In preparation for The Force Awakens, I’m rewatching all six Star Wars films and sharing my thoughts on Legendarium Media. This week, I look at The Phantom Menace, the first film in the saga…
I know this might shock Star Wars fans of my generation, but I’ve always had a soft spot for The Phantom Menace. When I first saw it, I was young enough that I could overlook the problems with the plot and pacing and just enjoy the ride. Some of my fondest memories from high school come from this film. Once, several of my friends and I skipped class just so we could see it a third time (shhh… don’t tell anybody). I was also interested enough in politics that I could sit through the Senate discussions about trade disputes.
Over time, I’ve become more aware of the film’s flaws. The plot is unfocused and has no clear protagonist. Lucas himself has admitted that TPM only contained around 10-20% of his original outline for the Prequels, and that scenes like the pod race were “padding.” We certainly didn’t need to hear introductions for every single podracer before the race. Moreover, George Lucas was sometimes too excited to use digital technology to put his vision on screen. Rather than let actors play off each other, he frequently filmed them separately and edited them together later (Terrance Stamp, who played Chancellor Valorum, complained that he never met Natalie Portman despite being in the Senate scene with her).
However, I don’t want to just discuss problems with the film. The internet is filmed with blog posts and Youtube videos attacking The Phantom Menace.* I just don’t have much to add. Instead, I want to focus on part of the film that doesn’t get enough credit: the production design.
* Belated Media’s “What if Episode I was good?” is probably the most insightful and productive of these as it not only points out problems but also comes up with solutions.
I give George Lucas, Industrial Light & Magic, and lead artist Doug Chiang a lot of credit for not simply rehashing ideas and concepts from the Original Trilogy. The basic visual vocabulary is the same—lightsabers, blasters, starships, etc.—but often presented in new ways. The ships, aliens, costumes, and planets look different from what we’d seen before, yet The Phantom Menace clearly looks like Star Wars. Nobody would mistake the film for a generic space opera. Even the later Prequels tended to fall back too quickly on Original Trilogy designs, especially with the introduction of white-armored Clone Troopers and Jango Fett.
The movie gave us many iconic additions to the Star Wars universe, most notably Darth Maul. Concept artist Ian McCaig based Maul’s unique look on face-painting from African tribes and patterned the markings on flayed flesh. The character is certainly memorable. Even viewers who disliked the rest of the film confess to finding the design compelling. In fact, Darth Maul is arguably the single most influential original design from the entire Prequel era. The striking red and black patterning came to dominate the marketing for Episode I. The Zabraks, Maul’s species, are used regularly in Star Wars tie-in media. Maul’s look even informed the design of other Sith in the books and comics, who copied Maul’s tattoos. Maul himself proved so popular that Lucas came to regret killing him off at the end of the movie (The Clone Wars later resurrected the character).
One of my favorite designs from The Phantom Menace is the Naboo starfighter. The Original Trilogy was famous for its grittiness and “lived in” look. You could see the wires and conduits on an X-Wing. For the Prequels, George Lucas explained that everything would be cleaner and more elegant because the Galactic Republic was still in a golden age. The Naboo ships epitomized this design philosophy. Unlike the Original Trilogy, which often contrasted technology against nature, the Naboo tried to find a harmony between the two. Their starfighters have a sleek, organic look, almost as if they were grown rather than built. The bright yellow color stands in stark contrast to the greys that dominated the Rebel and Imperial ships. The galacy hadn’t yet sacrificed its sense of aesthetics to the military-industrial complex.
Even Jar Jar Binks works on a production design level. Too often, alien creatures are stereotyped by their design as either friendly or hostile. Hairy or furry aliens, such as Chewbacca, tend to be good guys, whereas reptiles and invertebrates, like Bossk or Jabba, tend to be villains. Principal creature designer Terryl Whitlatch did an admirable job of coming up with an alien design that breaks from this trope. Despite Jar Jar’s antics, the Gungans as a race never come across as ridiculous or cute (unlike, say, the Ewoks). Captain Tarpals is convincing as a stern true warrior almost as annoyed with Jar Jar as the audience. It’s a testament to the creature design that it can work well for two very different characters. Even the CGI used to create Jar Jar holds up on a TV screen, which is impressive given that it was one of the first movies to use motion capture for a major character.
I’m taking the time to give The Phantom Menace its due partly because one aspect of Episode VII that makes me a bit nervous is the production design. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love what I’ve seen in the trailers so far. It all seems so familiar. The film has more advanced versions of X-Wings, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers, etc. They’re admittedly awesome variants—even improvements—on classic designs, but they’re just variants. In terms of the costumes, Poe Dameron’s pilot suit looks just like what the Rebels pilots wore. The Imperials still dress their troops in Stormtrooper armor, albeit a sleeker form. Even Finn’s yellow jacket and black shirt is reminiscent of Luke’s ensemble from the award ceremony at the end of A New Hope. Aside from BB-8 and the Guavian Enforcer, I haven’t seen much in the new film that actually feels new. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess the film takes place 3 years after Return of the Jedi rather than 30 years later.
Of course, I’m sure J.J. Abrams is holding back some of the more interesting new designs and creature concepts so audiences can enjoy them for the first time on the big screen. I’m excited to see the concept art and designs in The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens when that book comes out next month. But comparing what we’ve seen of The Force Awakens so far with what we saw in The Phantom Menace makes me appreciate the fact that creating something new yet familiar is no small feat. The fact that The Phantom Menace still looks like Star Wars despite the fact that it reuses so little from the Original Trilogy is a testament to the concept artists who worked on the film.