phantom9.jpg (8234 bytes)So there I was in a cinema for the second time within a week to see Star Wars, Episode One - The Phantom Menace for a second time.

I didn't intend seeing it so soon again, but after having seen the week before on a "guy's out" morning (also a "day off" outing come to think of it), my wife couldn't wait any longer to see it and insisted on seeing it - and like I promised, I went with her.

This time around it was a somewhat smaller cinema than the one I had seen it in originally. It makes a difference - I can see why George Lucas insisted on it only being shown in the highest of quality cinemas in the States. So no SDDS (Sony Dolby Digital Sound) this time around - and a screen about half the size of the one I first saw it in. Still better than my (and most other people's) TV screens and sound systems though. If you're waiting for this movie to pop up on video one day - or have seen it on the infamous bootleg video doing the rounds, then you haven't really seen it at all. I walked out numbed during the first showing: by the hugeness of it all and the incredible sound and took a few minutes in the brightness of the foyer outside to reorient myself.

There is a logic behind standing in queues or making reservation bookings to be amongst the first to see this movie. Don't mutter "sad git", but in a movie season here in South Africa (and overseas) crowded by the likes of blockbuster attractions like Disney's Tarzan, The Mummy and Austin Powers - The Spy Who Shagged Me it makes sense to go see Phantom Menace quickly, before it gets shunted to smaller cinemas to make place for said movies.

Unlike other Star Wars line dwellers disappointed with Phantom Menace who keeps on telling each other "go see it again - it gets better the second time around", I pretty much enjoyed the movie and thought it hugely entertaining. I really liked it despite its many faults. Older (disappointed) fans are really forgetting that these movies are actually made for children. Heck! Most of them probably saw the original movies and a young age (like myself) and grew an attachment to them back then. Now that they're older I suspect that they expect some kind of Wagnerian spectacle - Ring der Nibelung for Outer Space or something!

So how was it the second time around on a smaller screen? I could catch more small details this time around that escaped my attention the first time around. To be honest, most of them attest to the kind of lavish attention Lucas and Lucasfilm expended on all the Star Wars projects.

One critic remarked that the Star Wars movies are a lot like the previously mentioned Wagner opera cycle in the sense that a lot of time, effort, creativity and attention are spent on what is basically very silly stories.

phantom8.jpg (11967 bytes)In Lucas' case, these small details - perhaps not caught consciously upon the first viewing, all adds up to the bigger picture we do get. Let's face up to it: whatever your thoughts on Phantom Menace, the film is a brilliant technical achievement and had it been the first Star Wars movie ever made the adoration bestowed upon it would have been universal. But alas, we have seen this before and are taking this sort of thing for granted. I'm thinking of the scene in the mediocre Blast From The Past in which the Brendan Fraser character sees the sky for the first in his existence. He is overwhelmed - he has never seen anything like it before! However, the other bystanders shrug their shoulders and say "so what?" to themselves - none of this means however that the sky isn't brilliantly beautiful. We've just grown accustomed to it.

So here are some details that struck me on my second viewing:

  • There is indeed a delegation of E.T.s (from Spielberg's E.T. - the Extra-Terrestrial movie) in the meeting of the galactic Republic Senate! Blink and you'll miss them - check in the bottom left-side screen of one particular shot of the pod in which the film's heroes are. This detail will probably get lost in the translation to pan 'n' scan video. Better to get the wide screen version of this movie - each frame of the movie is just packed with details.
  • In the indoor scenes between Watto (the flying blue alien junkyard dealer) and the Jedi Knight played by Liam Neeson, you can see tufts of Neeson's long hair being fluttered about by the wind draft from the alien's flapping wings - amazingly small detail they got right.
  • Jar Jar Binks casts a shadow. Not a biggie - but check the desert scenes in which the infamous computer-generated character shares with the "live" actors.
  • More shadows - in the triumphant street parade scenes at the movie's end the spaceships flying overhead actually cast shadows on the buildings they are flying over. A minor detail which any lesser filmmaker would probably have skipped.
  • The Queen played by Natalie Portman apparently slides on her feet and appears to almost fall in one scene towards the end in the palace. Clumsy. Or that's what other people who have also seen it tells me - but I didn't notice, even during my second viewing.
  • The Federation (bad guys) robots towards the end are obviously computer generated. But what makes them amazing is that if you look closely you'll see that they actually look"used" - smudges of dirt and even hairline cracks across their faceplates. Computer effects are usually marred by their fake "perfect-ness": images just look too smooth to be real. Or put it this way: what distinguish "reality" from "virtual reality" are details like dust, dirt and litter. Presumably this sort of random "imperfections" take up too much computing power - not in Lucasfilm's case.
  • After having seen the movie for the first time, I bought the movie soundtrack. John Williams' soundtrack is another example of expending a lot of energy on a silly story. This majestic symphonic score (reminiscent of Mahler, Prokoviev, Shostakovich and others) contribute a lot to the Star Wars movie. Though not as "catchy" as the Imperial March from Empire Strikes Strikes Back, using the Carl Orff-inspired Duel of the Fates piece of choral music is a bit like scoring a tatty Disney movie with Wagner. Unfortunately the sound in the cinema in which I saw Phantom for the second time was actually poorer than my CD player at home's. Make sure you get to see Phantom in a good cinema with GREAT sound.
  • The thump-thump noises made by one particular pod in the pod race scene sounds like my ancient 750cc motorbike's engine getting started on a cold winter morning, amplified to Spinal Tap's 11.
  • The lightsabre duel at the end is still amazing due to its complete freedom and liquidity of movement - all to the accompaniment of Williams' cool music.
  • The dialogue and acting doesn't seem (or get) any better. How is it possible to elicit such wooden-faced acting from such a talented cast? Ewan McGregor for starters is capable of much better than this . . .
  • Accusations of "racial stereotyping" are justified. But I caught that the first time around come to think of it. The Trade Federation bad guys sound like Japanese stereotypes from an old WWII movie for example . . .
  • Some thoughts on the planned Episode Two:
  • George, don't take this personal: but you're better at visualising strange alien worlds and creatures than at writing dialogue. Initially Frank Darabonte (who wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption) was supposed to write the screenplay. I know this never really worked out or materialised - but patch up whatever soured relationships there may have been. The dialogue in the original Star Wars, which you wrote, weren't very good either, however; at least they had a certain tacky energy to them - unlike the lifeless convolutedness found in Phantom. Write the story outlines - and then have somebody do the screenplay and dialogue . . .
  • I didn't have such a big problem with the Jar Jar character. At least he's not as bad as the Ewoks or that damned annoying CGI "space monkey" in Lost In Space. Lots of other older fans do however and while the kids love him and he no doubt sells a lot of toys, either downgrade any role he (it?) might have in any future instalment and ditch him altogether . . .
  • Don't cast Leonardo deCaprio. I know you might be (secretly) feeling slightly miffed at Titanic beating out Star Wars at the box office - but while getting the star of Titanic in a more "romantic" Episode Two (your own quotes) my sound like box office dynamite (getting those teenager girls who usually avoid your movies like the plague into the cinemas), it can only backfire. The virtual unknowns (back then) you cast in the original Star Wars series actually gave better performances than the better known names in the current one!
  • More Darth Maul! He was viciously under-utilised in Phantom Menace!



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