on the horizon.

The frustration mounted.

Then an edition of Film 89 featured a section on dedicated film fans, who included Star Wars fan Victoria Hills, who liked to dress up as Princess Leia and recite some of the scenes. There was also a devotee of The Poseidon Adventure, who had written his own unofficial sequel to the two Poseidon films.

This set me thinking: if Lucas was going to drag his heels so much, why shouldn't I write my own Episodes I, II and III? Influenced in part by some of the films which had appeared that year, such as Last Crusade, Batman and others, and also captivated by the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which the story of Darth Vader seemed to parallel), I set out some of the ideas into a basic synopsis.

I drafted a letter to George Lucas himself (right). The curt reply from Lucasfilm's office in Hertfordshire returned my letter, saying that they did not receive unsolicited mail, nor did they even read it.

I persevered.

From the beginning, I knew that the key relationships in the early episodes would between the younger Ben Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, and Anakin and his wife - a character not directly involved in the saga up till now, but clearly of importance as the future mother of Luke and Leia. I remembered seeing The Accused at the time and felt that Jodie Foster would be the ideal choice to play this important role, and wrote the character of Abigail with her in mind. By sheer coincidence, I also later discovered that she was one of the main candidates originally considered for the role of Princess Leia.

As to Anakin, this was a trickier proposition to get round - to think of the right actor who could play a character immortalised under a breath mask, with all the physicality of Dave Prowse combined with a youthful resemblance to Sebastian Shaw. It was only natural therefore to think of a British actor in the role, and Jeremy Irons was the nearest (certainly in terms of height!) that would fit the bill. Secretly, I also wrote the role of Anakin with myself in mind - writer's prerogative if you will - and hoped and wished one day that if lucky enough, I would love to play the role of either Anakin or Obi-Wan - but felt too young for the latter (how wrong that was!)

Around this time (December 1990) at a film memorabilia fair in Camden, I met two Star Wars fans, Craig Stevens and Stephen Nelmes, and discussed with them my enthusiasm for the films and my fascination with how the first three episodes were going to turn out. The resulting conversation alerted me to the fact that there was still very much a Star Wars fan community of dedicated fans just simmering beneath the surface. Two years later, I wrote in Craig's UK Star Wars Fan Club magazine:

"As for casting decisions, it would be worth Ian McDiarmid reprising his role as the Emperor, especially as the make-up he wore in ROTJ made him him look eighty-seven! If they let him play the younger Senator Palpatine without make-up he'd be exactly the right age!"
It was therefore in the autumn of 1990 going into the spring of '91 that I set all these ideas and creative energies into overdrive, making my first proper "serious" film, Return to Ypres (a documentary about my family's visit to the battlefields of World War I), and also started writing my own personal Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Episode I: The First Encounter

In this, to keep audiences interested from the first, the story goes straight into an action set piece on the Tethoran system where Anakin Skywalker is a law enforcement officer and gifted pilot, who intercepts, after a long chase, a bounty hunter trying to assassinate Abigail Deraynor, daughter of Senator Oberon Deraynor, an influential figure in the Imperial Senate.

The Republic is in crisis, and while Oberon debates the situation in the Senate, Anakin is given the further task of escorting Abigail across the galaxy to safety in his ship The Black Hawk (an intended variation on the Millennium Falcon) to Alderaan via the Dantooine system. But Abigail as it turns out, has been in disguise for most of the mission, as extra security. The ambitious Senator Palpatine however, has a sinister emissary, Ludwig Atikeen, who is out to intercept Abigail and her bodyguard.

In the course of their adventures, Anakin and Abigail fall in love, and by the time they reach Alderaan, the reckless young Senator's daughter has persuaded Anakin to join her on an audacious mission to free the Kribuna system of its slave fortress. Her persuasion, as well as that of a Jedi from the Clone Wars whom Anakin meets for the first time: Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi (for whom I envisaged a distinguished namesake in the role: Ben Kingsley).

Anakin is reluctant at first to engage in any "rebel" activity against the general wishes of the Republic, but is won round by Obi-Wan when he shows Anakin a mythical laser sword frozen in stone (Arthurian-style legend now). Kenobi demonstrates how the lightsabre - legend has it - only knows who is destined to use it. Obi-Wan himself tries and fails to prize the sword free, but Anakin, unaware of his own powers until now, uses the Force and suddenly the lightsabre is resting in his hand - the same lightsabre that his son Luke will also use in years to come.

This confirms what Obi-Wan had always suspected, that Anakin (whose parents died during The Clone Wars) is, in a sense, the chosen one, and decides to train him to become a Jedi, after the Battle of Kribuna where the slaves are freed by the rebel Republic fleet and an army of Jedi knights. During the battle Ludwig Atikeen is also killed by Abigail, but the real enemy has yet to reveal himself, as Senator Palpatine stands many lightyears away from Kribuna in the Kessel system, plotting his schemes against Senator Deraynor and his daughter, and now interested also in Anakin Skywalker. Episode I concludes with the wedding of Anakin and Abigail.

Episode II: The Rise of the Emperor

Poster design circa 1992, and 10 years later

Covering not only Palpatine's rise to power, but also his simultaneous seduction of Anakin Skywalker (who's having nightmare premonitions) towards the Dark Side, and is much more political, as Abigail is kidnapped by mercenary Luthan Kaspar (a character with Billy Crystal/Richard Dreyfuss echoes of Han Solo about him) and her father is murdered, just as Oberon is about to contest the leadership of the Senate with the eventual winner, Senator Palpatine.

In the ensuing struggle - which involves a Titanic disaster-style finale where the main Republic ship is destroyed and most of its passengers killed - Anakin tries to stop Emperor Palpatine (as he now is) directly, but has to overcome Palpatine's fearsome new associate Kat'sar (Pat Roach). Here was the dilemma - what exactly would make Anakin turn to the Dark Side? I thought to myself.....what would make me turn to evil? The answer: pain, and the suppression of it. Anakin therefore uses his anger to kill Kat'sar when the beast clings hold of an old wound (sustained by Ludwig Atikeen), and then despairs when he sees an image of Abigail in pain, but in reality it is the Emperor standing before him. Just as he is about to welcome Anakin to the Dark Side however, Palpatine is electrocuted (hence the energy bolts at the end of Jedi) and Anakin escapes heavily scarred, and crash lands on the sandbanks of the Trexel system, in limbo, with his future destiny in doubt.

Episode III: The Search for Luke Skywalker

Abigail has given birth to the two twins, Luke and Leia, and defied her own planetary system's rules on another reckless quest to find her missing husband. On the way however she is captured by a space pirate (Brian Blessed) and his band, as Luthan Kaspar quickly discovers when he too is intercepted in pursuit of her. She and Luthan team up to escape captivity and rescue Anakin, but the Empire is one step ahead of everybody, slaying the pirates, and it is left to General (later to become Grand Moff) Tarkin to lead an Imperial assault on the Trexel homestead where Anakin is being protected. This battle follows the primitive society versus technology theme (of Jedi) again, only this time the Empire wins.

Tarkin hands Anakin's body over to the Emperor, who uses his powers to revive him (see below), and in return for this life debt, Anakin finally joins the Empire under his new guise: Lord Darth Vader.

Whilst Abigail returns to the twins in declining health, Vader is given his first task by his new master to wipe out the entire Jedi clan, including Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the course of this he confronts some of his former colleagues and mentors (for whom I envisioned actors the stature of Anthony Hopkins and Liam Neeson making brief appearances).

Matters come to a head however when the Empire invades Tethoran, where the Emperor discovers that a son of Skywalker has been born. Palpatine orders Vader to kill every child on the planet (a la King Herod) to ensure the baby doesn't escape, which Vader does, even if that means having to kill his wife and child.

Abigail dies anyway - in her husband's arms - but not before Obi-Wan has persuaded her to separate the twins, with Luthan making the supreme sacrifice to get Leia to Alderaan safely, and Obi-Wan himself taking Luke to Tatooine, with the assistance of the children of Tethoran (including a very young Han Solo) who rise against Vader - the perfect blend of Spielberg whimsy and dark intergalactic warfare. I envisioned that Steven Spielberg was the perfect choice to direct Episode III.

There is also the famous and well documented duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, which here takes place on the volcanic generator high above Tethoran's capital city. Obi-Wan overcomes both Vader and his master the Emperor, and Anakin falls to the precipice of the molten lava, whereupon Obi-Wan pulls him back and begs him to come back to the good side ("Obi-Wan once thought as you do." - Vader to Luke in Jedi), and Anakin (like Luke in The Empire Strikes Back) chooses to fall into the abyss, to his presumed death.

Obi-Wan weeps for the loss of his apprentice and friend as well as his own failures, but manages to retrieve Anakin/Vader's discarded lightsabre and returns to the more important task of helping Luke get to safety before the Empire completes its invasion of Tethoran.

At the end, Obi-Wan successfully and secretly transports the infant boy to the Lars homestead on Tatooine, and the twin suns set as the camera rises up into space and the end titles - but the very last moment of this trilogy comes at the end of the credits, when a mask is seen descending down onto Anakin's scarred body, and thanks to the Emperor once again, the new Dark Lord of the Sith takes his first breath through the mask - now truly more machine than man.

Breathless at the end of this mammoth task of writing, I was satisfied at least that I had done it the way I wanted to see the new trilogy to turn out, and eagerly awaited the real thing, if and when it came along.

In 1992 came the first new official Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy - but a sequel , not a prequel. This, for me, was where the rot began to set in - with various elements introduced that cropped up in the prequels, such as the unpronounceable names and the misguided idea of trying to "quantify" the Force, which later developed into the idea of Midichlorians. As a novel of course, it was naturally written like one, with open endings instead of a good satisfying climax between episodes. The franchise however, was alive again and open for business.

A year later in 1993 came a seismic event for Lucasfilm (and arguably world cinema): Jurassic Park , for which ILM had done many of the ground-breaking new digital special effects, where entire worlds could be created out of nothing, persuaded George Lucas that he could now make the next Star Wars films the way he wanted.

Soon afterwards disturbing rumours circulated about casting for the new film. The first was that megastar child actor Macaulay Culkin (from Home Alone) was to play the young Anakin; the second, more popular notion which gained ground was that Kenneth Branagh was cast as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. A third, much later rumour, but equally disturbing, was that young Ewan McGregor was being considered for Obi-Wan. Two years later to my dismay this was proved correct.

And then in 1997, Twentieth Century Fox were eager to persuade Lucas to re-release his original trilogy on its 20th anniversary, and he in turn persuaded them to allow him to "enhance" them. Thereby, Lucas was testing out his new digital FX technicians with challenges that they would soon be presented with for Star Wars: Episode I.

Events moved apace, and with time running out, I auditioned for the Central School of Speech and Drama (where Carrie Fisher studied in the 1970s), whom I think had practically made up their mind about me before I even walked in the room. Que sera sera, I thought. Meanwhile as the new film went into pre-production, so did the casting stories. Liam Neeson had been announced as having a major role, and a young American child actor, Jake Lloyd, to play Anakin. As to the choice of the young heroine Amidala however, I could have no complaints: I remembered Natalie Portman from Leon (aka. The Professional) as a very precocious 12-year old with a remarkably mature sensibility (in a similar vein to Jodie Foster), who seemed to perfectly suit the description given by Princess Leia of her real mother: "She was very beautiful, gentle and kind, but....sad."

In 1998, after much hushed anticipation and outside curiosity, a rough cut was made of the film, and the aforesaid trailer appeared in cinemas, with a surprisingly ordinary title:

"STAR WARS EPISODE I The Phantom Menace"

The lack of emphasis on the actual episode's title seemed disturbing, but as Lucas put it way back in 1987: "I see it as one movie."

Visiting a sci-fi convention in London, a friend told me of the rough cut screening, where the insiders' view was that it was "awful" - thanks apparently to the new all-CGI character, so I was told. With all the little leaks that continued to emerge about the film's making, I decided that enough was enough. If I learned anymore there would be little of any novelty to see in the film at all - so I collected all the articles, TV interviews and reviews that I could find, and refused to look at any of them until I'd seen the film for myself.

One final gesture to my dashed hopes however, was to apply for a ticket to see the film's premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square. Fat chance. Nearly every Star Wars fan friend I knew was trying to get in too, or knew someone else that was going to.

Back to the original newsagent in Aylesbury.

In a Proustian spirit of reflection therefore, I went back to the place where it all started in 1978. The Dominion Tottenham Court Road no longer showed films, so I took my whole family on an outing to the Odeon Aylesbury to finally see the film for myself, on 31st July 1999, after 12 years and an extra two months of waiting.

The Film

Before the film began that afternoon, there were a monumental eight trailers for other blockbusters, including Jodie Foster in Anna and the King. Seeing the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare and those famous sloping letters revealing the words "Episode I" was a peculiarly nostalgic experience, although the cumberous scrolling titles about taxation to trade routes seemed a little clunkier (even by Star Wars' standards) than ever before.

I will however defend Lucas's much maligned use of dialogue in his films. It's usually quite serviceable and suits the situation and environment in which the characters find themselves. The bad, and I feel, unfair reputation Lucas is accorded, is I suspect down to general Media envy of one of the most successful film series ever made.

Regardless of the script, The Phantom Menace has undoubtedly the best cast of the entire Star Wars saga: a veritable international pot pourri, from Pernilla August to Brian Blessed (in voice if not in person), all of whom deliver the lines with Shakespeare-like reverence - the first of which is Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn, who anchors the film in what approaches the nearest to Alec Guinness-like gravitas (as too does Samuel L. Jackson). Ewan McGregor, as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, utters the famous catchphrase "I have a bad feeling about this" in slightly archaic fashion, as the two Jedi knights remove their cloaks, but I love the slickness of the ships in space and the general style of the film. The production design is beyond compare: the Naboo designs for The Phantom Menace are the most successful of this trilogy to make it resemble a time set before Star Wars (Episode IV).

It isn't long however before Messers Jinn and Kenobi are hurled straight into an action piece when the Trade Federation try to get rid of their slightly unwanted guests, and the two Jedi avoid the meddlesome Battle Droids (less independent and resourceful than stormtroopers - but also looking more technologically advanced) and stow aboard one of the Trade Federation battleships about to invade Naboo.

There we see for the first time, the oddball figure of Jar-Jar Binks (voiced and modelled by Ahmed Best), about whom I'd already vaguely heard the advance publicity, and now saw him for myself. An irritating character but deliberately so, and to be fair all the Star Wars films have had their share of slightly irritating comedy sidekicks, from the droids C-3PO & R2-D2, to the Ewoks in Jedi, and even Yoda had his irritating moments. What's significant however is that Jar Jar entertains younger audiences worldwide - as I discovered when I later saw the film in Germany (one of nine cinema visits), and found the German kids were laughing at the exactly the same moments as the English ones.

Talking of Yoda, his seniority in the whole saga has ballooned from what was merely a stand-in character for Ben Kenobi (killed off in Episode IV), into an all-seeing presence in five of the six episodes, and his slightly preachy countenance becomes increasingly tiresome during the prequel trilogy, and reaches its zenith when the misguided step was taken (in Episode II) to turn him into a Jedi warrior (thanks to special effects). Just because ILM could do it, didn't necesarily mean that they should do it.

But I digress. Back to Naboo, where the two intrepid Jedi (and their "third Musketeer" Jar Jar) leap in to the rescue of Queen Amidala and her party, and aid her on a perilous quest across the galaxy to the Republic Senate (via a lengthy stop-off at Tatooine for a pod race), but the real Amidala is in disguise, with added confusion over the Queen's name. Is it Amidala, or Padme Naberrie?

At the time, I thought this was digital FX of two Natalie Portmans, when in fact the one on the left is young Keira Knightley.

It is Padme "the handmaiden" however who meets little Anakin at Watto(Andrew Secombe)'s junk shop in Mos Espa ("Is that the one who's going to become Darth Vader?", audiences gasped), and dreams of freeing slaves on the planet Tatooine, where he himself is one.

The pod race, which by means of the contrived plot is the centrepiece of the film, continues Lucas's lifelong passion for fast cars (also demonstrated in the Star Wars trench run and Return of the Jedi's speeder bike chase), although all the racers - bar Anakin - are CGI creations (one of the voices was allegedly Mark Hamill's) so the lack of tension and human interaction makes for a slightly unengaging 20 minutes of special effects. Kids however (and liberal-minded adults), loved it.

The most emotional moment of the entire prequel trilogy (as it turned out) is when Anakin says goodbye to his Mum (thanks once again to John Williams' beautiful arrangement of "The Force theme") - which was the fundamental reason for Lucas changing the age of the central character from 12 to 9 (and also now setting the story 40 years before Star Wars). The idea works well enough in this individual instance, but it also undercuts much of the drama for the rest of the trilogy.

Once free to leave Tatooine and begin his fateful quest, little Anakin joins the growing band of heroes on their way to Coruscant (renamed that thanks to Timothy Zahn), but not before the intervention of Palpatine's sinister emissary, Darth Maul - who livens up the action considerably as soon as he swings into action.

Indeed, the whole finale of the film features a quadruple battle that tries to top the climactic triple battle of Return of the Jedi, and pretty near succeeds. The highlight is the lightsabre duel between Maul, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, and it brings out the best in John Williams (his "Duel of the Fates" theme), Ray Park and Ewan McGregor, who is suitably miffed and angry-looking when he stares Darth Maul in the eye after the demise of his Jedi master Qui-Gon. The first of many Jedi, I sensed, soon to be exterminated by the Sith. By the end of the dramatic Battle for Naboo, the heroes win through, with a Viking-style funeral for Qui-Gon, but the real villain of the piece has yet to reveal himself, as Palpatine looks on with the mourners in a nicely sinister closing shot.

Fans were disappointed that Darth Maul disappeared so quickly at the end of this film, yet I feel he'd served his purpose in a thuggish, blood-and-thunder sort of way. As for the film as a whole, critics who'd never held Star Wars with much regard in the first place sharpened their knives for this one - as also, sadly, did most fans - some of whom seemed to have forgotten that they'd grown up since 1977. Most of the flak was directed on poor old Jar Jar (whose further participation in the prequels was severely diminished), when I think the actual main weakness was the characterisation of the principals.

"Hey! We've just been to see The Phantom Menace!"
To see Anakin in his slightly younger form as little Jake Lloyd was to say the least, surprising. His fighting in the space battle over Naboo made little sense, and the decision to make him American was disappointing and also inconsistent, in view of Sebastian Shaw's dignified portrayal back in 1983 - as well as the general "British" intonation with which James Earl Jones was instructed to use for Darth Vader's voice.

"Vader" did show up, at the very end of the credits of The Phantom Menace, with that inimitable breath mask sound to reward audiences who'd stayed to the end. Others left the cinema weeping that George Lucas had supposedly ruined their childhood. But I enjoyed it, for all its flaws and slight reservations.

The many fans who were disappointed by Episode I hoped for better (and some got it) for Episode II, with Sebastian Shaw's younger form now in the guise of cherubic-looking Hayden Christensen in ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), set 10 years later (trying to cover the mistake of the character's under-aging first time around) but made only 3 years after Episode I, a much more political film than before, with Anakin and Obi-Wan in a long (and unbelievable) chase sequence pursuing a bounty hunter who has tried to assassinate Amidala. Soon enough, Palpatine uses his wiles to give Anakin the task of escorting Amidala to the safety of the Naboo system, where the inevitable happens. If the romance was disappointing (the film badly lacked a Han Solo-type presence), things at least started getting into gear with the sight of the mysterious clone planet Kamino (Episode II's one moment of genuine originality) and the climactic and frankly messy battle on Geonosis involving gladiators, the eponymous clone soldiers, an army of Jedi, and the "show-stopper", a lightsabre duel between Yoda and Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). One Episode late perhaps, the film concluded with the marriage of Anakin and Amidala.

This left a lot of plot to be shoe-horned into Episode III, REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005), a film with as many good points as bad ones - regressing to a 12A certificate for the scene where Darth Vader slithers to the precipice of the molten lava pit (on the Mustafar system), as Obi-Wan weeps for the loss of his apprentice and friend, and retrieves Anakin/Vader's discarded lightsabre. One minor consolation: Steven Spielberg had directed (or rather "designed" on his laptop) some of the choreography for the lightsabre duel.

Other moments such as Anakin's nightmare visions of Padme suffering, and Vader's massacre of all the children in the Jedi Temple showed positive hints of the kind of grand climax this third chapter was aspiring to, yet the drama was still fatally compromised by the earlier decision to make the characters so young. McGregor once again had his moments (and beautifully underplays his awareness to Padme of the secret marriage), but still looks more like a maturing Padawan than the future Alec Guinness. Anakin also still resembles a boy by the time the famous mask is put over his head, but Christensen had at least worked hard enough with the role to get his Darth Vader moment. With the assistance of the Emperor, Vader takes his first breath through the mask, and out from it speaks the voice of - hey presto - James Earl Jones.

Two leaders of an Empire?

Revenge of the Sith was a watershed not only for Lucasfilm but for cinema itself, an indication of how techniques had changed since 1977: films were now franchises, celluloid had gone digital, and characterisation and performances had given way to special effects. It was tempting to think that Lucas himself had turned the way of the saga's main protagonist to the Dark Side of Filmmaking: once a brilliant independent film maker but now more resembling the sort of Hollywood studio producer that he had once fought against.

To give him credit, no-one (not even Peter Jackson) has managed to top his feat of creating six huge movies over three decades. Such a shame that he chose to abandon his original plans of making the third and last trilogy.

As for me, looking back to that day in July 1999 was a sentimental moment. Within three months the old Odeon Aylesbury had closed, and Lucasfilm chose to relocate their main studio location from Britain to Australia (at the new Fox Studios Sydney), so the inherent "British" style of Star Wars was gone - as also in 2000, was my acting idol Alec Guinness.

The Phantom Menace was beginning of the end of a dream, and in other ways the fulfilment of one. I knew by then that I would never be involved with these films, but had at least hoped that they would be made, and made well.

After leaving the cinema in Aylesbury that day, with the excitement of the film and the sound of The Duel of the Fates ringing in my ears, I was once again inspired to complete the final trilogy of films (Episodes VII, VIII and IX) in that distant galaxy, far far away.

1 comment:

Commander Grant said...

jason here. That is your first blog article that i have ever read, and it was, quite simply, splendid.

Well written and punctuated by pictures; makes me almost want to lay out the history for one of my main SW fiction characters.

Keep up the great work, Joe.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films